Like an Owl among the Ruins
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Like an Owl among the Ruins

From Series: The Missing Peace

Psalm 32:3-4  (ID: 2540)

One natural response to sin is to cover it up, assuming we will move forward without negative consequences. The example of King David, however, suggests such an approach never really works. Psalm 32 describes the physical decline and despair David experienced as he attempted to conceal his sin. Though such afflictions can be uncomfortable at the time, Alistair Begg encourages us to see them as God intends: as a measure of His grace to draw us back into fellowship with Him.


Sermon Transcript:

As we come to the Bible, I invite you to turn again to Psalm 32, which is where we were this morning. Those of you who were present then will know that. Those of you who weren’t, you should know that we began to look into the Thirty-Second Psalm. And in considering verses 1 and 2 we looked at all of the wonder of happiness—a happiness that is found in a relationship with God, a relationship which is grounded in the forgiveness which God grants in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

In seeking to understand the Psalms—any one of them—it is helpful always, if possible, to identify the voice of the speaker. When you read a psalm, sometimes there is only one voice. In fact, probably most of the time there is just the voice of the psalmist. And sometimes he speaks in one way, and then in another, and sometimes we have the voice of God. And in looking at Psalm 32, it seems to me—and I wouldn’t want to be dogmatic about this in any way—but it seems to me that, first of all, we find David speaking in a general way in verses 1 and 2; he’s making these general and yet true statements. Indeed, the psalm both begins and ends in the same way, with David speaking in a very general fashion. Verses 10 and 11 are, again, statements made by the psalmist concerning the nature of things: “Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the man who trusts in him.” And then he issues an appeal: “Trust, rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous; and go on, all of you, go out singing, those of you who are upright in heart!” So, the psalm begins and ends with David speaking generally.

And then in verses 3–7 we find David speaking not generally now, but very personally, to God. And we’re going to begin looking at that in just a moment or two. And then in verse 8 and 9 we discover that it is God who is speaking, and he is speaking directly to David: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you.” I think it’s pretty obvious that this is the voice of God speaking now to his servant after his servant had spoken in very personal terms to him.

As I said this morning, we’re looking at the second of six penitential psalms, and for those of you who are concerned about that, they are Psalm 6, Psalm 32, Psalm 38, Psalm 51, Psalm 102, and Psalm 130—just in case you wanted to go looking for them. I know that some of you go home, and you’re very frustrated by things like that, and you stay up half the night in a concordance trying to find the right thing, and I should always tell you.

We ought not to deceive ourselves about the consequences of deceiving ourselves.

Well, having made this general statement concerning happiness, which he tells us is the product of forgiveness, David now goes in verse 3 and 4 to acknowledge the heaviness—the heaviness—which he has experienced when, instead of coming clean about things, instead of confessing his sin to God, he has hidden in the shadows and he has absolutely refused to face the issue. He tells us at the end of verse 2 that the happiness that attaches to a man or a woman is a happiness which attaches to the individual “in whose spirit is no deceit.” And we said this morning that deceitfulness, or dishonesty, and happiness do not sleep in the same bed. Therefore, it is no surprise to discover that David, in verses 3 and 4, is an unhappy man. Indeed, we ought not to deceive ourselves about the consequences of deceiving ourselves. And he gives us a very clear indication that there is an obvious link between remorse and a tortured conscience and the physical impact that comes by way of that remorse and that tortured conscience.

Those of you who work in social agencies at all, those of you who work within the realm of psychology and psychiatry, those of you who work with people who are on the margins and the fringes of society as a result of their decisions, will be confronted again and again with some correlation between what is going on in a person’s heart and mind and what is being displayed in that person’s body. And here in the Bible we have a very clear indication of that fact. And these two verses, “When I kept silent,” he says, “when I didn’t confess my sin—when I hid the true state of affairs—then people could identify it in my body.” They wouldn’t walk around and go, “Oh, there’s somebody who’s hiding his sin.” They would say, “Isn’t it strange how much weight David has lost? Isn’t it fascinating to see the way he groans and twitches?” And those who were in his immediate company, seeing him in the watches of the night, would not be aware of the predicament that was going on inside of him spiritually; but they could not avoid the indications of what was happening to him physically. And the cause and the effect are stated plainly.

It’s somewhat challenging, and it’s quite harrowing, and it really is quite unnerving to think about this. Let me give to you a couple of the other Psalms, because the description here in Psalm 32 pales in comparison to the description, for example, of his predicament as he gives it in Psalm 38. Turn to Psalm 38 for just a moment. And don’t lose the point that we are considering here—namely, the physical impact of remorse, the physical impact of being deceitful to ourselves and God about sin in our lives.

