Psalm 32: As Stubborn as a Mule

Dissecting Butterflies
Have you ever sat through someone else’s holiday photographs? It is rarely an edifying experience. Have you ever heard someone waxing lyrical about an event that you never experienced? It is difficult to draw any excitement from someone else’s experience. Something is lost in translation as we hear of experiences second-hand. Even as the person with first-hand experience of an exciting event we only have our memory.

Later we might struggle to remember the feelings, the emotion, pathos, or adrenaline, depending on the performance we are thinking of. This is of course part of the reason why Jesus uttered the words, “Do this in remembrance of me”.

The same challenge is true of the psalms. They are prayers, poems, and songs. Prayers function properly when prayed. Poems are at their best when performed. Songs are made for gathering together.

In this sense preaching a psalm is only an hors d’oeuvre, a starter, a taster, an invitation to do something with the psalm in question. Trying to distil the propositional truth from any psalm, or any piece biblical poetry—including the Prophets of the First Testament and Jesus’ teaching in the Second Testament—is akin to dissecting a butterfly to show how beautiful it was in flight.

The stakes are higher with the Bible. The power of praying goes beyond the best theatre, concert, or sport. As God-breathed, the Bible does not just work at an emotional level it has transformative potential. It works through the Spirit and in Christ to save, and to sanctify—to make us more like Jesus Christ.

Blessed and Happy
Psalm 32 as prayer, song, and poem, opens with two verses that start with the word ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’, depending on the English translation. Or as the New Living Translation puts it:

Oh, what joy for those
whose disobedience is forgiven,
whose sin is put out of sight!
Yes, what joy for those
whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt,
whose lives are lived in complete honesty!

Psalm 32:1–2, NLT

The very first psalm, the one that sets the ball rolling in the Book of Praises, starts with the same Hebrew word, ’ašrê. There the imagery of a tree planted by streams of water reminds us that not only are we blessed and happy in Christ, but we are places where God’s grace is at work, where others can find the living water that Jesus promised, and the fruitfulness of being rooted in Christ.

Psalm 119 also starts off with the same idea of double blessing as Psalm 32. There is an English saying about counting your blessings. There’s even a hymn that tells us to do this:

Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your blessings, see what God hath done.

Johnson Oatman, 1897

Whilst counting our blessings, in one sense, is a sensible response to all the wonderful things that God has given us in creation and in our lives, the blessing in Psalm 32 is of a different level. The double blessing here is the most basic happiness, blessing, and joy, that we can experience, because it enables life to be lived to the full—here and now. More than that, it is the foundation of a relationship with the living God and therefore our future life too. It is the knowledge of sin and guilt taken away by God.

Most of us will remember the joy described here, that of our first taste of forgiveness. This joy, that comes from having no barriers between us and God, is not meant to be a one-off event. Such joy, that comes through faith and forgiveness, is the central plank of a relationship with God the Father, through Jesus Christ. If we do not have this forgiveness there is no relationship for us to deepen. As with a human relationship, trust and faith are essential not just for growth but for survival.

Illness and Sin
Before the psalmist experienced the blessing, happiness, and joy captured poetically on a scroll, they were in a dark place. The natural sense of this psalm is that the psalmist—the heading encourages us to see David as the psalmist—experienced illness. An illness summed up as ‘wasting away’ and experiences that led to ‘groaning’:

When I refused to confess my sin,
my body wasted away,
and I groaned all day long.
Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me.
My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.

Psalm 32:3–4, NLT

Perhaps it is metaphorical language? Is it possibly the language of anxiety or fear? Perhaps it is a psychosomatic illness arising from fear of God? Or is it old age or a virus? All of these are plausible when we look at other penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143) as a group. It is also apparent that the psalmist links their emotional or physical illness with sin.

Sin can be the cause of both emotional and physical illness, but this is not the same as suggesting that all ailments can be explained in this way. Nor that we should be quick to make such judgements. The Book of Job warns against such missteps.

An important point is raised here—the same point raised by Hebrews 12. Do we moderns, or post-moderns, still have an openness to being disciplined as God’s children? Do we ever stop for a minute to ask such a question? The psalmist is in no doubt, on this occasion, that they learned the need to repent of sin from an experience of lack of blessing, happiness, and joy. The author of Hebrews tells us to learn discipline from God as his children:

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

Hebrews 12:4–6, NIV [Quoting Proverbs 3:11–12 LXX]

Our first thoughts, and our first prayers, look to deliverance from every ill from the trivial to the severe. There is nothing wrong with this being our first thought and prayer, and of course God in his mercy can deliver. But what if there is something to be learned from our affliction?

