Psalms Week 5
Confession, Repentance, Absolution: Getting Right with God: Psalms 25; 32; 36; 38; 51
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Old Testament
Read this week’s Scripture: Psalm 25; Psalm 32; Psalm 36; Psalm 38; Psalm 51
Psalms that treat the topics of sin, confession, repentance, and forgiveness have at least one thing in common: They are all rooted in the radical grace of God. Such psalms are instructive for Christians, especially in light of erroneous and uninformed views about confession, repentance, and forgiveness in the Old Testament. The popular view that sins as depicted in the Old Testament are forgiven only in response to animal sacrifice is simplistic. These particular psalms show why that is so.
In Psalm 25 the psalmist first requests forgiveness in 25:7. [Author’s Note 1] Before that the psalmist displays his openness to the Lord, declares his trust in God, and asks to avoid shame. In the same vein, he pleads that his unspecified enemies not be allowed to exult over his plight; in fact, the psalmist wants the tables to be turned so that the treacherous are ashamed, but not those who wait on God (25:1–3). Plus, prior to asking God to deal with his sins, the psalmist requests that the Lord provide instruction; indeed, he yearns for this incessantly (25:4–5). Amendment of life is part of the formula.
The vocabulary cluster surrounding the confession itself affirms that forgiveness is a matter of God’s grace. The Lord’s mercy/grace (expressed twice) and covenant-commitment allow the psalmist to make the plea. Apart from God’s nature — “for your goodness’ sake, O Lord” — the psalmist has no case (25:6–7). As well, forgiveness is not the end of the matter. It is the beginning. For this reason, the psalmist again brings up the importance of religious instruction (25:8–10). Amendment of life and confession go together.
Toward the final part of the psalm, forgiveness is requested again (25:11, 18) and the necessity of appropriate instruction is reaffirmed (25:12–15). An even more personal connection with God is accented when God is asked to “turn toward me,” “relieve [my] troubles,” and “consider my affliction and trouble” (25:16–18). The psalmist’s enemies are still in view (25:19–20), but this threat is made relative by the psalmist’s integrity and uprightness as well as the psalmist’s taking refuge in God (25:21).
The personal pronouns in the first person emphasize the personal nature of this psalm (there are more than 25). At the same time, the ending puts the prayer in another context: the community of Israel (25:22). This shows that the psalm is personal but not individual. The person who prays is part of a community that prays as well. A prayer such as Psalm 25 applies to the person and to the elect people of God of whom the person is a part.
Psalm 32 (along with Psalm 51) is arguably one of the classic psalms whose theme is confession and forgiveness. The psalm begins by poetically recounting three different metaphors for the wonderful state of being forgiven: transgressions that are forgiven (i.e., lifted), sins that are covered, and iniquity that is not counted (32:1–2). Then it moves immediately into the anatomy of confession. When sins are not confessed, the effect is palpably negative, affecting even one’s body (32:3–4). God’s hand lies heavily on the one who refuses to confess. There is no neutral condition.
But the very moment when sin is acknowledged, forgiveness is granted. Again, there are three images: acknowledging sin, not hiding iniquity, and confessing transgression (32:5). Such a glorious outcome lends itself to a teaching moment. When there is a life of prayer — apparently making one consistently and constantly open to God’s ministrations — sin that remains un-confessed will not eventuate in crisis. Instead, God becomes a place of refuge and deliverance (32:6–7).
Having experienced forgiveness, the psalmist evinces a holy boldness that prompts an admonition — namely, not to be like a horse or mule that has to be controlled with bit and bridle (32:8–9). A life of piety and devotion is not to be coerced, but to be a function of prayer and honesty before God. This is the difference between constant spiritual and even physical discomfort, and enjoying the experience of being righteous while simultaneously enjoying the Lord (32:11).
Psalm 36 is not about confession or repentance, but about one who has become comfortable with and accustomed to evil. It speaks of the truly wicked. In this case, the transgression lies deep within. A person of this ilk is devoid of any fear of God whatsoever (36:1). Indeed, such a person is victimized by self-deception (36:2). Neither words nor deeds are positive — this person personifies depravity. Even lying abed, this wretch is thinking about how to sin even more (36:3–4).
This is the saddest of conditions. Given the title of the psalm, it is unclear how we are to relate this to David. Is he lamenting that there are people who fit this description? Is this a self-description prior to coming to himself and confessing? Is he fearful that he might devolve to such a deplorable state? No answers are forthcoming.
