The psalm we want to ponder tonight is Psalm 32, and what we want to find out from it is "How Not to Be a Mule."
How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven,
Whose sin is covered!
How blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not
And in whose spirit there is no deceit!
When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away
Through my groaning all day long.
For day and night Thy hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was drained away as with the fever-heat of summer.
I acknowledged my sin to Thee,
And my iniquity I did not hide;
I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the Lord';
And Thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin.
Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to Thee
in a time when Thou mayest be found;
Surely in a flood of great waters they shall not reach him.
Thou art my hiding place; Thou dost preserve me
Thou dost surround me with songs of deliverance.
I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go;
I will counsel you with My eye upon you.
Do not be as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding,
Whose trappings include bit and bridle to hold them in check.
Otherwise they will not come near to you.
Many are the sorrows of the wicked;
But he who trusts in the Lord, lovingkindness shall surround him.
Be glad in the Lord and rejoice you righteous ones,
And shout for joy all you who are upright in heart.
Don't Be a Mule, Go to God in Prayer
Last week we only looked at two verses of Psalm 127. This week I want to look at all of Psalm 32 to see if we can understand the psalm as a whole. Let's move through it together in a summary fashion and then we will conclude by looking at verses 1–5 in more detail.
Verses 1–5 are clearly one unit which deals with confession and forgiveness. The main point is in verses 1 and 2, namely, to be forgiven is a very happy condition. Verses 3–5 tell us how to attain that happy state: first, negatively, don't try to conceal your sin from God (verses 3 and 4), then, positively, acknowledge your sin and confess it to God (verse 5). So the point of verses 1–5 is: the person who does not conceal his sins but confesses them to God will find the tremendous happiness of a clean conscience and peace with God.
Then the first half of verse 6 draws an inference from verses 1–5: since this is the case, therefore, "Let everyone who is godly pray to you in a time when you may be found." If such great blessedness follows the prayer of confession, then, for goodness sake, let's all pray!
Then in the second half of verse 6 and all of verse 7 there seems to be a shift of concern away from confession and forgiveness to the protection of God in the troubles of life.
Surely in a flood of great waters they shall not reach him (i.e., the godly). You are my hiding place; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with songs of deliverance.
But in fact the shift in David's mind is probably not as great as it looks at first. Probably he intends for us to understand that the blessedness of the forgiven man in verses 1 and 2 consists not only in his peace of conscience but also in the protection that God now gives him in the midst of troubles. Or, to put it another way, the man who prays and confesses his sin to God is blessed not only because of what God does not do—namely, impute iniquity to him—but he is also blessed by what God does do—namely, preserve him from trouble and surround him with songs of deliverance. God is not only not against him, he is mightily for him. So the second half of verse 6 and verse 7 function as an added incentive for the godly to pray and confess their sins to God, because the forgiveness of sins is the basis and prerequisite of all God's subsequent blessings.
In verse 8, God takes the pen in his own hand, as it were, and promises not only protection but instruction and counsel for how we should live from day to day: "I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you." The blessing of protection in verse 7 is great indeed, but it would be incomplete if it were not accompanied by the blessing of direction. What good would it be if he guarded us from destruction but did not tell us which way to go? Protection with direction, care with counsel, that is the happy condition of the person who prays to God and receives forgiveness for his sins.
So the main point so far in verses 1–8 is that all the godly should pray to God in a time when he may be found. And as incentives David gives the promises of forgiveness (vv. 1–5), protection (vv. 6–7), and direction (v. 8).
Up until now, verse 6 has been the only imperative, namely, the positive command to pray. Now in verse 9 comes the second imperative which I think is the negative counterpart to verse 6. That is, verse 9 and the first half of verse 6 are really commanding the same thing but using different words; one saying it positively (what we should do), and the other saying it negatively (what we should not do). "Do not be as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding, whose trappings include bit and bridle to hold them in check; otherwise they will not come near you." Don't be that way; instead come to God freely in prayer.
Maybe we should try to picture God's people as a farmyard of all sorts of animals. God cares for his animals, he shows them where they need to go, and supplies a barn for their protection. But there is one beast on this animal farm that gives God an awful time, namely, the mule. He's stupid and he's stubborn and you can't tell which comes first—stubbornness or stupidity.
Now the way God likes to get his animals into the barn for their food and shelter is by teaching them all a personal name and then calling them by name. "I will instruct you and teach you the way that you should go." But the mule will not respond to that sort of direction. He is without understanding. So God gets in his pick-up truck and goes out in the field, puts the bit and bridle in the mule's mouth, hitches it to the truck, and drags him stiff-legged and snorting all the way into the barn.
That is not the way God wants his animals to come to him for blessing. One of these days it is going to be too late for that mule. He's going to get clobbered with hail and struck by lightening and when he comes running the barn door is going to be shut. Therefore, don't be like the mule, but instead let everyone who is godly come to God in prayer at a time when he may be found.
The way not to be a mule is to humble ourselves, to come to God in prayer, to confess our sins, and to accept, as needy little farmyard chicks, the direction of God into the barn of his protection.
The main reason I think David intends for us to understand verse 6 as the alternative to mule-like behavior is because I think verses 3 and 4 are a picture of David the mule before he learned to pray. "When I kept silent (about my sin) my body wasted away through my groaning all day long." There he is out in the middle of the field, stubborn as a mule, refusing to acknowledge his need. Stiff-legged, heels dug in: "I am not about to go in that place with all those little critters, especially those helpless little chicks skittering about between my legs and singing songs of deliverance as if it were some great victory to take refuge in somebody else's barn. No sir, I am not going to bend my knee, as if I had done some great wrong. I can handle the consequences of my own behavior. And I don't need that barn, either." That's mule David talking.
