Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Psalms 32:1 - 32:2

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Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Psalms 32:1 - 32:2

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This Chapter Verse Commentaries:

The Beatitude of Forgiveness

Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity,

And in whose spirit there is no guile.—Psa_32:1-2.

These words form the preface to a psalm generally understood to have been written in connexion with the great sin of David’s life. It sings of that happy time when he had repented of his iniquity, when he had sought mercy and had found it, and then poured out the joy of his heart. It is no marvel that his pent-up feelings burst forth in such words as these, for the experience through which he had passed had been peculiarly dark and bitter. He tells here of the misery which he had undergone. He had kept silence, he says, with the result that his very bones had waxed old, and his moisture had been turned into the drought of summer. He would not confess, he would not repent. To a man with the open nature of David that would mean unspeakable wretchedness, but he persevered in it month after month till the mission of Nathan the prophet broke through his sulky reserve, and let loose the springs of his being. And then how measureless his peace and joy! Probably no man has ever felt more deeply than he the blessing of forgiveness. He entered into a new world, and being a poet he could not refrain from giving expression to his bliss in this beautiful poem, which begins with the outburst, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”

This psalm has been selected by the Church for one of the “seven penitential psalms.” It forms a part of the service of the synagogue on the great Day of Atonement. Yet it is almost as much jubilant as penitent. The writer, while very sensible of his sin, is still more sensible of the fact that his sin is pardoned. While his first words breathe content and gratitude, his last are a shout of rejoicing (Psa_32:10).1 [Note: G. Rawlinson.]

Ewald says: “The song is manifestly ancient, original throughout, evidencing a strong spirit. Hardly could the inner misery of a lacerated heart, together with the higher happiness of one again reconciled and healed, be described with more inwardness, impressiveness, and power than here. The harder the struggle in his heart, so much more glorious is the victory, so much more limpid and joyous is the stream of the earnest word. The colour also of the language is Davidic, and there is no reason to doubt that it was sung after the transaction recorded in 2 Samuel 12.”


The Reality of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a reality on God’s part, because sin is a reality on our part. Forgiveness, or justification, is sometimes spoken of as “treating the sinner as though he had not sinned.” This, however, is but loose, figurative language. Forgiveness implies sin, disobedience to God’s law. Therefore God is bound, as the Righteous One, to take account of sin. He must condemn or pardon it. And our Lord Himself speaks of forgiveness as a definite act. “Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.”

1. The Psalmist views sin under three aspects.

(1) First, he calls it transgression. In its literal sense this means separation, or rending apart, or departure, and so comes to express the notion of apostasy and rebellion. All sin is a departure from God. It is treacherous rebellion. That is to say, it has relation not only to a law, but to a Lawgiver. It is not merely a departure from what is right, it is treason against God. It not only breaks some impersonal ideal of duty, but it is an act of rebellion against a loving Will which is in definite relations to me. And so it assumes a far graver and more solemn aspect than when we think of it as being merely a breach of law, a traversing of duty, a crime against conscience, or society, or public opinion, or expediency, or some abstract idea of morality. It is all these, but it is something much worse than these. The inmost recesses of the ugliness and wickedness of the wicked and ugly thing is this, that it throws into disorder our relations to a living person, that it is rebellion against the Living God.

