King David sinned with Bathsheba—and, to make matters worse, he hid his wrongdoing. His wounded conscience, though, was toppling under the weight of his misdeeds. Psalm 32 depicts the transformation within David as he moved from silence to acknowledgment and confession. As Alistair Begg points out, sometimes our own consciences may need to be wounded to be brought to wholeness so that, like David, we no longer try to hide from God. Instead, He becomes our hiding place.
Father, that is our prayer. As we turn to the Bible, we thank you for the way our hearts and minds have been led in praise, and we ask that you will help us now and speak to us. Give us ears to hear and eyes to see. For we pray in your Son’s name. Amen.
Well, I invite you to turn to Psalm 32. And we began to look at it last Sunday morning, and then again in the evening, and we reached the end of verse 4. We dipped momentarily into verse 5, but not to do it justice, and so we will pick our studies up, essentially, from there—although, if the first service is anything to go by, this is going to prove to be half a study, and the good news is that if you come this evening to enjoy our time, then you can get the second half.
Martin Luther referred to the Psalms as a Bible in miniature. We said last time, when we introduced Psalm 32, that the Psalms had been rightly referred to by the Puritans as “the soul’s medicine chest.” If we’re up on the crest of the wave, there will be songs to sing. If we find ourselves dispirited, then we will find that there are laments that we can employ in order to give voice to our soul’s cry.
Luther, between 1513 and 1515, wrote his first series of lectures on the Psalms. And I was intrigued to discover that he wrote more on the Psalms than on any other book in the entire Bible, including every New Testament book. I mention that this morning simply because the alert among you will know that today in the church calendar is Reformation Sunday, recognizing that on the thirty-first of October 1571, Martin Luther, then a Roman Catholic monk, nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door in Wittenberg, and the world has never been the same since.
Twelve centuries before that, another gentleman who benefited greatly from the Psalms was Augustine. And I was intrigued to learn in my studies this week that apparently this Thirty-Second Psalm was the favorite psalm of Augustine. And it’s not a surprise when we think of probably his most famous quote being “O God, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you,” because here in Psalm 32—and particularly, as we saw last Lord’s Day evening, in verses 3 and 4—we have a description of the restlessness of the human heart.
The restlessness of human hearts scarcely needs to be proved. All we need is this morning’s newspaper or a magazine or to sit with someone and reflect upon the passage of time. The explanations for that restlessness are varied, but as to the restlessness itself, few if any would be prepared to disavow such a thing. Some of you will recall that a few months ago we referenced the uncertainty and honesty of the author Jon Krakauer in relationship to this very thing. He says at the end of his book Under the Banner of Heaven, “I don’t know what God is, or what God had in mind when the universe was set in motion. In fact, I don’t [even] know if God … exists.”  He then goes on to say, “Most of us fear death. Most of us yearn to comprehend how we got here, and why—which is to say, most of us ache to know the love of our creator.”  “Most of us ache to know the love of our creator.” Remember the first question of the Shorter Scottish Catechism, “What is the chief end of man?”—or “Why do men and women exist?”—and then the answer: “The chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” And until a man or a woman makes that wonderful discovery, then the pilgrimage of their days is marked essentially by restlessness.
Now, the uncertainty that comes from the pen of Krakauer is more than matched by his honesty. And it is honesty with ourselves that is often the gateway to change, even in the most superficial things. We recognize, going up two flights of stairs, that we are breathless, and in being honest with ourselves, we recognize that we have not been taking care of our physical frame, and perhaps we need to walk a little more or we need to have more exercise. The same may be true in other aspects of our physical lives.
Such honesty is a vital gateway also in terms of spiritual repair. And the psalmist here, at the end of verse 1, in addressing the whole issue of happiness, which we said is a very contemporary interest, points out that happiness and deceitfulness, or dishonesty, do not sleep in the same bed. It is ultimately impossible to be a dishonest person and to be a happy person, because there is a dissonance between what is and what ought to be. And so the psalmist, having described the happiness that accompanies a relationship with God—a relationship that is grounded in forgiveness—then, in verses 3 and 4, speaks of this spirit of heaviness which rested upon him.
We’re familiar with people who are referred to as being “like a wet blanket.” When they’re around, it’s just as though all the clouds and heaviness have descended on us. It is an interesting metaphor. It’s not the metaphor that is employed here. The picture here is of the hand of God. Of course, we know that God is spirit and therefore does not have a hand; therefore, this an anthropomorphism. Therefore, the picture is a graphic picture: that somehow or another, God, the creator of the ends of the earth, has extended himself from heaven and has placed his hand, if you like, on the neck of his servant David.
