Monday, 28 March 2011

Introduction to Psalm 31: Blessed the man whose sins are forgiven!

St Louis Psalter c1190-1200

Continuing my series on the penitential psalms, today I want to turn to the second psalm of the set, Psalm 31 in the Vulgate numbering, or 32 in the Hebrew, which starts with a reminder that ‘penitential’ does not mean gloom and doom!

Instead, this psalm reminds us that penitence is, paradoxically, the key to true happiness.

The main focus of this psalm is the grace of conversion, and how God brings it about in us.

Psalm 31: Beati quorum remissae sunt iniquitates

You can find the text of the Vulgate and another setting of the psalm to listen to here, but here is a reminder of the text of the psalm:

"Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord has not imputed sin, and in whose spirit there is no guile.

Because I was silent my bones grew old; whilst I cried out all the day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me: I am turned in my anguish, whilst the thorn is fastened.

I have acknowledged my sin to you, and my injustice I have not concealed. I said I will confess against my self my injustice to the Lord: and you have forgiven the wickedness of my sin. For this shall every one that is holy pray to you in a seasonable time.

And yet in a flood of many waters, they shall not come near unto him. You are my refuge from the trouble which has encompassed me: my joy, deliver me from them that surround me.

I will give you understanding, and I will instruct you in this way, in which you shall go: I will fix my eyes upon you.  Do not become like the horse and the mule, who have no understanding. With bit and bridle bind fast their jaws, who come not near unto you.

Many are the scourges of the sinner, but mercy shall encompass him that hopes in the Lord. Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, you just, and glory, all you right of heart."


The setting for the psalm is generally accepted to be after David has confessed his sins and been punished for it through the death of his child, as set out in 2 Samuel 12. That chapter tells how when the child becomes sick, David fasted and wept for seven days, imploring God to spare the child. But when the child died despite his entreaties, David scandalized his servants by putting on his normal clothes and eating as normal again rather than mourning, since there was nothing he could then do to change the outcome. Instead he went out to worship God, and comforted his wife.

The message of the psalm though, is not about acceptance of punishment; rather it is of the joy that comes when sin is confessed and absolved. The psalm is helpful though in filling out the chapter of Samuel by giving us some insight into King David's state of mind, taking us through several stages of the process of his conversion, including his stubborn resistance, until he at last reaches the joy that comes when he finally accepts God’s mercy, grace and guidance.

Perhaps the most graphic verses are the early ones describing the psalmist's torment before he achieves that realization however.  Pope John Paul II commented:

"Above all, the person praying describes his very distressful state of conscience by keeping it "secret" (cf. v. 3): having committed grave offences, he did not have the courage to confess his sins to God. It was a terrible interior torment, described with very strong images. His bones waste away, as if consumed by a parching fever; thirst saps his energy and he finds himself fading, his groan constant. The sinner felt God's hand weighing upon him, aware as he was that God is not indifferent to the evil committed by his creature, since he is the guardian of justice and truth.

Unable to hold out any longer, the sinner made the decision to confess his sin with a courageous declaration that seems a prelude to that of the prodigal son in Jesus' parable (cf. Lk 15: 18)...In this way, a horizon of security, trust and peace unfolds before "every believer" who is repentant and forgiven, regardless of the trials of life (cf. Ps 32[31]: 6-7)."

And tomorrow in the next part, a look at Verse 1 of the psalm.

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