There is in man an instinct of revolt, an enemy of all law, a rebel which will stoop to no yoke, not even that of reason, duty, and wisdom. This element in us is the root of all sin—das radicale Böse of Kant. The independence which is the condition of individuality is at the same time the eternal temptation of the individual. That which makes us beings makes us also sinners. Sin is, then, in our very marrow, it circulates in us like the blood in our veins, it is mingled with all our substance. Or rather I am wrong: temptation is our natural state, but sin is not necessary. Sin consists in the voluntary confusion of the independence which is good with the independence which is bad; it is caused by the half-indulgence granted to a first sophism. We shut our eyes to the beginnings of evil because they are small, and in this weakness is contained the germ of our defeat. Principiis obsta—this maxim dutifully followed would preserve us from almost all our catastrophes. We will have no other master but our caprice—that is to say, our evil self will have no God, and the foundation of our nature is seditious, impious, insolent, refractory, opposed to and contemptuous of all that tries to rule it, and therefore contrary to order, ungovernable and negative. It is this foundation which Christianity calls the natural man. But the savage which is within us, and constitutes the primitive stuff of us, must be disciplined and civilized in order to produce a man. And the man must be patiently cultivated to produce a wise man, and the wise man must be tested and tried if he is to become righteous. And the righteous man must have substituted the will of God for his individual will, if he is to become a saint.1 [Note: Amiel’s Journal (trans, by Mrs. Humphry Ward), 164.]

(2) Then another aspect of sin rises before the Psalmist’s mind. This evil which he has done, which probably was the sin in the matter of Bathsheba, was not only rebellion against God, but it was, according to this text, in the second clause, “a sin,” by which is meant literally missing an aim. So this word, in its pregnant meaning, corresponds with the signification of the ordinary New Testament word for sin, which also implies error, or missing that which ought to be the goal of our lives. That is to say, whilst the former word regarded the evil deed mainly in its relation to God, this word regards it mainly in its relation to ourselves, and that which before Him is rebellion—the assertion of our own individuality and our own will, and therefore in separation from His will—is, considered in reference to ourselves, fatally missing the mark to which our whole energy and effort ought to be directed. All sin, big or little, is a blunder. It is a blunder even if it hits what it aims at, for it aims at the wrong thing. So doubly, all transgression is folly, and the true name for the doer is “Thou fool!” For every evil misses the mark which, regard being had to the man’s obvious destiny, he ought to aim at. “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him for ever”; and whosoever in all his successes fails to realize that end is a failure through and through, in whatever smaller matters he may seem to himself and to others to succeed.

Full of far deeper love for what I remember of Turner himself, as I become better capable of understanding it, I find myself more and more helpless to explain his errors and his sins. His errors, I might say, simply. Perhaps, some day, people will again begin to remember the force of the old Greek word for sin; and to learn that all sin is in essence—“Missing the mark”; losing sight or consciousness of heaven; and that this loss may be various in its guilt; it cannot be judged by us.1 [Note: Ruskin, Modern Painters, v. pt. ix. chap. xii. (Works, vii. 441).]

(3) But the Psalmist sees in his own past behaviour not only rebellion and failure, but iniquity—that is, something twisted or distorted. His conduct is thus brought into contrast with the right line of the plain, straight path in which we ought to walk. We have the same metaphor in our own language. We talk about things being right and wrong, by which we mean, in the one case, parallel with the rigid law of duty, and in the other case, “wrung,” or wavering, crooked and divergent from it. There is a standard as well as a Judge, and we have to think of evil not only as being rebellion against God and separation from Him, and as, for ourselves, issuing in fatal missing of the mark, but also as being divergent from the one manifest law to which we ought to be conformed. The path to God is a right line; the shortest road from earth to Heaven is absolutely straight.

Every person of a mature age, and in his right mind, remembers turns or crises in his life, where he met the question of wrong face to face, and by a hard inward struggle broke through the sacred convictions of duty that rose up to fence him back. It was some new sin to which he had not become familiar, so much worse perhaps in degree as to be the entrance to him consciously of a new stage of guilt. He remembers how it shook his soul and even his body; how he shrunk in guilty anticipation from the new step of wrong; the sublime misgiving that seized him, the awkward and but half-possessed manner in which it was taken, and then afterward, perhaps even after years have passed away, how, in some quiet hour of the day or the wakeful hour of night, as the recollection of that deed—not a public crime, but a wrong, or an act of vice—returned upon him, the blood rushed back for the moment on his fluttering heart, the pores of his skin opened, and a kind of agony of shame and self-condemnation, in one word of remorse, seized his whole person. This is the consciousness, the guilty pang, of sin; every man knows what it is.1 [Note: T. T. Munger, Horace Bushnell, 218.]