And if happiness is his great desire—which I think it is for humanity—then he now points out that sin is his great dilemma. And indeed, verse 3 speaks to the predicament that prevails in his physical frame as a result of his tortured conscience: “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.
Now, if we’re accurate in assuming that what David is referencing here is his sin with Bathsheba and the subsequent cover-up—whereby not only did he steal another man’s wife, but he paved the way for the death of the husband in order that he might take this wife to himself untrammeled by the sorry and sordid and obvious implications of having this other man around—that period of time, at least nine months, perhaps as much as a year, is being referenced here in verses 3 and 4: “When I lied, when I covered up, when I sought to dissemble and to cloak my dreadful deeds,” he says, “then my tortured conscience produced these physical symptoms.” It’s not my place to comment on psychosomatic illness. But any of us who have lived any length of time at all recognize that there is clearly correlative aspects between what is going on inside of us and what is happening on the surface—certainly as it relates to deceitfulness, to lies, and to living with a cover-up.
Now, presumably, David was managing on one level, and that level was the public level. He was going about his business as king. He was sending people into battle. He was responding to the memos that came his way. He would have been seen moving around his provinces, and folks would have said, “There he goes in all of his triumph and his grandeur”—in much the same way that you and I may manage to patch it up enough as we go to our offices, as we attend our school classrooms, as we submit our essays, as we conduct our business, as we sweep up the floor of our responsibilities. And yet we may actually find ourselves identifying with verse 3: “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away.” Publicly, he was managing. Privately, his life was unraveling.
Publicly managing and privately unraveling. That may actually be just way too apt a description for some who are sitting here this morning. It makes you move just a little in your seat. You find yourself saying, “I hope nobody can see what’s going on inside of my mind right now. Because this is me. I haven’t slept properly in a long time. I’m no longer the person I once was. I’m unprepared to acknowledge that the root of my predicament does not lie in all the superficial things that people are trying to help me with. No. When I kept silent, then I began to waste away.”
Now, my first note in my notes that is underlined is simply four words. And I’ll give them to you, in case this is of help, and if it isn’t, you needn’t worry about it. But in order to try and work my way from the stanza which is essentially verses 3 and 4 into the stanza which is verses 5, 6, and 7, I simply wrote down, “From ‘When’ to ‘Then.’” “From ‘When’ to ‘Then.’” Not exactly brilliant, is it? If you look at the text, you will notice that verse 3 begins with “When…” and you will notice that verse 5 begins with “Then…” “When I kept silent, this was what I experienced.” “Then,” he says,
I acknowledged my sin to you
[then I] did not cover up my iniquity.
[Then] I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the Lord”—
and [then] you forgave
the guilt of my sin.
Okay? From “when” to “then.”
Now, what we need to notice this morning—and it is something that would be relatively easy to miss—is this: that his physical condition as described in verses 3 and 4, albeit an unhappy one, actually, under God, was for his good and benefit. God has brought him to the place where looking at himself, if you like, in the mirror has confronted him with the fact that the real predicament that he faces is not to be found on the surface but is to be found on the inside. His tortured conscience has wounded him, and the evidence is there for those who know him best to see.
There are only two kinds of conscience that will feel the burden of sin. One is a tender conscience. A tender conscience. Most of our children have tender consciences. That’s why the first time you come back into the kitchen where there were ten chocolate chip cookies, and now there are only nine, and you said, “Where is the cookie?” and if they said, “I don’t know,” the tenderness of their conscience will relatively quickly produce repentance. But if, as time goes by, that tender conscience continues to act in the wrong way and to resist the implications of wrongdoing, then it loses its power to convict.
The American Indians had a picture of a conscience as a triangle inside your tummy—it’s quite a graphic picture—or in the center of your diaphragm, at least. The tribal chief telling the young men, “You have a sharp, three-pointed triangle inside of you. And when you violate our tribal customs, when you disobey our laws, when you go against what you know is right to do, then this triangle will turn inside of you, and it will jab you, and it will jag you, and it will cause you to repent. However,” he said, “if, when it jabs you and jags you, you resist the call to repentance and you continue in an activity which is unlawful and displeasing, eventually the corners will be rounded out, and your conscience may spin quite freely without it ever having any impact on you at all when you are confronted by your wrongdoing.” That’s why when we read in the Bible about those whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron, it is a graphic picture and it is a dreadful picture. “Today, when you hear God’s voice in your conscience, don’t harden your hearts.” That’s why it says that.
