Blessed Are the Forgiven | Psalm 32
Brian Hedges | April 22, 2020
St. Augustine said that the beginning of understanding is to know oneself a sinner. Augustine had inscribed over his bed a psalm, and it was Psalm 32. I’d like to invite you to turn to that psalm this evening.
Psalm 32 is one of the seven penitential psalms that we find in the book of Psalms. It’s a great Old Testament psalm that’s all about the blessings of forgiveness. In fact, it begins with those words of beatitude, “Blessed are…” It’s the second of the psalms to begin that way. You may remember that Psalm 1 begins by saying, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in seat of the scornful; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” That’s the blessing of the righteous person, the person who avoids sin.
Psalm 32, in contrast, is the blessing of the person who has sinned, but has now been forgiven of his sins. Luther called this one of the four Pauline psalms, along with Psalms 51, 130, and 143. And he called it a Pauline psalm because you have in this psalm an Old Testament example of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In fact, Paul quotes from Psalm 32 in Romans 4.
The occasion of the psalm probably is following David’s repentance after his sin with Bathsheba. You remember that he had committed adultery with Bathsheba, he had essentially killed, had murdered Uriah the Hittite, and he had lived for some time outside of the fellowship of God, until Nathan the prophet confronted him and he repented. Nathan said, “The Lord has put away your sin.” We know that he wrote Psalm 51 upon his repentance and confession, and some scholars think that he also wrote Psalm 32 following that experience.
I want to begin by just reading the psalm to us, Psalm 32, and then want to point out three things from this psalm. Let’s read it first. It says,
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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!”
This is God’s word.
The psalm begins with a blessing and it ends with this triple note of joy, but in the course of the psalm, David recounts his experience, of how at one time he had kept silent, he had hidden his sin from the Lord, and he was in misery because of his sin; but when he confessed his sins he was forgiven. The Lord put away his sin, the Lord forgave him. And then he goes on to recount the blessings of restoration to the Lord.
So the psalm shows us essentially these three things:
I. The Problem of Sin
II. The Practice of Confession
III. The Blessings of Restoration
We’ll take that as our outline for this message.
I. The Problem of Sin
First of all, notice the problem of sin. Sin is many-dimensioned. It’s like a monster with several tentacles. You get a sense of those different aspects of sin in the various words that are used in verses 1-2. There are actually three words that are used for sin, and together they are used several times.
The first word is “transgression.” This is a word that carries the idea of rebellion against authority, rebellion against God. You might think of this as sin in relation to God. It’s the attitude that the little preschooler has towards his parents when he’s been told what to do, but he sets his feet firmly in place, he crosses his arms, he looks straight in the eyes of his mom or his dad, and says, “No.” It’s rebellion. It’s a rebellion against authority. This is the nature of our sin. Our sin is rebellion against God.
The second word is the word “sin,” and this is the word that carries the idea of missing the mark, of failure to hit the target. Remember how Paul says in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That’s the idea here. It’s missing the mark; it’s failing to meet the standards. It’s not hitting the bull’s-eye in the target. This is sin in relationship to the law of God, where we fail to do what God’s law commands as well as do those things which God commands us not to do.
The third word that David uses here is “iniquity.” You see it at the end of verse 2: “Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity.” This word can carry the idea of simply guilt, but it also carries the idea of that which is twisted or crooked. In fact, the word is used in Lamentations 3:9, “He has made my paths crooked.” That’s the word that’s used here. It’s the idea of that perversion or twistedness or distortion of the heart.
I like the way Martin Luther, following St. Augustine, described sin. He said, “Sin is being curved in on oneself.” Whereas we were made to love God and to love one another, sin is essentially self-love. It’s selfish, self-oriented, it’s self-centeredness.
That’s the very nature of sin, at its very heart. The reason why we rebel against God, the reason we transgress his law, the reason we fail to hit the target, is because of this small, shriveled self-orientation. It’s because we love ourselves rather than loving God and loving others. These show us the different facets of sin.
But David also describes for us here the experience of living in unconfessed sin. You see this in verses 3-4, and notice as we read these verses how his description touches every component of the human personality. In verse 3, “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.” There you see the psycho-somatic dimension to unconfessed sin. Here’s someone who is tormented with guilt, and it’s beginning to affect him physically. “My bones waste away.” He’s emotionally disturbed. He’s groaning all the day. He has lost his spiritual vitality.