2. Corresponding to the three terms for sin, there are three expressions to signify its removal. The first word means taken away or lifted off, as a burden from aching shoulders. It implies more than holding back penal consequences; it is the removal of sin itself, and that not merely in the multitudinousness of its manifestations in act, but in the depth of its inward source. This is the metaphor which Bunyan has made so familiar by his picture of the pilgrim losing his load at the cross. The second (“covered”) paints pardon as God’s shrouding the foul thing from His pure eyes, so that His action is no longer determined by its existence. The third describes forgiveness as God’s not reckoning a man’s sin to him, in which expression hovers some allusion to cancelling a debt.

(1) Sin is here pictured as a burden, lying on the soul. Every sin we commit is making that burden larger and heavier. We do not say it is felt to be heavier; that would be the sense of sin. The burden is there, whether it be felt or not, and it always grows. If the burden of his sin remains on any sinner it will sink him into ruin. Surely, then, he is a happy man whose burden of sin is lifted off. “Oh, the blessedness of the man whose burden of sin is lifted off!” Why is he a blessed man? Because when the burden of sin goes, other things must go with it. When this burden is lifted off, the sentence of death against the sinner is cancelled for ever, the gates of hell are closed against him and will never open to admit him, and heaven’s gates are open in a new sense, in that they never can be closed till he is inside.

The most persistent symbol of Conscience in this first stage is the “burden”—a simple but picturesque emblem of a sense of guilt. It is on him, though behind him; it is oppressive, though it leaves his limbs all free for action or advance; it is rather felt than seen. Somewhat characteristic it is of Bunyan’s Christian that this burden of his is “great.”1 [Note: J. A. Kerr Bain, The People of the Pilgrimage, i. 51.]

In 1881, when he was nearing his end, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, though an agnostic, became very anxious for confession and absolution. It was suggested to him that absolution was contrary to his pronounced views. But he said, “I don’t care about that. I can make nothing of Christianity, but I only want a confessor to give me absolution of my sins,” adding, “I believe in a future life—what I want now is absolution for my sins, that’s all,”2 [Note: A. C. Benson, Life of D. G. Rossetti, 71.]

(2) Again, sin is pictured as inward pollution and filthiness, which must be covered before there can be true blessedness. But not every kind of “covering” will suffice. Many ways of covering sins bring no blessing, but a curse. Some people spend much time and trouble, and exercise great ingenuity, in covering up their sins. They dig deep graves in which they seek to bury them, but every sin they bury is going to have a resurrection. Such coverings never bring any blessedness. “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper.” The Psalmist tried for a year to bury his sin. Did he succeed? Was it a happy year? Note what he says about that time: “When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer.” When he is brought to a right frame of mind he no longer tries to cover up his sin, but says, “My sin is ever before me.” “I acknowledge my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid.”

Bees in their hives, when there is anything corrupt and too large for them to remove, fling a covering of wax over it, and hermetically seal it, and no foul odour comes from it. And so a man’s sin is covered over and ceases to be in evidence, as it were, before the Divine Eye that sees all things. He Himself casts a merciful veil over it and hides it from Himself.3 [Note: A. Maclaren.]

(3) The third picture of sin is perhaps the most striking of all. It means: “I am a debtor, over head and ears in debt, but the debt is not charged or reckoned against me at all.” Still more, it means: “I am guilty, yet the righteous Judge justly pronounces me not guilty.” How can that be possible? Let the Apostle Paul explain. He says that “David describes the blessedness of the man to whom the Lord imputeth righteousness without works,” and he quotes the text to prove this. David did not say one word about “righteousness without works.” What does St. Paul mean by saying he did? The simple fact is that St. Paul supplements David; he gives the positive side, in addition to David’s negative side of the double transaction. St. Paul has his eye on Christ. If sin is not reckoned or charged against, or put to the account of, the believing sinner, it is because it has been imputed, reckoned, charged against, or put to the account of Christ. And if “righteousness without works” is imputed, reckoned to, or put to the account of, the believing sinner, it is because of what Christ had done. “Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; that we [who knew no righteousness] might become the righteousness of God in him.”

