A 6-year-old child refuses to apologize for hurting his sibling. A 10-year-old girl refuses to say she is sorry for torturing her brother. Instead of admitting the wrong he or she has committed, each one justifies it, tries to ignore it or declares, “It isn’t my fault.” Even when a parent hammers the gravity of the situation home and the child is sent to their room, many children will go and sit on the bed unrepentant, possibly even screaming that the world is unfair and everyone is being mean. Ultimately you might get the quick, unauthentic “Sorry” cast over a shoulder as life goes on, but is that really an apology, is it really a confession?
Kids aren’t always sorry for the things their parents think are worthy of an apology. And even when they are, many have a hard time uttering those two little words, while others quickly blurt out “I’m sorry” without giving any thought to the actual words being said. They convey noise but don’t feel what is meant. Teaching a child when to apologize and how to make amends for hurting someone—whether it was with a playground shove or a broken promise—is a gradual process. It takes training and it takes time.
But before a child can apologize, they need to understand and believe that an offense has been committed. This can be a difficult concept to get through to a child. For that matter, there are many adults who seem to struggle with the truth that their actions harm others. Honestly, when was the last time that you harmed someone and went to them saying, “I’m sorry for discounting your opinion,” or “I’m sorry for yelling at you,” or “I’m sorry for not completing my part of the project and making you do extra work. Will you forgive me?”
As adults we don’t hear those words often and we say them even less. But before a child or adult can truly confess their sins, they must learn to say the words, “I’m sorry” and mean it. When a child knows how to say he or she is sorry, he gains more than a social skill. She also learns how to undo her mistakes, he can take responsibility for his actions, and consider others’ feelings but more importantly she can take responsibility for her actions before God.
The confession of sin is the biblical way of saying, “I’m sorry God, will you forgive me?”  The act of saying I’m sorry and asking for forgiveness is a foundational habit of the Christian life. When we engage in confession with one another, we are preparing ourselves to engage in the great apologies we owe to our maker for all the ways we have offended him and refused to obey and submit to his authority. Our ability to say “I’m sorry” and to truly mean it from the deepest parts of our life is part of what it means to grow in Christian wisdom.
Our psalm today begins with the words Of David, telling us that King David wrote this psalm, song, or prayer. These words are followed up with the words, A maskil. The word maskil is used in two ways in the scriptures, the first is an introduction to songs of mourning, but it is also a word that can be associated with wisdom, or prudent action. When David titled this psalm a maskil, based on the content that follows, I believe he was declaring to everyone who would ever hear this song that they were about to be instructed in a good way for living. They were going to be told how to live and what to do. They were going to learn a way of relating that would be prudent and lead to a holy life. Or in the words of Solomon, (Prov. 15:24) The path of life leads upward for the wise [person] to keep him from going down to the grave. This psalm is going to teach us about a vertical habit that will strengthen us as people and lead us in an upward life.
Throughout the scriptures, wisdom is heralded and sought. Wisdom is defined in many ways. It is working hard, (Prov. 10:5) He who gathers crops in summer is a wise son, but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son. It is the ability to control the tongue (Prov. 10:19) When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise. Wisdom is the ability to learn and listen (Prov. 16:20) Whoever gives heed to instruction prospers, and blessed is he who trusts in the Lord. Wisdom is patience with other’s failings (Prov. 19:11) A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense.
But ultimately, wisdom resides with God. It is one of his defining characteristics, in the words of Scripture (Job 12:13) To God belong wisdom and power; counsel and understanding are his or as the Westminster Catechism puts it, “God is a spirit, whose being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth are infinite, eternal and unchangeable.” If wisdom belongs to God, and is more precious than rubies (Prov. 8:11) and if the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psa. 111:10) then how does saying “I’m sorry God” relate to all of this talk about wisdom?
It is really rather simple.
- First, to apologize to God is to recognize that he owns the patent on right living. He knows what actions, thoughts and words are best for us to speak and think and do. (Rev. 15:3) “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the ages.
- Second, saying “I’m sorry” is a concrete way of recognizing that our actions have gone against his best plans for us. (Jer. 14:20) O LORD, we acknowledge our wickedness and the guilt of our fathers; we have indeed sinned against you.
- Third, To declare contrition is the wise way of saying we earnestly desire to refrain from such activities in the future so we may benefit from being a child of the King. (Rom. 7:18) I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. (Psa. 40:8) I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” (1John 1:9) If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
And David, in his psalm recognizes all of this. He tells us that true happiness, joy and fulfillment is experienced by the one who admits their sin to God and finds relief. Jesus said a similar thing when he declared, Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matt 5:4). The comfort of God, the joy of relating to the infinite God, of knowing and participating in the love that never ends is only available to those who confess they are sinners and experience God declaring them free from the guilt of their sin.
In these opening verses, David uses 3 different words for sin and 3 different words for forgiveness. First he declares that the one whose transgressions are forgiven is Blessed (Ps 32:1a). Here sin is defined as transgression which is really a political term denoting willful rebellion. It’s a term God applies to Israel in Ezek. 2:3 where he says, “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their fathers have been in revolt against me to this very day. It’s a term that can refer to treasonous actions as well. Yet David declares that sins of revolt and treason against God can be forgiven, or lifted off of one’s shoulders. The forgiveness idea here is of taking a heavy burden and placing it on a mule who can carry the load instead of you. David wants his hearers to understand that true joy comes when ones revolt against God and the certain death such treason deserves is lifted off our shoulders and placed onto a beast of burden capable of carrying that load.