The other conscience that will bear and respond to the burden of sin is a wounded conscience. A wounded conscience. If you have a fracture somewhere in your body—let’s say in your knee—then the weight of things, and the weight of yourself, or added weight to your body, will become apparent because you’re wounded in your knee. The very weakness there will bear testimony to the weight that has been placed upon you. And in the same way, it is a wonderful thing, albeit a hard and difficult thing, when God comes, as he comes to his servant David, and he brings his willful disobedience before him, and he confronts him with his systematic attempts at cover-up, and he points out to him that his very conscience is in danger of being seared. And he lays his hand of heaviness upon him—a hand that becomes absolutely unbearable.
Psalm 38:4—another psalm of David in this series—he says, “My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear.” “My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear.” Is this a dreadful thing? Is this a terrible thing? Well, it is in one sense dreadful, but it is at the same time wonderful. You see, when you or I have a guilty conscience because we know we’re in the wrong, having offended against God and offended against one another, all of the external influences upon us will tend to say, “Cover it up. Deny it. Run from it. Smooth it over. Just don’t address it.” Because it is too ugly to face, it is too difficult to pursue, it is too demanding to climb down from where we are. And yet, what the Bible says is that the benefits far outweigh the cost. That’s why David upon reflection is able to say, “You know, when I was overwhelmed by these things, when your hand was heavy upon me, then in actual fact, it tended to my good.”
You see, the Bible constantly asks questions which we just don’t ask. It asks, for example, in 1 Samuel 6, a correlative question, and it is this: “Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God?” “Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God,” and state their case? This question actually comes in 1 Samuel 6 after seventy individuals had poked their nose into something that had nothing to do with them at all, and they all died. And the people observing it looked at it and said, “If God is that kind of God, who then can stand before this holy God? Which of us is able just to go in and stand before God?”
You think about Moses. He takes his shoes off his feet in the presence of the burning bush, a symbol of the eternal God, because he realizes that the ground on which he stands is holy ground. Clearly this is not a reference to some cosmic principle or to some personal creation whereby God, G-o-d, spells whatever we want it to spell—where G-o-d, whatever that means, exists in order to bolster up our self-esteem or to assure us that everything is not out of control or to placate us in our disobedience. This is something very different. I wonder you may never even have asked yourself the question, “I wonder who can stand before this holy God?”
Psalm 7, from which Fernando read in the course of our reading through the Psalms, is not the most politically correct psalm in the Bible. We even joked about it earlier on; he said, “You want me just to read selections, or shall I just keep reading the whole thing?” And I understood the question perfectly, because I had pre-read it myself. For example, he’d stopped at verse 9. Verse 10 is a good one. It’s all good, of course; you don’t misunderstand me. The psalmist says, “My shield is God Most High, who saves the upright in heart.” That’s fine, isn’t it? You could put that on a T-shirt, or take that on a little card, put it in your top pocket and bring it out to people tomorrow morning, and it was a worthy statement of the truth of God.
And what about verse 11? “God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses” his righteous indignation, or “his wrath every day.” How ’bout that for a T-shirt? How ’bout that for a little card to slip to your waitress at the end of the meal, with a decent tip? “God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses his wrath every day.” He is? Yes. Do you know how the King James Version translates it, and perhaps even more accurately than the dynamic equivalence of the NIV? “God is angry with the wicked every day.” “God is angry with the wicked every day.” If you are wicked, God is angry with you every day. Every day! You say, “Well, I never heard that before.” Well, it’s in the Bible. You just need to read it.
You see, the God to whom we’re introduced in the Bible is not a figment of our imaginations. He’s not a creation of our own design and desire—a kind of, you know, tailor-made God to fit the twenty-first century, to fit the pluralistic perceptions of our culture, to allowed us to absorb and placate every notion that presents itself. No, God stands above and outside of all of that, calling men and women to account. And he is the God who in his mercy and in his goodness lays his heavy hand upon the neck of David. And wonderfully so! Because David was in a mess. David was an adulterer. David was a sinner. David was a liar. David was a denier. David was at least nine months into his deceit. And when he looked at himself in a mirror, he said, “I am finished. I am wasting. My bones cling to me. My skin clings to my bones. I’m like an owl in the ruins. I’m like a desert owl. My friends disabuse me. I am fevered in the day. I’m an insomniac in the night.” Why? Because God’s hand of heaviness rested on him.
You see, what we seek to disavow in seeking somehow or another to make more palatable to our friends this amazing story of forgiveness is actually what robs our sensible friends from being able to put together the story we’re trying to tell them. Unless we have a dilemma, then the story of what Jesus has done makes no sense. It is because God’s hand rests in heaviness on the psalmist that he needs to acknowledge his sin. Until it did, what was he doing? Lying about it. Covering it up. Justifying it. Saying, “He’s dead now, he’ll never be back; that guy, I don’t need to worry about him anymore, it’s just Bathsheba and me and the baby”? No. Absolutely not.
