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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 32

 

 

Verses 1-11

Psalms 32:1-11

ONE must have a dull ear not to hear the voice of personal experience in this psalm. It throbs with emotion, and is a burst of rapture from a heart tasting the sweetness of the new joy of forgiveness. It is hard to believe that the speaker is but a personification of the nation, and the difficulty is recognised by Cheese’s concession that we have here "principally, though not exclusively, a national psalm." The old opinion that it records David’s experience in the dark time when, for a whole year, he lived impenitent after his great sin of sense, and was then broken down by Nathan’s message and restored to peace through pardon following swiftly on penitence, is still defensible, and gives a fit setting for this gem. Whoever was the singer, his song goes deep down to permanent realities in conscience and in men’s relations to God, and therefore is not for an age, but for all time. Across the dim waste of years, we hear this man speaking our sins, our penitence, our joy; and the antique words are as fresh, and fit as close to our experiences, as if they had been welled up from a living heart today. The theme is the way of forgiveness and its blessedness; and this is set forth in two parts; the first (Psalms 32:1-5) a leaf from the psalmist’s autobiography, the second (Psalms 32:6-11) the generalisation of individual experience and its application to others. In each part the prevailing division of verses is into strophes of two, each containing two members, but with some irregularity.

The page from the psalmist’s confessions (Psalms 32:1-5) begins with a burst of rapturous thankfulness for the joy of forgiveness (Psalms 32:1-2), passes to paint in dark colours the misery of sullen impenitence (Psalms 32:3-4), and then, in one longer verse, tells with glad wonder how sudden and complete was the transition to the joy of forgiveness by the way of penitence. It is a chart of one man’s path from the depths to the heights, and avails to guide all.

The psalmist begins abruptly with an exclamation (Oh, the blessedness, etc.). His new joy wells up irrepressibly. To think that he who had gone so far down in the mire, and had locked his lips in silence for so long, should find himself so blessed! Joy so exuberant cannot content itself with one statement of its grounds. It runs over in synonyms for sin and its forgiveness, which are not feeble tautology. The heart is too full to be emptied at one outpouring, and though all the clauses describe the same things, they do so with differences. This is true with regard to the words both for sin and for pardon. The three designations of the former present three aspects of its hideousness. The first, rendered ("transgression,") conceives of it as rebellion against rightful authority, not merely breach of an impersonal law, but breaking away from a rightful king. The second ("sin") describes it as missing a mark. What is in regard to God rebellion is in regard to myself missing the aim, whether that aim be considered as that which a man is, by his very make and relations, intended to be and do, or as that which he proposes to himself by his act. All sin tragically fails to hit the mark in both these senses. It, is a failure as to reaching the ideal of conduct, "the chief end of man," and not less so as to winning the satisfaction sought by the deed. It keeps the word of promise to the ear, and breaks it to the hope, ever luring by lying offers; and if it gives the poor delights which it holds out, it ever adds something that embitters them like spirits of wine methylated and made undrinkable. It is always a blunder to do wrong. The last synonym ("iniquity") means crookedness or distortion, and seems to embody the same idea as our words "right" and "wrong," namely the contrast between the straight line of duty and the contorted lines drawn by sinful hands. What runs parallel with law is right; what diverges is wrong. The three expressions for pardon are also eloquent in their variety. The first word means taken away or lifted off, as a burden from aching shoulders. It implies more than holding back penal consequences; it is the removal of sin itself, and that not merely in the multitudinousness of its manifestations in act, but in the depth of its inward source. This is the metaphor which Bunyan has made so familiar by his picture of the pilgrim losing his load at the cross. The second ("covered") paints pardon as God’s shrouding the foul thing from His pure eyes, so that His action is no longer determined by its existence. The third describes forgiveness as God’s not reckoning a man’s sin to him, in which expression hovers some allusion to cancelling a debt. The clause "in whose spirit is no guile" is best taken as a conditional one, pointing to sincerity which confesses guilt as a condition of pardon. But the alternative construction as a continuation of the description of the forgiven man is quite possible; and if thus understood, the crowning blessing of pardon is set forth as being the liberation of the forgiven spirit from all "guile" or evil. God’s kiss of forgiveness sucks the poison from the wound.