A very common idea of the object of the gospel is, that it is to show how men may obtain pardon; whereas, in truth, its object is to show how pardon for men has been obtained, or rather to show how God has taken occasion, by the entrance of sin into the world, to manifest the unsearchable riches of holy compassion. I have observed that even the phrase free offer of pardon is so interpreted that the very existence of the pardon is made to depend on the acceptance of the offer. The benefit of the pardon does most assuredly depend on its being accepted, but the pardon itself is laid up in Christ Jesus, and depends on nothing but the unchangeable character of God.1 [Note: Letters of Thomas Erskine of Linlathen, i. 379.]

3. The condition of forgiveness.—The last clause of the text, “In whose spirit there is no guile,” seems to refer to the frank sincerity of a confession. He is not like the self-righteous sinner who tries to tell lies to God, and, attempting to deceive Him, really deceives only himself. Whoever opens his heart to God, makes a clean breast of it, and without equivocation or self-deception or the palliations which self-love teaches, says, “I have played the fool and erred exceedingly”—to that man, the Psalmist thinks, pardon is sure to come.

The great question before the mind of the Psalmist is how the burden of sin may be removed not from the Divine side, but from the human, and so he states one necessary condition to that removal—confession: “I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin” (Psa_32:5). Sin must be confessed before it is removed. Till a man confesses his sins he hugs them to himself, and refuses to part with them. When he truly confesses them he puts them away by an act of will. Not till then are they removed. God cannot forgive the man who is impenitent, for that man will presently sin again. He cannot forgive, much as He longs so to do, because there is an obstacle in the way. Repentance removes that obstacle; it opens the door to the exercise of God’s forgiving grace. The moment we repent we are pardoned.

Excellent as repentance may be in itself, and quite independent of all results, yet the one ultimate test of it is amendment—amendment, and nothing else. We have done wrong and are sorry for it. What is the test of the value of our sorrow? Our doing the same thing no more. We desire to be forgiven. We pray to God for that forgiveness. What is to us the certain seal that He has heard our prayer, and by the power of His Son’s Cross has finally forgiven us? The seal is that we have been enabled to sin so no more. Put it how you will, you must always come back to that. I do not say that no repentance is worth anything which is followed by further falls. God forbid. I do not say that God never forgives until He also makes the sin impossible. God forbid. But I do say that to us—to us there is no other proof either of the genuineness of our repentance, or of the certainty of God’s forgiveness.1 [Note: Archbishop Temple.]


The Blessedness of Forgiveness

In all the benedictions of the Bible the thing brought prominently into notice is not the outward circumstances but the inner state or life of the man who is blessed. Blessedness does not depend on outward possessions, such as worldly goods, or lands, or high birth, or erudite culture. Indeed, there are words of Christ which suggest that they who stand possessed of these things will find it harder to enter that Paradise which has not yet faded from our world, and to pass through the gates of that city which are before our eyes, if only they were opened to discern them. When He repeated the Sermon of the Mountain-Heights and of the Dawn to the multitudes that stood breathless beneath its spell, He said, “Woe unto you that are rich. Woe unto you that are full. Woe unto you, ye that laugh.” He did not mean that such would be necessarily excluded, but that entrance into blessedness would be hard for them.