Yet in a flash the psalm goes in a completely different direction. Having portrayed in extremely depressing terms someone who is sinful to the core, the psalmist turns to God. There are no limits to the Lord’s grace or faithfulness (36:5). God’s righteousness and judgments can be compared only to mountains and mighty oceans. Given a deity who may be so depicted, the psalmist easily proclaims that the Lord is able to save human beings and animals (36:6). It is as though the psalmist has matched the previous description of depravity with a divine graciousness that is more than equal to it. Where sin abounds, grace abounds even more (Romans 5:20).
Thus it is completely natural for the psalmist to move at this point to praise such a gracious God. This grace is humanity’s refuge (Psalm 36:7). The human family finds sustenance from this God, who provides a fountain of life and enough light for all to see (36:8–9). The psalmist continues by praying that grace continue for those who know God, which eventuates in salvation (36:10).
Finally, the psalmist pleads to avoid those who are arrogantly evil, for the fate of evildoers is to fall without being able to rise (36:12). Such a hopeless fate is grievously beyond words in light of the existence of a gracious God who offers a way out even for the unimaginably evil. Seen in the context of the other psalms we have studied so far, Psalm 36 seems to be saying that the only unforgiveable sin is a sin that is not confessed.
Psalm 38 is an intensely personal and painful Davidic prayer. In 22 verses, there are 61 pronouns in the first person. At the outset, the psalmist does not reject outright God’s rebuke/chastening, but recoils at God’s anger (38:1). There is no question that the psalmist attributes this misery to divine judgment — the psalmist has been wounded by God’s metaphorical arrows and feels the effects of God’s heavy hand (38:2). Throughout the lament, the psalmist describes this deplorable condition almost entirely in physical terms: festering wounds (38:5), burning loins and compromised flesh (38:7), exhaustion (38:8), a palpitating heart, weakness, poor vision (38:10), and chronic pain (38:17).
The psalmist’s enemies — whoever they might be — compound this suffering. Though maintaining innocence, the psalmist has to put up with foes determined to make life more miserable with slander and planned treachery (38:12, 19–20). The psalmist appears not to have the strength to respond (38:13–14). It is impossible to ascertain if the adversaries have targeted the psalmist due to a conviction that these maladies are a result of moral failure. [Author’s Note 2]
Notwithstanding this lamentable state, the psalmist is ultimately positive. Though relief is still in the future, it will surely come. Lament or not, the psalmist will wait for the Lord, knowing that an answer is eventually forthcoming. The minimal prayer at this point is that detractors not take advantage (38:15–16). In addition, the psalmist confesses and expresses regret for personal sins (38:18). The psalmist concludes with a final plea for God to come near rather than to forsake (38:21). The last line is telling, though, in that when the psalmist makes a last request for God’s immediate help, the deity is referred to as “my salvation” (38:22). No epithet for God could be more positive and promising than that, or more indicative of the psalmist’s confidence.
Psalm 51 is arguably the most comprehensive penitential psalm, in that it covers a range of topics from confession to internal transformation. Plus its title cites a specific episode in David’s life, in this case his infamous affair with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband (2 Samuel 11).
More to the point, the psalm’s title alludes to the aftermath of Nathan the prophet’s confrontation with David (2 Samuel 12:1–15). In the Samuel narrative, David never technically confesses. Instead, after the child he has fathered with Bathsheba dies under divine judgment in spite of his fasting and prayer, the king washes, anoints himself, changes clothes (David had thrown himself on the ground during his anguished petition), goes to the temple, and worships (12:15–20).
But the psalm attributed to David in the context of this monumental moral failure is a model of repentance, forgiveness, and amendment of life. It begins with a fourfold plea for forgiveness, using parallel but slightly different language: (1) have mercy; (2) blot out my transgressions; (3) wash me thoroughly from my iniquity; (4) cleanse me from my sin (Psalm 51:1–2). The appeals are made to the character of God: God’s covenant love and God’s abundant mercy. Given a deity of this description, asking forgiveness is appropriate and efficacious.
The psalmist does not offer the slightest excuse for this behavior; he is more than aware of his grievous sin (51:3). In fact, his sense of guilt is so strong that he insists he has sinned against God alone, as though Bathsheba and her husband were not terribly wronged. But this expression is less a matter of dismissing his hurting others than an acknowledgment that sin in a moral universe constructed by God is always ultimately a sin against that God.