Then verse 4 says, “For day and night your hand was heavy upon me.” Of course, he’s addressing this to the Lord in prayer, and he’s remembering how God’s hand was heavy in his life. He was under the discipline of God, he was being chastened by God. He says, “My strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” It’s the idea of someone who’s experiencing heat stroke and the high temperatures, combined with dehydration in the body, lead him to physical breakdown. Well, here’s David, describing his personal and spiritual breakdown in his life.
This shows us, doesn’t it, the very consequences of sin. Just as sin is this monster with many tentacles, it affects us in many different ways. Sin will always affect us spiritually in our relationship with God, but it often will also affect us emotionally and sometimes even physically.
I’m reminded that the famous psychiatrist Karl Menninger one time said that if he could just assure his patients that were in the psychiatric ward that their sins were forgiven, that there was a solution to their guilt, that 75 per cent of them would walk out the door the next day.
Let me ask you a question. Are you burdened with the load of sin? Is your conscious disturbed? Has it been soiled? Do you feel like you are unclean? Are you carrying a load of guilt? Do you live with the conscious smile of God in your life, or have you drifted, have you departed, have you wandered far from the Lord? Is your soul well?
Compare yourself to when you first became a Christian. When you first became a Christian and you knew that that initial excitement of first love, of walking with the Lord Jesus—you loved his word, you delighted in prayer, you enjoyed worship, you loved other people, your one ambition was to please him who had saved you—is that still the case with you?
Do you relate to these words from the hymn-writer and poet William Cowper? In one of his hymns he asks,
“Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and his word?
What peaceful hours I once enjoyed;
How sweet their memory still;
But they have left an aching void
The world can never fill.”
Here’s someone who knew what it was to walk with the Lord, but he’s lost that, and now there’s an aching void in his heart, in his life, because he has wandered far from God. What does such a person need? What do you need if that’s where you find yourself this evening? You need forgiveness, and this psalm shows us that the path to forgiveness is the path that is marked by confession.
II. The Practice of Confession
That leads us to the second point, the practice of confession. We see this in verses 5-6. First of all, just look at verse 5, where three times the psalmist says in three different ways that he confessed his sins to the Lord. In fact, each of those three words for sin that we looked at in verses 1-2 pop up again here in verse 5. He says, “I acknowledged my sin to you; I did not cover my iniquity” (that means he no longer was hiding his sins), “and I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.”
This was David’s experience. After Nathan confronted him, after he had confessed his sins, he turned back to the Lord and the Lord forgave him. What does it mean to confess sins? It essentially just means this, that we acknowledge that our sins are really wrong, that we take God’s side in the argument, that we agree with God about our sins. That’s confession; it means to agree with him, to acknowledge, to freely confess that we are sinners.
Confession in Scripture always implies repentance as well. Proverbs 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” That’s what we’re after: confession of sin.
Now, there are some people who might object that if a Christian, a believer in Jesus Christ, has already been forgiven of their sins, if they’ve been justified by faith alone in Christ alone, if Christ and his atoning work on the cross deals with our sins, then why should a Christian still have to confess? Isn’t that sin already forgiven, or do we lose our forgiveness?
I think the simple answer to that is that Jesus himself taught us to confess our sins. Don’t you remember that petition in the Lord’s Prayer? He taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
This is the New Testament teaching. In 1 John 1 the apostle John tells us that if we “confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The free and gracious forgiveness that God offers to us through Christ is not a reason not to confess our sins; it shows us that we can confess our sins and that those sins can then be forgiven.
Notice also in this psalm that there is an emphasis on the time of confession. You see this in verse 6. The psalmist says, “Therefore, let everyone who is godly—” the word “godly” carries the idea of someone who’s in the covenant with God “—let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found.”
Just notice that. “At a time when you may be found.” You know what that implies? It implies that confession should happen promptly. It implies that we should not delay in dealing with our sins. It implies that if we presume on God’s grace and, instead of confessing now, think that we can put off until tomorrow, that there may come a time when we’re no longer able to confess.
Remember that story from The Pilgrim’s Progress when Christian meets this man who’s locked in a cage? This man is in despair, he is sad, he is dejected, he’s lost all hope, he can’t seem to get out of the cage. Christian asks him, “What happened? Why is he in there?”
