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Psalm 32

The Joy of Forgiveness

Of David. A Maskil.


Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,

whose sin is covered.


Happy are those to whom the L ord imputes no iniquity,

and in whose spirit there is no deceit.



While I kept silence, 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. Selah



Then I acknowledged my sin to you,

and I did not hide my iniquity;

I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the L ord,”

and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah



Therefore let all who are faithful

offer prayer to you;

at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters

shall not reach them.


You are a hiding place for me;

you preserve me from trouble;

you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah



I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;

I will counsel you with my eye upon you.


Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,

whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,

else it will not stay near you.



Many are the torments of the wicked,

but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the L ord.


Be glad in the L ord and rejoice, O righteous,

and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

1. Blessed are they whose iniquity is forgiven. This exclamation springs from the fervent affection of the Psalmist’s heart as well as from serious consideration. Since almost the whole world turning away their thoughts from God’s judgment, bring upon themselves a fatal forgetfulness, and intoxicate themselves with deceitful pleasures; David, as if he had been stricken with the fear of God’s wrath, that he might betake himself to Divine mercy, awakens others also to the same exercise, by declaring distinctly and loudly that those only are blessed to whom God is reconciled, so as to acknowledge those for his children whom he might justly treat as his enemies. Some are so blinded with hypocrisy and pride, and some with such gross contempt of God, that they are not at all anxious in seeking forgiveness, but all acknowledge that they need forgiveness; nor is there a man in existence whose conscience does not accuse him at God’s judgment-seat, and gall him with many stings. This confession, accordingly, that all need forgiveness, because no man is perfect, and that then only is it well with us when God pardons our sins, nature herself extorts even from wicked men. But in the meantime, hypocrisy shuts the eyes of multitudes, while others are so deluded by a perverse carnal security, that they are touched either with no feelings of Divine wrath, or with only a frigid feeling of it.

From this proceeds a twofold error: first, that such men make light of their sins, and reflect not on the hundredth part of their danger from God’s indignation; and, secondly, that they invent frivolous expiations to free themselves from guilt and to purchase the favor of God. Thus in all ages it has been everywhere a prevailing opinion, that although all men are infected with sin, they are at the same time adorned with merits which are calculated to procure for them the favor of God, and that although they provoke his wrath by their crimes, they have expiations and satisfactions in readiness to obtain their absolution. This delusion of Satan is equally common among Papists, Turks, Jews, and other nations. Every man, therefore, who is not carried away by the furious madness of Popery, will admit the truth of this statement, that men are in a wretched state unless God deal mercifully with them by not laying their sins to their charge. But David goes farther, declaring that the whole life of man is subjected to God’s wrath and curse, except in so far as he vouchsafes of his own free grace to receive them into his favor; of which the Spirit who spake by David is an assured interpreter and witness to us by the mouth of Paul, (Romans 4:6.) Had Paul not used this testimony, never would his readers have penetrated the real meaning of the prophet; for we see that the Papists, although they chant in their temples, “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven,” etc., yet pass over it as if it were some common saying and of little importance. But with Paul, this is the full definition of the righteousness of faith; as if the prophet had said, Men are then only blessed when they are freely reconciled to God, and counted as righteous by him. The blessedness, accordingly, that David celebrates utterly destroys the righteousness of works. The device of a partial righteousness with which Papists and others delude themselves is mere folly; and even among those who are destitute of the light of heavenly doctrine, no one will be found so mad as to arrogate a perfect righteousness to himself, as appears from the expiations, washings, and other means of appeasing God, which have always been in use among all nations. But yet they do not hesitate to obtrude their virtues upon God, just as if by them they had acquired of themselves a great part of their blessedness.

