By Derek Weber
First Sunday in Lent – Psalm 32 (NRSV)
March 1, 2020
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2 Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. 3 While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah 5 Then 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 6 Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. 7 You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah 8 I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. 9 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. 10 Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD. 11 Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
Week 1: Happy are Those
Happy isn’t a mood we associate with the season of Lent. Lent seems to call for something a little more somber, reflective, and inward looking. Certainly, the Lenten journey calls for attention to the inner self and the working of spiritual disciplines in the life of the individual and the community of faith. It is also true that the weight of our sinfulness and our need for a savior becomes an undeniable presence during this season. But a light heart is not forbidden, even in Lent. We are sinners who know a savior. We are acquainted with the one who has a solution to the brokenness of our souls. In other words, “there is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.” “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven.”
Suggested Spiritual: “Balm in Gilead”
“Happy are those ...” But we know that doesn’t mean “happy,” at least as we understand “happy.” Right? Just as in the Beatitudes that Jesus hands out in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus doesn’t mean “happy,” does he? No, we translate it as “blessed.” In this case, we might better say, “relieved.” In reading the text of Psalm 32, “relief seems the most logical translation. After the weight of sin, after the dryness of soul, relief seems like the perfect word here. “Blessed” would be OK too. But happy?
There is some debate about the category for Psalm 32. The opening statements make some argue that it should be a wisdom psalm. Others consider that its reference to forgiveness and mention of confession group it with the penitential psalms. Because there is no specific confession, however, many are hesitant to consider it a confessional psalm.
Does it matter? Well, maybe not, except to a biblical scholar who wants to get it right. But for most of us, a psalm is just a psalm, isn’t it? Unless by wrestling with what it is, we might be able to steal a blessing from the psalm. Which brings us back to “happy.” What if the meaning really is “happy”? What if the psalmist was trying to give us insight into what really makes for happiness? That’s our goal isn’t it? Being happy? We say that about our children; we say that we don’t care what they do as long as they are happy. We say that about our nation – that we believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We even say that about people who are doing something that we don’t really understand or agree with – “as long as it makes them happy.” Without a sense of what happiness is, however, we might be getting lost in a materialistic culture continually seeking after that thing that will make us happy. Because that is how happiness is defined in our culture, by what we can buy or own. If I had this latest thing, we’re told to think, I could be “happy.” If only I could store up a little more, make a little more, put away a little more, I could be “happy.” It’s a never-ending cycle, as you can see.
Let’s go back to Psalm 32. “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven . . . Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity.” Happiness, argues our psalm, is found in reconciliation with God and in living with a clear conscience. Our faith tells us that the former is within our reach and God is always seeking reconciliation, always offering forgiveness. But living with a clear conscience seems a bit more formidable. We are too aware of faults and failures and often think that these keep us from living in right relationship with God and God’s people. We live, too often, under the weight of our brokenness. We would love to have the kind of happiness that the psalmist describes, but it seems beyond our grasp.
So, we ask again, what kind of psalm is Psalm 32? It sounds like wisdom, and it sounds like penitence, but there seems to be more. It’s too happy for lament, and there isn’t a clear petition throughout. So what is it? How about a psalm of hope? Psalm 32 is telling us that reconciliation is possible, that redemption is possible, forgiveness is possible, cleansing is possible. The psalmist is living in the new reality, the redeemed reality and witnessing to us about the joy that comes from that place.
There is a balm in Gilead / to heal the sin-sick soul. With an emphasis on the is! There IS a balm in Gilead / to make the wounded whole. That’s what Psalm 32 is telling us, the amazing news that a new start is available to us, to all, to any. Yet, like all the spirituals, this isn’t an easy fix. You can’t just snap your fingers and pronounce yourself “all better!” It is a long journey. That’s why this psalm is at the beginning of our Lenten pilgrimage. We need to start with hope, to start with the possibility of reaching the destination. Because it isn’t an easy walk in the park. Sometimes I feel discouraged / and think my work’s in vain. Our lives often feel like one step forward and two steps back. That’s why we need to begin not with condemnation, but with encouragement. We begin with a psalm of hope, so that we can be reminded that we’re not alone as we journey.
But then the Holy Spirit / revives my soul again.