As a preface to Paul’s love poem in 1st Corinthians he concludes chapter 12 declaring “I can show you a more excellent way”. Verse 8 of Psalm 32 says something very similar. “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you”. While the early verses of the Psalm could be described as having the character of a testimonial the remaining verses are instructive and include a great sermon illustration.
For thousands of years the Psalms have endured because they are so personal and real. We sense a correspondence to our experiences because they come out of the author’s life. The author values confession because he first tried to resist it. He hid his faults. He sealed his heart and lips and refused to speak his sins. His silence resulted in miserable days and sleepless nights. He says that because he “kept silent,” his “bones wasted away.” Were we to feel the weight of our sins upon us would that drive us to our knees so that we, too, could experience the grace and the unburdening, the freedom and the joy the psalmist finds at last?
1Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.3While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
5Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah
6Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. 7You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah
8I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. 9Do 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.10Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord. 11Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
Instead of “Happy” some other translations read: Blessed are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. And verse two reads: Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not charge iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.
In the Hebrew text there are two important verbs for blessing The first is barak. You might find that interesting. It is the verb used to bless God and the verb used by God to bless. The second Hebrew verb for “bless” is ‘asehr. It means “to be called blessed or to be made happy.” The Hebrew phrase translated “Happy or Blessed” that begins this Psalm is neither of those two verbs, it is ‘esher’. “Esher” is a noun. It has much deeper connotations than we associate with our word ‘Happy’. It implies a completeness and calm. It means a state of bliss and one thing more, it is never applied to God. This ‘state of bliss’ is something that human beings bring about. To live in a state of bliss, to be so blessed, we have to do something.
When God blesses, God is the actor, not us. When God blesses, it doesn’t matter whether or not we, the recipient, deserve the favor. And often times we clearly don’t. The state of bliss from ‘ashar depends on human action and implies that it is something we want for ourselves. To really notice the difference between these two verbs, it might be helpful to read the Beatitudes from Matthew 5 recognizing that Jesus uses the noun esher, not the verb barak.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Each and every Beatitude is about something we do, not something God grants.
So, let’s try this translation of Psalm 32:2 again. ‘Blessed is the one to whom the Lord does not charge iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.’ Or alternatively: “A state of bliss for the person to whom the Lord does not charge iniquity.” Why does this person experience bliss? Because they did something. ‘esher tells us that this person did not receive divine favor for no reason at all. Redemption is experienced because the person repented. Then God removed his or her guilt. Human action preceeded the declaration of bliss.
Since we know that Hebrew poetry rhymes ideas, we need to look to the second part of the verse to find an amplification of the first. What did this person do in the act of repentance? The Hebrew term for the word “guile” means treachery, fault and deceit. It is about whatever is not true. In other words the word translated guile or deceit is a character flaw. It covers all forms of lying, all kinds of deception and all varieties of deliberate avoidance. A state of bliss is experienced by the person who has removed these characteristics from his or her life. The result is guilt-free living. Why? Because this person has nothing to hide.
Blessing in the Bible comes in two forms. Blessings from God fall upon us because God is good, merciful and compassionate. We don’t deserve them, but God loves to give them. All other blessings are the result of our diligence, obedience and alignment with God’s instructions. All other blessings are available to anyone who sets their heart on achieving them. God does not withhold the promised results because the promised results are up to us. Do you want a blessed life? Then do what God says. You don’t have to wait for God’s favor to fall on you. In the meanwhile our charge is to get on with the work of making bliss in our lives. It’s there for the taking.
This verse is a parallel to the first verse (the first occurrence of “blessed”). It begins with the same construction – ashrei. But now we know that this isn’t a verb. It is not “blessed is the man.” It is “A state of bliss a man . . .”
This state of bliss characterizes the man to whom the Lord has not charged iniquity. The Hebrew phrase used means the action it describes is ongoing, incomplete and fluid. In other words, this is not a one-time act of forgiveness. It is a continuous action repeated over time. The person who enjoys bliss is one whose iniquity is continuously removed from the accounting books. One-time dismissal isn’t enough to take care of the accumulation of guilt in life. Bliss comes from experiencing continuous renewal of favor.
But this is only the first half of the second parallel verse. What behavioral actions accompany this experience of bliss? Remember that ‘ashrei’ is about what I do as well as what God does. The what I do is found in the second part of this parallel poetry. The phrase “…in whose spirit there is no guile,” is intended to be descriptive of my behavior. The first condition of my responsibility is a Hebrew word that means “no, none or nothing.” My bliss depends on something being absent from my actions. That something is about what is not true. But in Hebrew, what is not true is not just what is incorrect like 4+4 = 9. In Hebrew truth is about what is steadfast, faithful and reliable. It is not a cognitive concept. It is relational. It is not so much about what I know as it is about what I do. So, what must be absent from my life if I am to experience the bliss of not being charged? Faithlessness! I must be a man of my word. Faithlessness must be absent from my life.
This second part is my part of God’s act of removing iniquity from the books. I must be true. I must put away all treachery, deceit, unreliability and manipulation. Without my part in the process, iniquity remains. That the verse does not use the word nephesh for “spirit.” makes it even clearer. The Hebrew locates deceit where it belongs – with ruach–my breath–that needs correction, primarily because treachery, my deceit, my guile begins with my words, what I breathe out.
Through the image of the mule, the Psalmist implies that we can choose to either go through suffering similar to his own or to learn from it and thereby avoid it. This is half advice and half threat. The tone of the psalm, then, is, to a degree, quite the opposite of some of the psalms of lament, in which the anchor of belief is a strong faith. Here it is experience. We, the readers of Psalm 32 are left to learn from the Psalmist’s experience or suffer the consequences.