Psalm 38. He says,

O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
 or discipline me in your wrath.
For your arrows have pierced me,
 … your hand has come down upon me.

It’s the same sort of thing as there in verse 4, isn’t it? “For day and night your hand was heavy upon me.”

Because of your wrath there[’s] no health in my body;
 my bones have no soundness because of my sin.
My guilt has overwhelmed me
 like a burden too heavy to bear.

My wounds fester and are loathsome
 because of my sinful folly.
I am bowed down and brought very low;
 all day long I go about mourning.
My back is filled with searing pain;
 there[’s] no health in my body.
I am feeble and utterly crushed;
 I groan in anguish of heart.

All my longings lie open before you, O Lord;
 my sighing is[n’t] hidden from you.
My heart pounds…

You ever heard people tell you about how they have this irregular heartbeat, and it begins to race? Not in every case, but one of the things that brings it on is described right here:

My heart pounds, my strength fails me;
 even the light has gone from my eyes.
[And the] friends [I used to have] and [my] companions[, they] avoid me[, and they avoid me] because of my wounds;
 [and] my neighbors[, they cross to the other side of the street and] stay far away.
[And] those who seek my life set their traps,
 those who would harm me [just] talk [about] my ruin;
 [and] all day long they plot deception.

I[’m] like a deaf man, who cannot hear,
 like a mute, who can[’t] open his mouth;
I[’ve] become like a man who does[n’t] hear,
 whose mouth can offer no reply.
I wait for you, O Lord;
 you will answer, O Lord my God.
For I said, “Do[n’t] let them gloat
 or exalt themselves over me when my foot slips.”

For I am about to fall,
 and my pain is ever with me.[1]

What a description. What an unbelievable description!

You may never have read Psalm 38, or you may never have read it with that thought in mind. What thought in mind? Well, you cannot avoid the because, can you? You can’t avoid the becauses. “Because of your wrath,” verse 3, “there[’s] no health in my body; my bones have no soundness because of my sin.” “My wounds fester,” verse 5, “and are loathsome because of my sinful folly.” There’s no attempt on the part of this individual to sidestep the issue, no attempt of him to externalize the guilt, no endeavor on his behalf to sequester to himself some free zone whereby he is absolved of all and any responsibility. No, the cause and effect are clear.

Says Kidner, in one of his just wonderfully pithy little sentences, he says, “It would be as wrong to think that this is never so, as that it is always so.”[2] Remember when the disciples came and said, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus said, “You’re wrong on both counts. Neither his parents nor him, but this happened to him in order that God might be glorified through him.”[3] That’s chapter 9. But in chapter 5, for the man who is healed, do you remember what he says to him as a parting shot? He says, “Get out of here and stop sinning or something worse might happen to you!”[4] No, Kidner’s right. It would be as wrong to think that this is always the case as to think that it is never the case.

David’s condition was a punishment. The Bible makes it clear that there is a natural outcome to lust and to excess. There is a natural outcome to it. We don’t like to mention this, we don’t like to talk about it, it’s politically incorrect, it gets people’s fur up on the back of their neck; the fur flies and they become resentful. But in actual fact, it is a liberating and wonderful truth. You have it in Romans chapter 1. Again, here’s a statement that no one really likes to trot out, do they? After we noted this morning in Romans chapter 1 that God gave men over to the sinful desires of their hearts, what does he say in verse 24? He “gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity.” Why is there rampant sexual impurity in America? Because of the judgment of God. The judgment of God. God gave them over to it. Said, “You don’t believe in me? You don’t love me? You don’t worship the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ? You want to live without me? Let me show you how it works.”

Verse 25: “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie.” Deceit, remember? You can’t be happy when you’re a liar. “And [they] worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is [always] praised.” Twenty-six, here comes the because: “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received”—notice—“and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”

Now, you don’t have to be beyond sixth grade to understand what’s being said there: that there is a direct cause and effect in terms of lust and excess and a disregard for the commands of God. Paul does not elucidate what this penalty was, but all he tells us is that the penalty was received “in themselves.” In themselves. So there was some physical implication to their deceitful turning from the clear instruction of God.

Quite devastating, isn’t it? How would you like to be up here saying this?

Let’s just go to Psalm 102. We won’t go to all the six penitential psalms, but let me just show you again, in Psalm 102. Verse 3:

My days vanish like smoke.

