Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 5, 2017

Psalm 32 Commentary

It is no wonder that the Lectionary takes us to Psalm 32 on this first Sunday of Lent; its somber focus on sin, confession, and forgiveness is perfect for this season.  But it is also a bit tiresome, because this is the third time in a little over a year that Psalm 32 is the assigned Psalm.  See my comments on Psalm 32 in the Sermon Commentary Archive for February 29, 2016 and October 24, 2016 on this Center for Excellence in Preaching website.  The repeated return to this sin-laden Psalm almost makes one wonder if the compilers of the Lectionary were guilt-obsessed.

Or were they in love with joy?  If we take seriously the interpretive principle of end stress, then Psalm 32 is really about joy.  “Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart (verse 11).”  Since that’s how the Psalm ends, that is really what it is all about.  The fact that the Psalm begins with a heavy emphasis on sin suggests that the Psalm is designed to show the reader how to move from being obsessed with sin to being filled with joy, from guilty silence to grateful song, from being unrighteous to being righteous.  Think of it as a detailed road map from the “slough of despond” to the mountains of joy.

Indeed, that is precisely what verse 8 says.  “I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you.”  Now it is notoriously difficult to know who is speaking to whom in that verse.  Is it God speaking to the now penitent and forgiven David, teaching him how the forgiven must now live?  Or is it the presiding priest, using David’s experience to instruct the congregation in righteous living?  Or is it David speaking to himself, encouraging himself not to fall into sin again?  Or, and this is my choice, is it David speaking to the people of Israel, teaching them to follow the way that he walked from sin to righteousness?

I’m convinced that “the way you should go” is not so much the road of righteous living, the way of sanctification (to use a New Testament theological term), as it is the road to forgiveness, imputed righteousness, and justification.  That is surely what the first part of Psalm 32 is about.  David discovered that “way” through much pain and suffering, and he knows that many others are as ignorant of that “way” as he was.  So he writes to instruct them in “The Road Less Travelled.”

He uses a marvelous, though a bit demeaning, figure of speech to encourage them to listen to his instruction.  “Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding, but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you.”  Anyone who has ever been around horses knows how they react to a stranger approaching them.  Can you see them shiver and start, nostrils flaring, ears back, ready to shy away and run for freedom?  If a horse doesn’t know you, it will have no understanding of your intent.  It must be controlled with bit and bridle, so that it can be led to you.

In using that simile, David is acknowledging that sinners instinctively (and ignorantly) will not come to God with their sins.  We do not understand God’s intention toward us.  Instead, like David, we cover up, shy away, and run from God thinking that is the way of freedom.  Think of the archetypal story of Adam and Eve reacting to God after the first sin. Do not be like that, says Psalm 32.  Instead, come to God with your sin in the way David has just described in the autobiographical verses 1-5.  For an exhaustive (exhausting?) description of that way see the Sermon Commentaries mentioned above.

David’s point is that we should come to God willingly.  Don’t make God use the “bit and bridle.”  Is that an allusion to that expression in verse 4, “your hand was heavy upon me?”  Does God have to rein us in, guide us with force, exert a not-so-gentle pressure to make us come to himself?  That has been the experience of many a sinner, but it’s not how God wants to work in our lives.  Don’t make God use a heavy hand to bring you to confession and forgiveness.  Rather, walk the road less travelled freely and willingly.

In verse 10 the Psalmist uses the carrot and the stick to move our equine spirits in the right direction.  First, he uses the stick—“Many are the woes of the wicked….”  Then he dangles the carrot—“but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the man who trusts in him.”   There’s a choice here, suggests David.  You can continue to walk the way I did and, as a result, suffer the way I did.  That’s not so much a threat as a reality.  Un-confessed sin takes a toll on both body and spirit.  Or you can trust the Lord and discover his amazing, unfailing love all around you.

The key word in verse 10 is “trust.”  We have to trust God before we will confess freely.  We all know this from ordinary human experience.  If we don’t trust someone, we won’t open up to her, we won’t come to her in hard times, and we surely won’t confess our sins to her.  John Calvin said (not exactly in these words, but essentially in this way) that we are not driven to repentance by fear; we are drawn by faith in God’s love.

