The Shelter of God’s Forgiveness
The Point: God’s forgiveness brings restoration and joy.
Blessed are the Forgiven: Psalm 32:1-11.
 Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.  Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.  For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.  For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah  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. Selah  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.  You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance. Selah  I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.  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.  Many are the sorrows of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the Lord.  Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart! [ESV]
“Psalm 32 is the second of the so-called penitential psalms. The others are Psalms 6, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. But the psalm might better be called ‘a psalm of instruction’ from the title word Maskil, which seems to mean ‘the giving of instruction’. Psalm 32 is the first of twelve psalms that bear this title. The psalm should probably be interpreted in connection with Psalm 51, which is David’s great psalm of repentance. David had sinned in committing adultery with Bathsheba and had then manipulated the plan of battle to have her husband, Uriah, who was a soldier, killed. He had tried to ignore or hide the sin for some time. But when the prophet Nathan came to him to expose the transgression, David confessed it and was restored. Psalm 51 is the immediate expression of that confession and restoration. It breathes with the emotion of the moment. Psalm 32 seems to have been written later than Psalm 51, after some reflection, and may therefore, be the fulfillment of the vow contained in Psalm 51:13: Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. That teaching may be the Maskil which is Psalm 32. The psalm certainly functioned as instruction, because Paul later quoted its first two verses in Romans 4 to add David’s testimony to his own proof that justification is by grace through faith alone. It seems significant for our understanding of Psalm 32 that, of all David’s recorded words and all the many writings that bear his name, it is the first two verses of this psalm rather than something else that Paul chose as Old Testament support for that important doctrine. He linked David’s testimony to the experience of Abraham recorded in Genesis 15:6. This was Saint Augustine’s favorite psalm. Augustine had it inscribed on the wall next to his bed before he died in order to meditate on it better. He liked it because, as he said: ‘the beginning of knowledge is to know oneself to be a sinner’. The first stanza [1-2] begins on a jubilant note, expressing the joy of the person whose sin has been forgiven. This is only the second time in the Psalter that a psalm has begun with the word blessed. The first was in Psalm 1. But the happiness of the man speaking here is greater even than that of the man in Psalm 1. In Psalm 1 he is described as blessed who walks in God’s way, which none of us do; in Psalm 32 the word is reserved for the person who has not walked in God’s way, has sinned, but has repented of his or her sin and now knows the joy of restoration. These verses are another example of Hebrew poetic parallelism, for there are three side-by-side terms for sin and three corresponding terms for how God deals with sin. As in the best of parallel constructions, these are not mere synonyms but are words chosen to cover the entire spectrum of sin and the wide scope of God’s salvation from it. The first word for sin is transgression, which literally means ‘a going away’ or ‘departure’ or, in this case, ‘a rebellion’ against God and His authority. This is what makes sin so dreadful, of course – that it is transgression not only against other people, whom we hurt by our sin, but at its root also against God. It is why Psalm 51 contains the words Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight [51:4]. It is not that David had not sinned against others, he had, he had sinned against Uriah and also against the nation, which suffered for his sin. But in light of the enormity of his sin against God these other matters faded into the background. Alexander Maclaren captures the force of this word when he writes, ‘You do not understand the gravity of the most trivial wrong act when you think of it as a sin against the order of Nature, or against the law written on your heart, or as the breach of the constitution of your own nature, or as a crime against your fellows. You have not got to the bottom of the blackness until you see that it is a flat rebellion against God Himself’. The second word for sin is sin, meaning a coming short or falling short of a mark. In the ancient world the term was used in archery to describe a person who shoots at a target but whose arrow falls short. The target is God’s law, and the sin described by this word is a failure to measure up to it. The third word for sin is iniquity which means corrupt, twisted, or crooked. It rounds out the other terms in this way. The first describes sin in view of our relationship to God. It pictures us as being in rebellion against Him. The