1. The forgiven soul enjoys the blessedness of deliverance. The very essence of the benediction is the exquisite sense of transgression forgiven, sin covered. This royal sinner knew the felicity in its full range. Through all those weary months of sullen silence which followed David’s murder and adultery, he was a most miserable man. He knew that his Divine Judge had not pardoned him. He was conscious all the time of lying under the withering condemnation of God. He felt that his iniquity lay naked and open to the eye of Him with whom he had to do. He might to some extent conceal his fault from his fellows, but in all its hideous enormity it was exposed to the gaze of the Searcher of hearts. Could the king have any peace or comfort under that continual sense of the silent sentence of Heaven on his conduct? O what a joyful man he was when the grace of God enabled him to confess, “I have sinned,” and the sweet response came, “The Lord also hath put away thy sin”! When he contrasted the sordid wretchedness of the preceding months with his condition, now that the springs of his better nature had found vent, would he not feel that he was in the seventh heaven? It was not enough for him to say that his transgression was forgiven: he had to supplement that with this other word, that his sin was covered, in order to utter fully his felicity. His Judge had pardoned him, how much was that! But was it not even more that his Heavenly Father had blotted out his foul guilt, so that it should be never seen or remembered more?

Whatever I have studied of the Epistles of St. Paul, and this has been for many years, and with as much yearning eagerness and breathless awe as I have felt in nothing except the words of the Lord Jesus, has tended to the confirmation of the old evangelic interpretation of them, in which perhaps I should not have seen my way so clearly but for their accordance with my own “experience.” All that unutterable sense of sin, that terrible deadly fight with evil, those strivings of the Spirit I went through, and more; all that deliverance, that liberty of the Gospel, that being justified by faith in Christ, that peace with God, that shedding abroad by the Holy Ghost of the love of God in the heart, that coming in of the “new creation”; all the shades and lights of experience since then. Twenty-three years of such experience, which inwardly is as great and as simple a fact as the facts of seeing and hearing, make me unable to receive, even to perceive, any other interpretation. And I have met with such scores and hundreds who strike hands with me in life and death on these great matters that it is settled “without controversy” to me.1 [Note: Letters of James Smetham, 234.]

When Saul Kane, the ill-living prodigal whose “rake’s progress” John Masefield has so vividly set forth in his poem The Everlasting Mercy, suffered his instant conversion, an immediate and wonderful glory filled his soul.

I did not think, I did not strive,

The deep peace burnt my me alive;

The bolted door had broken in,

I knew that I had done with sin.

I knew that Christ had given me birth

To brother all the souls on earth,

And every bird and every beast

Should share the crumbs broke at the feast.

O glory of the lighted mind,

How dead I’d been, how dumb, how blind.

The station-brook to my new eyes,

Was babbling out of Paradise,

The waters rushing from the rain

Were singing, “Christ has risen again.”

I thought all earthly creatures knelt

From rapture of the joy I felt.

The narrow station-wall’s brick ledge,

The wild hop withering in the hedge,

The lights in huntsman’s upper storey

Were parts of an eternal glory,

Were God’s eternal garden flowers.

I stood in bliss at this for hours.

O clover tops, half-white, half-red,

O beauty from beyond the dead,

O blossom, key to earth and heaven,

O souls that Christ has new forgiven.

2. The forgiven soul is blessed, because the whole character and life are lifted to a higher plane. No man can pass from darkness to light, from alienation to reconciliation, without being marvellously transformed by the experience. His whole nature is changed. That is what we mean when we contrast the effect on the human soul of the gospel of grace with that produced by the preaching of mere morality and legality. Sinai thunders at us in vain, and the most eloquent exposition of the beauty of virtue is apt to leave a soul very much where it found it; but let a sinner come to believe that Christ died for him, that God so loved Him that He spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for the transgressor, and that in the fountain thus opened for sin and for uncleanness his sins have been washed away for ever, then that forgiven soul will become a living mass of gratitude, of love, of devotion to Him whose grace has saved him. Through all his subsequent life he will be a changed man. He will hate iniquity and love holiness. We cannot say that he will never sin again, but never again can he feel toward sin as he did in the days before he had drunk this wine of heaven. His character will be radically altered, and the life will answer, more or less truly, to the character.

