To be able to gain an understanding of the
meaning of "sin" in the psalms the reader must be able to extricate
themself from the English equivalent or counterpart. Within the community of
God today "sin" has been defined by many as simply doing those things
which are alien to the nature of God.
However in the penitential Psalms (Psalm 6;
Psalm 32; Psalm 38; Psalm 51; Psalm 102; Psalm 130; Psalm 143), with particular
reference to Psalms 32 and Psalm 51 there are three separate words used to
bring across the intended meaning and impact of Sin.
Firstly in v1 of both Psalm 32 and Psalm 51
the word 'transgressions'(NRSV) is used, exclaiming in a theological sense
"wilful, self-assertive defiance of God". Hans-Joachim Kraus here likens
transgressions to a revolt or rebellion which breaks away from the divine will
preferring the use of "wicked deeds" instead.
Secondly both Psalms use the word
iniquity(NRSV) and it is at this point that the waters become some what muddied
with differing opinions as to the root of the word. Tate brings out the
discussion of the issues here over
whether its roots lie in "bending and twisting"(see its use in Psalm 38:6
NRSV) or "perversion". Peter
Craigie in his commentary on psalm 32 views iniquity as indicating some offence
or criminality, or even lack of respect for the divine will. As used in Psalm 51:2 the term is seen
as a collective, or quasi-abstract, noun denoting the sum of past misdeeds
against God and man. In
Job 15:4-4 for instance it used in relation to the doing away of a fear of
Yahweh, but in Psalm 78:37-38 it is used in context with not being steadfast
iniquity brings to us a sense of erring, deviating or straying from a given
path. Ronald Youngblood in his essay uses
as a backdrop the idea of a path or way and illustrates how each of the words
used for sin, all have some connection to this central idea of motion along a
path. Life then is a journey along a path that has been established by and
leads directly to him. Sin is any deviation or change in direction from that
path which if followed will lead to some other destination.
Thirdly there is the word commonly
translated as sin which carries the idea of missing the mark (often intentionally), God's will for our lives.
Sin in the Psalms then can be seen as
Youngblood so well points out, as deviating, missing, loosing sight of, or
changing from that intended path way which Yahweh has set out for mankind. This moving from the path is something
that is intentional on the part of the sinner, but until they are prepared to
admit this they are like the writer of Psalm 32, who tried to hide his sin from
What then did the Psalmist’s see as the
consequences for this deviating from Yahweh's chosen path? It is apparent from
Psalm 51:2 that one of the consequences of iniquity is uncleanness. Therefore as Kraus points out
"the guilt over this stands between God and humankind ", causing them to waste away (Psalm 32:3
NRSV). Robert Jenson observes here that what afflicts the Psalmist is not some
outside sickness or affliction but an inward destruction of personal health
caused by the his own impenitence.
Another consequence of sin arguably could
be "blood guilt" and this theme is taken up by John Goldingay who
examines Psalm 51:16 in detail, trying to find a definitive answer to the question
of whether or not the Psalmist had incurred blood guilt. Goldingay's conclusion is that as the Psalmist
is restored by Yahweh he is enabled to fulfil his obligation of giving praise
(Pslam 51:15) to Yahweh. Thus he is "thereby delivered from the
possibility of incurring blood guilt by not warning other sinners to turn from
their evil ways", and in a sense he prays to be kept from being answerable
for the lostness of others by his failing to challenge and invite them to
return to Yahweh.
J. K. Zink in his article "Uncleanness
and Sin, A study of Job 14:4 and Psalm 51:7" looks at the advancement in
interpretation of Psalm 51:5 (NRSV) over past 50 years. He points out there has been a
progression from the more traditional view of this being about "original
sin" ie. The view of Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin and others, to a
much more open interpretation. The latter more open view includes original sin,
human frailty, a collective expression of a request for forgiveness, sexual
impurity, the ritual ceremony and the spiritual realities of cleansing and
The very scope of this area of discussion is so vast that it would not be
possible to deal with it in this essay.
