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Psalm 32

Psalm 32 is a mixed type of psalm. It has elements of lament (e.g. vv. 3-4), aspects of penitential psalms (e.g. vv. 1-2, 5) and elements of wisdom psalms in vv. 1-2, and 8-9. The psalm is often classed as one of the seven penitential psalms but is really of a mixed type. As a whole, the psalmist revels in the Lord’s forgiveness (vv. 1-5) and urges other faithful ones to offer prayer to God (v. 6). The theme of forgiveness fits well with the Old Testament and Gospel readings for this week.

The psalm opens with a statement of blessedness or happiness (cf. Ps 1:1). Above all else the psalmist stresses that forgiveness issues in joy. That is the primary reaction of the one forgiven. Moreover, in the first two verses the psalmist uses four different nouns to describe ‘sin’ translated into English by transgression, sin, iniquity and deceit. It is as if the psalmist is saying that no misdemeanour, whatever its type, is beyond the forgiveness of the Lord, whose name appears only once in these verses, right at the centre.

In vv. 3-5 the psalmist traces their journey toward forgiveness. Silence was the psalmist’s enemy. While they kept silent about matters ‘their body wasted away’. This may be a reference to some disease which in the ancient biblical world was often associated with sin. On the other hand, it could be a metaphor for the psalmist feeling as though their sin got the better of them while they remained silent. We often use the metaphor of something ‘eating away at us’ when we don’t get it out in the open. The psalmist’s relationship with God at this time feels oppressive and they are deeply drained of energy and life. It is only when the psalmist acknowledges their sin to God that they know relief. Above all, they know forgiveness.

The psalmist’s immediate response (vv. 6-7) is to call all who are faithful to offer prayer to God, especially when they are in distress, which could be by reason of their own sin or other circumstances. They have found God to be a place of security and the source of ‘glad cries of deliverance’. The implication is that others might share this joy too (vv. 1-2). In the theology of this psalm, confession of sin and subsequent forgiveness are not simply private matters, between the sinner and God. While they are that in one respect, they are things which have ramifications for the whole of the confessor’s community. Confession and forgiveness flow over into mutual building up the other community of the faithful.

There is ambiguity in vv. 8-9. It is unclear whether these words are those of the psalmist as one who has experienced forgiveness and who now dares to teach another the way they should go or are we hearing the Lord’s own words to the psalmist. It may not matter in the end because such instruction as the psalmist might give can only come from personal experience, a point constantly evoked as the psalmist regularly turns to address the community. They do so again at the end of this psalm calling the people to shout for joy (v. 11) even as they experienced such joy (v. 7). The matter of individual confession spills over in the community not only in terms of calls to prayer and words of exhortation, but also in feelings of joy and acts of celebration. Individual confession and forgiveness are truly matters of community concern and benefit. The same can be seen in the story of the Prodigal Son in today’s Gospel reading (Luke 15:11b-32).

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship

Verses 1-5 could be used in a number of ways in relation to the declaration of forgiveness.

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare to you:
‘Your sins are forgiven!’
The Psalmist says:
‘While I kept silence, my body 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.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity; I said,
"I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,"
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.’
If we confess our sin,
God is faithful and just,
And will forgive us our sin.
In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare:
‘Your sins are forgiven!’
The end of the psalm could also be used as part of the blessing:
Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
And the blessing of God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Is upon you.
Old Testament Reading: Joshua 5:9-12

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