Editor’s note: This post is part 1 of 2 that look at David’s experience with biblical confession in Psalm 32. Two of five realities of confession are considered here: the importance of remembering the joy that comes from confession & forgiveness, and the consequences that come from avoiding confession.
At least according to some researchers, a famous line from the 1970 film, “Love Story” really is true. In the movie, the character played by Ali MacGraw tells the character played by Ryan O’Neal, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Recently some psychologists have not only affirmed MacGraw’s statement, but they’ve taken it a step further, saying that it is rewarding not to say you’re sorry:
“’When you refuse to apologize, it actually makes you feel more empowered,’ [researcher Tyler G. Okimoto] said. ‘That power and control seems to translate into greater feelings of self-worth.’
“’Ironically, Okimoto said, people who refused to apologize ended up with boosted feelings of integrity.” [Accessed at Smithsonian Magazine, 4/14/13.]
Yet, that assessment is in direct opposition to what Scripture says. After his sin with Bathsheba, King David tried out the theory of Mr. Okimoto and he arrived at a much different conclusion: he discovered the grief that is derived from a lack of confession, and the power and peace that is the result of offering confession and receiving forgiveness (Ps. 32). While David wrote another psalm about this event (Ps. 51) immediately after his confession, this psalm came later and offers a deeper reflection on God’s grace to him following his sin. Psalm 32 thus is a meditation on “lessons learned” or “wisdom gained” from his confession and God’s forgiveness.
By way of reminder, David’s circumstance that precipitated this psalm was difficult: he committed adultery with Bathsheba and then he killed her husband (who also happened to be one of the great warriors and leaders of Israel). Then he compounded his sin by deceiving the nation about his sin. Worse than that he also attempted to deceive God (for over a year) by making an Adamic attempt to hide his sin. It was only when confronted by Nathan (2 Sam. 12) that he finally confessed his sin.
David’s sin and confession are a reminder of three great realities in the spiritual life:
- All people sin
- All people are tempted to try to hide their sin
- Joy and blessing only come to those who confess their sins
If you are a counselor, this psalm provides instruction for what you are to do with your own sin so that you will be a fit vessel for serving the Lord (cf. 2 Tim. 2:20-21). And if you are counseling or discipling others who are ensnared by sin, this is where you can point them for help and hope.
In this psalm, David tells his readers of five realities to remember about the nature of confession.
1. Remember the Present Joy of Confession and Forgiveness (vv. 1-2)
After a year of attempting to conceal his sin and then after finally confessing that sin and reflecting on the results of that confession, David comes to a new conclusion about where joy is found. So he begins by saying, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven.” The word “blessed” refers to “happiness” or “bliss.” So we need this Psalm, which tells us the path to happiness is paved with the acknowledgment of sin and the forgiveness of sin.
But before we look at what David says about confession and forgiveness, notice what he says about sin. He identifies sin in three ways. First, “transgression” (v. 1a) means to revolt against standard. Plain and simple, it’s rebellion against God. The person who transgresses is the one who is opposed to God. He does not want God as part of his life.
David notes another aspect of sin. The word “sin” means to miss the standard. The word picture that is usually used of this word is to shoot at a target and to miss the bullseye — the sinner is “off the mark.” But that picture is a little deceiving, because it suggests that this person wants to hit the mark of God’s righteousness, and that’s not what the word “sin” means. The sense is that the sinner rejects the standard and not only misses God’s mark, but also doesn’t even attempt to achieve God’s standard.
The third word David uses to refer to sin is “iniquity,” which means to twist the standard. Not only is the standard opposed and unachieved, but it is also distorted and a new standard is proposed. That’s where “new moralities” are devised — “we don’t like God’s standard of truth, so let’s make a new truth — our truth.” Combine these three words and you have a picture of willful and rebellious sin of every kind. David is trying to illustrate the completeness and fullness of his (and our) rebellion against God.
