Many of us desire more happiness than we currently enjoy. In Psalm 32, King David begins by describing those who are blessed, but quickly surprises us by declaring that honesty and forgiveness are the keys to true happiness. As Alistair Begg considers this psalm, he teaches us that we can and should be truthful about ourselves and our need for forgiveness. Because the creator God has offered the needed remedy, we can live joyfully in relationship with Him.
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Turn with me to Psalm 32, page 395. Verse 1:
[Happy] is he
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
[Happy] is the man
whose [iniquity] the Lord does not count against him
and in whose spirit is no deceit.
When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the Lord”—
and you forgave
the guilt of my sin.
Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you
while you may be found;
surely when the mighty waters rise,
they will not reach him.
You are my hiding place;
you will protect me from trouble
and surround me with songs of deliverance.
And then God speaks to the psalmist:
I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you and watch over you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
or they will not come to you.
Many are the woes of the wicked,
but the Lord’s unfailing love
surrounds the man who trusts … him.
Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;
sing, all you who are upright in heart!
Now, Father, we pray: “Make the Book live to me, O Lord. Show me yourself within your Word, and show me myself, and show me my Savior, and make the Book live to me.” For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, we’ve returned to the Psalms. We were here two weeks ago in Psalm 138, and we’re back. For more than one reason, I’ve been spending my time in the Psalms—what the Puritans referred to as “the soul’s medicine chest.” Most of us have somewhere in our house, either in the kitchen or the bathroom, where we keep a collection of various pharmaceutical products, just in case we have a sore head, or perhaps we have an itch, or whatever it might be. And we hope it’s comprehensive enough to be able to deal at least with the passing issues of life.
Well, when you read the Psalms—and there are many of these wonderfully God-centered poems—you discover that there’s hardly an experience of life that is not mentioned here. Sorrow and joy, love and loss, fear and failure, hope and happiness, deceitfulness, disappointment—all of these things and more can be found in these God-centered poems. They are “not so much a liturgical library” as they are a kind of hospitable cabin—the kind of place that you might rent for a week in northern Michigan, where you immediately realize that you’re in someone else’s precincts, and when you sit in the cabin or when you move around it, every part of it is marked in some way by the character and interests of those who are the owners. And that’s actually the picture that Derek Kidner uses for the book of Psalms: he says that it is like “a … house, well lived in, where most things can be found … after some searching, and whose first occupants have left on it everywhere the imprint of their experiences and the stamp of their characters.” I found that very, very helpful in thinking about the Psalms, because I’m always interested in going in someone else’s house and looking in their libraries and on their shelves and seeing where they sit and whether the lamp works in relationship to the chair and so on. We learn so much about one another from such a venture. And so we learn a tremendous amount about God as he inhabits, if you like, this hospitable house of these 150 God-centered poems.
There are six or seven penitential psalms—the cries of the penitent for forgiveness—and this is the second of that cluster. I have turned to it not for that reason, but I want you to know that it fits within that framework.
This psalm begins, as do a number of psalms, with a word which comes twenty-six times in the Psalter, the same word with which the whole book of Psalms opens up—namely, the word “blessed,” or “happy.” “Happy” is actually the more evocative translation, and the better translation, for there is another word in Hebrew for “blessed.” And the same word that is translated from the Hebrew into “happy” is translated from the Greek in the Septuagint and in the New Testament as “happy” as well. And indeed, the two beatitudes that begin Psalm 32:1–2 point us forward to what we often refer to as the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus sat the people down around him and he began to speak to them, saying, “Happy are the poor in spirit.”
It’s a very contemporary notion, happiness. In fact, it is a timeless notion. And it is true, no matter where we go in the world, no matter what language we may attempt to speak, we will discover people who, if surveyed, will quickly respond that one of their great designs and desires in life is simply that they might be happy.
The BBC has recently published their most recent survey on happiness, a study of some sixty-five countries in the world, the report appearing the New Scientist magazine. And the upshot of it reports that apparently the happiest people in the world do not live in the United States of America; I think we come twentieth, the UK comes twenty-fourth, and Nigeria comes first. They’ve estimated that those who are least happy live in Romania. If you’re interested in the top few, it goes Nigeria, Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador, and Puerto Rico. Four out of the top five down below us here, but above us in the survey. The least happy: Russia, Armenia, and Romania. When they asked people what it was that they found on the path to happiness, many people wrestled with the idea of a genetic propensity. Most said that marriage was important. Some said that if they desired less out of life, they would be more happy. Others said if they did somebody a good turn, that would make them happy—if they stopped comparing their looks with others, if they earned more money, if they were to grow old gracefully, if they were to content themselves and not worry that they weren’t a genius.