Retrospect of the dismal depth from which it has climbed is natural to a soul sunning itself on high. Therefore on the overflowing description of present blessedness follows a shuddering glance downwards to past unrest. Sullen silence caused the one; frank acknowledgment brought the other. He who will not speak his sin to God has to groan. A dumb conscience often makes a loud-voiced pain. This man’s sin had indeed missed its aim; for it had brought about three things: rotting bones (which may be but a strong metaphor or may be a physical fact), the consciousness of God’s displeasure dimly felt as if a great hand were pressing him down, and the drying up of the sap of his life, as if the fierce heat of summer had burned the marrow in his bones. These were the fruits of pleasant sin, and by reason of them many a moan broke from his locked lips. Stolid indifference may delay remorse, but its serpent fang strikes soon or later, and then strength and joy die. The Selah indicates a swell or prolongation of the accompaniment, to emphasise this terrible picture of a soul gnawing itself.

The abrupt turn to description of the opposite disposition in Psalms 32:5 suggests a sudden gush of penitence. As at a bound, the soul passes from dreary remorse. The break with the former self is complete, and effected in one wrench. Some things are best done by degrees; and some. of which forsaking sin is one, are best done quickly. And as swift as the resolve to crave pardon, so swift is the answer giving it, We are reminded of that gospel compressed into a verse, "David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the Lord. And Nathan said unto David, The Lord also hath put away thy sin." Again the three designations of sin are employed, though in different order; and the act of confession is thrice mentioned, as that of forgiveness was. The fulness and immediateness of pardon are emphatically given by the double epithet "the iniquity of thy sin" and by the representation that it follows the resolve to confess, and does not wait for the act. The Divine love is so eager to forgive that it tarries not for actual confession, but anticipates it, as the father interrupts the prodigal’s acknowledgment with gifts and welcome. The Selah at the end of Psalms 32:5 is as triumphant as that at the close of Psalms 32:4 had been sad. It parts the autobiographical section from the more general one which follows.

In the second part the solitary soul translates its experience into exhortations for all, and wooes men to follow on the same path, by setting forth in rich variety the joys of pardon. The exhortation first dwells on the positive blessings associated with penitence (Psalms 32:6-7), and next on the degradation and sorrow involved in obstinate hardheartedness (Psalms 32:8-10). The natural impulse of him who has known both is to beseech others to share his happy experience, and the psalmist’s course of thought obeys that impulse, for the future "shall pray" (R.V.) is better regarded as hortatory "let pray because of this" does not express the contents of the petitions, but their reason. The manifestation of God as infinitely ready to forgive should hearten to prayer; and since God’s beloved need forgiveness day by day, even though they may not have fallen into such gross sin as this psalmist, there is no incongruity in the exhortation being addressed to them. "He that is washed" still needs that feet fouled in muddy ways should be cleansed. Every time of seeking by such prayer is a "time of finding"; but the phrase implies that there is a time of not finding, and, in its very graciousness, is heavy with warning against delay. With forgiveness comes security. The penitent, praying, pardoned man is set as on a rock islet in the midst of floods, whether these be conceived of as temptation to sin or as calamities. The hortatory tone is broken in Psalms 32:7 by the recurrence of the personal element, since the singer’s heart was too full for silence; but there is no real interruption, for the joyous utterance of one’s own faith is often the most winning persuasive, and a devout man can scarcely hold out to others the sweetness of finding God without at the same time tasting what he offers. Unless he does, his words will ring unreal. "Thou art a shelter for me" (same word as in Psalms 27:5; Psalms 31:20), is the utterance of trust; and the emphasis is on "my." To hide in God is to be "preserved from trouble," not in the sense of being exempt, but in that of not being overwhelmed, as the beautiful last clause of Psalms 32:7 shows, in which "shouts of deliverance" from trouble which had pressed are represented by a bold. but not harsh, metaphor as ringing the psalmist round. The air is filled with jubilant voices, the echoes of his own. The word rendered "songs" or preferably "shouts" is unusual, and its consonants repeat the last three of the preceding word ("shalt preserve me"). These peculiarities have led to the suggestion that we have in it a "dittograph." If so, the remaining words of the last clause would read, "Thou wilt compass me about with deliverance," which would be a perfectly appropriate expression. But probably the similarity of letters is a play upon words, of which we have another example in the preceding clause where the consonants of the word for "trouble," reappear in their order in the verb "wilt preserve." The shout of joy is caught up by the Selah.