So the main importance here is to show: 1.
that there is an awareness of the discussion and, 2. many commentators felt
that the Psalmist recognised that a sinful nature was inherited while, 3.
others see this area as yet to fully explored in all its possible
The results of sin were uncleanness and
separation from God.
Uncleanness involved disqualification from the ritual and required a sin
offering for atonement. In
Psalm 51 the Psalmist expresses his awareness of guilt and realises that only a
broken and contrite spirit can restore him to God. He also expresses the need
for ceremonial purification by seeking to be sprinkled with hyssop and holy
Psalm 130 seeks to highlight the human condition, it does this by pointing out
that at every turn and twist in life one is faced with the inescapable fact
that one must deal with God. This human condition is unable to be transformed
by any other process than one that is instigated by Yahweh. Release comes not at the behest of the
sinner but he can only ascend from the depths of despair and brokenness through
God whose nature it is to forgive.
Just as the Psalmist of Psalm 32 and Psalm 51
used 3 words in parallel to emphasis the total lostness of sin so they use 3
words that tells of the forgiveness that Yahweh offers.
The first word used is 'covered', this
describes the state of the Psalmist's sin, which has as both Psalm 32 and Psalm
51 point out has been obliterated or blotted out. Marvin Tate points to the likelihood
of a written scroll or tablet being in the mind of the Psalmist and that in
Babylonian usage there is precedence for this.
The idea of blotting out from such a scroll is considered by Artur Weiser, who
suggests that "from the book of guilt" be added after "blot
out" in Psalm 51.
Secondly the verb used in verse 2 of Psalm
51:2 has it's origin in the domestic practice of washing clothes, thus the Psalmist
desires to be cleansed from sin in the same manner one would go about washing
one's own clothes.
As we seen earlier the sin had disqualified
the Psalmist from partaking of the ritual and it is here that the third word
for forgiveness is used. In the sense of being cleansed from sin as dross would
be from metal, or being cleansed from disease or in the manner by which unclean
things would be removed from the temple.
Hence these three terms for forgiveness are used poetically in parallel to
display the complete nature of Yahweh's forgiveness.
The forgiveness in Psalm 130 is something
that is awaited with an intense yearning by the psalmist and displays the hope
that his present predicament will be altered.
An encounter with Yahweh for this Psalmist means an encounter with grace,
forgiveness and redemption. Patrick Miller points out that one should not in
the midst of these words for forgiveness miss the indications of the nature of
Yahweh's redemptive work, which is "the vindication of his purpose so that
individuals and community are led to worship, serve and fear him". He goes on to make another point that
this is a theme that is found through out the entire Psalter.
This theme of Yahweh's redemptive work is
also found in Psalm 25 where the Psalmist first establishes Yahweh's history of
in Psalm 25:7 he proceeds to have himself included in it. It becomes obvious at
this juncture that the people of the Old Testament had a confidence that
because of how they had seen Yahweh work in the past, they knew that to find
forgiveness for their sinful deeds meant a turning to Yahweh in repentance.
This however is not the complete picture
displayed here because such Psalms as Psalm 6, Psalm 90 and Psalm 38 leave no
doubt that the writers believe that with the salvation that they pray for, will
come also forgiveness.
For Rev McKeating the forgiveness motif of the Psalms is intrinsically tied to
Yahweh's salvation, and he sees forgiveness as being paralleled to healing
McKeating makes clear the implication is that to the people of the Old
Testament it was not a spiritual salvation to which they ascribed, but that
forgiveness was but one of the many benefits bestowed by Yahweh. Sin and disaster throughout the
biblical period were always directly linked.
The Psalmist of Psalm 32 writes about how
his silence or lack of seeking forgiveness cost him as his body wasted away (Psalm
32:3 NRSV). Craigie makes note that some commentators see this as a sign of
some psychosomatic illness, "which they see as a bodily reaction to the
internally contained conflicts of guilt".