“Time is just passing through my hands.”

My bones burn like glowing embers.

Sounds like fever, doesn’t it?

My heart is blighted and withered like grass;
 I forget to eat my food.

A kind of eating disorder that, isn’t it?

Because of my loud groaning
 I am reduced to skin and bones.
I[’m] like a desert owl,
 like an owl among the ruins,

“I’m sleepless.”

I lie awake; I[’ve] become
 like a bird alone on a roof.
All day long my enemies taunt me;
 [and] those who rail against me use my name as a curse.
For I eat ashes as my food
 and mingle my drink with tears
because of your great wrath,
 for you have taken me up and thrown me aside.
My days are like the evening shadow;
 I wither away like grass.

Now turn back to 32 and to our own text, and you’ll see why I said that verses 3 and 4 of Psalm 32 pale in comparison to the descriptions of those other two penitential psalms:

When I kept silent,
 my bones wasted …
 through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
 your hand was heavy upon me;
[and] my strength was sapped
 as in the heat of summer.

Fever, frailty, weight loss, sleeplessness, rejection, melancholy, anxiety, despair—all may be accompanying symptoms of the individual who hides their sin from God.

Now, don’t misunderstand me or the Bible. Every time we find those symptoms, we cannot trace them to hidden sin. And indeed, it is not our responsibility to trace anything in anybody else’s life to hidden sin. We have enough of a journey dealing with our own lives and our own preoccupations and our own predicaments. So don’t let’s go there.

But don’t let’s, in seeking to stand back from that, say less than what the Bible is saying. For remember, this is David’s biography. This is autobiography. He says, “There is a phenomenal happiness that attaches to forgiveness, when transgressions are covered, when sins are removed, when debt is canceled.” He says, “I know that to be true. What I also know to be true is this: that when I did not walk the path of repentance, when I did not confess my sin to God, when I worked off a double standard, this is exactly what happened to me.”

Fever, frailty, weight loss, sleeplessness, rejection, melancholy, anxiety, despair—all may be accompanying symptoms of the individual who hides their sin from God.

What do you think he has in mind? Of course, you know what he has in mind. What is he dealing with? Presumably, his sin with Bathsheba. Second Samuel chapter 11. And the background between these verses is presumably the time period between his sin with Bathsheba and the arrival of Nathan at his door with the story of a ewe lamb. If that is completely unfamiliar territory to you, you need to turn to 2 Samuel chapter 11 and 12 and at least put a note in your Bible so that you can go back and read the story later, because you won’t be able to understand any one of the penitential psalms unless you understand what was going on in the eleventh chapter of 2 Samuel, and what happened, again, in chapter 12.

Remember? The CliffsNotes: David, when he should have been doing other things, saw a lady bathing on the roof. Well, she wasn’t necessarily on the roof, but he was on the roof. He saw her bathing, he lusted after her, he sent for her, he took her to himself. He then arranged for her husband to be suitably killed in one of the battles. And 2 Samuel 11:26 reads, “When Uriah’s wife heard that her husband was dead, she mourned for him.” People came back from the battle, presumably, and gave her a flag all folded up, said, “We’re sorry to hear, Mrs. Uriah, that your husband died in the battle. Dreadful skirmish it was, and down he went. But we want to thank you, on behalf of our nation, that your husband served his country so well.” And after she’d spent the customary time in mourning, David sent for her and brought her to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son.[5]

Now, if you think about it, there’s about a year between his sin with Bathsheba and the beginning of chapter 12. There’s at least nine months. We know that. For she had time to conceive and bear a child. So for twelve months, approximately, David has been doing what he thinks is a masterful cover-up. For all this time he’s been saying to himself, “I’ve got this aced. No one knows. No one sees. I’m in control.” The deceitfulness of sin always does that to us. But when he’s honest with himself, he knows that public perception and private reality are two separate realms entirely. And his groaning on his bed at night, and the sapping of his strength in the day, and the disintegration of his psyche in the process of the living of life is eating away at him like a cancer.

And when you read chapter 11, it’s amazing that there’s no indication of what God is doing or what God is not doing. There’s no comment anywhere in chapter 11 about where God is. Why didn’t God prevent this? What does God feel about this? What is happening in relationship to these things? The only thing we have is the final sentence of the chapter: “But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.”[6] “Displeased the Lord.” And what action did he take? Turn the page: “The Lord sent Nathan to David.” “The Lord sent Nathan to David.”