second word describes sin in relation to the divine law. We fall short of it and are condemned by it. The third word describes sin in relation to ourselves. It is a corruption or twisting of right standards as well as of our own beings. That is, to the degree that we indulge in sin we become both twisted and twisting creatures. The three words for sin are matched in the opening stanza by a second set of three terms describing what God does with the sin of those who confess it to him. He forgives it, covers it over, and refuses to count (or impute) it against the sinful person. The first of these words is forgiven, and it literally means to have our sin ‘lifted off’. Before the sin is confessed we bear it like some great burden, but when we confess it to God He lifts it from our shoulders. When we confess our sin God removes our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west [Ps. 103:12]. The second word that describes what God does with our sin is covered. It is a strong religious term taken from the imagery of the Day of Atonement. On the Day of Atonement the high priest of Israel took blood from an animal that had been sacrificed in the courtyard of the temple and carried it into the Most Holy Place, where it was sprinkled on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant. The mercy seat was the lid or covering of the ark, and the blood was sprinkled there because it thereby came between the presence of the holy God, symbolized as dwelling in the space between the wings of the cherubim above the ark, and the broken law of God that was contained in the ark itself. It thus covered the broken law, shielding the sinner from God’s judgment. In Greek the word for mercy seat means propitiation, which is the act of turning God’s wrath aside. In Hebrew the word is covering, the term used by David in our psalm. The third word for what God does with sin is negative; that is, it describes what God does not do. The Lord counts no iniquity . God does not count the sin against us. The word counts is elsewhere translated ‘impute’, and it is a bookkeeping term. It is the word used by Paul in Romans to explain how God writes our sin into Christ’s ledger and punishes it in Him while, at the same time, writing the righteousness of Christ into our ledger and counting us as justified because of His merit. That is why Paul quotes these particular verses rather than others in Romans 4:7-8. The second stanza of this psalm [3-5] is a recollection of David’s experience of unconfessed sin and of the immediate result of confessing it. It is the heart of this very great man’s great testimony. Verses 3 and 4 recount the effect of his sin on David. These verses aptly describe the malaise of any believer who is trying to ignore his or her sin. David says that his very bones seemed to be wasting away and that his strength was drawn out of him as if he were exposed to the heat of the summer sun. The reason, of course, is that the Lord’s hand was upon him heavily in judgment, as it will be with anyone who tries to do as David did. When we sin we wish God would ignore our transgression. But God cannot ignore sin and will not. He brings pressure upon us, often very acute pressure, until we acknowledge the sin, confess it, and return to Him. What is really striking about this second stanza is verse 5, in which David explains how God forgave his sin once he had confessed it. God forgave it completely and immediately. It was not brought up again. Notice a few things about this verse. First, it is the longest verse of the psalm, which is a way of saying that it is the most important verse or that it is the very heart of the psalm. If this psalm is David’s testimony, then this verse is the heart of that testimony. In the same way, our experience of the forgiveness of God in Christ should be the heart of our spiritual experience and the very center of what we try to convey to others when we speak of spiritual things. Second, verse 5 contains each of the three words for sin introduced in verses 1 and 2: transgression, sin, and iniquity. At the beginning of the psalm the words were chosen to cover the scope of sin in all its diverse aspects. Here the words recur to show that all David’s sin was confessed – he did not hold back from confession in any area – and thus that all his sin was forgiven. David confessed it all, and God forgave it all. The slate was wiped clean. Third, the forgiveness was immediate. Notice how the words follow one another. David said, I will confess my transgressions to the Lord. Then immediately: and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. At the right margin of the text are three occurrences of the word Selah, which probably means ‘pause and take notice’. One occurrence of the word is immediately before verse 5, after David’s description of the debilitating effect of unconfessed sin on him. The next occurrence is immediately after verse 5, after the words and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. We are to pause and reflect on that. But notice this important thing: there is no pause within the verse, no hesitation whatever between the confession of sin and God’s forgiveness of it. This should be the greatest possible encouragement to each of us, for we are all sinners. God is ready