But now the tone changes into solemn warning against obstinate disregard of God’s leading. It is usual to suppose that the psalmist still speaks, but surely "I will counsel thee, with mine eye upon thee," does not fit human lips. It is to be observed, too, that in Psalms 32:8 a single person is addressed, who is most naturally taken to be the same as he who spoke his individual faith in Psalms 32:7. In other words, the psalmist’s confidence evokes a Divine response, and that brief interchange of clinging trust and answering promise stands in the midst of the appeal to men, which it scarcely interrupts. Psalms 32:9 may either be regarded as the continuance of the Divine voice, or perhaps better, as the resumption by the psalmist of his hortatory address. God’s direction as to duty and protection in peril are both included in the promise of Psalms 32:8. With His eye upon His servant, He will show him the way, and will keep him ever in sight as he travels on it. The beautiful meaning of the A.V., that God guides with a glance those who dwell near enough to Him to see His look, is scarcely contained in the words, though it is true that the sense of pardon binds men to Him in such sweet bonds that they are eager to catch the faintest indications of His will. and "His looks command, His lightest words are spells."

Psalms 32:9-10, are a warning against brutish obstinacy. The former verse has difficulties in de tail, but its drift is plain. It contrasts the gracious guidance which avails for those made docile by forgiveness and trust with the harsh constraint which must curb and coerce mulish natures. The only things which such understand are bits and bridles. They will not come near to God without such rough outward constraint, any more than an unbroken horse will approach a man unless dragged by a halter. That untamableness except by force is the reason why "many sorrows" must strike "the wicked." If these are here compared to "bit" and "bridle," they are meant to drive to God, and are therefore regarded as being such mercies as the obstinate are capable of receiving. Obedience extorted by force is no obedience, but approach to God compelled by sorrows that restrain unbridled license of tempers and of sense is accepted as a real approach and then is purged into access with confidence. They who are at first driven are afterwards drawn, and taught to know no delight so great as that of coming and keeping near God.

The antithesis of "wicked" and "he that trusteth in Jehovah" is significant as teaching that faith is the true opposite of sinfulness. Not less full of meaning is the sequence of trust, righteousness, and uprightness of heart in Psalms 32:10-11. Faith leads to righteousness, and they are upright, not who have never fallen, but who have been raised from their fall by pardon. The psalmist had thought of himself as compassed with shouts of deliverance. Another circle is cast round him and all who, with him, trust Jehovah. A ring of mercies, like a fiery wall, surrounds the pardoned, faithful soul, without a break through which a real evil can creep. Therefore the encompassing songs of deliverance are continuous as the mercies which they hymn, and in the centre of that double circle the soul sits secure and thankful.

The psalm ends with a joyful summons to general joy. All share in the solitary soul’s exultation. The depth of penitence measures the height of gladness. The breath that was spent in "roaring all the day long" is used for shouts of deliverance. Every tear sparkles like a diamond in the sunshine of pardon, and he who begins with the lowly cry for forgiveness will end with lofty songs of joy and be made, by God’s guidance and Spirit, righteous and upright in heart.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 32:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/psalms-32.html.


Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, August 20th, 2017
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20
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