Monday, March 1, 2010

An Analysis of Psalm 32

Psalm 32 is a piece of Hebrew poetry that, for me, demonstrates the high quality of literature produced by the ancient Jewish people in addition to the sheer selfless devotion to God’s whole being for which David and the people of Israel are widely known. As I examined the text of the psalm, I began by analyzing the structure of each verse, noting their parallelisms, and the chiasmic structure of the whole of the piece. Yet, upon taking in the entire poem as a singular document and contemplating the psalmist’s emotional state, I began to see something more than just a poem.

First, let’s look at the structural and poetical analysis. This psalm is one of a grouping called the Penitential psalms, which are characterized by a crying out to God in confession, repentance and submission, followed by a plea for forgiveness, either as an individual or as a group of worshippers, or as a whole people group. The feeling evoked by such a psalm is akin to: “O God, I have made a mess, and I did it intentionally. Please don’t hold it against me. Please forgive me and fix our relationship, because nothing I can do in my own power will be sufficient to merit your grace.”

The psalm begins with a synonymous parallelism in verses 1 and 2. The blessing denoted here is one of joy, the kind of joy that is more than just a feeling, because it results from an open and trusting relationship with God. These verses suggest that the joy here stems from God’s forgiveness, which can cover all sins, regardless of their nature or severity, which is of no importance when compared to the abundant grace that God gives.

The second synonymous parallelism in verses 3 and 4 signifies the hopelessness that we experience when sin separates us from God. More than simply an “Oops,” we are adrift in a sea of despair and wonder if we can even be forgiven, let alone welcomed back into relational synchronicity with the Father. The silence David writes of here is a denial, a refusal to accept one’s wrongdoing, and the resultant consequences we can find ourselves experiencing. We can only lie to ourselves for so long before we are enslaved by the lie, which begins to eat away at our strength and reveal our weakness before God’s righteousness. After all, the key to a successful deception is complete secrecy, and the strength of the deception crumbles when someone, anyone, knows the truth. Since God always knows the truth, there is no power in deception.

Verse 5 combines the synonymous parallelism with the synthetic. Here, David gives a model for our own confessions, and emphasizes it by repeating the confession in three different ways: acknowledgement, not covering it up, and confession. He also identifies sin with three different words: sin, iniquity, and transgressions. This again suggests that there is no degree of sin that cannot be covered by God’s infinite grace, if we will but come to him and be honest with God and with ourselves. The psalmist understands that God is fully aware of all of the things David has done, and acknowledges that his transgressions have offended God, and yet he is brazen enough to expect that the supreme Creator will forgive him. He has good reason for this confidence. This is an example to all who seek to deny their iniquity, an example that there is no point in trying.

Verses 6 and 7 team up here, as two synthetic parallels placed back-to-back. They speak of God’s consistency and the assuredness of his presence, in different ways but with the same expectation as God’s child. Verse 6 speaks to the fact that God is always present and available, and that we should always bring our whole selves to him, not only when troubles arise. David teaches here that God may discipline us by allowing crises to befall us when we do not acknowledge his sovereignty when times are peaceful and smooth. Verse 7 also speaks to this assurance, saying that God’s constant presence makes him available to us for protection if we will acknowledge that he is such and remain close to him. I believe this to be the central, pivotal piece of instruction of the entire psalm.

Verse 8 finds David writing as the voice of God, assuring his people that he is with them, and parallels verse 5 with three words that we need to accept to live a life free of sin: God’s instruction, his teaching, and his counsel. All of these things he offers as free gifts to his children, in order that they might be free. This shows that God’s wisdom is ever so valuable in removing the flaws in our character, and in learning more about his, that we might walk in holiness.

Verses 9 and 10 present antithetical parallelisms and contrast discipline from stubbornness and wisdom from foolishness. By discipline, I mean as a human response to God’s aforementioned instruction. By wisdom I mean trusting in the one who is most wise to know which the best road to take in life is. David tells us that just as we accept God’s protection, so we also should accept his instruction and trust that he is not only willing, but capable of taking care of us through any storm of life, and even further that his way will keep often keep us from unnecessary troubles.

Verse 11 concludes the psalm with an exhortation for the righteous to rejoice, the righteous being all those who accept God’s wisdom, discipline and protection; those who will open their hearts and allow God to reveal the truth in them and to them. The synonymous parallelism here once again emphasizes the joy that we find when we give our all over to the Lord and hold back nothing; no secrets or lies or stubborn self-centredness. Those who are upright in heart are those who bow and surrender.

The structure of psalm 32 is evident in the form of a chiasm, with parallelisms appearing from the ends to the middle. The joy of the blessing in verses 1 and 2 is synonymous with the joy of verse 11. This joy is the result of the grace that God has shown to sinners. The negative effects of rebellion in verses 3 and 4 are antithetical to God’s discipline resulting from it in verses 9 and 10, as the psalmist gives his readers a piece of advice for avoiding such a situation. The open admission of guilt in verse 5 is reconciled with God’s unfailing teaching in verse 8. In the very center of the psalm come verses 6 and 7, which represent the shielding protection of God as he offers shelter to those who do not rebel, but who become humble and therefore strong in his power.

Using these techniques of poetic analysis allowed me to see a different dimension to this psalm. Unlike some Western poetry, which can be chaotic and unstructured, this piece gives us a pattern to follow which will in fact teach us something about the nature of God, the deceitfulness of the human heart, and the rewards of laying aside a sinful nature to follow a wiser, more powerful way of life as a child of God. This interpretation basically offers a road map to a godly life of obedience and holiness, which will result in our sin being covered and our hearts overflowing with gladness. That makes this psalm very personally significant to me, as one who often struggles with the burning question, “when will I be good enough?” The answer I get from Psalm 32 is that I won’t, but if I accept that and offer all of what I do have over to the Lord’s instruction, that he will refine me, protect me, and forgive me abundantly. This, for me, is cause for joyous singing. The psalm encourages me to be humbly obedient, and ultimately to seek a deeper understanding of God.

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