Psalm 32 – A Sinner’s Psalm

An image of Christ in the desert.
Christ in the Wilderness, Ivan Kramskoi

The book of Psalms opens with these words,

“Blessed are the righteous who do not walk in the counsel of the ungodly or the wicked, who do not stand with sinners, whose delight is in the Law of the Lord.” 

Psalm 1

But what about the rest of us?

For the rest of us, there’s Psalm 32, a psalm for those who traffic in the counsel of the ungodly on a regular basis, who stand not just with sinners but as sinners, and who, for our sin, experience the Law of the Lord not with delight but with disdain.

Psalm 32 offers a poetically biblical description of what it’s like for us, living outside the Law in the wilderness of our sin. 

While I kept silent in my sin, my body wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
    my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

Psalm 32

There’s a legend that St. Augustine (early African bishop of the Church) had the words of Psalm 32 written above his bed so that they were among the first he would read every morning. But not this “wasting away” part. No, he knew the part by heart. What he needed to be reminded of (so badly that he had it plastered above his headboard) was the promise proclaimed into this wilderness. Psalm 32 begins with “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sin is covered.” 

The Psalmist ties it all together: 

My strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
But then…
Then I acknowledged my sin.  
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
    and you, Lord… 
You forgave the guilt of my sin. 

Psalm 32’s tale of a sinner’s confession and absolution, it only takes 3 verses for the Psalmist to tell it. Others of us have longer versions of this story. Augustine wrote his version down. It’s called Confessions, and the copy of it that sits on my shelf is over 300 pages long. 

I keep Augustine’s Confessions on my shelf, and I treasure this Psalm because this story is my story too, multiple times over. It also happens to be the story of St. Peter, and St. Paul, and St. Francis, and Martin Luther, and John Wesley to name a few. Did you notice we’re all men? I’m sure that you women struggle with sin too, but stories of male sin seem more widely documented (go figure). 

The ironic thing about Jesus is that after his own testing in the Wilderness, it’s clear that he actually is a Righteous One, the “blessed” one from Psalm 1 who delights in the Law of the Lord. and doesn’t take the counsel of the ungodly or the wicked. One would think that now he can go claim his place in glory, right?  Except he doesn’t. 

Instead he goes out and builds his own personal counsel of the ungodly. 12 of them! He stands with sinners. He eats with them. He associates with them so deeply that he’s eventually found, like them, to be guilty of breaking the very Law in which he takes so much delight. They kill him for it. He dies as a sinner for sinners.

But then, having lived up to the calling of Psalm 1, he is raised with Psalm 32 on his lips, doling out blessing upon blessing upon blessing: “Blessed are those whose sins are forgiven, whose transgressions are covered. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the victims of the sin of others…

“Rejoice and be glad,” he says, “Yours is the kingdom of God. I have come for all of you, and I call you blessed.”   

As another Lent begins, we start it once again in the wilderness. But in light of the resurrection we know that in this wilderness we are not alone. Christ has been driven out here to meet us. And here, with Satan, we are invited to join the long line of souls told to get behind Jesus, and trust his blessing, as he leads us from Sin to Forgiveness, from the Wilderness to the Garden, and from Death to Life.

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