Psalm 32 is often classified by scholars as a thanksgiving hymn, one in which worshipers give thanks to God for the joy of having their sins forgiven. Due to the phrase “when I kept silent” found in verse 3, it has been common to connect this Psalm to Psalm 51, but as there is no clear indication of this from either the title of the Psalm or its content, it is better to take this psalm as speaking generally to the experience of confession and forgiveness. Thus, Psalm 32 can be also classified as a “penitential psalm” in the same vein as Psalms 6, 38, 51, 130, and 143.
Confession, Repentance, and Forgiveness
The opening two verses of Psalm 32 provide the overall theme, answering the question “Who is truly happy (or blessed)?” Verses 3-5 recount a personal experience of the Psalmist that supports the underlying theme. The terms “transgressions,” “forgive,” “sin,” and “iniquity” all echo Exodus 34:6-7, notably the fundamental expression of God’s kindness and mercy toward those who receive His covenant. No one needs to compel God to show mercy; rather, the faithful confess their sins because they believe He is merciful. Several words occur in a mirror pattern, which bind these first five verses together, specifically the words forgiven, covered, cover, and forgave. There is a contrast in the kind of cover, most notably the fact that when God covers sin, He graciously blots it out (Psalm 85:2). Conversely, when man covers his sin, he is sinfully hiding it (Proverbs 28:13).
Furthermore, transgression, sin, and iniquity as revealed in Psalm 32:1-2 are three key words for sin found in the Old Testament. These terms are viewed respectively as rebellion, failure and perversion. Psalm 32:3-5 supports the underlying theme that only the forgiven are truly happy. The Psalmist declares a time of silence about his sin, stating he refused to confess his sin to God in order to receive forgiveness. The lost vitality outlined in vv.3-4 is really a point of God showing mercy, the hand of God moving upon His faithful to help them come to the point of confessing. Having come to that point, the Psalmist wisely acknowledges his sin and God forgives his the iniquity. This brings the psalm back to v.1 with the implication that the Psalmist has now fully learned the blessedness of being forgiven. The Psalmist references in v.5 the key terms used to describe sin in vs.1-2, using them at this point in the Psalm in the context of personal confession. In verse 6, the concluding part of this section of Psalm 32, the Psalmist instructs the reader on the reality that every person who knows the grace of God should not presume upon that grace by putting off confession of their sin.
The opening words of Psalm 32:6-11, reveal a lesson for everyone who is godly, namely, to offer prayer of confession at a time when God may be found, thus noting the need to reject foolishness delays when it comes to confession of sin (Psalm 32:9). The godly are not expected to be sinless; rather, they are to believe God’s promises and confess their sins (v.11). Verses 6-7 are addressed to God, whom the faithful find to be a hiding place with verses 8-11 being addressed to fellow worshipers, urging them to accept this instruction about ready confession and to be glad in the Lord who shows such goodness to His people.
At the heart of Psalm 32 is the act of confession of sin. Not only does the psalmist confess his sins to God (Psalm 32:5), he also makes a public confession within the hearing of the worshiping congregation. It is the opening of his heart to God that ultimately works forgiveness and restoration (Psalm 32:5, 7). What must also be noted is an important dynamic at work in his constant movement from God to the worshiping community. For the Psalmist to make a public confession in this manner is both instructive to the community and supportive of him as an individual, something revealed in how the community surrounds him in song.
Public confession remains an uncomfortable and therefore infrequent experience, especially for modern Protestant Christians. Particularly in North America two elements collide to inhibit our willingness to admit our faults among fellow Christians. First, the fierce independent streak that characterizes much of our society leads to many being consumed with a concern for personal privacy.
This desire and even overt demand for personal privacy is closely linked to the sense of radical tolerance that permeates the current societal milieu. What is good for you is okay with me as long as you demonstrate the same tolerance for what I consider good for myself. Such a dynamic of misplaced privacy makes us increasingly unwilling to divulge our most private issues and concern to others. This makes it uncomfortable to intrude into the inner privacy of others. The result is often rather superficial relationships with others in which only the most obvious elements of our lives are shared.
The second element that stands in the way of public confession is the sense of perfectionism that pervades much of Western Protestantism. Our desire to be completely independent leads us to assume that we ought to be perfectly able to accomplish our goals, fulfill our needs, and reach our dreams with no assistance. We should have the self-discipline to overcome our shortcomings and lead full and satisfying lives. All too often, however, our lives are marked by failure, dissatisfaction, lack of self-control, and an erosion of confidence in our abilities to meet our own needs or those of the ones we love.