This is what the man says. He says, “I left off to watch and be sober, I laid the reins upon the neck of my lust, I sinned against the light of the word and the goodness of God; I have grieved the Spirit, and he is gone; I tempted the devil, and he has come to me. I have provoked God to anger, and he has left me. I have so hardened my heart that I cannot repent.”
What a fearful description that is of the person who has presumed on God’s mercy rather than dealing with their sin in the day when he can be found. I’m reminded of Isaiah 55:6-7, this wonderful invitation, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts. Let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”
Paul says, “Today is the day of salvation.” Don’t delay confessing your sins. Don’t delay repentance. Don’t delay turning back to the Lord.
III. The Blessings of Restoration
We’ve seen the problem of sin, we’ve seen the practice of confession, and then thirdly, we see the blessings of restoration. There are really four of them in this psalm.
(1) The first, of course, is forgiveness itself. Again, I just call your attention to verses 1-2, as well as verse 5. “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.”
Notice here how the language deals with all the different problems of sin. We’ve looked at these different aspects of sin, but there’s a solution to each one of these aspects. The Lord forgives our transgression, our rebellion against the Lord. The Lord forgives it. “Blessed is the man whose transgression is forgiven.”
What does that mean? The word “forgiven” carries the idea of lifting off. You might think of someone who is taking a load or a burden off of another person’s shoulders. That’s what the forgiveness is here. You have the same idea in verse 5. “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord, and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.’”
But not only does the Lord forgive our sins, but it says here, “Blessed is the man whose sin is covered.” Here, the word “covered” is closely related to that word that’s used of the sacrifice that was made on the Day of Atonement. Do you remember this? You have it in the book of Leviticus, how once a year the high priest of Israel would come into the Most Holy place, and he would come bringing a blood sacrifice, and he would sprinkle that blood on the mercy seat, the lid that covered the ark of the covenant. It was the time where Israel’s sins for that year were blotted out, they were symbolically blotted out. Of course, it’s pointing to the true atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
I love an illustration that I came across years ago from Bryan Chapell. He talks about these two men who were watching a parade of soldiers following a war in South Africa. These soldiers were all decked out in uniforms that were red. The one man said to the other, “What color are those uniforms? What color are their tunics?”
“Well, they’re red, of course,” he said.
That was right, but the other man said, “Look at the uniforms through this glass,” and he handed him a piece of red glass. When he looked through the red glass at the red uniforms, the uniforms appeared white.
So it is with our sins. Though they are red, when they are covered with the atoning blood of Jesus Christ we are white as snow. Isn’t that essentially what Isaiah said in Isaiah 1:18? “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like gold.” The Lord covers our sins.
The third thing we see here is, “Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity.” The word “counts” is an accounting word. It means “keep a record.” “Blessed is the man for whom the Lord keeps no record of his wrongs,” of his wrongdoing, of his iniquity. It’s the same word that’s used in Genesis 15:6 when it says that Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord counted his faith as righteousness. It’s language that Paul picks up on in Romans 4 when he talks about the person whose faith is counted as righteousness, whose sins are not counted against him, and for whom righteousness is counted apart from works.
Of course, this teaches us the great Christian doctrine of justification, that our sins are not counted against us; instead, Christ bore those sins, they are counted against him; and Christ’s obedience and righteousness counts for us.
I think one of the most practical ways we put this to use in our lives is in our own confession of sin and in prayer as we lay hold of that promise of forgiveness. I learned this from the Puritan John Owen, in his book on Communion with the Triune God. he looks at communion with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit.
When he’s talking about communion with the Son, he talks specifically about communion with Christ in what he calls “purchased grace.” He essentially says that what we do is we lay our sins at the foot of the cross, we roll our sins over to Christ, so that Christ bears our sins and we receive from him his grace and his forgiveness. We look to the cross, we stand by the cross, and we say, “Ah, he is bruised for my sins, wounded for my transgressions; the chastisement of my peace is upon him. He is thus made sin for me. Here I give up my sins to him that is able to bear them and undergo them.” Owen says, “This is every day’s work. I know not how any peace can be maintained without it. This it is to know Christ crucified.”
Is that your experience? Do you know how to deal with your sins by taking them to the cross?
“My sin—oh, the bliss
Of this glorious thought—
My sin, not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross
And I bear it no more;
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
Oh my soul!”