Now David does say that there is a blessing for those who sin. Joy is not going to be discovered in sin itself but in the forgiveness and release from the sin. So David uses three words for God’s forgiveness to parallel the three manifestations of sin he identified in vv. 1-2. The word “forgiven” (v. 1a) means the sin is taken away, like the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:22). “Covered” (v. 1b) refers to something being hidden or concealed so that it is obliterated; it is considered to be in the past and God no longer brings it up against the sinner (probably a reference to blood; cf. 85:2). And “not imputed” is an accounting term that means, “it is not counted.” The picture is of a complete removal of sin’s debt. Combined, the three terms emphasize the complete removal of the sin. God is effective in removing sin and its condemnation from us.
Now the question is, how does one come to be forgiven? Notice the end of verse 2 — “in whose spirit there is no deceit.” He is talking about honesty before God; this is a prelude to the confession he will make in verse 5. There is no forgiveness for the one who attempts to “deceive” (v. 2b) God about sin (cf. Ps. 15:1ff; 66:18). But there is infinite forgiveness for those who openly and non-defensively confess their sin.
One of greatest things we can do as counselors is to help our counselees “act like sinners” (Luther); that is, they acknowledge to God that they are what they are: sinners in need of Savior. Joy is not achieved by being sinless (that’s impossible), but in having sin removed and forgiven.
Now, one doesn’t need to confess his sin (billions never do), but one must understand that there are consequences for not confessing sin, which is what David identifies in verses 3-4.
2. Remember the Consequences of Not Choosing Confession (vv. 3-4)
David noted in verses 1-2 that there is joy in confession and forgiveness; here he says there is no joy in hiding sin.
Instead of confession, another way to deal with sin is to “keep silent.” He is talking about impenitence. David tried that tactic for over a year. But during that year, things were happening to him. He says, “My body wasted away” (v. 3), which could be a physical pain — his bones were in literal pain and agony (38:3; 42:10). Or more likely, it means spiritual “deadness” (the word “wasted” means “old and worn out”). David’s spiritual vitality waned (Prov. 4:23; Ez. 37; 1 Cor. 11:30).
He also says he was “groaning” (v. 3b). A better translation is “roaring” in agony. The word is usually used of a lion’s roar, but is also used of a soul in agony (Ps. 22:1-2; Job 3:24). David was in deep inner turmoil while he held onto his sin and refused to confess.
Because of his unwillingness to confess, God’s discipline was relentless: God constantly (“day and night,” v. 4) disciplined David. Like Jonah, there was no escape from the presence of God and His discipline. While David craved solitude and to be left alone, God did not leave David to himself; God’s hand of chastisement was heavy on David (38:2; 39:10). And eventually that correction and discipline produced confession.
What should we notice about the consequences of not choosing confession?
Confession is not easy: On one occasion the “theologian” Calvin was speaking to his companion Hobbes and said, “I feel bad that I called Susie names and hurt her feelings. I’m sorry I did it.” To which Hobbes said, “Maybe you should apologize to her.” Calvin pondered that for a moment and then replied, “I keep hoping there’s a less obvious solution.”
Like our little friend Calvin, we don’t like to confess our sins to one another and we don’t like to confess to God either. But we need to remember and we need to help our counselees remember that as hard as it might seem to confess, the lack of confession is harder. There is a cost to unrepentance. There is a cost to holding onto and keeping our sins. One does not have to confess. But eventually, the conscience will be stilled; and to do so is to kill the conscience (1 Tim. 4:2) and leave one in a state of unforgiven sin, to one’s eternal grief. In God’s grace, that was not David’s end (and it doesn’t have to be our counselee’s end either).
Notice the marginal word — “Selah,” which means something like, “Stop and think about it!” What is the consequence of not confessing sin (vv. 3-4)? And what is the blessing of confessing (vv. 1-2)? With this note to pause (“Selah”), David wants the singers of this psalm to reflect (and act) on that difference.
Editor’s note: Check back next week for Part 2 of this post. Part 2 explores David’s own testimony of confession in Psalm 32, and how how that confession brought him restorative joy.
This post is the third installment in the series “Songs of the Heart” by Terry Enns, a collection of studies on the Psalms and Biblical Counseling. Other titles in this series include “One Thing” – Parts 1 and 2 & “Joy Comes in the Morning.”
Terry Enns is the pastor of Grace Bible Church in Granbury Texas. He has over twenty years of pastoral counseling experience, and is a certified counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC, formerly NANC). In addition to his preaching and pastoral duties at Grace, Terry maintains an active blog at Words of Grace.
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