David, however, prescribes a very different order, namely, that in seeking happiness, all should begin with the principle, that God cannot be reconciled to those who are worthy of eternal destruction in any other way than by freely pardoning them, and bestowing upon them his favor. And justly does he declare that if mercy is withheld from them, all men must be utterly wretched and accursed; for if all men are naturally prone only to evil, until they are regenerated, their whole previous life, it is obvious, must be hateful and loathsome in the sight of God. Besides, as even after regeneration, no work which men perform can please God unless he pardons the sin which mingles with it, they must be excluded from the hope of salvation. Certainly nothing will remain for them but cause for the greatest terror. That the works of the saints are unworthy of reward because they are spotted with stains, seems a hard saying to the Papists. But, in this they betray their gross ignorance in estimating, according to their own conceptions, the judgment of God, in whose eyes the very brightness of the stars is but darkness. Let this therefore remain an established doctrine, that as we are only accounted righteous before God by the free remission of sins, this is the gate of eternal salvation; and, accordingly, that they only are blessed who rely upon God’s mercy. We must bear in mind the contrast which I have already mentioned between believers who, embracing the remission of sins, rely upon the grace of God alone, and all others who neglect to betake themselves to the sanctuary of Divine grace.

Moreover, when David thrice repeats the same thing, this is no vain repetition. It is indeed sufficiently evident of itself that the man must be blessed whose iniquity is forgiven; but experience teaches us how difficult it is to become persuaded of this in such a manner as to have it thoroughly fixed in our hearts. The great majority, as I have already shown you, entangled by devices of their own, put away from them, as far as they can, the terrors of conscience and all fear of Divine wrath. They have, no doubt, a desire to be reconciled to God; and yet they shun the sight of him, rather than seek his grace sincerely and with all their hearts. Those, on the other hand, whom God has truly awakened so as to be affected with a lively sense of their misery, are so constantly agitated and disquieted that it is difficult to restore peace to their minds. They taste indeed God’s mercy, and endeavor to lay hold of it, and yet they are frequently abashed or made to stagger under the manifold assaults which are made upon them. The two reasons for which the Psalmist insists so much on the subject of the forgiveness of sins are these, - that he may, on the one hand, raise up those who are fallen asleep, inspire the careless with thoughtfulness, and quicken the dull; and that he may, on the other hand, tranquillise fearful and anxious minds with an assured and steady confidence. To the former, the doctrine may be applied in this manner: ”What mean ye, O ye unhappy men! that one or two stings of conscience do not disturb you? Suppose that a certain limited knowledge of your sins is not sufficient to strike you with terror, yet how preposterous is it to continue securely asleep, while you are overwhelmed with an immense load of sins?” And this repetition furnishes not a little comfort and confirmation to the feeble and fearful. As doubts are often coming upon them, one after another, it is not sufficient that they are victorious in one conflict only. That despair, therefore, may not overwhelm them amidst the various perplexing thoughts with which they are agitated, the Holy Spirit confirms and ratifies the remission of sins with many declarations.

It is now proper to weigh the particular force of the expressions here employed. Certainly the remission which is here treated of does not agree with satisfactions. God, in lifting off or taking away sins, and likewise in covering and not imputing them, freely pardons them. On this account the Papists, by thrusting in their satisfactions and works of supererogation as they call them, bereave themselves of this blessedness. Besides, David applies these words to complete forgiveness. The distinction, therefore, which the Papists here make between the remission of the punishment and of the fault, by which they make only half a pardon, is not at all to the purpose. Now, it is necessary to consider to whom this happiness belongs, which may be easily gathered from the circumstance of the time. When David was taught that he was blessed through the mercy of God alone, he was not an alien from the church of God; on the contrary, he had profited above many in the fear and service of God, and in holiness of life, and had exercised himself in all the duties of godliness. And even after making these advances in religion, God so exercised him, that he placed the alpha and omega of his salvation in his gratuitous reconciliation to God. Nor is it without reason that Zacharias, in his song, represents “the knowledge of salvation” as consisting in knowing “the remission of sins,” (Luke 1:77.) The more eminently that any one excels in holiness, the farther he feels himself from perfect righteousness, and the more clearly he perceives that he can trust in nothing but the mercy of God alone. Hence it appears, that those are grossly mistaken who conceive that the pardon of sin is necessary only to the beginning of righteousness. As believers are every day involved in many faults, it will profit them nothing that they have once entered the way of righteousness, unless the same grace which brought them into it accompany them to the last step of their life. Does any one object, that they are elsewhere said to be blessed “who fear the Lord,” “who walk in his ways,” “who are upright in heart,” etc., the answer is easy, namely, that as the perfect fear of the Lord, the perfect observance of his law, and perfect uprightness of heart, are nowhere to be found, all that the Scripture anywhere says, concerning blessedness, is founded upon the free favor of God, by which he reconciles us to himself.