Now, can I step out of this psalm for just a moment? Will you think with me and see whether there is logic in what I’m saying? Is this statement here—for example, in Psalm 7, about the righteous indignation of God—is it possible for us to say, “Oh, well, you know, that’s the Old Testament stuff. We understand that. But that’s how God was in the Old Testament. When we get out of that Malachi business and get into the New Testament, then, of course, we get free from all of that.” We have to examine our Bibles. We did this last week, didn’t we, when we talked about cumulative truth? We said, “How is it that David could acknowledge such forgiveness and so on? After all, Jesus had never come.” And we talked about the nature of cumulative truth, and the whole idea of forgiveness, and the scapegoat and so on finding its fulfillment in Jesus, but nevertheless, as an historic act, being significant in its time.
Well, in the same way, if we push forward, what do we find? Do we find the apostles stepping out onto the streets of Jerusalem and Athens and so on and proclaiming a completely different message? For example, saying, “I know some of you may have read the Old Testament, but, of course, that was the Old Testament. Let me tell you what the story is in the New.” If we listen to some people, that’s exactly what they suggest to us. It’s because they don’t know the Bible.
Let’s just take Paul. We’ll just use Paul. I’ll give you an illustration from Paul and then close with Luther. And then we’ll come back this evening and try and fix this.
Paul goes to the intelligentsia in Athens, right? And he’s very gracious and wise in his introduction: “I can see you’re a very religious group of people. I looked around your place, I’ve been listening to some of your poets, and there’s a direct correlation between a lot of their searching and a lot of what I have to tell you. I’m surprised you have a shrine here, or a statue here, ‘to the unknown God.’ I guess you’re just covering your bases in case you’ve missed someone.” And he says, “I’d like to start just from there and tell you that this God that you don’t know, I know. And he’s the creator of the ends of the earth. He’s sovereign over geography and history, and he established all the nations of man; he put them where he wanted them. He’s the Lord of language,” and so on.
And then what does he do? He gets to the point where he says, “And he has set a day.” “He has set a day.” “Oh,” the people said, “set a day for what?” He said, “He has set a day for judgment. Since he is the Creator, and since we are his creation, and since he has told us how he wants his creation to be, and since we are not as he asked us to be, we’re all moving towards our final examination. He’s given out the papers, everyone will complete the test, and everyone will go under the scrutiny of his gaze. He has set a day when he will judge the world by the man he has appointed”—namely, Jesus; Acts chapter 10, you’ve got reference to that—“and he has given proof of this by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.” Response: some people said, “We’re out of here,” another group said, “Quite good, maybe we can listen again,” and a small group believed and became followers of Jesus and actually followers of Paul. What was he doing? He’s essentially doing what is in concurrence with Psalm 32. Happiness is our great quest. Happiness is to know God. Our great dilemma is sin, and God has established a mechanism for dealing with this.
You say, “Well, that was in a big crowd. I’m sure he wasn’t like that when he was one-on-one with people.” Really? Don’t set yourselves up, now! Acts chapter 24, he’s in custody with Felix and Drusilla. Felix and Drusilla are having a night off from Monopoly or Scrabble or whatever it is that they’re usually doing, and they say to one another, “What do you want to do?” and Drusilla said, “Why don’t we get Saul up here and have him do a talk for us?” And so they bring him in.
And remember what his talk was? He said, “I have three points I want to talk to you about tonight. Thanks for inviting me up. I want to talk to you about righteousness and self-control and the judgment to come.”
What? They were sitting in an adulterous relationship. Felix, by the mechanisms of a Cypriot magician, had stolen away his brother’s wife and was now sleeping with her.
“What are you doing, Paul? You sure this is the sermon you want to preach right now? Why would you preach this sermon? Righteousness. Self-control. They’re unrighteous! They’re out of control!”
“Yeah. And there’s a coming judgment!”
“Why are you doing that?”
“So that if there is any tenderness left in their conscience, they may cry out to God for forgiveness. So that perhaps, by the words that I speak, their conscience may be wounded and as a result brought to wholeness.”
You see, it was in the areas of conscience—and we’ll finish here for now—but it was in the areas of conscience that Luther was tyrannized, wasn’t he? If you know anything of history, you know how zealous Luther was, how good a fellow he was, how committed he was to the very notions of doing the right thing before God, and how paralyzed he was by his inability to do so. And when he finally puts it all together, he realizes, number one, “The law that I’m trying to keep cannot put me in a right standing before God. By doing this stuff, I can’t make myself acceptable to God.”
