Psalm 32 ~ Stop Acting Like a Stubborn Mule
FEW THINGS WORSE THAN…FEW THINGS BETTER THAN
Few things are worse than having a close friendship with someone, only for you to do something that hurts your friend deeply. And then that friendship is strained, maybe even broken. And then instead of hugs and laughter there is distance and wary greetings, or maybe just stony silence as you pass each other by. Few things are worse than that.
But few things are better than reconciling with a friend, putting the hurt behind, embracing once again, laughing together again. Few things are better than knowing your friend has forgiven you. If that has happened to you, you are fortunate indeed. If that has happened to you, then you remember how happy you were.
Now imagine the same thing happening between you and God. That’s what this psalm is about. It tells how painful it is to wrong God and damage your relationship with the Lord. But it goes on to tell what a relief it is to be forgiven.
HAPPY (vv. 1-2)
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. (v. 1) Around the world, churches are reading these words on this first Sunday of Lent, this sober season when each believer does a searching spiritual assessment of oneself. It is serious stuff. And this psalm is serious too, but it begins with happiness and it ends with joy. This psalm is a celebration of forgiveness. Sure, this psalm will make us face the sad things that have come between us and God, but we do not face them without hope. We know we can get through the sadness to joy. We can get through the brokenness to reconciliation. So The Message translates verse two:
Count yourself lucky.
God holds nothing against you
and you’re holding nothing back from him.
Despite the sadness in the middle of this psalm, it begins and ends as a celebration of forgiveness. Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven.
SUFFERING IN SILENCE (vv. 3-4)
The reason the psalmist is so happy is because he’s so relieved to be done with the suffering of his sin. He’s not forgotten what a black hole that was for him. In verse four he describes how painful that was:
While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
The guilt that distanced him from God was a spiritual agony so strong that it even affected his body. He felt like his very bones were wearing out and turning to powder. He continued to feel that way as long as he kept silent before God. Rather than bring the situation up with God, he preferred to suffer in silence.
TURNING POINT (v. 5)
The turning point of the psalm comes in verse five:
Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Here the writer describes his sin in four different ways, just as he did in the psalm’s opening: sin, iniquity, transgressions, guilt. In cultures where there is a lot of snow, the language will have several different words for several kinds of snow. In this psalm, the writer had experienced so much sin that he had several different words for several kinds of sin.
But the turning point came when he wrote, “I acknowledged…I did not hide…I will confess…” He had taken a long time to get to this point and had suffered a lot up to that point. But God’s response came immediately, as if God had been waiting all the time for just this moment. When the moment of confession came, right then, “you forgave me the guilt of my sin.” There was the turning point.
Too often we talk about the Old Testament as the books of law and wrath and judgment, versus the New Testament as the books of mercy and grace and forgiveness. But this psalm celebrates mercy and grace and forgiveness in the Old Testament. We don’t have to wait for the New Testament to see God’s forgiveness.
Before this turning point, the writer was totally absorbed in his sin and suffering. After this point, his sin would not be mentioned again. After this point, the forgiveness and mercy of God sent the writer forward into new life. “Forgiveness is power for new life. Genuine forgiveness permits freedom to get on with living.” (Walter Brueggemann)
Forgiveness and mercy send the writer not only forward to new life but also outward toward others. Up to this point, the psalmist had been obsessed with himself and his problems. But from this point on, he heads outward to teach others what he has learned. He heads outward to invite everyone to celebrate forgiveness. And part of what he celebrates is the merciful character of God.
YOU…YOU…YOU… (vv. 6-7)
In verse 7, the writer describes that character in three different ways:
You are a hiding place for me;
You preserve me from trouble;
You surround me with glad cries of deliverance.
This is the character of God. Over and over the Hebrew scriptures say how the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. This is not a God who enjoys punishing us forever. And the writer asks himself, “Why didn’t I realize this before? It would have saved me a whole lot of pain.” The realization propels him out to share his hard-won experience with others in verses 8-10.
THE WORD OF EXPERIENCE (vv. 8-10)
And here is the gist of his experience: don’t be like a stubborn mule. How stubbornly he had suffered in silence. God was patiently waiting to respond instantly with mercy and forgiveness. But how fearfully the person had hung back, thinking that God would always respond with wrath. How unnecessarily long he had kept quiet, rejecting the grace of God.
It was a hard lesson he had learned. Silence had brought suffering, but confession brought forgiveness. Silence is death-dealing, but confession brings life. (Cameron Howard, www.workingpreacher.org for March 9) The writer shares his hard-earned wisdom in these words:
Many are the torments of the wicked,
but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.
You and I are surrounded by sin, but God’s forgiveness surrounds that sin! This is the key that unlocks and sets us free. This is the way out of our sin and guilt: to confess, to accept God’s grace, and to depend on God’s steadfast love.
St. Augustine as a young man in the fourth century had struggled with his sins and despaired of ever finding a way out. But eventually he too experienced the surprise of God’s grace. Augustine wrote the words of this psalm out and tacked it on the wall by his bed, so that the first thing he could see every morning were these words celebrating forgiveness:
…steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.
I say again, you and I are surrounded by sin, but God’s forgiveness surrounds that sin. When we realize that, there is only one thing left to do…
BE GLAD AND SHOUT FOR JOY (v. 11)
Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
The big surprise here is just who the righteous really are. We’ve gotten the idea that the righteous are the ones who have risen above sin. The righteous are the ones who don’t struggle with sin any more. Well, here’s the surprise:
To be righteous is not to manage somehow to obey all the rules, to be sinless. Rather, the lives of the righteous are pervaded by sin and its consequences. To be righteous is to be forgiven. To be righteous is to be a witness to God’s grace. (J. Clinton McCann, New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol 4, p. 807)
The righteous struggle with sin as much as anyone else — maybe more. But the righteous are those who have been forgiven by God. They are righteous, not because they have sinned less, but because God has forgiven.
If you came here today in hopes that you would learn how to go through life un-tempted and unsoiled by the world, then I’m sorry. You won’t find that here. Here we struggle with sin as much or more than anyone else.
But if you came here because you have struggled with your sins for so long that your very bones ache – if you came here because you are tired of the silence between you and God, then you’ve come to the right place. For we have found what a relief it is to break the silence with God, what a relief it is to turn to God and trust in God’s mercy. And what a joy it is to spend the rest of our lives celebrating the forgiveness of God.
– Douglas E. Murray