Well, that hasn’t been one of my great concerns of late, and no one around me has suggested that I have any reason to worry about it at all. But the fact of the matter is that in this survey, as best as I could determine, nowhere at all—although religion is mentioned in part—nowhere is there any sense that happiness is to be found where the psalmist says that it is to be found—namely, in a relationship with the creator God—and that the key to that relationship with God the creator is to be found in forgiveness. In forgiveness.
Now, the striking nature of that is to be seen not simply by reviewing the BBC’s report but also by reflecting on our own lives. I think if we’re honest this morning, all of us would like to be happier than we are, at least on some days. This is a gloomy day. By weather standards, this is not the kind of day that you go, “Ah-ha! This is a terrific day!” It’s more of a “Oh man, look at this day.” And we would like to feel better about it than many of us do.
Some of us think that if we could travel more that we would be happy, but when we travel, we wish we were at home, and we’re not happy because we’re gone from home. When we’re at home, we wish we were traveling, and we’re unhappy. When we feel that we would be happy if we could go to IHOP and eat twelve gigantic pancakes, we go there, and after the third one we complain to our wives, “Why did you bring me here? I feel so unhappy that I’ve eaten these pancakes.” Some of us think in more grandiose terms: by establishing justice in our own little world, we would be happier, perhaps. Enjoying the beauty of creation, we may be happier. Exploring our spirituality, we may be happier. All of these things and more ring bells for us.
But none of them actually comes close to what the psalmist is saying. Because the honest person will have to admit that even when we make our best attempts at happiness, we are confronted by the fact that something spoils our ventures, something settles like dust upon our quest—that there is at least a thin film of unease that attaches itself to all our hopes and dreams. And a thinking person, again, ought to say, “Just why is that?”
Augustine—of whom I’ve been thinking a great deal of late, and he’s come up in conversation so many times that I need to acknowledge it—Augustine spent the first part of his life in an untrammeled commitment to indulgence. Drove his mother completely nuts! Monica, his mom, she went to priest after priest, asking the priest to fix her son. And priest after priest said, “Monica, I can’t fix him. You can’t fix him. All you can do is pray that God will fix him, that he will read the Bible and meet God.” And what happened to Augustine? Exactly that. And he emerges from his haze, and he says, “O God, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
Now here’s my question: Do you think Augustine was right? Do you believe that Augustine was right? Do you believe what Augustine believes? Because I want to tell you that the basis for Augustine’s statement is to be found in this book—and indeed, essentially, in the opening two verses of this psalm.
You will notice, too, that honesty is a vital dimension of this discovery. You need just to see that at the end of verse 2: “[Happy] is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit.” The person’s not lying to himself or lying to anybody else. You cannot deceive yourself and enjoy genuine happiness, because deceit and happiness don’t sleep in the same bed.
Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov—which is a great book for reading at three o’clock in the morning, ’cause you only need about two paragraphs and you’re off to sleep in no time at all—he places these words in the mouth of one of his characters: says one friend to another, “Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others.” The kind of disrespect and chaos that David acknowledges in verse 3 and to which we’ll come in a subsequent study—maybe this evening, I haven’t decided yet. But he says, “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away.” “When I deceived myself, when I concealed things, when I refused to come out into the open and acknowledge what really was true, my life was a complete disaster.” He says in Psalm , one of the other Psalms, he says, “You know, I was like a sparrow lonely up on the rooftop of a building.” He was like a scarecrow in a melon patch. He was a disgraceful, disastrous, deceitful mess. But he’s the one who’s talking about happiness in the first two verses!
Well, you see, the Bible calls us to be as honest about ourselves as the Bible is honest about ourselves. And the problem for many of us is that we’re dishonest about ourselves, and therefore, we don’t like the honesty of the Bible. In fact, the honesty of the Bible is a very uncomfortable experience. That is why many people put their fingers in their ears, at least metaphorically, when they come up against the sticky parts of the Bible, when they come up against the parts of the Bible that turn the searchlight on their hearts and minds. And you may be one of those people. And you may not necessarily find that these two verses at first strike you as anywhere related to happiness at all. Indeed, you may look at this and say, “This a phenomenal oxymoron, to be using the word happiness in the context of transgression and sin and iniquity. Surely it is no help to me on the road to happiness to be reminded of what I’m really like.” Well, think this out with me, because that’s exactly what the verses do, and therefore, that’s what we have to discover.