You stand in some valley, and however brightly the sun may shine, there are shadows; you climb to the summit of some lofty hill, and it is all sunshine, and no shadows there. Even so, if you rest satisfied with forgiveness of sins merely, brightly as that exhibits God’s love, and wonderful as is the grace of it, your peace, and joy, and rest will be all imperfect. Come up into the heavenly places in Christ Jesus; get upon the high tableland of a really Christ-life; go on to the realization of all the “happinesses” which are linked on to forgiveness; be a little child, and take God at His word about them, without cavil or question; and then your whole life will be sunlit indeed. Difficulties and sorrows and temptations you may have, and they may multiply as you go on; but you will look down upon them, instead of being overshadowed by them: and you will see, what in the valley of a low life you cannot see, how God’s love lights them all up, and how in very truth they all work together for your good.1 [Note: A. C. Price.]

3. Happy is he whose sin is forgiven, because new relations are established between God and the soul. To have passed through this experience not only changes a man’s character, it puts him permanently on a new footing with God. The pardon comes to him as but one part of what we call the Divine scheme of salvation. Henceforth he does not think of the Almighty as his Judge, but rather as his Heavenly Father. He has been adopted into the family of the Most High, and he knows that all the privileges of adoption, in time and eternity, are secured to him. Christ has become to him as an elder Brother, who is preparing a place for him in that region of the blessed which is to be hereafter their common home.

This is a side of Christian truth which has not always received the attention it deserves—a neglect the more to be regretted that the doctrine furnishes the reply to the objection sometimes made, that “justification” presents our relations with God in salvation in too exclusively “legal” a light. It would do so if it stood alone; but it does not stand alone. Adoption, by certain writers, has been treated as part of justification—as the positive side of it, in acceptance. But this is not warranted. If it is wrong to merge, as many do, God’s character as Judge in that of Father, it is as wrong to merge His character as Father in that of Judge, and to overlook the fact that God’s relation to us is personal as well as judicial. God does not merely pardon the sinner by way of legal acquittal. There is the outflow of paternal tenderness, paternal forgiveness, paternal grace (cf. the Prodigal, Luk_15:20-24); and the soul that comes to Him is received by Him into a relation of sonship—not merely that forfeited sonship which was its destination by creation, but a relation of honour, nearness, and privilege, analogous to Christ’s own. “If children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Rom_8:17).

Here are we dark and weak, yet are we not

Excluded from Thy glorious family;

Pain to Thy children is a transient lot;

We suffer, that from sin we may be free.

Angels and men, the prophet and the child,

These all are what they are by gift of Thine;

No break or gulf is there; the undefiled

Are tenderly made one by birth divine.

If but a letter of the all-perfect name,

If but a mark of the celestial pen,

Distinguish us, we will, despising shame,

Abjuring self, live boldly among men.

Named after God! a little like to Him,

In whom the entireness of the name divine

Brightly involved was once by woes made dim,

But now unfolded shines, yet more to shine.1 [Note: T. T. Lynch, The Rivulet, 202.]


Adams (J.), Sermons in Syntax, 45.

Dunbar (J. W.), The Beatitudes of the Old Testament, 129.

Keble (J.), Sermons for the Christian Year: Lent to Passiontide, 260.

Mackay (J. J.), Recent Letters of Christ, 124.

Meyer (F. B.), The Directory of the Devout Life, 15.

Price (A. C), Fifty Sermons, i. 345.

Ritchie (A.), Sermons from St. Ignatius’ Pulpit, 42.

Smellie (A.), In the Hour of Silence, 303.

Wilmot-Buxton (H. J.), In Many Keys, 102.

Children’s Pulpit: Second Sunday after Christmas, ii. 204.

Church of England Pulpit, xxviii. 301.

Church Year Book, 1912, p. 49.