I confess I do not entirely like this idea. It is, however, too much of the fabric of the Bible to be ignored. Paul has a struggle, a ‘thorn in his flesh’ (2 Cor. 12:7), that he wanted gone but God saw fit to discipline him through it. The beatitudes in Luke 6 and Matthew 5—sayings of happiness, blessing, and joy turn the notions of blessing on its head. The beatitudes celebrate being poor in spirit, weeping, and being persecuted.

Praying the Psalms
This is exactly why we need the psalms. In praying them we find ourselves praying differently to the one-dimension prayer we default to—the dreaded shopping list prayer.

The psalms are tantalising snapshots of all manner of the type of conversations that we can experience with God. We can find new things to say and we can hear new things in return, when we open up to them. Though they can appear to be hard work at times, they have famously been understood as a school of prayer by spiritual giants such as Saint Augustine, Martin Luther, and more recently Eugene Peterson. If they are a school perhaps, we should not be surprised that they are hard work. Why would we be surprised that being a disciple should require discipline?

Learning prayer from the Bible helps us avoid two errors in prayer. One of these errors is the praise of self rather than God. This is what prayer becomes when it is the wish list, or shopping list, of what we want. The second error avoided by using the Psalms, and other biblical prayers, is the vacuum of no prayer which we sometimes find ourselves in.

As Stubborn as a Mule
One of the challenges of the psalms is how they switch between ideas, images, and moods. A good practice in praying a psalm is to ask the question, “Who is saying this verse?”. Verses 8 and 9 come across as being spoken by God himself. Now we might expect that God has some nice words with which the psalmist is inspired at the close of the psalm. Not so much. Instead God says:

I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
else it will not stay near you.

Psalm 32:8–9, NRSV

God is reminding us that we are as stubborn as mules, we are sinners despite also being saints through Christ.

We are all asses when it comes to walking with God, praying, and especially staying close to God by confessing our sin. Or perhaps it is just me?

As the proverb says, ‘You can lead a horse, or a mule, to water but you cannot make it drink’. So, it is over to you. What will you do with Psalm 32? How can you experience it for yourself?

Living in Hope: Hebrews 11

1. Losing Virtue
Increasingly in the West virtue is an alien word. Worse than this the pursuit of virtues is something alien. The idea that virtue should be desired and pursued, that it is a high priority in the lives of individuals and communities is simple not a contemporary agenda.

There is a suspicion about the pursuit of goodness and of wanting to be good. Virtue and goodness depend on moral certainty and absolutes which are not popular in our culture. The closest we come to virtue in secular discussion in terms of other categories, such as values and rights. These are not the same as virtues. Values and rights are, however, seen as more neutral, ‘democratic’ and self-evident than the pursuit of goodness.

This has not always been the case as much of Western culture has celebrated virtue. Until a hundred years ago the idea of virtue was a popular concept and the pursuit of goodness was not only acceptable but was seen as desirable.

In the Church, virtue is also an unusual word today. In our Church tradition there can be a number of concerns which have undermined the pursuit of virtue and the goal of being good:

1. The theology of salvation by grace alone can cast a shadow over pursuing virtue.
2. The Church has been caught out too often as its members have claimed virtue whilst practicing vice.
3. Perhaps we think it’s not biblical. But if we translate virtues as another window on the fruit of the Spirit and the pursuit of goodness as sanctification, we can see that virtue is biblical.

In Hebrews 11 we find two of the so-called theological virtues, faith and hope, worked out in the lives of the ancient heroes of First Testament faith. The implication is that the best of the people of God display hope and cultivate right behaviour—and we too are called to do the same.

The basis of Hebrews 11 and its fixation on the future hope is incredibly counter cultural. In our culture we are taught to see an end horizon marked by our physical demise. Hebrews 11—the gospel of Jesus Christ—sees beyond an end horizon beyond this, the heavenly city.

Because of this:

  • Hope in God will mean that we know we are foreigners and behave as strangers in this world.
  • Hope in God will mean we will struggle at times with God.
  • And finally, and perhaps less surprisingly, such a hope means fixing our eyes upon Jesus.