Three words are used here. I want to point them out to you, because they all have different aspects of the human predicament. The first word is transgression. Transgression. What is the problem that we face? Well, we’re transgressors, or we trespass; we go where we shouldn’t go. The word speaks of a positive offense. There are double yellow lines that say, “You must not park here at any point during day or night,” and you pull in, you park your car there. You’re a trespasser; you’re a transgressor. And what the Bible says is that in relationship to the law of God—his double yellow lines as it relates to loving him and having no idolatry in our hearts and no covetousness and no theft and no malice and no adultery and so on—we have, by our individual decisions, parked on God’s yellow lines, and we are therefore transgressors.
The second word is sin. We’re familiar with this little three-letter word. Most of us try to avoid it; we don’t like the sound of it, and we think that it’s actually just a Christian neurosis. It’s a thing that Christians use to try and explain things away. Well, that’s an interesting idea; it demands thoughtfulness. But sin is a negative. If transgression is a positive, sin is missing the mark—failure to attain to an objective or an ideal. Most of us, if we’re honest, have ideals and objectives for ourselves, standards for ourselves. And again, if we’re honest, we would have to admit that we can’t even live up to our own standards, let alone live up to the standard that God has set. We miss the mark. We fall short.
That’s really what the word means. It’s the idea of an arrow being fired from one territory into the opposing army, and yet it just falls short and it lands in the grass. For me, it’s the picture of trying to make a basket from the free throw line. It’s one of the most embarrassing aspects of my life, I think. I’m going to have the basketball hoop taken down in our driveway—I thought about it the other day—so that nobody can ever throw me a basketball and say, “Go ahead, do that.” They’ll have to take me to someone else’s property. I won’t be able to shame myself right in front of my own front door. So I’ll remove the problem, because I’m absolutely miserable. I miss it, I don’t even come within anywhere close to the basket. I’ve tried it underhand like this, and it’s humiliating for my children, and I’ve had to stop doing that.
But what sin is, is missing God’s basket consistently. He says, “Make a free throw,” and we try and we try and we try, and we just dispirit ourselves. We start to groan, we become miserable, we decide that we’re not going to show ourselves up again; we’ll remove the hoop. That way no one’ll see that we are consistently missing.
The third word is the word iniquity. I translated it “iniquity” in my reading because in verse 2 it is the word “iniquity.” The NIV has it in verse 5, but it’s also there in the Hebrew in verse 2. Again, a picture from sports may help us get this. If you’ve seen crown bowls—not ten-pin bowling, but the bowling that is done by very respectable-looking English people on, essentially, a croquet lawn—they have that little white ball that they’re trying to roll the bowls to, and no matter how hard they try to bowl them straight, they know that it is absolutely impossible. And that is because there is an inherent bias in the bowl; therefore, you have to bowl it outward to bring it in or you gotta bring it this way or this way, but you can’t bring it this way. And that’s exactly the word for iniquity: in-equity. A moral perversity, an internal bias, the corruption of our natures.
Well, I say again to you, it’s quite surprising, isn’t it, that he starts off, “Happy”—happy!—and then immediately introduces these three aspects? But the reason he is able to address them is because the predicament is more than matched by the cure. The diagnosis is absolutely matched by the cure that is offered.
You see, you would not want your doctor to lie to you, would you? All that a lying physician will do is provide us a momentary feeling of elation. We go, we’re assessed, he tells us we’re fine, we walk out with a spring in our step and put the keys in our ignition and drive away. But if the person is a liar, they have done us a great disservice. Far better it would have been, although more painful, for them to have been honest about the diagnosis, allowing us then to say, “Well, at least I know what my predicament is, and perhaps now we can turn our energies towards a cure and a solution.” The Great Physician never tells lies. And actually, the Great Physician never has to say what some physicians will inevitably say: “I’m sorry, there is nothing more that can be done.”
If you’ve been trying to deal with the fact of your trespasses and your unfilled baskets and your internal bias, and you’ve been going places where eventually you know there is no answer there, why wouldn’t you consider what’s said here? I think you would. So follow, as the threefold predicament is addressed by a threefold cure.
“[Happy] is he whose transgressions are forgiven.” The word for “forgiven” means “lifted” or “removed.” If you want to think “lifted,” think Pilgrim’s Progress: the picture of him with that great burden on his back as he moves away out of his home, looking for peace and looking for forgiveness and looking for some way for the burden to be removed. And eventually he comes to the shining light, and he comes to the cross, and the burden of his sin rolls away down the hill. I remember as a child seeing this for the first time on a transparency and just wanting to shout out, “That’s fantastic! That is terrific! Look what happened to him!” That’s what Bunyan wanted us to say. That is fantastic!