This is what honors Christ, and this is actually what changes the heart. When we see our sins dealt with through the cross of Christ, we confess them, we turn from them, and by faith we lay hold of Christ, that is what changes the very motivational structure of our hearts and makes us want to live in fellowship with him. So verse 2b ends with these words, “...in whose spirit there is no deceit.”
It just reminds us that we should never take the doctrine of justification and misuse it as an excuse for sin. In fact, “Any idea,” Derek Kidner says, “that we are free to continue in sin that grace may abound is firmly excluded by the emphasis on sincerity” at the close of this verse. Forgiveness that comes to us from the Lord; that’s the first blessing.
There are three more; we can deal with these more quickly.
(2) Next notice the blessing of protection. You see this in verses 6-7. It says, “Therefore, let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you when you may be found.” We’ve already considered that, but then notice this next phrase: “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.”
In the mind of a Jewish person, “great waters” always represent something threatening. Sometimes it represents those primordial waters of chaos from Genesis 1. Sometimes the great waters represent judgment. Sometimes the psalmists talk about being in the depths, they talk about God’s waves and billows washing over them; they’re thinking of the depths of the judgment of God. In any case, the waters are threatening, but notice there’s a shelter from the waters; there’s a hiding place. He says, “You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble.”
You remember those great words from Charles Wesley:
“Jesus, lover of my soul,
Let me to thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high.
Hide me, O my Savior, hide,
Till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide;
O receive my soul at last.”
Well, this is one of the blessings that comes from being restored to fellowship with God. You’re able to hide yourself in Christ from the storms of life. From the storms of judgment, from those things in life that threaten us, Christ shelters us. The blessing of protection.
(3) Thirdly, you have the blessing of instruction, verses 8-9. “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and [the NIV says] watch over you.” Four things the Lord says he will do: instruct, teach, counsel, and watch. This is what we might call the fatherly and parental love and guidance of God. He instructs us and guides us, counsels us, and watches over us.
You know, as a parent, it occurs to me that there are lots of stages in instructing and teaching children. There’s that early stage when you’re just having to teach your children basic principles of right and wrong, you’re having to show them black and white, right and wrong, “This is what you can do, this is what you can’t do.” But as they grow older and as they mature into teenagers and then young adults, the role becomes one of counseling and of guiding and of encouraging, so that you’re helping them to develop wisdom.
The Lord fills all of those functions for us. He instructs us, he teaches us directly from his word. We learn the principles of right and wrong, righteousness, we learn that from his word. But he also instructs us and counsels and watches over us, he guides us with his eye. In a very subtle way, in a gentle way, the Spirit of God can lead us in the paths of righteousness so that we learn to live in a way that pleases him. I think it’s just crucial that we notice in this psalm that he wants a willing, teachable heart. In fact, in verse 9 he says, “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.” In other words, don’t be like an animal that is irrational and can only be controlled by the force of another person’s will. What the Lord wants is for us rather to willingly follow him as he guides us with his eye upon us. We are to learn to live in fellowship with God.
(4) He directs us, protects us, instructs, and then the fourth thing that we see in verses 10-11, and it’s the experience of joy, the blessing of joy. This also comes with restoration.
There’s a contrast. Verse 10 says, “Many are the sorrows of the wicked [the opposite of joy], but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the Lord.” Then notice this, a triple emphasis on joy in verse 11. “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.” Three ways of saying essentially the same thing, that our experience is to be one of great joy, of gladness, of shouting for joy as we worship the Lord with the consciousness of his forgiveness in our lives.
There’s a wonderful story told by Dale Ralph Davis in one of his volumes on the Psalms. It’s a story of a young man who had just been released from a penitentiary. Because of his crimes, he had brought shame onto his family. He didn’t know whether they wanted him back or not, he had not heard from them in some time, but he had sent them a letter, and he had essentially given them a signal to use when he came back by their town.
He said, “I’ll be on the train that comes right by the farm, and there’s an apple tree there by the train tracks. I’ll be on the train at this certain time, and if you want me to come home, just hang a white ribbon on the tree. If I don’t see a white ribbon on the tree, then I’ll know you don’t want me to come home, and you’ll never hear from me.”
So he’s on the train, but he couldn’t bring himself to look out the window. So the man who was sitting next to him agreed to look out the window for him. Sure enough, the train comes by the farm, and the man looks out the window, and he turned to the young man and he said, “It’s all right; the whole tree is white with ribbons.” That’s how much they wanted him back.