2. In whose spirit there is no guile. In this clause the Psalmist distinguishes believers both from hypocrites and from senseless despisers of God, neither of whom care for this happiness, nor can they attain to the enjoyment of it. The wicked are, indeed, conscious to themselves of their guilt, but still they delight in their wickedness; harden themselves in their impudence, and laugh at threatenings; or, at least, they indulge themselves in deceitful flatteries, that they may not be constrained to come into the presence of God. Yea, though they are rendered unhappy by a sense of their misery, and harassed with secret torments, yet with perverse forgetfulness they stifle all fear of God. As for hypocrites, if their conscience as any time stings them, they soothe their pain with ineffectual remedies: so that if God at any time cite them to his tribunal, they place before them I know not what phantoms for their defense; and they are never without coverings whereby they may keep the light out of their hearts. Both these classes of men are hindered by inward guile from seeking their happiness in the fatherly love of God. Nay more, many of them rush frowardly into the presence of God, or puff themselves up with proud presumption, dreaming that they are happy, although God is against them. David, therefore, means that no man can taste what the forgiveness of sins is until his heart is first cleansed from guile. What he means, then, by this term, guile, may be understood from what I have said. Whoever examines not himself, as in the presence of God, but, on the contrary, shunning his judgment, either shrouds himself in darkness, or covers himself with leaves, deals deceitfully both with himself and with God. It is no wonder, therefore, that he who feels not his disease refuses the remedy. The two kinds of this guile which I have mentioned are to be particularly attended to. Few may be so hardened as not to be touched with the fear of God, and with some desire of his grace, and yet they are moved but coldly to seek forgiveness. Hence it comes to pass, that they do not yet perceive what an unspeakable happiness it is to possess God’s favor. Such was David’s case for a time, when a treacherous security stole upon him, darkened his mind, and prevented him from zealously applying himself to pursue after this happiness. Often do the saints labor under the same disease. If, therefore, we would enjoy the happiness which David here proposes to us, we must take the greatest heed lest Satan, filling our hearts with guile, deprive us of all sense of our wretchedness, in which every one who has recourse to subterfuges must necessarily pine away.

3. When I kept silence, my bones wasted away. Here David confirms, by his own experience, the doctrine which he had laid down; namely, that when humbled under the hand of God, he felt that nothing was so miserable as to be deprived of his favor: by which he intimates, that this truth cannot be rightly understood until God has tried us with a feeling of his anger. Nor does he speak of a mere ordinary trial, but declares that he was entirely subdued with the extremest rigour. And certainly, the sluggishness of our flesh, in this matter, is no less wonderful than its hardihood. If we are not drawn by forcible means, we will never hasten to seek reconciliation to God so earnestly as we ought. In fine, the inspired writer teaches us by his own example, that we never perceive how great a happiness it is to enjoy the favor of God, until we have thoroughly felt from grievous conflicts with inward temptations, how terrible the anger of God is. He adds, that whether he was silent, or whether he attempted to heighten his grief by his crying and roaring, 661661     The translation of this verse in our English Bible is, “When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long;” on which Street observes, “I must own I do not understand how a man can be said to keep silence who roars all the day long.” Accordingly, instead of When I kept silence, he reads, While I am lost in thought; observing that, the verb חרש, in the Hiphil conjugation, signifies to ponder, to consider, to be deep in thought.” But according to the translation and exposition of Calvin, there is no inconsistency between the first and the second clause of the verse. To avoid the apparent contradiction of being at once silent and yet roaring all the day long, Dr Boothroyd, instead of roaring, reads pangs. his bones waxed old; in other words, his whole strength withered away. From this it follows, that whithersoever the sinner may turn himself, or however he may be mentally affected, his malady is in no degree lightened, nor his welfare in any degree promoted, until he is restored to the favor of God. It often happens that those are tortured with the sharpest grief who gnaw the bit, and inwardly devour their sorrow, and keep it enclosed and shut up within, without discovering it, although afterwards they are seized as with sudden madness, and the force of their grief bursts forth with the greater impetus the longer it has been restrained. By the term silence, David means neither insensibility nor stupidity, but that feeling which lies between patience and obstinacy, and which is as much allied to the vice as to the virtue. For his bones were not consumed with age, but with the dreadful torments of his mind. His silence, however, was not the silence of hope or obedience, for it brought no alleviation of his misery.

4. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me. In this verse he explains more fully whence such heavy grief arose; namely, because he felt the hand of God to be sore against him. The greatest of all afflictions is to be so heavily pressed with the hand of God, that the sinner feels he has to do with a Judge whose indignation and severity involve in them many deaths, besides eternal death. David, accordingly, complains that his moisture was dried up, not merely from simply meditating on his sore afflictions, but because he had discovered their cause and spring. The whole strength of men fails when God appears as a Judge and humbles and lays them prostrate by exhibiting the signs of his displeasure. Then is fulfilled the saying of Isaiah,

“The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, because the Spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it.” (Isaiah 40:7)

The Psalmist, moreover, tells us, that it was no common chastisement by which he had been taught truly to fear the divine wrath; for the hand of the Lord ceased not to be heavy upon him both day and night. From a child, indeed, he had been inspired with the fear of God, by the secret influence of the Holy Spirit, and had been taught in true religion and godliness by sound doctrine and instruction. And yet so insufficient was this instruction for his attainment of this wisdom, that he had to be taught again like a new beginner in the very midst of his course. Yea, although he had now been long accustomed to mourn over his sins, he was every day anew reduced to this exercise, which teaches us, how long it is ere men recover themselves when once they have fallen; and also how slow they are to obey until God, from time to time, redouble their stripes, and increase them from day to day. Should any one ask concerning David, whether he had become callous under the stripes which he well knew were inflicted on him by the hand of God, the context furnishes the answer; namely, that he was kept down and fettered by perplexing griefs, and distracted with lingering torments, until he was well subdued and made meek, which is the first sign of seeking a remedy. And this again teaches us, that it is not without cause that the chastisements by which God seems to deal cruelly with us are repeated, and his hand made heavy against us, until our fierce pride, which we know to be un-tameable, unless subdued with the heaviest stripes, is humbled.

5. I have acknowledged my sin unto thee. The prophet now describes the issue of his misery, in order to show to all the ready way of obtaining the happiness of which he makes mention. When his feeling of divine wrath sorely vexed and tormented him, his only relief was unfeignedly to condemn himself before God, and humbly to flee to him to crave his forgiveness. He does not say, however, that his sins merely came to his remembrance, for so also did the sins of Cain and Judas, although to no profit; because, when the consciences of the wicked are troubled with their sins, they cease not to torment themselves, and to fret against God: yea, although he forces them unwillingly to his bar, they still eagerly desire to hide themselves. But here there is described a very different method of acknowledging sin; namely, when the sinner willingly betakes himself to God, building his hope of salvation not on stubbornness or hypocrisy, but on supplication for pardon. This voluntary confession is always conjoined with faith; for otherwise the sinner will continually seek lurking-places where he may hide himself from God. David’s words clearly show that he came unfeignedly and cordially into the presence of God, that he might conceal nothing. When he tells us that he acknowledged his sin, and did not hide it, the latter clause is added, according to the Hebrew idiom, for the sake of amplification. There is no doubt, therefore, that David, when he appeared before God, poured out all his heart. Hypocrites, we know, that they may extenuate their evil doings, either disguise or misrepresent them; in short, they never make an honest confession of them, with an ingenuous and open mouth. But David denies that he was chargeable with this baseness. Without any dissimulation he made known to God whatever grieved him; and this he confirms by the words, I have said While the wicked are dragged by force, just as a judge compels offenders to come to trial, he assures us that he came deliberately and with full purpose of mind; for the term, said, just signifies that he deliberated with himself. It therefore follows, that he promised and assured himself of pardon through the mercy of God, in order that terror might not prevent him from making a free and an ingenuous confession of his sins.

The phrase, upon myself, or against myself, intimates that David put away from him all the excuses and pretences by which men are accustomed to unburden themselves, transferring their fault, or tracing it to other people. David, therefore, determined to submit himself entirely to God’s judgment, and to make known his own guilt, that being self-condemned, he might as a suppliant obtain pardon.

