By James Boice
Theme: A Great Beatitude
In this week’s lessons we see what the proper approach to our own sin needs to be, and what God does for us in response.
Scripture: Psalm 32:1-11
Psalm 32 is the second of the so-called penitential psalms. The others are Psalms 6, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143. But the psalm might better be called “a psalm of instruction” from the title word maskil, which means “the giving of instruction.”1 It is the first of twelve psalms that bear this title.2
Probably, the psalm should be interpreted in connection with Psalm 51, which is David’s
great psalm of repentance. David had sinned in committing adultery with Bathsheba and had then manipulated the plan of battle to have her husband Uriah, who was a soldier, killed. He had tried to ignore or hide the sin for some time. But when the prophet Nathan came to him to expose the transgression, David confessed it and was restored. Psalm 51 is the immediate expression of that confession and restoration. It breathes with the emotion of the moment. Psalm 32 seems to have been written later than Psalm 51, after some reflection, and may therefore, as Leupold suggests, be “the fulfillment of the vow contained in Psalm 51:13: ‘Then will I teach transgressors thy ways, and sinners shall be converted unto thee.’”3 That “teaching” may be the maskil.
The psalm certainly functions as instruction, since Paul quotes the first two verses in Romans 4 to add David’s testimony to his proof of justification by grace through faith alone. It is significant that of all David’s recorded words and the writings that bear his name, it is the first two verses of this psalm that Paul chooses as Old Testament support for the doctrine.
This was Saint Augustine’s favorite psalm. Augustine had it inscribed on the wall next to his bed before he died in order to meditate on it better. He liked it because, as he said: “intelligentia prima est ut te noris peccatorem (“the beginning of knowledge is to know oneself to be a sinner”).
The first stanza (vv. 1, 2) begins on a jubilant note, expressing the joy of the person whose sin has been forgiven. This is only the second time in the Psalter that a psalm has begun with the word “blessed” (literally, “blessednesses,” plural). The first was in Psalm 1. But the happiness of the man speaking here is greater even than that of the man in Psalm 1, for in Psalm 1 he is described as blessed who walks in God’s way, which none of us does, while in Psalm 32 the word is reserved for the person who has not walked in God’s way, has sinned, but has repented of his or her sin and now knows the joy of restoration.
These verses are another example of Hebrew poetic parallelism, for there are three side-by-side terms for sin and three corresponding terms for how God deals with sin. As in the best of parallel constructions, these are not mere synonyms but are words chosen to cover the entire spectrum of sin and the wide scope of God’s salvation from it.
- What does the word maskil mean and why is it applied to Psalm 32?
- How is the idea of blessedness used in Psalm 1 versus here in Psalm 32?
- How is Hebrew parallelism seen in this psalm?
Application: Why does this psalm begin so joyfully? Purpose to do the same in your daily prayer.
1The significance of the term is uncertain, but this seems to be its meaning, particularly in the book of Daniel (cf. Ps. 11:33; 12:3, 10).
2Psalms 32, 42, 45, 52, 53, 54, 55, 74, 78, 88, 89, 142.
3H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969), p. 269.
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