It’s covered

As the saying goes, “confession is good for the soul.” Despite having the word “soul,” the proverbial phrase is usually tossed off without any real theological intent. It’s simply a way of saying, “C’mon, fess up. You’ll feel better if you do” (and yes, “fess” is derived from “confess”).

You can look, but you won’t find the phrase anywhere in your Bible.

Still, I imagine that the composer of Psalm 32 might agree with the sentiment, and do so from personal experience.

. . .

The psalmist, as we’ve seen, was trying to keep something from God. He suffered physically for it. His “body wasted away”; he groaned out loud; his strength was gone (Ps 32:3-4, NRSV). The psalm pauses at this point, as if to let the congregation feel the full weight of God’s discipline, anticipating the turning point in the story.

That turning point comes with the act of confession:

Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
    and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
    and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
(vs. 5)

Note that the psalmist could just as well leave out the middle two lines without changing the essential meaning of what he says: I held back, and I suffered greatly; then, Lord, I confessed my sin to you and you forgave me (one wants to add a “hallelujah” here). It’s as if he wants to make the description of his surrender more intense by saying the same thing three times in succession, a different way each time.

There’s something to learn, I think, from the variety of nouns and verbs he uses.

First, the nouns. He speaks twice of “sin,” and also uses the words “iniquity” and “transgressions.” Although the Hebrew words overlap in meaning and usage, each adds a slightly different nuance to our understanding of what the psalmist is confessing. The word translated as sin puts more emphasis on the deed itself, the offense committed. Iniquity highlights the twisted or distorted character of the person doing the deed. Transgression suggests rebellion or revolt.

Then, the verbs. Acknowledge means to know, recognize, or admit; the psalmist is admitting to himself and to God what he would not recognize before. Hide suggests covering something to conceal it; we might speak of a “cover up.”

Confess is a broad word with multiple meanings. It literally pictures doing something with your hands, and the meaning has to be determined by the context. Sometimes, for example, it can mean to praise or give thanks, conveying the image of people with their hands raised in worship. Thus, in Psalm 32, we might think of confession as handing one’s sin over to God: Here, Lord, you take it.

This may be pushing things too far, but there seems to be a pattern in the synonyms for sin that the psalmist uses. The sequence of words is: sin, iniquity, transgression, guilt, sin. Note that what the NRSV translates as “iniquity” and “guilt” are basically the same word in Hebrew. That gives us what looks like a carefully constructed A-B-C-B-A pattern of terms, which highlights C at its center: the word “transgression.” And why emphasize that particular word? Because it echoes the opening line of the psalm: “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (vs. 1).

While we’re at it, we might also note that the word “covered” in verse 1 is same as “hide” in verse 5. Think about it. What the psalmist seems to be saying is, “I tried to cover up my sin, and paid the price for it. So I confessed it instead. And not only did God forgive me, he covered it up.”

Instead of holding back, instead of trying to cover it up, the psalmist finally admitted his sin to God. He handed it over, and God forgave him. God didn’t say, “I’ll let it go this time, but you’d better watch your step.” God didn’t say, “We’ll revisit this later.”

God threw a tarp over it.

Maybe there’s a lesson in there for those of us who keep wanting to peek under the tarp.