For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 32 and its interpreters. I have three items for today:
1. The Psalm is called a “maskil”, and, in Psalm 32:8, we find the word “askil-cha”, which means “I will cause you to understand.” Does the term “maskil” signal that a Psalm is a Psalm of instruction—a didactic Psalm, if you will? E.W. Bullinger affirms that it does, and he appeals to elements of other “maskil” Psalms to make that point: Psalm 44:1 says “we have heard”, and Psalm 45:10 exhorts the audience to ” hearken”. Peter Craigie, however, says that, while the didactic interpretation may fit Psalm 32 and Psalm 78, it does not really fit other “maskil” Psalms. For Craigie, “maskil” can refer to a musical accompaniment, or convey that a Psalm is the product of skill.
I think that all of the Psalms are instructive, in some manner. At the same time, when I read Psalms that are called “maskil”, and they appear to be like many Psalms that are not called “maskil”, I wonder if I should be reading a lot into the label. Maybe it just marks that the Psalm is supposed to be accompanied by a certain musical number. And yet, I think that it’s important to remember that, sometime in the history of biblical interpretation, the “maskil” was interpreted as a term that marks a didactic Psalm. The Septuagint of Psalm 32 says that the Psalm is “of understanding”, or “of insight”. The Psalm is believed to give us insight into how God works, and how we should act in our relationship with him. In the case of Psalm 32, the message is that God forgives sins and guides people, but that we should not be stubborn. The Psalm also presumes that un-confessed sin coincides with sickness, but that God protects and shows mercy to those who are faithful to God.
2. Interpreting Psalm 32 has allowed people from various religious backgrounds to demonstrate their different views regarding God’s forgiveness of sin—particularly the question of how we receive it. The apostle Paul, after all, appealed to Psalm 32:1-2 in explaining and defending the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone, apart from the works of the law (Romans 4:7-8). Psalm 32:1-2 affirms (in the King James Version): “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.”
What is interesting is that Paul does not quote the part of the verse about “in whose spirit there is no guile”. It is on the basis of this statement that Jewish interpreters have maintained that we have to have some righteousness in order to be forgiven. The medieval Jewish exegete, Rashi, states that the statement means that we must not have an intention to return to lewdness when we seek God’s forgiveness. And there is an opinion in the Midrash on the Psalms that affirms that a person should do some good deed to offset iniquity. The Midrash and a Targum also apply Psalm 32 to the misery that results from not studying Torah. While Paul is certainly not in favor of immorality, he does seek to portray God’s forgiveness as something that one receives only by faith—looking to the one who justifies the ungodly, apart from works of the Torah. But there are opinions within Judaism that do not separate God’s forgiveness from good works, a righteous attitude, or the Torah.
In my reading of Protestant commentaries, I observed a tendency to disassociate God’s forgiveness from confession of sin—as if the commentators wanted to avoid the idea that confession is what causes God to forgive. The seventeenth century English Puritan, Thomas Watson, asserted that confession is a qualification for receiving God’s forgiveness, not something that merits it. For Watson, we can do nothing to merit God’s forgiveness, which is based on Christ’s merits, not ours.
Psalm 32:5 states: “I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the LORD; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.” Calvary Chapel preacher Chuck Smith asserts that, in Hebrew, this verse is conveying the following meaning: “The moment in my heart I said, ‘I am going to confess my transgressions,’ in my heart. Before I could ever get the words out of my lips, God had already forgiven me.” For Smith, it’s not the words that influence God to forgive the Psalmist, but rather the attitude. Psalm 32:5 could be translated as containing a disjunctive: “My sin I would acknowledge and my iniquity I did not cover; I said, ‘I will confess over my transgressions to the LORD’, but you lifted the iniquity of my sin.” A disjunctive would imply that God had already removed the Psalmist’s guilt, even before he officially confessed. Perhaps this is the meaning of Psalm 32:5, or maybe it can be understood differently. But Psalm 32 does appear to maintain that the Psalmist’s confession is what removed his sickness and his feelings of guilt: “When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long.” But Chuck Smith’s interpretation may be rooted in a Protestant desire to downplay external ritual (in this case, confession) in favor of inward righteousness.
