When discussing the forgiveness of sins offered in Christ, John Calvin refers to Psalm 32:1 and says, “It is certain that David is not speaking concerning the ungodly but of believers [and that] we must have this blessedness not just once but must hold to it throughout life” (Institutes, McNeil, 3.14.11, p. 778).
One of the riches of the Reformed heritage is the Prayer of Confession. Although often painful, confessing our sins to God, both corporately and personally, brings relief to our pain as well as refuge in God. In Psalm 32, David conveys an experience of confessing his own sin: the pain he experienced before he confessed (vv. 3-4), the process of confessing (v.5), and the joy and comfort having confessed (vv.1-2, 6-7).
Psalm 32 is one of several “penitential” or “repentance” psalms (Psalms 6, 38, 51, and 143 are other penitential psalms of David); yet, the psalm has strong connections with other “thanksgiving” psalms (Psalms 18, 34, and 40 are other thanksgiving psalms of David). David, in Psalm 32, confesses his sin and turns, or repents, from it (v.5), and he thanks God for forgiving him and for restoring his joy (vv.1-2).
“Blessed” (ashrei): sometimes the best place to begin is the end. David writes that those who are forgiven of their sins are “blessed.” This Hebrew word “ashrei” is the same word that begins the book of Psalms in Psalm 1:1: “Blessed (ashrei) is the man …. In Psalm 1:1, the Psalmist writes that a blessed person is one who keeps far away from sin. That’s true! David talks about another blessing that God gives to His people: blessing (ashrei) in the forgiveness of their sins (Psalm 32:1).
Having given away the happy ending (“happy” is another legitimate translation of the word ashrei,) of forgiveness, David goes back near to the beginning of his turmoil. David doesn’t tell us what his sin was; we just know that he sinned. While curious minds would want to know, leaving out his specific sin allows us to make David’s prayer and process of confession and praise our own prayer, too. But he brings us into his prayer process during the agony of keeping it quiet. Sometimes solitude before the Lord is great. But David’s silence is not positive; in fact, he describes his experience in terms of physical pain (vv 3-4). Bones wasting away, feeling smushed, intense heat: spiritual turmoil is expressed in physical pain.
At some point in the suffering process, David acknowledges and confesses (the same word, yada, in Hebrew) his sin. Maybe he was denying his sin. If so, he stopped. At one point, he seemed to think he could hide his sin, but at some point he realized that hiding was futile (like Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:8-13). Maybe he thought to himself, “Why would I go on suffering this way? This is terrible.” So he acknowledges and confesses (Ps 32:5).
And just like that, David says, “and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” Because of what Christ Jesus would do on the cross for David and for all who would trust in Christ—just like that, David was forgiven. It seems so simple! It seems so easy! But we all know how hard it can be to come to terms with our sin. We justify it. We explain it away. We minimize it. We just don’t want to acknowledge that we have sinned against God. And when we keep silent and don’t acknowledge our sin, we suffer even more! Yet, by the grace of God, when we acknowledge (yada) and confess (yada) our sins, we are forgiven and blessed!
We often want to run away from God when we realize we have sinned. Yet we need to run to Him for refuge (7) and forgiveness for our sins (v5). God is our hiding place (v.7); we need not hide from Him. God preserves us from trouble, trouble that we find and perpetuate (v.7). When we hear condemnation, God surrounds us with His shouts of forgiveness (vv.1-2) and deliverance (v.7; Rom 8:1).
Darren Pollock is Pastor of Panorama Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Church History at Fuller Seminary. A graduate of UC Davis (BA in classics), Princeton Seminary (MDiv), and Calvin Seminary (PhD in historical theology), he lives in Temple City, CA, with his wife Ashley, two young children Charlie and Carter, and step-cat Fanny.
Darren is the author of Early Stuart Polemical Hermeneutics: Andrew Willet’s 1611 Hexapla on Romans (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017). He has also been published in Jonathan Edwards Studies, Anglican & Episcopal History, and Word & World, and he contributed multiple entries to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017).
