The 32nd Psalm is attributed to David. The background to this Psalm is not given, but many believe that it was written by David as he reflected on his adulterous affair with Bathsheeba and his murder of her husband, Uriah. Psalm 32 is closely connected then to Psalm 51 which we considered on Ash Wednesday.
The distinction between these two Psalm can be understood like this: In Psalm 51, David writes, “Have mercy on me O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgression. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!” This was probably written while David was still terribly tortured by the oppressive guilt of what he had done – before the prophet Nathan fingered him – making him aware that David wasn’t hiding a thing from God. God saw it all. “You are the man,” says Nathan. David replied by confessing his sin. “I have sinned against the Lord.” And immediately, Nathan pronounced the ‘Absolution,’ “the Lord has put away your sins, you shall not die.” (2Sam.12:7,13)
Psalm 32 now, is the recalling of the experience of a man who tried to hide his guilt from others, from himself, and from God – all unsuccessfully. BUT it is also, most importantly, the Psalm of a man who knows the relief and joy of God’s forgiveness for his sin. So this Psalm is both instruction for us to learn from as well as a prayer for us to use – because even if our crime is not like David’s, we all share the same experience of guilt as he describes here.
I invite you to read the Psalm aloud with me as we go.
Verses 1 and 2:
1 Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
2 Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
The Psalm begins on a high note of celebration with joy. A great transformation has taken place in his life. He who was cursed is now blessed. This transformation from slavery to freedom and death to life is not something that is unique to him and his particular experience but is available to everyone who will listen and take his advice to heart.
The challenge, the trouble, the stumbling block that stands in the way of this joyous release from prison and the grave, is our misconceptions about the nature of God. We expect God to be like us and act like us. We expect God to honor and reward the righteous person and punish and disgrace the wicked person. That’s the WE do things.
And as long as we are that ‘righteous person’ and the ‘wicked person’ is someone else, that is okay. It is only when the table is turned and God’s Law breaks down all the walls we’re hiding behind and we are exposed before God as the ‘wicked person,’ that we long to hear the good news that God is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love – FOR THE GUILTY SINNER.
And so, once again, Luther begins his commentary on this Psalm by establishing that we are all unrighteous before God.
Luther writes, “No one is without unrighteousness; before God all are unrighteous, even those who practice works of righteousness and imagine that they can escape from unrighteousness; for no one can rescue himself. Therefore, it is not those who have no sin or work their own way out it who are blessed – but only those whom God forgives by grace.”
“Blessed are those whose sin God covers. That is, He does not see it, does not remember it, does not want to know about it – but completely forgives it by grace. The ‘blessed’ are those who do not try to cover or excuse, or forgive or forget their sins themselves. They look at, recognize, remember, and judge them for what they truly are.”
“That is to say, NOT blessed but Unblessed is he who DOES NOT impute sins to himself, is well pleased with himself, thinks himself pious, has no qualms of conscience, considers himself innocent, and takes this for his comfort and hope before God.”
Luther makes a careful distinction between the various words that the Psalmist uses to NAME the evil in him. He writes, “Now it must be noted here that the Psalmist mentions four kinds of evil, namely, ‘UNRIGHTEOUSNESS,’ ‘INIQUITY,’ ‘SIN,’ and ‘DECEIT.’”
He differentiates one from another like this.
“’UNRIGHTEOUSNESS’ implies that man is NOT RIGHTEOUS before God when he is stripped of his good works.” What Luther is saying here is that if we were to take away all of our so-called ‘good works,’ what we would NOT find is a ‘good person’ underneath it all. In fact what we would find is a person who does good works for solely selfish and self-centered reasons” – to be seen by God – to be loved and appreciated by others – to ‘feel good about ourselves.’
The test of our motivation might go something like this: would we still do the good works we do not only if we were NOT recognized for them – but if were actually “DESPISED AND REJECTED” for doing them? It’s at that point that we would see clearly that we do not do our good works for love of God and neighbor – as our Lord did who did His GOOD WORK to the end – even as He was DESPISED AND REJECTED by man.
Luther writes, “Man begins to think he is pure and free, while beneath lies the wicked filth which theologians call ‘self-love.’ Thus a man is pious out of fear of hell or hope of heaven, but not because of God.” “This is the first evil.”
“The second evil,” says Luther, “is ‘INIQUITY.’ This refers to the wicked deeds which follow as the second evil after the first. Thus theft, adultery, betrayal, and the like… and this includes, good works done in the absence of true piety which is born of grace.” So, even good works are sinful if they are done from impure motives that boost our confidence before God.
“The third evil is ‘SIN.’ “Sin is the evil in our nature which has remained and always remains when iniquity and unrighteousness occur. It is the evil lust, love and fear which has grown and been born into our very being. It provokes the first two evils and is the prevalent sin of our time. In itself it is deadly unless God, in His grace, removes it from those who repent and desire to be healed of it.”