If you go back for your homework and read chapter 11 and underline in your text how many times the verb to send comes, you’ll find that it’s all over the place. Chapter 11, everybody’s sending everybody everywhere. David is sending for Bathsheba to come to the house. David is sending Uriah out into the battlefield. David is sending a message to Joab. Joab is sending a message back to someone else. There’s all this kind of sending going on, as if, somehow or another, mere mortals are in charge of it all. And then you turn the page into chapter 12 and you read the simple sentence, “The Lord sent Nathan to David.”

A whole year of deceit and silence. And in actual fact, those six words are words of amazing grace: “The Lord sent Nathan to David.” How good of God to do that! How good of God to do that! That is grace, is it not? He doesn’t cast his servant off. He sends the prophet to him, and the prophet doesn’t show up at his door and beat on him and accuse him. He simply tells him a story of an individual and the story of this little lamb—tender, drawing out the sympathy of the king, the rage of the king over the act of the individual in doing what he did, and then the punch line coming so quickly when Nathan says to David—12:7—“You are the man!” “You are the man!”

Now, our time is gone, but I want us to see this, to set the stage for next time. The grace of God is found in this: that Yahweh will not allow his servant David to settle down comfortably in his sin. And he won’t let you do it, and he won’t let me do it either. As surely as he sent the prophet Nathan physically to the front door of David’s house, he sends his word to the front door of each of our houses. And the reason that he does so—as uncomfortable as it may be, as arresting and as difficult to face as it may be—is because of his amazing grace, granting us something even though we deserve nothing. And the something he gives us, he gives us for nothing.

You see, to all intents and purposes, David had got away from it. Any observer would have said, “He’s managed it. He succeeded in his unfaithfulness. He fancied the woman, he took the woman, he married the woman, he’s had a child by the woman, he managed to get the husband killed. What more could he possibly do? I guess that’s what happens to people in authority,” the folks at the marketplace would have said. “It’s amazing what you can do if you’re a king these days.”

But they didn’t see his heart. They didn’t know what was going on. They didn’t know that he felt like he was an owl in the ruins of a castle. They didn’t know that his strength was sapping away. They didn’t know that he couldn’t sleep at night. They didn’t know that he’d lost his appetite. They knew nothing of that. Only God and David knew. And let me say to you, if you or I are fiddling around with sin in our lives, it matters not how well we can conceal that from the watching world. For the watching world is irrelevant to us, ultimately, but God knows our hearts, and so do we. And if we continue to conceal sin, to stand back from confession, to remain impenitent in our attitudes, then we pray God that he will come and arrest us and sort us out.

And so, we have to finish on an encouraging note. Notice, in verse 5, he says, “When I refused to confess my sin,” verse 3, “this was my predicament: I was weak, I was miserable, I groaned a lot. Day and night your hand of discipline was on me. My strength evaporated.” But the story doesn’t end there. Because he says, “Then I acknowledged my sin to you and [I] did[n’t] cover up my iniquity.” The story doesn’t end with despair but with deliverance. Doesn’t end with guilt but with grace.

Says Kidner, “The relief of climbing down, and the grace which meets it … altogether outweigh[s] the cost.”[7] I said, “Great! I just wish once in my life I could write a decent sentence.” It’s fantastic! “The relief of climbing down.” What a great phrase! You know, that’s what people say: “Why don’t you get off your high horse? Why don’t you face facts? Why don’t you tell the truth? Why don’t you climb down?” It’s so hard to climb down! If I climb down, then people will find out. If I climb down, then all will become apparent. If I climb down, I’m not sure what’s down there. I like it up here where I’m hiding. Climb down! The cost is far outweighed by the benefits of forgiveness.

If you or I are fiddling around with sin in our lives, it matters not how well we can conceal that from the watching world. God knows our hearts, and so do we.

We know this even in human estrangements, don’t we? If you’re not speaking to your wife or to your husband, if you’re disaffected with a loved one in your home, the longer you go concealing the necessity of “sorry,” the longer I go without saying “please forgive me,” the greater the burden becomes and the deeper the stain remains.

I have a vivid recollection of riding my bicycle round the block at my home in Glasgow, when I would be ten or maybe eleven years old, nine at the earliest, because we moved to that house when I was nine—actually, on the twenty-sixth of May. I know that because my youngest sister was born that day. So I was at least nine, probably ten. I don’t know what the issue was. I just knew that I’d done something wrong, somehow or another. It had brought an estrangement between myself and my father. And I rode my bicycle round the block. It was about a quarter of a mile.