After Christ and his family, Darren most loves crossword puzzles and Scrabble, Zion National Park, good coffee, passion fruit, and the hapless Sacramento Kings.
To confess your sins to God is not to tell [God] anything [God] doesn’t already know. Until you confess them, however, they are the abyss between you. When you confess them, they become the bridge.
Trouble and prayer are closely related. Trouble often drives men to God in prayer, while prayer is but the voice of men in trouble.
Dieu pardonerra; c’est son métier; God forgives you — it’s his thing.
Catherine the Great
I have learned now that while those who speak about one’s miseries usually hurt, those who keep silence hurt more.
To be a blessed person is to know; feel, and relish God’s affirmation and assurance, acceptance, and approval. It is the experience of being chosen and cherished, valued and enjoyed.
Lord of The Impossible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon press, 1984), p. 28.
Lloyd John Ogilvie
What is the blessing of God? It’s God—God with us, God for us, God in us. To reduce it to anything less dishonors God and devalues the blessing. God with us is joy unspeakable and the peace that surpasses understanding.21 God for us is His favor, the X factor between the best we can do and the best God can do. And God in us is power, resurrection power.
Double Blessing: Don’t Settle for Less Than You’re Called to Bless, Multnomah, 2019.
Key Sermon Illustration
The Relief of Getting Caught
Years ago, visiting one of the London prisons, I heard a statement made by one of the prisoners that impressed me very much. He said to me, ‘You do not know what a relief it is to be found out.’ We discussed the matter at some length because I wanted to understand and I wanted to see what he meant. What I discovered was that for years he had been aware that being a professional thief was not exactly what he had aimed at. He had a sense of honesty, of loyalty, of integrity, and yet this sense of integrity did not help him overcome his problem, because whenever he made an attempt at changing his life, everyone around him pricked up their ears.
On the one hand people said, ‘What nonsense! Are you going to join the opposite camp? Are you going to become an honest man with all the evils that means–becoming as hypocritical as those who exploit others, as untruthful, as conventional, as lacking in authenticity, as alien to your most natural impulses? And others began to look at him with suspicion. People who had never discovered in the past that he was a thief began to see changes in him and began to imagine that he might very well be one. And even those people with whom he had a quite natural, good, honest relationship began to treat him with circumspection and suspicion.
So every attempt he made to change his behaviour, and to allow other sides of his personality to take over, was nipped in the bud – on the one hand by the reactions of his own clan, his own gang, his normal surroundings, and on the other by the people he wished to join, but who became the more alien to him as he began to try to become more like them, because every change exposed more of his predicament.
One day he was caught. There was a very very great feeling of shame, of distress, and then a sense of liberation: ‘Now I have no need to hide who I am, or rather, who I was. There is no need to be hypocritical, to be what I am not. I can now become whatever I choose. I can either remain a thief, in which case there are ways in which I can behave well enough in prison to get out of it soon enough to go back to my job, having learnt a great deal from my fellow inmates – or else I can choose to change and start anew.
The Silent Daily Anxiety
In his devotional guide on preparing for the rite of confession in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard says that true repentance from the perspective of the Eternal One “is a silent daily anxiety.” When we abandon the practice, terror may seize us at unexpected moments and keep us frozen and stuck in our relationship with God. Kierkegaard illustrates what he means through the story of a man who had served a sentence in prison:
After he had suffered for his wrong acts he went back into ordinary society, improved. Then he went to a strange land, where he was not known, and where he became known for his worthy conduct. All was forgotten. Then one day there appeared a fugitive that recognized the distinguished person as his equal back in those miserable days. This was a terrifying memory to meet. A deathlike fear shook him each time this man passed.
Although silent, his memory shouted in a high voice until through the voice of this vile fugitive it took on words. Then suddenly despair seized this man, who seemed to have been saved. And it seized him just because repentance was forgotten, because the improvement toward society was not the resigning of himself to God, so that in the humility of repentance he might remember what he had been.
Annemarie S. Kidder, Making Confession, Hearing Confession A History of the Cure of Souls, Liturgical Press, 2010. Original Source Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing: Spiritual Preparation for the Office of Confession (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1938), 45.