Even John Calvin saw the possibility that sin without forgiveness could
possible lead to some mental malady, and it would remain thus "till he was
restored to the favour of God".
Von Rad points out the connection the people saw between sin and disease, using
such passages as Psalm 32:1ff, Psalm 35:3ff, 3 Psalm 9:8-11, Psalm 41:4 to show
how close this is to the theological assertion made by the Yahwist in Genesis
3. The Yahwist indicates "how all the disturbances in our natural life
have their roots in a disturbed relationship to God".
As a means of applying the understanding of
sin and forgiveness to today's Christian walk it becomes important to focus in
on what the author finds are the major points of this essay.
Firstly with an expanded understanding of
what Sin was to the people of the Old Testament it becomes a personal challenge
for every Christian to move away from the more liberal attitude of today. This
attitude of it not being important to change our lifestyle, with a main
emphasis on confession and acceptance of Christ falls into insignificance when
the Old Testament understanding of purity and cleanliness before God is
applied. With the unchanging nature of God one is made question how a God who
put such an emphasis on these two qualities (purity and cleanliness) could
suffer a generation who comes to his son seeking forgiveness but without a
broken and contrite spirit and
a willingness to turn aside from their sinful ways.
Secondly as one looks today at a generation
with so many emotional burdens and insecurities which are devastating the
health of the population it has to be considered, is this the result of
unconfessed sin and are writers like Von Rad and others correct when they tie
this humankind's mental health?
Thirdly the idea of those who are called
"blessed" (ie, those who have come before God and have sort and found
could in some way incur the wrath of God like the watch of Ezekiel 3:16-17(as instructed
by God) is at the least a sobering fact. This has the concept raised by
Goldingay of blood guilt and must bring to the mind of the God's people that
with blessing comes responsibility. How great would be the sorrow on the last
day when confronted with a book of accusation which listed all the lost
opportunities one had for evangelism. Just the possibility of such an idea must
cause all to question their own commitment to bring others to Christ.
Fourthly the everlasting love of God as
shown in Psalm 130 should be of encouragement to those who do fail but are
earnestly seeking to fulfil God's plan for their lives. It should encourage the
redeemed to be of a like nature to the lost and sinful around them. Not looking
upon them with distain or disgust, but seeing them through the eyes of a God
whose love has no bounds.
So in conclusion it could be said that
Psalms 32 and Psalms 51 define what sin and forgiveness is in combination with
the other penitential Psalms but Psalm 130 shows us how we should approach the
throne of grace. As the Psalmist of Pslam 130 displays his confidence that his
misdeeds will be forgiven so it is possible for others today to do also.
Allen, Leslie. C, Psalms 101-150, Word
Biblical Commentary. (Waco, Texas: Word Publishers, 1986, Vol 21).
Calvin, John, "Psalms" Calvins
Commentaries. (trans. Rev. James Anderson; Edinburgh: The Calvin
Translation Society, 1845)
Craigie, Peter. C, Psalms 1-50 Word
Biblical Commentary. (Waco, Texas: Word Publishers, 1986, Vol 19).
Goldingay John, "Psalm 51:16a (English
51:14a)" Catholic Bible Quarterly 40 (1978) 388-390.
Harris, R. Laird et. al, Theological
Wordbook of the Old Testament. (3 vols.; Chicago: Moody Press, 1980, Vol 2)
Jenson, Robert. W, "Psalm 32" Interpretation.
33, April (1979) 172-176.
Kraus, Hans-Joachim, Psalms 1-59 A
Commentary. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988).
McKeating, Rev. Henry, "Divine
Forgiveness in the Psalms." Scottish Journal of Theology. Vol 18,
March 1965 69-83.
Miller, Patrick. D, "Psalm 130" Interpretation.
33, April (1979)176-181.
