Confession of sin is one of the harder things a believer does. Confession is not natural to man. In confession, we set aside prideful self-defense, humbly acknowledge the reality of our sin, and embrace a willingness to make restitution to those we have harmed. None of those things come with ease. It would be easier (superficially, at least) to ignore our sin and its consequences. Our flesh suggests that angry denial, defensiveness, and cover-ups are a better approach to handling our sin.
The psalmist in Psalm 130 disagrees. As noted previously, we don’t know the particular circumstances of the psalmist, except something has happened to plunge him into deep despair (v. 1) and given his confession in verses 3-4, the cause of his despondency is almost certainly some particular sin or even some ongoing pattern of sin.
This psalm is typically classified as an individual lament — these are the words of an individual person who is lamenting his own condition and situation. But it should also be noted that this is one of the Ascent Psalms — songs that were sung by Israelite pilgrims as they made their way to Jerusalem for one of three annual feasts. So while the song is individual, it is also typical of all people and can be rightly sung and embraced by all people.
In the opening two verses, the psalmist’s sin produced grief and lament in him, and in grace, that lament led to his confession in verses three and four. His confession and God’s provision are helpful guides as we examine our own hearts to serve our counselees. What should confession look like in our own lives so that we are vessels of honor, useful to serve the Master (2 Tim. 2:20-21)? Additionally, these verses are also a guide for us to lead our counselees to appropriate confession and restoration.
The Sinner’s Willing Confession
Because he is grieved over his sin, the psalmist willingly confesses his sin. This passage does not explain the process of confession as clearly as Paul did in 2 Cor. 7:11, but remember: this is poetry — more than explaining or exhorting confession, the psalmist is an artist painting a picture or penning a poem about confession. He wants us to feel the confession.
In beginning his confession he says, If you, Lord (YHWH) should mark iniquities, O Lord (Master) who could stand? To stand means, “to stand one’s ground — to maintain one’s innocence, to infer he can endure God’s judgment.” So the psalmist is saying that if the covenant keeping God would keep and observe and account for every sin of every man (which He is capable of doing), who could stand before Him with a claim of righteousness? And the obvious answer he wants us to say is, “No one!” All are guilty; no one can claim righteousness before the holy God. “If strict justice were done, the sinner would be beyond hope of redemption.” (Ps. 1:5; Ezra 9:15; Mal. 3:2)
So he doesn’t say, “I confess my sin by acknowledging it, asking for forgiveness…,” but he wants us to feel the weight of our guilt. And the implication is that since no one can stand before God with this weight of sin, he does the only reasonable thing — he confesses that sin. Why would he continue to hold onto it and keep it? This psalm reminds the pilgrims going to Jerusalem, “you and I can’t stand before God on our own; we are guilty of sin, so let’s confess it.”
This is a good reminder to both counselor and counselee. The temptation when we sin will always be to hide and conceal it. The flesh will invariably be slow to confess. We need this reminder that not only is there no hiding sin from the all-seeing eyes of God, but there is no ability to stand in self-defense before God, the Judge. Quick confession and open repentance are always the best response when we sin. The confession and revelation of our sin may be painful, but that pain cannot compare to the grief that will result from attempting to combat the Lord in His court of justice. There is no victory in that court; there is only everlasting defeat.
God’s Gracious Provision
Notice next what happens in verse four. After the desperation of verse 3, he says, but…. Have you ever thanked God for the but Gods in Scripture? These are the instances in which God aggressively intervened in various times of trouble with acts of extraordinary grace. Consider a few of them —
- “But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark; and God caused a wind to pass over the earth, and the water subsided.” (Gen. 8:1)
- “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” (Gen. 50:20)
- “My flesh and my heart may fail, But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Ps. 73:26)
- “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8)
- “Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us…” (Eph. 2:3-4)
The but in this verse is particularly strong — in spite of sin, there is forgiveness from God. The psalmist has not earned forgiveness, and does not deserve forgiveness, but God grants that forgiveness anyway.
The word forgiveness used here is used rarely in the OT; this is the only time the noun is used in the Psalms and it appears elsewhere only in Nehemiah 9:17 and Daniel 9:9. It refers to the pardon that is granted to a guilty party, making one acceptable to God. Rather than acting according to His legal rights and enforcing justice against the guilty party, God applies grace and forgives (cf. also Ps. 86:5; 1 Jn. 2:1-2). God does not desire the death of a sinner (Ezk. 18:32; 33:11), so God will do much to provide for the sinner so that he enjoys forgiveness.
When the psalmist says, there is forgiveness with you, it is a reminder that while the exposure of our sin initially seems troublesome, God would not have us remain burdened with our sin. When sin is confessed and forgiven, it is forgiven in the highest tribunal, in the court of God. Sin is not superficially whitewashed by vain acts of self-righteousness or inadequate defensiveness, but sin is supernaturally expunged by the eternal and infinitely powerful blood of Christ. It’s removed, taken away, washed, cleansed, and redeemed.
Some of us have a tendency toward ungodly introspection and self-examination that keeps us from experiencing the joy of forgiveness. This verse is a reminder that when sin is confessed, it’s over. The sin is gone. And that reality is how confession is an act of grace for us. If your counselee has genuinely confessed his sin and is still tempted by persistent guilt and nagging doubts, point him to the joyful truth of this verse as a reminder that what God has removed through forgiveness cannot be reinstated or retried in another court. The forgiveness is permanently liberating. (And ultimately, if one does not live in the joy of that freedom, it is an act of rebellious unbelief which itself needs confession and forgiveness.)
One question does remain. Just why would God do this? He does it, that psalmist says, so that You may be feared. Other psalms say that He forgives “for the sake [glory] of Your name” (79:9; 25:11). He forgives so that people will become God-fearers and God-lovers. The ultimate reason God forgives men of their sin is so that they will grow in their reverence (and obedience) of Him and come to desire Him more than anything else. Nothing demonstrates the glory and greatness of God like forgiveness.
What we must see in verses three and four is that there is great joy in grief over sin and confession for sin because lament and confession are the only things that produce forgiveness and forgiveness produces fear (reverent worship and joyful obedience) of God. When your counselee is reticent to confess the full extent of his sin, remind him that only confession will lead to the pathway of great joy for him.
The sinning believer’s confession is the sinning believer’s joy.
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.