Editor’s note: This is the second essay in a series on The Seven Penitential Psalms. A complete list of the essays is at the bottom of this essay.
A Psalm of David
1 Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
2 Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
3 When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
5 I acknowledged my sin to thee,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my trangressions to the Lord”;
then thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin.
6 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.
7 Thou art a hiding place for me,
thou preservest me from trouble;
thou dost encompass me with deliverance.
8 I will instruct you and teach you
the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
9 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.
10 Many are the pangs of the wicked;
but steadfast love surrounds him who trusts in the Lord.
11 Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart! (Psalm 32)
G. K. Chesterton would undoubtedly have loved this psalm. When asked why he had become a Catholic, he replied: “To get my sins forgiven.” This entire psalm is a paean to divine forgiveness.
In typical Hebraic parallelism, we encounter the adjective “blessed” in the first two verses. What does it mean to be “blessed”? What is beatitude? Some faulty translations have presented “happy” as a synonym for “blessed”, but that is why they are “faulty.” One can be happy in a prison or insane asylum – if, for example, one gets a good meal or gets to watch a good movie. Happiness is ephemeral. Beatitude, on the other hand, is a permanent condition as it participates in the very life of God. Notice, however, that blessedness (or beatitude) cannot co-exist with sin or evil. Hence, the Church’s perennial requirement that one be in a state of grace to receive Holy Communion – a norm strenuously put forward by St. Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians (see 11:27-29).
The next two verses draws out the implications of a failure to confess one’s sins, thus wallowing in sin. As we saw in Psalm 6, remaining in a state of sin brings both psychological and physical suffering. In one of my parishes, there was a surgeon – a very devout man – who had a policy that he would never operate on a Catholic who had not first gone to confession, received the Sacrament of the Sick and Holy Communion. When I asked him the rationale for his policy, he responded succinctly: “It makes my job easier, Father!” Similarly, Carl Jung (the father of modern psychiatry) – no friend of religion in general or Catholicism in particular – noted that he had never treated a patient who was a practicing Catholic, faithful to regular confession.
Next, we are allowed to eavesdrop on a conversation between the psalmist and God.1 The brutal honesty of the author is refreshing: “I didn’t play games with you, God!” And the result was the experience of immediate forgiveness. From his experience of forgiveness, the former sinner now wants to let everyone else know the value of contrition, which protects one from every kind of possible assault. God the Lord responds by urging him to stay on the right path, following divine teaching provided with gentleness and love. The Almighty also reminds the man that he needs to respond to holy promptings as a human being endowed with intellect and free will – unlike animals who are brought to obedience by force. In other words, “respond to love with love.”
Which brings us to verse 10, where a contrast is set up between the unjust and the just. The former suffers from his infidelity, whether he knows it or not. The one who trusts in God, on the other hand, is surrounded by “steadfast love.” That expression is an attempt to translate the very loaded Hebrew word, hesed, which appears more than 250 times in the Old Testament. The website hesed.com offers a very fine translation/explanation: “the consistent, ever-faithful, relentless, constantly-pursuing, lavish, extravagant, unrestrained, furious love of our Father.” It is likewise the love of a mother for the child of her womb. This “steadfast love” of God is an essential element of His very Being, by which He is faithful to us even when we are unfaithful to Him.
A profound understanding of this concept, or better, this reality moved Francis Thompson to pen his 182-line autobiographical masterpiece, “The Hound of Heaven” – all of which Sr. Stella Grace had us high school sophomore English students of hers memorize. Thompson begins by describing his efforts to evade the Divine Lover:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”
Some 150 lines later, the poet realizes that all his wanderings have been for naught:
Now of that long pursuit
Comes on at hand the bruit;
That Voice is round me like a bursting sea:
“And is thy earth so marred,
Shattered in shard on shard?
Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!
Strange, piteous, futile thing!
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of naught” (He said),
“And human love needs human meriting:
How hast thou merited—
Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?
Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!”
Halts by me that footfall:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
“Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.”
The Hound of Heaven, the very embodiment (the Incarnation, we can say) of hesed is none other than Our Lord Jesus Christ, who literally “loved us to death,” a death endured, precisely so that we could “get our sins forgiven.”
The psalmist ends this hymn to divine forgiveness by reminding us that the only appropriate response to hesed is unbounded joy. That joy, however, is not something that one keeps bottled up; it is something that needs to be shared. Throughout the Gospels, we encounter people whose saving contact with Christ has not only changed them personally but which turned them into evangelists. We think immediately of the Samaritan woman (Jn 4) or, even more so, of the demoniac cured by Our Lord, who received the commission to be a herald of divine mercy from none other than Mercy Incarnate: “‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him” (Lk 8:39).
That should be the response of every one of us after making a good and worthy confession.
1A nice feature of the RSV translation is that it maintains Thee/Thou language for God, while using the familiar “you” for us mortals.
Essays on the Seven Penitential Psalms:
• The Seven Penitential Psalms in time of pandemic/Psalm 6 (April 4, 2020)
• Psalm 32: The Joy of Forgiveness (April 5, 2020)
• Psalm 38: A Penitent Sufferer’s Plea for Healing (April 6, 2020)
• Psalm 51: Prayer for Cleansing and Pardon (April 7, 2020)
• Psalm 102: Prayer to the Eternal King for Help (April 8, 2020)
• Psalm 130: Waiting for Divine Redemption (April 9, 2020)
• Psalm 143: Prayer for Deliverance from Enemies (April 9, 2020)
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