Because there are people, I guarantee you, here this morning, and although you may walk with a fairly straightforward stride, if we could see you as you are, you are burdened. Burdened. And you cannot find anywhere or anyone to lift the burden. You go places and people tell you, “Stand up a little taller.” They tell you, “Think a little more positively.” They tell you, “Acknowledge that this is just your problem in life, and live with it for the rest of your life.” And you say to yourself, “Is there any person who bears burdens?” Yes. “Happy is the individual whose transgressions are lifted.”
Or the word means—and I have this in mind because of my dry cleaning episode this morning—it means a stain that is removed. A stain that is removed. You go to the dry cleaner with trousers that you were wearing playing golf, and they have mud all up the insides ’cause you’re such a hacker, and you say to the man, “If you could please get rid of the stains on the inside of these trousers, it would be a tremendous encouragement to me.” And the fellow says—just making sure that he doesn’t disappoint you in the end—he says, “Well, I’m not sure I can guarantee it, but I’ll see what I can do.” And so that’s our best hope.
If that’s the way you’re trying to deal with the stain of the transgressions in your life—going to places and going to people who tell you, “There’s no way I can guarantee it, but I’ll see what I can do”—let me suggest you come here. I don’t mean Parkside. I mean here. Because there is a phenomenal happiness in those whose burdens are lifted and whose stains are removed.
The second word he uses is “covered.” “Blessed” and happy is the one “whose sins are covered.” Covered. The idea is not covering or hiding something that is still present and unresolved, the way you may hide something in your garage. You know, you may put stuff in your garage. You go in my garage, it’s not a happy sight at the moment, but we’ll be fixing it soon, apparently. And we have some cupboards, and there’s stuff in there, and it’s covered. But it’s not resolved. It’s just covered. And I can guarantee, if I open it just too quickly, the unresolved nature of the predicament will become apparent.
That’s not the word that is used here. It’s not that God covers it over—hangs a sheet over it—and just makes it sound as if it’s all gone. No, the word that is used here is the reverse of the staining word. He removes the stain and he blots out the transgression. He blots out the transgression, so that it is absolutely impossible to see the handwriting, because the blot is so significant and so deep you could not see any of the writing. All the things that were against me, all the things that I did wrong, all of my sin and all of my ugliness, all of that stuff, he blots out. He blots it out. That’s the basis of happiness. Now, I’m not making that up; it says it in Isaiah 43:25: “I … am he who blots out your transgressions.”
And thirdly, “[Happy] is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him.” In other words, not only does he cleanse us and cover us, but he cancels the debt against us. Cancels the debt against us. What we have here is actually the doctrine of justification by faith: “whose sin the Lord does not credit to him.” Genesis 15:6, we get the first instance of this in relationship to Abraham. Now, you don’t need to turn to it, because we’ll go to Romans 4, where Pastor Kennedy read. Genesis 15:6: “Abram believed the Lord, and [the Lord] credited it to him as righteousness.” “[Happy] is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him.” Doesn’t say, “Happy is the individual whose sin the Lord does not count.” It says, “whose sin the Lord does not count against him.” Why? Because he counts it against his Son. That’s the significance of Jesus dying in the place of sinners. Because God is holy, he must count sin. Because he is just, he must punish sin. Well, I am a transgressor, I am sinful, I am iniquitous. What possible hope do I have? Only in this: that he does not count our sins against us because he counts our sins against him.
Now, if you’re still awake, you may find yourself saying, “How does this work for David in the Old Testament?” Because after all, David’s a long way away from Jesus dying on the cross. And if you read your Bible at all, you say to yourself, “I don’t know how it worked in the Old Testament. I don’t know what was going on there.” And since I know some of you are probably asking that question, I want to give you the answer to it, and to do so by reading to you from one of my favorite Old Testament scholars, and a friend and a mentor, Alec Motyer. And in his book Look to the Rock, he points something out—and I want you to listen carefully to this, and once I finish this, you can put up your tray tables and get ready and remove all headsets, because we’re going to land the plane. But listen carefully to this: “In the Bible, truth is cumulative … for while what is first revealed needs the completion which only a further revelation will bring, yet the first revelation is indispensable as an eternal word of God, an essential contribution to the whole fabric of revealed truth.”
Now, you say, “I didn’t get any of that at all.” That’s okay, because he’s about to illustrate it. There are many places, he says, where we see this cumulative principle at work in the Old Testament, and nowhere more obviously so than in the question of sacrifice. If you’ve read your Old Testament, you find yourself saying, “What were these people doing when they’re offering these sacrifices? After all, the sacrifices, we know, could never take away sin. So what was happening when they offered the sacrifice? How did they know they were forgiven?” You ever thought that? Well, if you haven’t, you need to bang your head off the wall a couple of times and start thinking.