For this reason, the psalmist freely admits that God’s judgment is more than just (51:4). Indeed, David is so overwhelmed by his behavior that he traces his sinfulness to birth (51:5). One may debate whether the psalmist is describing some version of a sin nature here, but it is beyond question that he is consumed by how pervasive evil has been in his life.
This wretched sinner is also attuned to the fact that sin is ultimately internal; it comes from within. Because God desires, therefore, internal integrity (i.e., truth), David wants God to impart wisdom into the recesses of his heart (51:6). As part of this internal transformation, the psalmist uses other images in his request for internal cleansing: purging with hyssop (see Exodus 12:22; Leviticus 14:51) and washing.
These divine actions will render the psalmist clean/whiter than snow (Psalm 51:7). Such a cleansing will be so thorough that a complete mood change will ensue. Joy and gladness will result; and bones proverbially broken under divine judgment will miraculously acquire an exultant voice (51:9). For good measure, the psalmist ends this section with two more metaphors of God’s forgiveness. He asks God to “hide your face from my sins” and to “blot out all my iniquities” (51:9). The psalmist is looking for a clean slate.
But this involves more than negation. Given the internal nature of his iniquity, the psalmist seeks inward renewal. At this point he asks for a clean heart and resolute spirit (51:10). As well, the psalmist wants God to remain close so that he is not far either from God’s presence or from God’s Holy Spirit (51:11). Continuing on the positive side of the ledger, the psalmist prays for the restoration of the “joy of your salvation” and for being sustained with a willing spirit, that is, moral fortitude (51:12).
This positive aspect is not confined to the psalmist. Having confessed, been forgiven, and been internally renewed, the psalmist is prepared to instruct other transgressors/sinners. Yet this has nothing to do with David’s superior moral posture. What he will teach is “Your ways” so that folks who have fallen will return “to you” (51:13). This is a theocentric prayer. In a final request for deliverance to the “God of my salvation,” the psalmist assures that he will sing about a deliverance already granted (51:14).
The last lines of the psalm alter the context somewhat. This penitential prayer is highly personal, but it is not individualistic. Toward the conclusion, after David once again sounds a note of praise (51:15), he notes that the only sacrifice acceptable to God in this situation is a “broken spirit” and a “broken and contrite heart” (51:17).
That is, openness to and vulnerability toward a God who is gracious and merciful are requisite for dealing with sin. This is consonant with the rest of the Old Testament in that sacrifices are effective only for inadvertent sins. Given a premeditated, calculated, and callous sin such as the psalmist has confessed (alluded to in the title), sacrifices mean nothing to God (51:16).
Of course, sacrifices are communal in nature in that they are carried out either in a temple or in a local sanctuary, or they are commanded of Israel as God’s elect people. This explains the final prayer for the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls, a reference to the situation called for after Israel’s exile (51:18).
It goes without saying that Israel was forced off their divinely promised land and exiled to Babylonian prison camps because of persistent and pervasive failure to respond appropriately to God’s grace. Thus, this Psalm envisions the forgiveness and moral restoration not only of David as a single man but also, in an archetypical manner, of Israel, God’s chosen. That will lead to a situation where offerings are once more approved, if not literally, then at least symbolically (51:19).
In light of psalms such as these, God’s incarnation in Jesus the Christ should not be seen as God’s introducing grace for the first time. It is part of God’s character to extend grace, something God does throughout the Old Testament. Instead, God’s being in Christ should be seen as God’s showing the extent of divine graciousness. God’s grace has no bounds. Thus, the Incarnation does not introduce God’s grace; it demonstrates its extent.
Questions for Further Reflection
- Of the five confessional psalms in our reading for this week, which one connects most deeply with you on a personal level and why? What role does confession currently play in your life—both individually or corporately? Do these psalms compel you toward an increased participation in this discipline? Why or why not?
- In Psalm 32 the psalmist experiences strong physical symptoms prior to their confession. Have you ever experienced something similar to this? What does the connection between our physical and spiritual lives tell us about human existence?
- How is the character of God described in Psalm 36? In what ways does this stand in contrast to the description of the wicked? What do these two realities teach us about God’s forgiveness?
- What things does the psalmist ask for in Psalm 51 in addition to forgiveness? How do they complete the process of confession and forgiveness?
- Dr. Spina asserts, “In light of psalms such as these, God’s incarnation in Jesus the Christ should not be seen as God’s introducing grace for the first time. It is part of God’s character to extend grace…” How was that demonstrated in our reading for today? Does this challenge your preconceptions of God and/or the story being told through Scripture?
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