and even yearning to forgive and restore us fully – if only we will confess our sin and come to Him believing in Jesus Christ, who has made atonement for it. And He will do it right away. In Psalm 51, after David has confessed his sin and asked God to forgive him, he says, Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you [51:13]. We find the same thing in the third stanza of Psalm 32 [6-7], because, having experienced the forgiveness of God, David next and naturally turns to others, exclaiming, Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found . He wants everyone to experience the joy he has found as the result of his confession. David gives two reasons why we should do as he did. First, today is a day of opportunity, a time when God may be found [see Isa. 55:6-7]. It is a great thing to be living in a day of grace, in a time when God is actually not far from each one of us [Acts 17:27]. Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation [2 Cor. 6:2]. But implied in David’s words is the sobering teaching that the day of God’s grace will not last forever. The day of judgment is coming, and on that day it will be too late to repent and find forgiveness. Do not wait until then. Come to Christ now. Second, we should do as David did, because God will protect the penitent: You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance . In verses 3 and 4 David was seen hiding from God, but in verse 7 he is hiding in God and is eternally secure. From a poetic standpoint Psalm 32 might have stopped with verse 7. But David adds a fourth stanza [8-10] on spiritual and moral guidance. To this is appended a final verse calling on those who have experienced forgiveness and guidance to rejoice in God and praise Him. Verse 8 (and possibly the entire stanza) is written as if God is speaking directly to the restored individual, promising to instruct … teach … counsel him. God will continually watch over us: with my eye upon you. The idea is of one who is offering direction to another so he can follow a certain path and reach a certain place. God promises as well to keep an eye on David as he travels so he will not get lost and go wrong. I am glad God promises to do that for us. For great as forgiveness is, the one who has sinned and been forgiven does not want to repeat the sin or again fall into error but rather wants to go on walking in the right way and so please our heavenly Father. How are we to do that unless God continues to keep His eye on us? If we ignore that care and refuse that counsel, we will be like brute beasts that have no understanding . If we persist in our folly, we will be like the wicked who experience many woes . But if we listen to God, obey Him, and so walk in His right way, we will be able to rejoice in God . And we will be able to teach others also, which is what David has been doing in the psalm.” [Boice, pp. 276-283].
“Conclusion. This psalm has provided every believer with what he or she so desperately needs: straight talk about sin. Our world has provided us with a skewed view of sin, and it has penetrated Christian thinking within the church. Let us take counsel from this psalm and learn the seriousness of sin. Yet, when sins are confessed to God, He is faithful and righteous to forgive our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. This is straight talk about forgiveness. Life Application. Taking Sin Seriously. In applying this psalm, we are reminded of the seriousness of sin, even in the life of a believer. Every sinful attitude, thought, or act is ultimately a revolt against God. It is a direct defiance of God’s rule over a person’s life, no matter what the sin is, whether large or seemingly small, seen or unseen by human eyes. Sin is a conscious choosing to rebel against God’s authority in order to go our own way. It is an uprising against heaven, a conspiracy against God. Consequently, believers must never minimize or trivialize sin as a small, trifling matter. They must deal with it with the same seriousness with which God sees it. That for which Christ died is never trite or insignificant. With deep sincerity and godly sorrow, believers must acknowledge their transgressions to the Lord, never presuming upon God’s unmerited grace, but humbling themselves in His presence, seeking His forgiveness.” [Lawson, pp. 175-176].
Questions for Discussion:
1. What are the four reasons David gives in verses 1-2 why someone can be blessed? What three ways does David give in verse 5 for experiencing this blessing?
2. What instruction does David give us in verses 6-11? What three things did God do for David in verse 7 that he will do for us if we follow the instructions of verse 5?
3. Think about the wonderful promise found in verse 10: God’s steadfast love will surround the one who trusts in Him. Are you experiencing His steadfast love surrounding you? Is verse 11 true of your life?
4. Ask yourself the following questions. What accusing sins do I carry, having failed to confess them to the Lord? What joy could be mine if I would no longer conceal my sin but come clean with God and confess them to Him? In what ways does my heart need to be cleansed by God?
Psalms, volume 1, James Boice, Baker.
Psalms, volume 1, John Goldingay, Baker.
Psalms 1-75, Steven Lawson, Holman Reference.