By James Boice
Theme: What Sin Is and What God Does
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
1. Three words for sin. The first word for sin is “transgression” (Hebrew, peshah), which literally means “a going away” or “departure” or, in this case, “a rebellion” against God and his authority. This is what makes sin so dreadful, of course—that it is transgression, not only against other people, whom we hurt by our sin, but at its root also against God. It is why Psalm 51 contains the words “against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (v. 4). It is not that David had not sinned against others. He had. He had sinned against Uriah and also against the nation, which suffered for his sin. But in light of the enormity of his sin against God these other matters faded into the background. Alexander Maclaren captures the force of this word when he writes, “You do not understand the gravity of the most trivial wrong act when you think of it as a sin against the order of Nature, or against the law written on your heart, or as the breach of the constitution of your own nature, or as a crime against your fellows. You have not got to the bottom of the blackness until you see that it is a flat rebellion against God himself.”4
The second word for sin is hamah (translated “sin” in verse 1). It is a nearly exact equivalent of the similar sounding Greek word hamartia. Both mean “coming short” or “falling short of a mark.” In the ancient world the term was used in archery to describe a person who shoots at a target but whose arrow falls short and does not hit the target. In biblical usage, the target is God’s law, and the sin described by this word is a failure to measure up to it.
The third word for sin is “iniquity” (again in Hebrew, haon), which the New International Version also translates as “sin” (v. 2). It means “corrupt,” “twisted” or “crooked.” It rounds out the other terms in this way. The first describes sin in view of our relationship to God. It pictures us as being in rebellion against him. The second word describes sin in relation to the divine law. We fall short of it and are condemned by it. The third word describes sin in relation to ourselves. It is a corruption or twisting of right standards as well as of our own beings. That is, to the degree that we indulge in sin we become both twisted and twisting creatures.
2. Three words for what God does with sin. The three words for sin that I have just explained are matched in the opening stanza by a second set of three terms describing what God does with the sin of those who confess it to him. He forgives it, covers it over and refuses to count (or impute) it against the sinful person.
The first of these words is “forgiven,” and it literally means to have our sin “lifted off.” Before the sin is confessed we bear it like some great burden, but when we confess it to God it is lifted from our shoulders. John Bunyan captured this well in The Pilgrim’s Progress when he described Christian coming to the cross, at which point “his burden loosed from off his shoulders and fell from off his back and began to tumble, and so continued to do so, till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in” and was seen no more.5 When we confess our sin God removes it “as far as the east is from the west” (Psa. 103:12) and no longer “remembers” it against us (Isa. 43:25).
My sin—O 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, O my soul!
- Give the meanings of the three Hebrew words for sin in this psalm.
- Read Psalm 51:4. What does David mean there?
- Define the first word the psalmist uses to describe what God does.
Reflection: How does knowing the different Hebrew words for sin help you to come to a better understanding of the seriousness of it?
4Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, vol. 3, part 1, Psalms 1-49 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), p.197. Maclaren has a full discussion of these terms on pp. 196-201.
5John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1954), p. 39. Original edition 1678.
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