Rad, Gerhard. Von, Old Testament
Theology. (2 Vols.; London: Oliver and Boyd, 1962, vol. 1)
Tate, Marvin. E, Psalms 51-100 Word
Biblical Commentary. (Waco, Texas: Word Publishers, 1986, Vol 20)
VanGemeren, Willem, "Psalms", The
Expositor's Bible Commentary. (12 vols.; ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 1991, vol 5) 1-882.
Weiser, Artur, The Psalms. (London;
SCM Press, 1966)
Youngblood, Ronald, "A New Look at the
Three Old Testament Roots for "Sin", Biblical and Near Eastern
Studies. (ed. Gary A. Tuttle; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978) 201-205.
Zink, J.K., "Uncleanness and Sin, A
Study of Job XIV 4 and Psalm LI 7", Vetus Testamentum 17 (1967)
Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100 Word Biblical Commentary.
(Waco, Texas: Word Publishers, 1986, Vol 20) 15.
Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 1-59 A Commentary. (Minneapolis:
Augsburg Publishing House, 1988) 501.
Tate, 15f. Here Tate examines S.R. Driver's argument that there has
been confusion of the actual root of ]vi and quotes him as
writing "one root means to 'bend' and the other to 'err, go astray'".
R Laird Harris et. al, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament.
(3 vols.; Chicago: Moody Press, 1980, Vol 2) 650.
Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50 Word Biblical Commentary.
(Waco, Texas: Word Publishers, 1986, Vol 19) 266.
Ronald Youngblood, "A New Look at the Three Old Testament Roots
for "Sin", Biblical and Near Eastern Studies. (ed. Gary A.
Tuttle; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978) 201.
Willem VanGemeren, "Psalms", The Expositor's Bible
Commentary. (12 vols.; ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
1991, vol 5) 271.
Artur Weiser, The Psalms. (London; SCM Press, 1966) 281.
Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology. (2 Vols.; London:
Oliver and Boyd, 1962, vol. 1) 272ff. Here Von Rad outlines to the implications
of what uncleanness meant to the people of Yahweh. He goes into an in depth
discussion of the importance of being clean not only outside, but also inside
covering cleanness in relation to the Temple, food, the priests, the objects of
the cultus and the necessity for cleanness for the individual. Displaying how
to be unclean was to displease Yahweh.
Robert W. Jenson, "Psalm 32" Interpretation. 33,
April (1979) 172.
John Goldingay, "Psalm 51:16a (English 51:14a)" Catholic
Bible Quarterly 40 (1978) 388f.
Goldingay, 390. For the complete argument put forward by Goldingay
see his article "Psalm 51:16a (English 51:14a)" CBQ 40 (1978)
J.K. Zink, "Uncleanness and Sin, A Study of Job XIV 4 and Psalm
LI 7", Vetus Testamentum 17 (1967) July, 354ff.
Von Rad, 273. "the unclean was the most basic form in which
Israel encountered what was displeasing to God".
Patrick D. Miller, "Psalm 130" Interpretation. 33,
Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150, Word Biblical Commentary.
(Waco, Texas: Word Publishers, 1986, Vol 21) 196.
Miller, 180. We hear it in Psalm 103:
The steadfast love of the Lord is
from everlasting to everlasting
upon those who fear him (v.17).
and in Psalm 23:
He leads me in the paths of
for his name's sake. (v.3.)
VanGemeren, 228. "The psalmist also needs
"forgiveness" in view of his failures. He prays for God's covenant
"mercy" (rahamim) and "love" (hesed), which he has extended
"from of old" (cf. 103:17; 143:5) to his covenant people: Abraham,
Isaac, Jacob and the tribes of Israel (cf. Exod 34:6)".
Rev. Henry McKeating, "Divine Forgiveness in the Psalms." Scottish
Journal of Theology. Vol 18, March 1965 p 72.
John Calvin, "Psalms" Calvins Commentaries. (trans.
Rev. James Anderson; Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1845) 528.