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Psalm 32

Hospital rooms, dark alleys, prison cells, mountaintops, gravesides…no place beyond the reach of the Psalms. St. Athanasius once described the Psalms as a book that included “the whole life of man, all conditions of the mind, and the movements of thought.” It would seem that wherever we find ourselves, there’s a Psalm for that! There is no denying the transformative power that lies therein.

And yet, if this is so, why are the Psalms so rarely front and center in Christian worship, rarely the primary text for the preacher? More often than not, the Psalms are relegated to supportive texts during worship through song or perhaps used to emphasize a certain aspect of God’s character during a sermon, but rarely is a psalm the primary text of the preacher.

Let’s be honest preachers, the Psalms can be difficult to preach. They rarely have a (verifiable) surrounding context and do not easily lend themselves to narrative style preaching. What reads as a beautiful poem about the beauty of creation and God’s saving action becomes dry and lifeless when preached verse by verse. Without a doubt. Psalm 32 could certainly be on the “hard to preach” list with no context from which to draw, no backstory to undergird the message as a whole.

And yet the Psalms cannot be ignored. As Walter Brueggemann reminds us, the psalms are subversive in contemporary Western society as they do not go from “victory to victory.” Rather, they give us the language the wrestle with the darkness in which we so often find ourselves. Brueggemann also gives us a way forward homiletically by offering a helpful framework with which to categorize the psalms: psalms of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation.[1] The categories are not black and white, as some psalms seem to fall outside these descriptors while other psalms appear to include all three, but the framework remains nonetheless a helpful tool.

At first glance, Psalm 32 appears to be exclusively a psalm of orientation, as it expresses “confident, serene settlement of faith issues”[2] and declares the forgiven to be blessed as God has refused to hold their sins against them. The situation is settled. And yet, the psalm then immediately travels back in time, to the writer’s experience of the oppression of sin. He experiences the disorientation caused by hidden, unconfessed sin. The disorientation manifests itself in psycho-somatic ways, rendering the writer seemingly incapacitated.

This experience confirms what we have already acknowledge about the psalms, that they allow the reader to embrace the gritty reality of human experience instead of hiding in the false “victory to victory” of contemporary culture. The writer is truly desperate for intervention, completely vulnerable, and unable to save himself.

In vs. 5, we encounter the turning point, as the reader emerges from disorientation into a new orientation with a simple word: “Then” suggesting that there is more to come. After experiencing the dire consequences of his sin, the author seems to reawaken to the reality of God’s character. As he wastes away in his bed, I imagine him recalling a long-distant memory, stories of a faithful and persistent Pursurer-God who will not abandon his people but mercifully forgives and restores those with a contrite spirit.

With this in mind, the author participates in yet another extraordinarily counter-culture practice by openly acknowledging his sin. He recognizes that the only path to healing of this sin-wound is through confession and a refusal to hide the truth. The response from God is immediate and complete: “you forgave the guilt of my sin.”

It would seem that vs. 5 would be an appropriate place to end the psalm. Problem handled, end of story, return to prior status quo. But it cannot be so. After experiencing profound disorientation and being brought out by the mercy of God, there is no returning the status quo. Now comes the “fresh intrusion”[3] of a new orientation, shaped and ordered by God’s very self.

In vs. 6-7 puts words to revelation the psalmist has received: In light of what I have just experienced, this is who God is! A hiding place, safety in trouble, deliverance! Whatever the psalmist has experienced before, whatever knowledge of God he thought he had pales in comparison to this new revelation. And thus, he is newly oriented toward God in a way that was unimaginable before.

The following paragraph is tricky as commentators are unsure as to the identity of the speaker: God or the psalmist? Whether God is speaking directly to the reader or through the voice of the Psalmist, the message remains constant: Do not be stubborn and resistant. Rather, embrace the posture of a learner, ready to be taught in the way of the righteous as described in Psalm 1.

The psalm concludes by emphasizing the consequences of sin as experienced by the psalmist while at the same time confirming that those who place their trust squarely in the Lord are surrounded by the hesed of God, God’s unending steadfast love. The only appropriate response to the message of this new revelation and orientation is praise! Praise be to you, Lord God! Rejoice, righteous ones! God has acted and we are saved.

As is often the case, trying to preach a profound and multi-faceted text such as Psalm 32 is much like turning a powerful novel into a movie: something is bound to get left out. Instead of trying to cram every detail of every verse into the sermon, consider the ways in which your congregation needs to be called to subvert the dominant culture of journeying from “victory to victory” and instead create spac