So here comes the pick-up truck with bit and bridle in verse 4. "Day and night thy hand was heavy on me. My moisture was turned into the drought of summer." When David acted like a mule God put the bridle of suffering on him and dragged him to the barn. A guilty conscience and all the agonies that go with it is a merciful gift to the unrepentant.
The Upward Spiral of Joy
The main point, therefore, of verses 1–9 is "Let everyone who is godly pray to you in a time when you may be found," because the contrite, un-mule-like heart which comes to God in prayer is forgiven (v. 5), protected (v. 7), and counseled how to live (v. 8). And that is the whole argument of the psalm except for verses 10 and 11. Verse 10 is essentially a repetition of verse 7—a promise that God's love will surround with love the person who trusts him.
And verse 11 is a final command to "Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, you righteous ones, and shout for joy all you upright in heart." I think this command relates to the main point in verse 6 as both cause and effect. When it is the Lord who makes us glad, we will find ourselves coming to him often in prayer rather than seeking our kicks somewhere else. So being glad in the Lord is a cause of our praying to him. But also when we pray to him and discover in his fellowship the sweetness of forgiveness and protection and counsel, then the delight we have in him only increases. So being glad in the Lord is an effect of our praying to him.
The image I get is of a spiral. We pray and praying discover the delights of God's benefits. Then because of this discovery we are moved to pray more. And praying more we experience more of God. And so our experience spirals further up and further in to an ever more intimate relationship with God and an ever deeper enjoyment of his forgiveness, protection, and counsel for life. Therefore, let everyone of you pray to God while he may be found, because the contrite, un-mule-like heart which prays is forgiven, protected, counseled, and made ever more glad in an intimate fellowship with the Lord.
Focus on Forgiveness
That is the argument of Psalm 32 in summary. But now to be fair to David's concern we should probably spend the last few minutes focusing on the issue he devoted most space to, namely, confession and forgiveness in verses 1–5, about half the psalm. As I meditated on these verses I tried to answer three questions: What is the prerequisite of forgiveness? Why is this necessary? What is so blessed about having our transgression forgiven? I'll tell you briefly what I came up with and then draw it all together.
First, the prerequisite of receiving forgiveness is confession or acknowledgment of our sin to the Lord from a spirit free of deceit (vv. 5 and 2). When you put these two things together, acknowledgment of our sin and not deceiving God, a very precise meaning for confession emerges. Confession to God is not merely admitting our sin as real but also rejecting our sin as repulsive. There is deceit in the spirit of the person who admits with his mind that he sins but feels no revulsion in his heart at those sins: his bad temper and irritability, his hypercritical attitude, his gossiping, his lukewarm love for Christ, his failure to discipline his children, his dishonesty on tax forms and financial reports, etc. This is deceit because sin is repulsive and horrid in God's eyes and ought to be hated and shunned. So to come to God admitting sin and feeling no grief or repugnance is to come with deceit, for what you are acknowledging is not really acknowledged as sin. The prerequisite therefore of divine forgiveness is admitting our sin as real and rejecting our sin as repulsive.
My second question was, Why is this necessary? Why doesn't God, in his great grace, just forgive all sin in everybody, no strings attached? Why does there have to be in every individual's case the prerequisite of confession? Every sin we commit is an insult to God, a slap in his face, whether we see it that way or not. This has to be seen if we are to understand the dynamics of confession and forgiveness. When two people offer you contrary advice for how to live and stake their character on the wisdom of their counsel and you choose to follow one and not the other, you defame the other's character. It is inevitable. And that is what we do to God every time we sin instead of following in his way.
Now the aim of all forgiveness is to restore a damaged relationship. God's aim is to bring his people into perfect harmony and union and fellowship with himself for his glory and their joy forever. To that end, he is willing to forgive the insults that threaten to ruin that fellowship through sin. But can there be fellowship when one of the parties in a relationship is perpetually devoted to offending and insulting the other? Conceivably, God could disregard such continued insults for an eternity. But what for? That wouldn't bring about union with his people, and so neither his glory nor their happiness would be achieved. Only the perpetuation of sin and defamation of God's character.
The only way for God to reach the goal of glorifying his name and making his people happy is not just to overlook sins but to change sinners. That is what God was doing with David, and that's what he is doing through Christ with us who believe. And this is why there is a prerequisite for forgiveness. God demands that we turn from sin with repugnance because he is in the business of not just covering our sins but also of shaping our characters. The person whose sins will be forgiven is the person who hates his own sinning and is on the way to Christ-likeness. If this were not God's way there would be no heaven of holiness to hope for, no company of just men made perfect, and no divine glory unsullied by the insults of unpunished creatures.
My final question was, What is so blessed about having our transgressions forgiven? O, that we might cherish our forgiveness more! But I am convinced that until we fear sin and its consequences more keenly, we will not prize our pardon very highly. The degree to which we feel sweet gratitude for being forgiven is directly proportionate to the degree that the alternative of being forgiven strikes dread into our heart. The horror of sin and the fearfulness of hell are the only backdrop that will let forgiveness shine for the infinite blessing it really is. If we do not see the gigantic tidal wave of God's wrath rushing toward the little raft of our sin, then we won't kiss the feet of the helicopter pilot who plucks us out of the ocean just in time. That is why I aim to preach on the essence of sin in a couple of weeks—because I want us to cherish our forgiveness and kiss the feet of Jesus unashamedly.
But until that time, ponder the value of your eternal pardon. Compare the affections you feel for things and people in this world with the affection you feel for Jesus and for being forgiven through his death. And if you find that your heart leaps up more vigorously for anything else than it does for the forgiveness of God, repent.
Don't be like the mule but run headlong to God in prayer while he may be found. For the contrite heart which prays will be forgiven and protected and taught the way to God and will be glad in the Lord forever. Amen.