Here Luther is referring to the “new birth in holy baptism” where God gives us a whole new ‘nature,’ in His own holy and righteous image and likeness.
The fourth evil is ‘DECEIT.’ “It is deceit and subtle cunning for all who practice good works and consider themselves pious, thinking that now they are pure, and NOT BELIEVING that it is BY GRACE that God’s goodness does not impute their iniquity.”
Verses 3 – 4
3 For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
“The Psalmist did not want to recognize or acknowledge his sin. He thought he was pious and didn’t see the deceit of his cover-up. But he also knew that this was not right or true because he had no peace. His conscience was always burdened and miserable and gave him no rest. This was because his conscience would only let him see God’s wrath for him; as if God were standing over him with a club. There can be no peace of heart in that.”
5 I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.
“He now sees that there is nothing worse than to hide his sin and nothing better than to confess his sin to God. He acknowledges before God and to himself that there is nothing but ‘sin,’ ‘iniquity’ and ‘transgressions’ and ‘deceit’ in him. He has nothing to appeal to God with – IN HIMSELF. All he can do is appeal to God with what is IN GOD – His mercy and love for fallen and contrite sinners.”
“Therefore I will rebuke myself. Then God will praise me. I will degrade myself; then God will honor me. I will accuse myself; then God will acquit me. I will speak against myself; then God will speak for me. I will speak of my guilt; then He will speak about my merit, as he did to Mary Magdalene in the house of Simon the leper.” (Luke 7:44-47) You have forgiven me because I have taken responsibility for my iniquity and confessed it.”
To be clear here, it is not the confession of our sin to God in itself that God wants from us – but the confession of our sin to Him because we believe and trust that He is a gracious and merciful God who loves to forgive sinners. This is the way that God wants us to think of him – as Luther says in the catechism – “as dear children ask their dear father.”
6 Therefore let everyone who is godly
offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found;
surely in the rush of great waters,
they shall not reach him.
7 You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with shouts of deliverance. Selah
The “Blessed one” is the “godly one” who, rather than remaining silent and trying to hide from his guilt in his holy living OR in the good opinion that others have of him, confesses his iniquity and makes God Himself his ‘hiding place.’
The right time for this is always ‘NOW.’ It is never good to put it off until later. Luther writes, “whenever we realize what we are – that is the opportune time to ask for God’s forgiveness and grace.”
Luther sees that ‘TIME’ itself is a precious gift of God. He says, “This is the time when God touches and visits the saints with the light of grace.”
Luther interprets the “rush of great waters” as the outward forces of evil that want to ruin the godly person. The devil is at work against the converted man in a demonic effort to sweep him away again. He writes, “that person is ‘godly who stands, not on his own holiness but on the Rock of God’s righteousness which is Christ. Everyone who is his own accuser, punisher, and judge is founded on Him when many blows and cruel tribulations come over him like a great flood of water, or when he is persecuted on account of his humble life. They will not harm him in his soul, even if he must lose life and limb.”
8 I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
9 Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
or it will not stay near you.
Luther hears the instruction and teaching of the Psalmist AS FROM CHRIST HIMSELF. He acknowledges the seeming contradiction of God’s ways to our ways.
Luther has Christ say, “This is where I want you to be. You ask that I deliver you. Then do not be uneasy about it; do not teach Me, and do not teach yourself; surrender yourself to Me. I am competent to be your Master. I will lead you in a way that is pleasing to Me. You think it wrong if things do not go as YOU FEEL they should.
But your thinking HARMS YOU and HINDERS ME. Things must go, not according to your understanding but above your understanding. Submerge yourself in a lack of understanding, and I will give you My understanding. Lack of understanding is real understanding; not knowing where you are going is really knowing where you are going.”
“Thus Abraham went out from his homeland and did not know where he was going. (Genesis 12:1-3). He yielded to my knowledge and abandoned his own knowledge; and by the right way he reached the right goal. Behold, that is the way of the cross. You cannot find it, but I must lead you like a blind man… I will not leave you; you shall not go down and perish; I will not forget you. Your eyes shall be closed because My eyes are open over you.” “In brief, God wants us to have a true, simple faith and firm trust, confidence and hope.”
10 Many are the sorrows of the wicked,
but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the LORD.
11 Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!
“The wicked are surrounded by the judgment and wrath of God… But the righteous, who DO NOT rely or smugly depend on themselves or their good intentions, are embraced by the Lord’s steadfast love and all of the good fortune and blessings He brings to them.”
Luther concludes by contrasting the man who kept silent, whose bones wasted away, who groaned all day long -to the blessed man who knows firsthand, the Lord’s forgiveness and covering of all of his sin.
“So rejoice in the Lord – but despair of yourselves. Be bold and courageous; rise up and sing praises; be of good cheer, like a man who shouts for joy. For the heart that is right with God is not wrapped up in itself or in something other than God – but is founded on the eternal good and stands firm. He has an abundance out of which he can praise, glory strut, and boast, as the apostle says, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:31).