Well, that’s the kind of reception that we receive from God! That brings about the kind of joy that this psalm is talking about, when we recognize the abundant grace, the abundant mercy that is given to us in Jesus Christ.
Let me just conclude in this way. I’ve been greatly helped in my own life by the journals, the diaries of a young Scottish preacher from the 19th century named Robert Murray M’Cheyne. M’Cheyne wrote what he called a “Personal Reformation.” This was only for his private use; it wasn’t discovered until after he died, but then it was included in his journal in the diaries that were published.
In this Personal Reformation he laid out something like a spiritual regimen for how he would practice the confession of sin. He was nothing if not thorough. He regularly confessed his sins. He resolved to confess the sins of his youth, his sins both before and after his conversion, his sins against the light of knowledge, against God’s love and grace, his sins against each person in the Godhead; he resolved to confess sins in the light of the cross, in the light of hell, in light of final judgment.
He says, “I ought to look at my sins in the light of the holy law, in the light of God’s countenance, in the light of the cross, in the light of the judgment seat, in the light of hell, in the light of eternity.” It was a detailed, exhaustive, systematic plan for personal confession.
Now, I think a lot of people could read that or hear that and think that’s overboard; as Christians we don’t need to do that. But what was so helpful for me in M’Cheyne’s account is how Christ-centered he was in his approach to confession. He knew that only as he lived in ongoing fellowship with God would he really experience the fullness of joy, and he knew that he needed constantly to be coming back to the cross of Christ for assurance of forgiveness. This is what he said.
He said, “I ought to go to Christ for the forgiveness of each sin. I ought to see the stripe that was made on the back of Jesus for each of my sins, I ought to see the infinite pang thrill through his soul equal to an eternity in my hell for my sins, and for all of them.” He said, “I feel when I have sinned an immediate reluctance to go to Christ. I am ashamed to go. I feel as if it would do no good to go, as if it were making Christ a minister of sin to go straight from the swine trough to the best row, and a thousand other excuses; but I am persuaded they are all lies direct from hell.”
See how he’s dealing with the problems of guilt and how guilt twists our thinking and our minds? He’s applying the gospel to it. He says, “I must not only wash in Christ’s blood, but clothe me in Christ’s obedience. For every sin of omission in self I may find a divinely perfect obedience ready for me in Christ. For every sin of commission in self I may find not only a stripe or a wound in Christ but also a perfect rendering of the opposite obedience in my place, so that the law is magnified, the curse is more than carried, its demand more than answered.” There’s enough in Christ to cover all of our sins.
So what I want to encourage each one of us to do is to take account. Where are you with the Lord? Are you living in fellowship with him, or have you lost your first love, have you left your first love? Have you strayed away from the Lord? Are you even under his discipline? Wherever you are, turn back. Turn to the Lord, but don’t turn to the Lord in the sense of just trying to turn over a new leaf; turn to the Lord and look to him for grace, look to him for forgiveness. Look to Jesus Christ crucified as the source of mercy and of grace and of pardon.
Then, learn to confess your sins promptly, learn to keep short sin accounts with God, learn to confess sins regularly. As soon as a sin comes to mind, confess it, bring it back to the Lord, and learn to walk in fellowship with him. If you do, you will know the blessing of forgiveness, you will know the blessing of his protection as you find Jesus to be your hiding place, you will learn to walk in fellowship with him as he instructs you, as he guides you with his eye; and you will know the joy of living in fellowship with God. Let’s pray together.
Our gracious and merciful God, we thank you that you have made a way for sinners to come home, to come back to you, and that like the father in the story of the prodigal son, you are there with open arms, waiting for your prodigal children to turn back, to leave the far country, to come back home. You’re waiting with the best robe, ready to throw the party because your children, who were lost, have now been found. We thank you for that depth of grace and of love; we thank you for the assurance of forgiveness and pardon for our sins; we thank you for the gospel.
Father, I pray that we would learn to live in that, that we would experience the joy of restoration. I pray for any who hears this who has never turned to Christ for forgiveness of sins, that today would be the day of salvation. I pray that we would not delay in our confession and repentance, but today, even this very moment, we have laid hold of the grace that is given to us in Christ. We need that grace, we are sinners; we acknowledge that, and our only hope is in your sovereign mercy. We thank you that that mercy is there, mercy that comes to us through the atoning work of your son on the cross. So thank you, and we praise you. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.