Composed for the purpose of instruction, Psalm 32 is moral teaching sounded in
melody. The first verse declares its intention: the song is a maskil (מַשְׂכִּיל) –the exact meaning of the Hebrew has long been lost, but it is
apparent that it refers to a classification of song. The specific classification is hinted
at by the word’s root: it is also the root of the verb that begins verse 8, “to make
wise” (אַשְׂכִּילְךָ). Divided into two distinct parts –
verses 1 to 7; 8 to 11—the singer’s teachings are inspired by his own experiences,
which, in turn, have been fortified by his belief in God’s kindness.
The first two verses define the “happy” man: he whose sins have been absolved
to such an extent they are no longer even discernible, but “covered over” (v. 1);
an absolution so complete that God judges him to be without “transgression” (v. 2).
His lack of guilt, moreover, is of his own doing, for there is “in his spirit, no
deception” (v. 2). Happiness, then, is determined by the singer to be a state not of
pleasures but rather of spiritual awareness.
The singer’s example of the happy man is his own self. He has achieved his
happiness only after great effort. Verses 3, 4 and 5 describe his suffering before his
acknowledgement and confession of his moral offences: in his silence –either his
refusal to confess or his unawareness of the need to do so—he felt depleted. The
nature of his exhaustion is not depicted –that is, whether it was physical or
spiritual—but its cause is clearly his lack of an awareness that would provide him
sustenance: “For when I kept silent, eroded were my bones” (v. 3). The second line
of verse 3 makes explicit that the singer’s silence was not of his voice, but of his soul;
indeed, his complaints about his discomforts he had so loudly expressed that he
describes his groans as akin to roaring (v. 3).
The awareness he achieves was neither sudden nor self-created: he was guided by
God’s “hand’ that he felt “heavy” upon him (v. 4). The Hebrew form of the verb “to
be” (HEBREW HERE, inside brackets) can be translated here either in the present or
past tense, thus indicating that God’s presence is, for the singer, felt not in a single
act but has become an intimate part of his existence –though certainly its effect
upon him had at first been, seemingly, a devastating rebuke:
For all day long and night, heavy upon me was Your hand;
transformed the marrow of my bones into the dryness of summer.
The metaphor of dryness or dust pictures a debility so profound it is death-like; that
it is not a permanent desolation, however, is indicated by the specific season
“summer”. The singer’s being, under the weight of God’s hand, is capable of renewal.
His nourishment is, paradoxically, his confession: by making known his offense to
God, he has been granted God’s forgiveness (v. 5). He is redeemed by revealing the
very offense which, hidden, unspoken, had consumed his strength. Accordingly, he is
able to say to his listeners –to those he is teaching—that his resultant happiness will
be attained by “every devout one” who prays to God “at a time of finding” (v. 6); in,
that is, a time of need.
Water, the usual solution to aridity, to summer drought, is not, for the singer, a
creative force. Rather, he warns his audience against “the flood” of “abundant water”
(v. 6): it has the power to overwhelm. The source of the water is not given; perhaps
the singer is alluding to the Flood whose torrents drowned all but the faithful, or
perhaps the waters of the Red Sea which swept away the Israelites’ oppressors.
Regardless, the threatening image is the singer’s warning that only the righteous
The singer’s warning completes the first part of the song. He has declared his
dominant theme or melody, singing it to his listeners just as he had confessed it to
God. Turning from his audience to address God, he dedicates the song he has
composed to the One Who inspired it:
You are a hiding-place for me.
From torment You will keep me;
with happy songs of rescue You will surround me.
The verses following this declaration (verses 8 to 11) are, then, the singer’s own
song of deliverance, one he will teach to others:
I will make you wise and I will enlighten you
as to the ways in which you should go.
I will counsel you; upon you is my eye.
His eye will be upon them, just as God’s hand was upon him. It is as if he is both
reflecting and imitating God’s reminder to him to admit his offenses in order to
prosper, to gain wisdom.
Having put forth his own experience as example to his listeners, he now gives them
its inversion – the beasts of burden, horse and mule:
Do not be as the horse or as the mule – no understanding [have they];
bit and bridle bejewel their mouth, to rein them in,
so that they never will draw close to you.
The horse and mule, lacking intellectual awareness, must be controlled and directed
by bit and bridle; they are animals guided by humans. In contrast, then, are those
humans who are prompted by God’s hand (v. 4). Moreover, the animals, should they
draw near, pose harm; the faithful seek, as their protector, the shelter of
“compassion” (v. 10). That verse 10 begins by asserting the “pains” of the wicked
suggests a correspondence between the beasts and the wicked – certainly each lacks
moral consciousness; perhaps the implication is also that the wicked are incapable
of fellowship, of drawing near without harm.
The song closes with the exact words of the singer’s hymn of deliverance –its
entirety or its chorus only, no matter; in effect, the song within the song:
Be glad in Adonai and rejoice, righteous ones;
and sing happy songs, all the upright of heart.
The Hebrew completes a circle the English does not: the word for “upright” in
Hebrew is “yishrei” (יִשְׁרֵי לֵב); the song begins with
“happy” –“ashrei” in Hebrew (אַשְׁרֵי). The similitude makes
certain that the lot of the upright is happiness.