2. Strangers to Vice
Both our hope in God and our faithfulness to him are easy to misunderstand. The promises we have ‘hope in’ and the God to whom we are faithful, are longer term prospects than anything else in our lives. What we put our hope in outlasts us in our mortality. Such hope and faith in God go beyond the more human hope and faith we place in our spouses, partners, or close friends.

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.
Hebrews 11:13, NIV

In the world’s eyes this sounds like those of faith, hope, and trust have been deceived. What is the point of a life of hope in which what is promised is not to be found? Why would anyone be faithful for a lifetime, only to die without receiving what is hoped for?

But such is the life of faith—at least to some extent. The life of faith in Christ is about something bigger than us—this is the ultimate in counterculture. We are called to a faithfulness in a God who is even more faithful to us. We know the truth of his faithfulness in the beautiful gift of Jesus Christ:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8

The guarantee, or taste, of the fruit of faithfulness is known here and now but the fullness of that fruit is yet to come in the inheritance of God’s Kingdom in the age to come. We are like the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11:

they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.

And yet we also have more than ‘the ancients’—we have knowledge of Christ and we are in Christ by the power and grace of the Spirit of God. What we await in patient faithfulness comes after death, or the return of Christ. In this life of faith and hope, we are strangers on earth. What a challenge and what a remarkable call.

How can we be distinctive—salt and light—rather than just peculiar?

We of course share the same promises as the heroes of faith:

People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11:14–16, NIV

God has prepared city for us.

3. Struggling
Verse 21 of Hebrews 11 says this:

By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshipped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

Perhaps the implication is that Jacob leans upon his staff as he is old and in need of total hip replacement. But it’s quite likely that the author of Hebrews also has something else in mind. For like all people of faith, Jacob had wrestled with God—more so than most in fact. It all came to a head in Genesis 32. In this life, most people of faith will at some points wrestle with God.

We might suppose that struggling with God about anything is a denial of our hope in him. But this is not the case. The wrestling with God that Jacob experienced like that of many people of faith is entirely faithful and hopeful—it is the complex working out of how we achieve what God has called us to do.

What is the right way to go about finding blessing? Jacob had attempted to find blessing by deceiving his brother. It is as he is about to meet his brother, Esau, who he assumes will be very angry, that he wrestles with the angel of the Lord. That wrestling with God is not wrong is evident from the Psalms. One third of the biblical psalms are psalms of complaint or lament—a rich vocabulary given to us to complain to our God. More pragmatically we can note that:

“A faith that never feels challenged is most likely dead.”
Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well

To be truly faithful to God means wrestling with him—complaining to him—about how things are in this broken world. Many of those named in Hebrews 11 contended with God. When done for the right reasons and in the right way this is hope in action. Hope in God is not fatalism it’s about a real relationship with the living God. If we don’t in fact question God, and wrestle with him, we risk one of the two alternatives to hope.

On the one hand there is the risk of presumption. We presume all is well with ourselves without checking in with our Creator. We assume that because Jesus died once for all we are the finished article. But no, our hope in our future with God should be transforming us. Day-by-day, month-by-month, year-by-year, we should be better disciples. Bearing the fruit of goodness in both character and deed.

On the other hand, another alternative to hope is despair. Events can take their toll on us and the hope of dwelling with God can become too much to hope for. This is when we need our brothers and sisters in Christ. Who are those you can look to in your hour of need?

We live in a society where those around us do not have gospel hope. They have variously chosen presumption (putting their hope in something other than Jesus Christ) or despair (finding no hope).

4. Fixing (12:2)
We are of course in a different relationship with the living God than the heroes of Hebrews 11. They knew Yahweh the God of Israel and indeed they often experienced him first-hand. And yet despite this blessing we are fortunate to surpass the revelation they had.

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
Hebrews 11:39–40

For we know the Father through, and in, Christ. The Incarnation of the Son of God, his ministry, his death, and his resurrection provide the fuller revelation of the very heart of God. This is not just knowledge but is part of the fabric of reality—we are the body of Christ and he is the head.

We are a body in which the very Spirit of Christ is at work. Virtues are the fruit of the Spirit. We are sanctified, made virtuous, through the work of the living God in the Church his body.

The call to fix our eyes upon Jesus is a better one, than to fix our eyes on the heavenly city as those in Hebrews 11 did. As wanderers and pilgrims, they knew of the heavenly city that was the reward of their faith and faithfulness. For us this heavenly city is home to Jesus Christ seated at the right hand of the Father.

In Jesus Christ we have a redeemer who also founds a new creation- a new heaven and a new earth.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrew 12:1–3