We are not compelled to repent by the Law; it only shows us our sin and makes us feel guilty.  We are moved to repent by the Gospel which promises that the provisions of God’s love are greater than our sin.  Only when we actually believe in his unfailing love will we dare to confess our sins as David does early in Psalm 32.  It is not the threat of punishment that causes us to repent; it is trust in God’s promises that encourages and enables us to “come to [God].”  (verse 9)

Is God trustworthy?  To assure us that he is, David intentionally uses a specific noun in verse 10, the Hebrew word chesed.  Translated “unfailing love” in the NIV, it is that famous covenant word, the word that summarizes God’s unwavering commitment to do good to his covenant people, even when they stray from covenant faithfulness.  That chesed, says David, surrounds those who trust in Yahweh.  Of course we can trust him.  As David discovered, even the deepest darkest sin cannot make God reject us.  If we take the road less travelled back to God, we will find a Father running to meet us with open arms and a welcome that will overwhelm us.  (See the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15).

No wonder Psalm 32 ends with song; it’s an early intimation of the singing and dancing at the Prodigal’s welcome-home party.  Once we walk the “way,” indeed, whenever we do (even if we have strayed multiple times), we can rejoice and sing.  We can be glad, not because we have never sinned, but because we have walked back from the far country by the way of repentance and faith.  We have come to ourselves and we have come to the Father and now it is time to rejoice.  That’s how Psalm 32 ends.

But that’s not how our sermon should end.  We cannot end a sermon on “the way” without a powerful emphasis on him who was “The Way.”  It is very important to stress that we can be righteous only through Christ.  It is not repentance that makes righteous; repentance only admits that we were wrong.  It is not faith that makes us righteous; faith is “only the hand of a beggar reaching to receive the riches of a King.”  It is only Christ’s righteousness that can make us righteous.  Repentance only lets go of our own righteousness and faith only takes hold of Christ.

This emphasis is not mine; it is based on the New Testament, which is our last best guide to the meaning of the Old.  In Romans 4:5-8, Paul interprets Psalm 32 as an inspired foreshadowing of the idea of imputed righteousness.  “God credits righteousness apart from works,” says Paul, and then quotes Psalm 32:1, 2.  Earlier in Romans 3:21—25, Paul talks about that “righteousness from God [that] comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”  We can’t get home to the Father by mere repentance and faith, because there has to be a sacrifice for sin.  Again, that’s not my idea.  It is Paul’s.  We are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.  God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.”

Lent is a time of solemnity, silence, self-examination, sorrow for sin, and sacrifice.  The opening verses of Psalm 32 are a perfect guide for us as we begin this somber season.  But the perfection of Psalm 32 consists in the fact that it doesn’t leave us wallowing in our sin and guilt.  Rather it leads us on the “way we should go” if we are to find not only forgiveness, but also joy unbounded.  Psalm 32 teaches us that you can’t get from here (sin) to there (joy) without following that way.  There is no short cut around the hard way of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.  There is no other way to come to God’s unfailing love than The Way who is Jesus Christ.  The Way of Sorrow (Via Dolorosa) becomes the Way of Joy when we walk the road less travelled. Trust me on that.  Better yet, trust the notorious sinners who walked that way and then wrote about it in Psalm 32 and Romans 3.

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Illustration Idea

When my brother and I were fishing in Colorado, we wanted to visit a famous lake, but we didn’t know how to find it.  Providentially, a forest ranger stopped to chat with us.  So we asked him how to get that lake.  “Well,” he said, “you can’t get there from here.  Oh, wait, there is a way, but it is very difficult.  It’s narrow and steep and rocky.  It’s the only way to get there from here.  I don’t advise it.  But that lake is a fisherman’s paradise.”  What do you think we did?  We didn’t take that way.  We didn’t believe the ranger enough to take that road less travelled, even with the promise of paradise.

As a counter example of the difficult but glorious way outlined in Psalm 32, I offer you Cormac McCarthy’s grim novel, The Road.  It’s a post apocalyptic tale of a man and his son following an ash covered road through an unbearably bleak and blasted world filled with horrors beyond description.  They follow the road in the hopes of reaching the West Coast of what was once the United States.  They hope against hope that there might be normal people and a peaceful life far down that road.  But that road leads to suffering and disappointment with only a tiny glimmer of hope for the boy, not the kind of unfailing love that makes people sing and dance in the story of the Prodigal Son.


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