In that sense, if you pardon the crudeness of the expression, Jesus is our beast of burden, carrying the guilt and judgment of our rebellion against God and his reign and rule. But David doesn’t stop there defining sin, the next thing he says is blessed is the one whose sins are covered (Ps 32:1b). Here the most general term for sin is used. It means missing the mark, like an archer who fails to strike not only a bull’s eye but the entire target. Our sin is like a sharp shooter failing to qualify for the tournament games for a lack of skill in the qualifying rounds. Our best efforts don’t even hit God’s target of expectation. (Is. 64:6) All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. But again, the blessing is that these sins can be covered. This term covered is the religious term used throughout the scriptures of the whole sacrificial system.
Pictorially, the covering is the picture of the blood being poured upon the altar, so that over the years and decades the very altar which appears to be so beautiful, fine wood covered in brass and gold, becomes encrusted in a thick shell of hardened blood. That may sound like a vile, disgusting picture, but that was the best picture God could give us in this physical world of the work that Christ’s blood would perform upon our sins. Literally swallowing it up, covering it so that it could not be seen again. As Rev 7:14 declares, the saints in heaven are those “who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
But there is one more set of images David uses for sin and forgiveness. In verse 2 he declares, Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him. This time, the word used for sin is a term generally reserved for religious and ethical wrongdoing. It is the failure to perform the proper acts of worship, to not keep the ten commandments, etc. and to this the word for forgiveness is an economic and mathematical term. The blessed one doesn’t have their religious and ethical failures counted. No one is sitting in heaven with a clicker running like the national debt clock for the blessed person. No one is sitting at a balance scale trying to determine the value of our wrongdoings. In fact, because no one is counting them, full assurance is granted to the blessed that their past wrongs will not require any repayment, punishment, or purgatory.
Is this possible? Is there a chance that all three of these forms of forgiveness for all three forms of sin could really happen? Or stated more broadly, can every sin that you and I commit be forgiven and never again brought against us? Absolutely, in fact, this is the declaration of God himself: (Is. 43:25) “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more. (Psa. 103:11-12) For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is [God’s] love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
How is this possible you may ask? How does this great blessing practically get experienced in our lives? The answer is in verse 5: Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity, I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord” – and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:5). Confession, or saying “I’m sorry God” is the key that unlocks the door of blessing and wisdom. When we refuse to admit that our life, our actions, our thought, and even our desires are concretely acts of rebellion, which don’t even place on God’s target, and are opposed to all that is religiously and ethically required of a creature then we waste away. We dry up like desert soil parched from a lack of rain.
Literally, David says that without confession, “I was deaf” – “I kept silent” (Ps 32:3). English uses the word, silent because that makes more sense to us especially when we are talking about confession. But David understood that the true problem with the person who refuses to confess their sin, isn’t one of failing to speak, but one of failing to listen. The one who can’t say they are sorry, whether it is to another person, or to God himself, isn’t listening to the ways they have harmed the other. They are spiritually insensitive, and obtuse. They are experiencing the heavy hand of God, for he continually is working to bring men and women to an acknowledgement of their sin, but in their hardness of heart, they act like Pharaoh, continuing to experience the great judgments of God but also continuing to refuse to admit their wrong doing.
Yet when they do, as quickly as they proclaim, “Lord, I’m sorry for failing to love my neighbor. I’m sorry for failing to give generously to support my Christian brothers and sisters who are in need. I’m sorry for failing to forgive my coworker. I’m sorry that in each of these concrete actions I have rebelled against your rule and desire for me and I have exalted myself to your sovereign throne when in fact I belong on my face begging for mercy”, then the forgiveness of God is everflowing. As the Bible declares, (Prov. 28:13) He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy. (1John 1:9) If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
So don’t be like the horse or mule, stubborn in your ways, rebellious in your heart, running away from the Lord and his kingdom. Rather submit to God, agree with his declaration that your heart is wicked and your ways are flawed. Look at your life, examine it and honestly admit that what you want and what God wants are in conflict.
Tell him you are sorry for calling him a liar by the way you live – thinking that your ways make more sense than his and pray a prayer that begins with the word’s “I’m sorry Lord…” and you too can experience the promises of safety, security, protection and rest. For God promises that those who seek wisdom will find her (Prov. 8:17) I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me.
And more than wisdom will be found in confession; you and I will also find protection from all the threatening situations of the world, including the great adversary who wants to accuse us before God. (Rev. 12:10) Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down.
The psalm ends with these words, Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the man who trusts in him. Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart! (Psa 32:10-11)
Remember that trusting in God and being upright in heart are directly a result of saying “I’m sorry” earlier in the psalm so that one can experience the forgiveness of all his or her guilt. So let me urge you to become a child again before God, learn to say “I’m sorry…” from the deepest parts of your heart. You will never regret it.