Listen. “At the risk of seeming over-simple, [let me present it in this way],” says Motyer: A father has just returned from the temple after presenting his sin-offering as prescribed in the book of Leviticus. He comes back into the house, and the dialogue goes as follows:
“Why did you go to the temple today?”
[Father says,] “I wanted to make a sin-offering because I needed the Lord’s forgiveness.”
“And have you been forgiven?”
“How do you know?”
“Because I saw the goat die in my place.”
“But how do you know it was dying in your place?”
“Because I laid my hand on its head and appointed it to be my substitute.”
“Why was it your substitute?”
“Well, this is what the Lord told us to do. He taught us that he wants us to offer a sacrifice for sin and that when we lay our hand on the animal’s head it becomes our substitute.”
“But how do you really know that when the animal died your sins were forgiven?”
“Because the Lord promised!”
Huh! Says Motyer,
This simple piece of imagination is no more than a conversational “spelling out” of Leviticus . All true religion must come to rest on a veritable divine revelation: “He told us to do it”, and all the benefits of true religion come to the worshipper on the ground of believing the promises of God. We could even dare to extend the conversation one step further and listen to what [one of the sons] says and what the Father replies.
The son then, having listened to this dialogue, says to his dad, “Really, [Dad,] what you[’re] saying is this: you believe the promise of God. You could say that you[’re] ‘justified by faith.’”
“Well,” says the dad, “it’s not an expression I’ve ever used. But, yes, that’s the truth of the matter. ‘Justification by faith.’ I must tell Paul that when I see him. I know he intends to write something along those lines.”
You see, think about it. You go back out into the community tomorrow and tell people that you were reading Psalm 32:1–2 and it confronted you with the fact that you’re a transgressor, that you missed the mark, and that you’re morally perverse. But you also discovered that God has made provision for our transgression, for our sin, for our iniquity. He cleanses us, he covers us over with a robe of righteousness, and he cancels all the debt that is against us. And our friends all say to us, “And how do you know that’s true?” And what is our only answer? “Because he said it is.” It’s no different seven centuries before Christ or two thousand years after Christ.
Happiness is to be found in the living God. That relationship with the living God is grounded in forgiveness—a forgiveness which Paul writes about in Romans 4, as quoted. We read Romans 4 because what does he do to illustrate the principle? He quotes the very verses here from Psalm 32. And he makes it clear that Abraham is a classic Old Testament illustration of this truth. And he makes just the most wonderful and clear—even in the complexity of the details of his argument—the most wonderfully clear explication of it. In 1:18 and following, he has pointed out the human predicament: that God has given men over to the consequences of their sin. As Romans 1:24: “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, [they] worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator,” and so on.
In other words, the reason for the mess is because God gave us over to the consequences of our sin. But because of the kind of God he is, he in turn gave up his Son for the consequences of our sin. And until a man or a woman understands the first preposition, “to,” the second preposition means nothing. I can tell you all day, and all day long, that by his death upon the cross Jesus cleanses, covers, and cancels sin. But until the Holy Spirit works within your heart and mind and confronts you with the fact of your transgression, with the reality of your sin, with the nature of your internal bias, then the fact of what Jesus has done for us remains entirely irrelevant to us.
Well, I think we better stop there. We’ll come back to this.
O God our Father, thank you for the Bible. Make us students of your Word, we pray. Show us ourselves and our sin and our Savior, and that we might, with Augustine, say, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” And then into a restless world send us with this wonderful good news that doesn’t dodge the issues, doesn’t skip the hard parts, doesn’t tell people a bunch of nonsense, but speaks very honestly, cutting in order that it might cure, hurting in order that it might heal, damning in order that it might free.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with all who believe, now and always. Amen.
 R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Derek Kidner, Psalms 1–72, Kidner Classic Commentaries (1973; repr., Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008), 32.
 Kidner, 32.
 Matthew 5:3 (paraphrased).
 “Nigeria Tops Happiness Survey,” BBC News, updated October 2, 2003, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3157570.stm.
 See Augustine, Confessions 3.12.21.
 Augustine, Confessions 1.1. Paraphrased.
 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov: A Novel in Four Parts with Epilogue, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (1990; repr., New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002), 44.
 Psalm 102:7 (paraphrased).
 Genesis 15:6 (paraphrased).
 Alec Moyter, Look to the Rock: An Old Testament Background to Our Understanding of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004), 172.
 Moyter, 172–73.
 Moyter, 173.
 Motyer, 173.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.