Or — Miserable Are the Mule-Headed

What does it mean to be happy? Psalm 32 starts with two beatitudes (happy are . . .) and ends with an emphasis on rejoicing, being glad, and singing.

Instead of looking immediately at verses 1 and 2, however, let’s first look at the suffering of the sinner. Between the opening beatitudes and verse 5, which is connected to them, we find a description of the sinner in verses 3-4. “When I kept silent” (v. 3) reminds us of Adam in the Garden of Eden, silently hiding from God among the trees. Even when confronted, he wouldn’t confess his sin but blamed the woman and God himself. His refusal to speak aloud what separated him from God was what separated him from God. We must speak our sins, if for no other reason than we often don’t understand our actions until we attempt to put them into words.

When we keep silent, it might be because of our stubborn pride. It might be our fear of exposure and rejection. Or perhaps we trivialize the significance of our sin (for it is our “pet” sin). Ultimately, silence is a rejection of God’s grace by not seeking it. Maybe we think we are not worthy or don’t deserve his forgiveness. Perhaps we hypocritically try to hide the duplicitous nature of our life.

Whatever the reason, the psalmist says the sinner wastes away. Secret sin may bring us a fleeting pleasure, but it cannot bring us true happiness. The psalmist describes silence as destructive behavior–our bones waste away, our groans never end, we feel the heavy hand of God weighing down upon us, and our strength fades as in the excessive heat of the day.

But while the sinner suffers, there is forgiveness for the faithful. In verse 5 we find a dramatic shift. The psalmist says, “Then . . . ” No longer is the sinner silent. In fact, there is a triple construction emphasizing the confession of the repentant one.

True happiness is not found in secret sins but in a life laid bare. The two beatitudes at the start of the psalm also consist of a triple construction. Happy is the ones whose

  • Transgressions are forgiven
  • Sins are covered
  • Iniquity is not counted against them

As can be seen, verses 1-2 and 5 are connected by numerous words: transgression, sin, iniquity, covered, and forgiven. They are bookends around the silence of the sinner, surrounding it as evidence of the fuller life discovered by the one who repents. For when we confess, the Lord forgives, just as 1 John 1:9 tells us: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins.” As James L. Mays says of this verse, “Confession of sin to God is confession of faith in God.” If we say we trust him, that we believe he is a God who is faithful and true to his covenant. Our confession should be, “I am a sinner, but you God, are gracious.”

Frollo confessing sins before flames
Photo from imdb.com

The confession that brings forgiveness (v. 5) also brings happiness (vv. 1-2). Confession isn’t just about what we’ve done; it is about who God is. The second beatitude ends by saying, the spirit of the happy one has no deceit. 1 John 1:8-10 states the opposite: if we claim we have no sin we deceive ourselves and make God out to be a liar. Or, perhaps most frightening, we can “confess” our sins as a way to prove our own “righteousness”–never really understanding our sin and so never truly confessing. Frollo, in the Disney movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame, “confesses” his lust for Esmerelda while he is actually extolling his own righteousness. (The animators invoke the irony by juxtaposing him against the flames of his hearth, which increasingly resemble the flames of Hell). As Paul warns us, God’s grace is not an excuse to sin, as if we are helping God out by giving him an opportunity to forgive us (Rom 6:1).

Finally, the psalmist describes the deliverance of the devoted. Verse 9 tells us to not to be like the horse or mule–who draws near to God not willingly but only because a bit and bridle force it to do so. Instead, we should accept God’s instruction, for he gives it in love. As Jesus said, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest . . . . For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt 11:28, 30)

When trials come, verses 6-7 tell us to pray to God, for he is a high rock above the chaotic waters (like Noah), a cave protecting us from trouble (like David), and the one who surrounds us with songs of deliverance (like Jehoshaphat). Woes await the wicked, who face turmoil within and trouble without, but God’s love surrounds the devoted (that is, those who trust in the Lord).

Who are the righteous? Who are the upright in heart? They are not the sinless, for only Jesus the Christ is sinless. They are the honest, the authentic, those who confess their sin freely and so do not harbor deceit in their spirit. They are those who trust God by crying out to him, not hiding from him or pretending all is okay. Proverbs 28:13 succinctly summarizes Psalm 32: “Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.”

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Psalm 32 sermon
Psalm 32: Happy Are the Honest (video or audio podcast)

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