Praying Psalm 32 in Lent

When I first being introduced to the liturgical tradition of prayer (while serving as pianist at Roman Catholic Masses during college), something that struck me as strange was how much time the prayers spent telling God what He had already done.  “Why are you telling God what already did?  Why don’t you just get on with making the petitions you want to ask Him?”  What I eventually learned is that this is not only healthy for the people praying to rehearse God’s deeds in prayer, but it’s also a very biblical pattern of prayer to preface requests with remembrances.  We highlight some aspect of God’s being, character, or works, and on that basis we make our request(s).

Psalm 32:1-5, The Remembrance (or Memorial)

Psalm 32 is an excellent example of this pattern played out.  The first five verses are all about the past.

Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”;
then you did forgive the guilt of my sin.

Of course, this need not be past-tense only, but a reminder that when we fail to repent and “declare not [our] sin” to God, we waste away, and when we “acknowledge [our] sin” to God, He forgives the guilt of our sin.  By remembering the pattern of how God has worked in the past, and more importantly, what God has promised he will do, we spur ourselves and one another on to the right and godly discipline of confession.

We think back on the days of our impenitence – our bodies “wasted away”, we groaned “all day long”, God’s hand of discipline was heavy on us, trying to make realize that we needed to stop and look up, because our strength was “dried up,” having turned away from His ways.  It is when we repented and sought amendment of life through God’s mercy and transforming grace our lives turned around for the better.  Even on a simpler level, the days on which I pray more are the days that I feel less stress and discouragement, even if I’m still just as busy.  Even temptations to sin are often less enticing when I’ve spent time in prayer.  If I pay attention, and “acknowledge my sin” and not try to “hide my iniquity,” it makes a real difference.

Psalm 32:6, The Sermon (or Homily)

Sometimes when people pray, it sounds like a mini-sermon.  This can happen both in formal liturgical settings and in contemporary worship scenarios.  Stereotypically, the lead member of the church’s band might pray an awkwardly long prayer that sounds more like  preaching than praying while other band members have time to change their setup.  This can often come across as tacky, but even this does have its scriptural precedent.  The next verse of Psalm 32 is basically a one-sentence homily.

Therefore let every one who is godly offer prayer to thee;
at a time of distress, in the rush of great waters, they shall not reach him.

This takes the memorial of God’s faithfulness in forgiving sin in the past and applies it as a lesson for everyone: it is a godly thing to pray when distress (and, implicitly by the context of the previous verses, to confess our sins to God), for when we do, the rushing water of disaster caused by our sins will not reach us.

Psalm 32:7-11, Responsive Reading (or Dialogue)

Another feature of liturgical worship that has fallen by the wayside in many Evangelical churches today is the practice of responsive readings – where one person reads a short verse (sometimes called a versicle) and the whole congregations responds with another short verse.  And this goes back and forth.  Once again, Psalm 32 gives us an example of this, as it mulls over its mini-sermon.

[Me] You are a hiding place for me, you preserve me from trouble;
you encompass me with deliverance.
[God] I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
which must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not keep with you.
[Me]Many are the pangs of the wicked;
but steadfast love surrounds him who trusts in the LORD.
Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!

I inserted where the voice of the prayer is from “me” and from God.  This happens a lot in the Psalms, actually – this switching of voices between God speaking, and the person praying speaking.   And even the audience shifts sometimes, such that the person speaks to other (like the mini-sermon in this Psalm, or the rebuke against Evil in Psalm 6).  Sometimes it’s obvious, and sometimes it’s confusing to keep track of.

This dialogue at the end of Psalm 32 begins with a sort of thank-you from the person praying, acknowledging God’s provision of safety in times of trouble.  Sin might have gotten the better of me at those times, but you, O Lord, were my “hiding place”!  In that hiding place, God then says that He will teach and guide us and watch over us so that we can learn how to live better.  But we have to be smart, pay attention, and not respond like an animal as if God’s just trying to control us “without understanding”.  He wants us to be actively part of our sanctification, our growth in Christ to become like Christ.

Finally, we respond in agreement, acknowledging that trusting in God is the best way to live.  If we don’t trust God, then we won’t be surrounded by his love.  Does this mean that people who don’t trust God aren’t loved by God? Think of it like a hug.  If you are hugged by someone you trust, you feel like “steadfast love surrounds” you.  But if the one hugging you is not someone you trust, or worse, someone you hate, then that hug will be a source of fear, even pain.  As this final part of the Psalm says, “many are the pangs of the wicked.”  But we who trust in God can be glad in Him and rejoice and shout for joy.

The End (or Goal or Telos) of Penitence

One of the reasons that so many modern Christian traditions have almost completely abandoned prayers of confession in their worship services is because they sound gloomy, morbid, and unhappy… and the Holy Spirit is supposed to make us rejoice in the power of Jesus!  But that is a misunderstanding of penitence and confession.  While they are indeed moments of seriousness and even sadness, they properly lead to the true Christian joy of forgiveness.  From beginning to middle to end, Psalm 32 teaches us this great lesson of true spiritual worship:

Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit…

Therefore let every one who is godly offer prayer to thee;
at a time of distress, in the rush of great waters, they shall not reach him…

Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!

The movement of contrition to joy is clear throughout this Psalm.  As we examine our guilty consciences, bare our hearts before God together, and verbally confess our sins, we release their power over us and find that they are no longer sins counted against us, but are instead the nails that affixed Christ to his Cross.  Thus our initial sadness over own sins turns to a mix of sadness and joy we see our sins removed, but our Savior pierced for our transgressions, and finally, turns to pure joy as we recall his glorious resurrection and ascension to God’s right hand.

The gloomy and heart-wrenching work of confession leads us to the true joy of forgiveness.  This is the good news of Christ, after all – the way of suffering leads to the way of glory.  Let it never be said that the Psalms don’t preach the Gospel!

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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