And when I was on the backside of the journey, I would tell myself, “When I get back to my driveway this time, I’m going to go in and say to my dad and tell him what I did and tell him I’m sorry.” And then I would come around to the driveway, would come within sight, and then I’d pedal right past it again, and off I would go on another circuit, and around the back again. And I would say to myself, “I’m going to… I will tell him this time. I’m going to confess it.”

I don’t remember how many times I managed to go around that block. And every time I passed my driveway again, it was though the pedals got harder and harder to pedal, and the sense of burden increased on my tiny shoulders, and just the awfulness of it, even though the predicament probably was not that great, but to me I couldn’t stand the thought of it. And finally, I got the courage to go up the driveway, and to park the bike, and to go in, and to tell him what it was—I stole the golf ball on the golf course, or whatever I had done. And to hear his forgiveness just transformed everything. Just changed everything!

You see, I say to you again, this is between you and God. This is between God and me. Oh, yes, it affects each other. But if God is speaking to you tonight, and you think you’re a cover-up expert, you might want to consider the description of an owl among the ruins. And you might want to be really, really careful about hearing God’s word from Psalm 32. Because as surely as in his mercy he sent Nathan to David, so in his mercy he sends his Word to you and to me.

I came back this week to a ton of mail. A lot of it came via the radio. I began to read one letter amongst many. And the reason I began to read it: because it was handwritten. And I always read the handwritten ones first, even though they’re harder; I just like them better.

I can’t read all of this letter, because I may give away the identity of the individual, even though he’s far from here:

“I just wanted to drop you a note and let you know how much your radio ministry has meant to me. I’m a sixty-eight-year-old man.” He tells of being a founding member of a well-known church in a Southern state. “I raised a Christian family. I have three wonderful Christian children: a boy, two girls. I’ve supported numerous Christian ministries. I served my country in Korea. I’ve kept the laws of this country, except for a couple of traffic tickets.” I wondered where he was going with this. I thought, “Goodness gracious, you know, you wanted just to tell me what a fine fellow you are?”

He says, “I will not enumerate the other good things I’ve done, since that is not the point. I’m in jail for child molestation.” And he goes on to tell how, as soon as the truth came out, his congregation abandoned him entirely, including the entire pastoral team.

“I can honestly say that because of Truth For Life I have the primary reason that I turned to God instead of away from him in my troubles. The radio program has helped me more than anyone else in getting me to the point where I have perfect peace about the possibility of spending the rest of my life in prison. It has taken a long time for my head knowledge to infiltrate my heart. Thanks for providing the part you played. I am now the closest to God that I have ever been.” And apparently the DA is asking for a sentence that would go as far as forty-one years. He’s a sixty-eight-year-old man.

But you see, to all intents and purposes on the outside, he’s Mr. Clean, Mr. I-Served-in-Korea, Mr. Founding-Elder-of-the-Church. Don’t judge by what’s going on on the outside—either yourself or anybody else.

David was a king. David had a chariot. David had people under his thumb. And David was like an owl in a ruin—until he acknowledged his sin.

Let us pray together:

God our Father, it is in our very nature to hide from you and to cover up. We saw Adam and Eve do it in the garden. They ran away and hid because they were naked; they were ashamed of what they’d done. And we too are ashamed of the things we’ve done. Help us not to cloak our sin. Help us to confess it to you.

Thank you for the promise of your Word that when we confess our sin, that you’re faithful and just to forgive us our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.[8] Thank you that the story of David in this psalm does not end with him wasting away, but it ends with him hiding in you. Not hiding from you, but hiding in you, and calling out to the passersby, “Rejoice in the Lord … all you who are upright in heart!”

Thank you that it is on account of your faithfulness that you pursue us, and you won’t let us remain comfortable in our disobedience and in our rebellion—not because you take delight in pouring out your wrath or in chiding your servants, but because you have committed yourself to us, and you promise to bring to completion the good work that you’ve already begun.[9] What an amazingly faithful love is yours. And it is in this that we seek to take our rest. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.


[1] Psalm 38:1–17 (NIV 1984).

[2] Derek Kidner, Psalms 1–72, Kidner Classic Commentaries (1973; repr., Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008), 172.

[3] John 9:2–3 (paraphrased).

[4] John 5:14 (paraphrased).

[5] See 2 Samuel 11:27.

[6] 2 Samuel 11:27 (NIV 1984).

[7] Kidner, Psalms 1–72, 151.

[8] See 1 John 1:9.

[9] See Philippians 1:6.

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.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.