The fourth century Christian exegete of the Antiochian school, Theodore of Mopsuesta, says that the Psalm teaches that we need God’s mercy, and that even our good works come from God’s grace, so we should consider ourselves blessed if we “deserve to have God well disposed toward” us. Theodore uses the word “deserve”, yet he makes clear that we only deserve God’s favor if God makes us deserving. The Psalm itself appears to maintain that both humans and God play a role in the divine-human relationship. We confess our sins sincerely (without deceit) and submit to God’s attempt to beautify us—without being stubborn like a horse or mule (Psalm 32:9). And God forgives us—not imputing to us iniquity—even as God beautifies us. And Psalm 32:8 says that God guides us with his eye, which could mean that he watches us (the view of the Targum and the Septuagint) or signals to us his instructions with his eye (the view of Rashi, on the basis of similar terminology in Proverbs 16:30). Either way, we have God’s attention.
E.W. Bullinger relates the word “cover” in Psalm 32:1 to the sacrifice covering sin. I am skeptical of Bullinger’s interpretation here, for I looked up the occurrences of the Hebrew root k-s-h, and I did not find an association of it with animal sacrifice (see here). But Bullinger does well to highlight this particular root, for it is significant in Psalm 32. In Psalm 32:1, the Psalmist extols the blessedness of the one whose sins are covered—because the LORD is not imputing iniquity. In Psalm 32:5, however, the Psalmist is talking about when he decided to stop covering his sin, and resolved instead to confess it. The Psalmist uses the same word for “cover” in v 5 that he uses in v 1. The Psalmist distinguishes between his own futile attempts to hide and to cover his sins, and the blessedness that comes when God covers them. This reminds me of something that I heard at an Intervarsity conference one time, when we were inductively studying Genesis 3: Adam and Eve’s attempt to cover themselves with leaves was futile, but God killed an animal and covered them with skins. That covering worked. The lesson that the teacher drew from this is that we cannot cover our sin, our guilt, and our shame through our good works, but that we are forgiven by accepting what God has done for us—God sent Christ to die for our sins so that we can be justified.
3. This third item will be more reflective than exegetical. One of my issues with Judaism and Christianity is that these sorts of religion seem to require me to apologize on a continual basis in order to appease God. The problem is that I don’t feel sorry for certain things, and I will probably continue doing them, so what is the point of apologizing every day? For instance, Jesus says that looking at a woman with lust is adultery; I will continue to be attracted to women; so what exactly is the point of me apologizing to God about that, when I really have no intention of changing? Should I assume that God will have nothing to do with me if I am not appropriately repentant? Personally, I will not live with that sort of mindset.
A similar issue concerns reconciliation: there are some people whom I do not want to appease. I do not like them, they do not like me, and I have no intention of debasing my own dignity by groveling to them for approval. I could formally apologize about this before God, but what is the point? True repentance occurs when it is followed by action! And I do not intend to reconcile with certain people! Do I believe that God has nothing to do with me as a consequence? No. I try to remind myself, though, that God loves not only me, but also those who are my enemies.
So I feel that Christianity has pressured me to make insincere apologies, and I don’t do that anymore. But there have been times when I have made sincere apologies, and, although there are some days when my attempts to change are more effective than they are on other days, my apology is still sincere. Here, I have in mind such things as yelling at people.
I suppose that, for me, Psalm 32 can work when I truly do feel guilty, or when I am genuinely convicted that a certain path is right, and that the path I’m on is wrong. I’m talking here about genuineness—not religious attempts to manipulate me to feel a certain way, or me manipulating myself to try to be something I’m not. And this may be where God’s guidance enters the picture: God, in his own way and his own time, will show me what to do, and how to do it. My problem with religion is that it holds up before me high standards of what I should be doing, without giving me any insight as to how I can reach those high standards. Christians love to criticize me, but, when it comes to helping me grow, their attitude is “You’re on your own!” And part of the issue may be that I am stubborn: there are some things that I do not want to do.