He discovered that not just in the thin air; he actually discovered that by reading his Bible. He’d never really seen it when he read it: “No one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” And yet many who come routinely to Parkside are still operating on the basis of the law—God’s law or your own law. And you are still trying to patch up your résumé. You’re still convinced that although the Bible says what it says and although you’ve heard this a hundred times, you still are going to manage this one, because you really are—unlike the people around you and the people in your office and the people everywhere else—you really are a pretty good citizen.
If you lived a thousand lifetimes, you could never make yourself acceptable to God. When Luther got that, he then understood that the perfection of God demanded that his holiness deal with our disobedience—that God is offended and insulted and made angry by our human disobedience. That’s what really messed him up! Here he is, saying his prayers, doing his penance, going through the routine. Then he realizes, “This doesn’t work. This won’t work.” Then he realizes, “And this holy God before whom I cannot stand must deal with disobedience.” Then he said, “Unless this holy God has, on account of his own mercy and grace, made a way for people in the condition of myself to be brought into a relationship with him, then there’s no hope at all.”
And then he went back to reading his Bible again. And suddenly, as happens in people’s lives, something that he had read a hundred times before came alive to him: “But now”—“but now”—“a righteousness from God”—not for God, from God—“apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” And then he goes on and reads, and he says, “This righteousness [comes] from God … through … Jesus Christ to all who believe.” “To all who believe.” Not to all who do, but “to all who believe.” He’d been doing like a crazy man. He wasn’t resting in what God had provided.
And later on, he wrote these amazing words—and with this I close: “It is the sweetest mercy of God that it is not imaginary sinners He saves but real sinners.” He doesn’t save imaginary sinners. “We escape,” says Luther, “His condemnation because of His mercy … not because of our … righteousness. … Grace is given to heal the sick not to decorate spiritual heroes.” “Grace is given to heal the sick not to decorate spiritual heroes.” It is given to those who say, “Your hand is heavy upon me. I am a disaster, and I am broken, and I am wasted.”
Have you ever said that to God? I’m not asking now if somebody signed you up for purpose in your life. Or whether you decided that a little religion would be a help to you; after all, to add it to your résumé might be nice. Or whether you thought it would be a nice idea, just as an insurance policy, somehow or another to include Jesus in the trunk of your existence. None of that. I’m asking you what the Bible asks you: Have you ever lain down before God and said, “God, I am a dead woman without you. I am a dead man and lost without you. Unless you come and do for me what I cannot do for myself, then I remain absolutely hopeless and absolutely helpless.”
“Well,” you say, “I’m not gonna do that. I’m not gonna do that. I didn’t work as hard as I worked and brought up my family and did what I did to go where… I don’t know where you want me to do this, but I am not gonna do that.” Well, please God, he’ll put his heavy hand on you one more time, and not the heaviness that snuffs you into eternity and to your final examination, for which this morning, again, you heard there is necessary prep, and which apparently you have determined you, of all people, can do without.
Father, your Word wounds us. You take your bow, as it were, and you fire the arrows into our hearts. We’re harmed by them, in order that we might be healed by the provisions of your grace.
We look at old David there, sick and wounded and disappointed and a flat-out disgrace to himself and all of his friends and loved ones. “When I kept silent, when I covered up, when I hid, then I was wasted. But then I acknowledged my sin. I confessed my transgressions.” What a wonderful change in our lives is then worked.
Please, Lord, bring us to the place, by whatever means, that we might cry out to you for your mercy and for your grace. Then we’ll sing your songs in a strange land. Then we’ll be surrounded by these songs of deliverance. Then we’ll know that you are our hiding place. But we’ll never hide in you as long as we’re trying to hide from you. Bring us out into the open, O God, we pray, and welcome us in the embrace of your Son.
And may your grace and your mercy and your peace be the portion of all who believe, now and forevermore. Amen.
 Martin Luther, Preface to the Revised German Psalter (1531).
 Augustine, Confessions 1.1. Paraphrased.
 Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 338.
 Krakauer, 339.
 The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 1. Paraphrased.
 Hebrews 3:15 (paraphrased).
 1 Samuel 6:20 (NIV 1984).
 See Acts 10:40–43.
 See Acts 17:22–34.
 See Acts 24:24–25.
 Romans 3:20 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 3:21–22 (NIV 1984).
 Martin Luther, Luther: Early Theological Works, ed. James Atkinson, Library of Christian Classics, vol. 16 (Nashville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 301–5, quoted in James Atkinson, The Great Light: Luther and the Reformation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2006), 46.
 See Psalm 137:4.
 See Psalm 32:7.
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.