Our obvious, at least to ourselves failure to live up to the “should” and “oughts” of life, instead of leading most of us to confess our weakness and needs, instead cause many of us to hide our failings behind a façade of apparent success, happiness, and control. Twelve-step groups are full of people who follow their sense of powerlessness and fear of being discovered in a variety of destructive behaviors ranging from alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual compulsion, eating disorders, to gambling addiction, just to name a few.
Those of us who make our home within the church have fared little better. The allure of independence and perfection have prevented many a struggling Christian from admitting their fears, failures, and helplessness until the crisis blossoms to the point that it can no longer be denied resulting in the utmost devastation for all those concerned.
Those who have passed through this dark and painful tunnel and emerged on the other side forgiven and restored to their faith in God, almost unanimously speak of having learned the value of confession and accountability within a supportive community of loving, caring fellow strugglers in life. Having a community of faith willing to hear your wrongs as a fellow sinner rather than acting as judges, willing to share from their own less than perfect struggles the experience, strength, and hope they have gained from relying on God’s power, has helped many break through years of helplessness to a place of freedom from a lifetime of compulsive behaviors.
Psalm 32:5 declares, “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.” God bore the guilt of the Psalmist’s sin himself. It was lifted up and born away by the hand of God, a very New Testament concept deeply rooted in the Old Testament consciousness of the Psalmist. John says it in similar words in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. “ Confession to God and another human being, freely given and freely received, is an important step from the bondage of sin, bondage that gains immeasurable strength from our fear and hiding.
The great Puritan author Thomas Watson once said there are six ingredients for true repentance. The first is sight of sin, whereby a person comes to himself (Luke 15:17) and clearly views his lifestyle as sinful. If we fail to see our own sin, we are rarely ever motivated to repent. The second ingredient for true repentance is sorrow for sin (Psalm 38:18). We need to feel the nails of the cross in our soul as we sin. Repentance includes both godly grief and holy agony (2 Corinthians 7:10). The fruit of repentance is revealed in genuine, anguishing sorrow over the offense itself, not just the consequences of it. Sorrow for sin is seen in the ongoing righteous actions it produces. True repentance lingers in the soul and not just on the lips.
The third ingredient is confession of sin. The humble sinner voluntarily passes judgment on himself as he sincerely admits to the specific sins of his heart. We must not relent of our confession until all of it is freely and fully admitted. We must pluck up any hidden root of sin within us. “Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit” (Deuteronomy 28:19).
At least seven benefits of confession are found in Scripture:
1) Confession of sin gives God glory.
2) Confession of sin is a means to humble the soul.
3) Confession of sin gives release to a trouble heart.
4) Confession of sin purges our sin. Augustine called it “the expeller of vice.”
5) Confession of sin endears Christ to the soul that needs atoning.
6) Confession of sin makes way for forgiveness.
7) Confession of sin makes way for mercy.
The fourth ingredient for true repentance is shame for sin. The color of repentance is blushing red. Repentance causes a holy bashfulness. Ezra 9:6 says, “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens”. The repenting prodigal was so ashamed of his sin that he did not feel he deserved to be a son anymore (Luke 15:21). Sin makes us shamefully naked and deformed in God’s eyes and puts Christ to shame, the One who took the scorn of the cross on Himself.
The fifth ingredient in repentance is hatred of sin. We must hate our sin to the core. We hate sin more deeply when we love Jesus more fully. Repentance begins in the love of God and ends in the hatred of sin. True repentance loathes sin.
Finally, the sixth ingredient of repentance is the turning away from sin and returning to the Lord with all your heart (Joel 2:12). This turning from sin implies a notable change, “performing deeds in keeping with their repentance” (Acts 26:20). “Thus says the Lord God: Repent and turn away from your idols and turn away your faces from all your abominations” (Ezekiel 14:6). We are called to turn away from all our abominations, not just the obvious ones or the ones that create friction in others. The goal of repentance is not to manufacture peace among others with perfunctory repentance, but rather to turn to God wholly and completely. This repentance most importantly is not just a turning away from sin. It also necessarily involves a turning in “repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). Here is the joy that is found in repentance. “It is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance” (Romans 2:4). We rejoice that Christ has done so much for us and continues to do for us.