And thou didst remit the guilt of my sin. This clause is set in opposition to the grievous and direful agitations by which he says he was harassed before he approached by faith the grace of God. But the words also teach, that as often as the sinner presents himself at the throne of mercy, with ingenuous confession, he will find reconciliation with God awaiting him. In other words, the Psalmist means that God was not only willing to pardon him, but that his example afforded a general lesson that those in distress should not doubt of God’s favor towards them, so soon as they should betake themselves to him with a sincere and willing mind. Should any one infer from this, that repentance and confession are the cause of obtaining grace, the answer is easy; namely, that David is not speaking here of the cause but of the manner in which the sinner becomes reconciled to God. Confession, no doubt, intervenes, but we must go beyond this, and consider that it is faith which, by opening our hearts and tongues, really obtains our pardon. It is not admitted that every thing which is necessarily connected with pardon is to be reckoned amongst its causes. Or, to speak more simply, David obtained pardon by his confession, not because he merited it by the mere act of confessing, but because, under the guidance of faith, he humbly implored it from his judge. Moreover, as the same method of confession ought to be in use among us at this day, which was formerly employed by the fathers under the law, this sufficiently refutes that tyrannical decree of the Pope, by which he turns us away from God, and sends us to his priests to obtain pardon.

6. Therefore shall every one that is meek pray unto thee. Here the Psalmist expressly states that whatever he has hitherto set forth in his own person belongs in common to all the children of God. And this is to be carefully observed, because, from our native unbelief, the greater part of us are slow and reluctant to appropriate the grace of God. We may also learn from this, that David obtained forgiveness, not by the mere act of confession, as some speak, but by faith and prayer. Here he directs believers to the same means of obtaining it, bidding them betake themselves to prayer, which is the true sacrifice of faith. Farther, we are taught, that in David God gave an example of his mercy, which may not only extend to us all, but may also show us how reconciliation is to be sought. The words, every one, serve for the confirmation of every godly person; but the Psalmist at the same time shows, that no one can obtain the hope of salvation but by prostrating himself as a suppliant before God, because all without exception stand in need of his mercy.

The expression, The time of finding, which immediately follows, some think, refers to the ordinary and accustomed hours of prayer; but others more accurately, in my opinion, compare it 664664     In the Septuagint version it is rendered, “In the time of finding favor;” in the Arabic, “In a time of hearing;” and in the Syriac, “In an acceptable time.” with that place in Isaiah, (Isaiah 55:6,) where it is said, “Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near.” It is never out of season, indeed, to seek God, for every moment we need his grace, and he is always willing to meet us. But as slothfulness or dullness hinders us from seeking him, David here particularly intimates the critical seasons when believers are stimulated by a sense of their own need to have recourse to God. The Papists have abused this place to warrant their doctrine, that we ought to have advocates in heaven to pray for us; 665665     “Qu’ils nous faut avoir des advocats au ciel qui prient pour nous.” — Fr. but the attempt to found an argument in support of such a doctrine from this passage is so grossly absurd that it is unworthy of refutation. We may see from it, however, either how wickedly they have corrupted the whole Scripture, or with what gross ignorance they blunder in the plainest matters.

In the flood of many waters. This expression agrees with that prophecy of Joel,

“Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord, shall be delivered.” (Joel 2:32)

The meaning is, that although the deep whirlpools of death may compass us round on every side, we ought not to fear that they shall swallow us up; but rather believe that we shall be safe and unhurt, if we only betake ourselves to the mercy of God. We are thus emphatically taught that the godly shall have certain salvation even in death, provided they betake themselves to the sanctuary of God’s grace. Under the term flood are denoted all those dangers from which there appears no means of escape.

At last the Psalmist gives himself to thanksgiving, and although he uses but few words to celebrate the divine favor, there is, notwithstanding, much force in his brevity. In the first place, he denies that there is any other haven of safety but in God himself. Secondly, he assures himself that God will be his faithful keeper hereafter; for I willingly retain the future tense of the verb, though some, without any reason, translate it into the past. He is not, however, to be understood as meaning that he conceived himself safe from future tribulations, but he sets God’s guardianship over against them. Lastly, whatever adversity may befall him, he is persuaded that God will be his deliverer. By the word compass, he means manifold and various kinds of deliverance; as if he had said, that he should be under obligation to God in innumerable ways, and that he should, on every side, have most abundant matter for praising him. We may observe in the meantime, how he offers his service of gratitude to God, according to his usual method, putting songs of deliverance instead of help.

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