Dead Sea MSS: (Psalm 32 is not preserved among the surviving Dead Sea Psalms manuscripts).
This Psalm is akin to the prior Pss 30 and 31, blending the setting of prayer for deliverance (from illness, etc) with praise and thanksgiving to YHWH for having rescued his faithful follower. Psalm 32 is simpler in structure and more streamlined in its thought. The idea of repentance and forgiveness (from sin) also features more prominently, to the point that Ps 32 came to be counted as one of the seven “Penitential Psalms” in Catholic ritual and liturgical tradition.
The musical direction of the superscription indicates that this composition is a lyK!c=m^, a term of uncertain meaning, but presumably derived from the root lk^c* which characteristically occurs in the Hiphil stem (= lyK!c=h!). The root fundamentally indicates the use of reason and intelligence—i.e., wisdom, understanding, prudence, etc. As a poetic or musical term, it could refer to a harmonious composition, a work of great skill and artistry (or requiring skill to perform), a poem/song used for instruction, or something else entirely. Like most of the Psalms we have studied thus far, the superscription marks it as “belonging to David”.
As noted above, this Psalm is not present in the surviving Dead Sea Psalms manuscripts; there is no way to be certain whether this means the Psalm was unknown by the Qumran Community, or that its absence is simply an accident of survival.
I would divide the Psalm as follows:
The outer portions (vv. 1-2, 10-11) reflect the strong influence of Wisdom tradition on the Psalms (a point made numerous times in these studies). The inner portions (vv. 3-7, 8-9) form the dramatic heart of the composition, presenting the prayer for deliverance, along with God’s answer.
“Happiness of (he whose) violation (is) being lifted,
(whose) sin (is) being covered (over)!
Happiness of (the) man (when)
YHWH does not determine for him (any) perversion,
and (indeed) there is no deceit in his spirit!”
This section is comprised of a pair of beatitudes, the second of which is longer and more difficult (poetically) than the first. For this particular wisdom-form, with ancient roots in religious ritual and concepts of the afterlife, cf. the study on Psalm 1, as well as my earlier article (on the background of the beatitude form) in the series on the Beatitudes of Jesus. As in Psalm 1:1, these beatitudes begin with the plural construct form yr@v=a^; literally, this would mean something like “happy [thing]s of…”, but the plural actually should be understood in an intensive or superlative sense, with the force of an exclamation: “(O, the) happiness of…”, “How happy (is)…!”.
The first beatitude (v. 1) is a tight 3+2 couplet, though it is difficult to capture this meter in a literal translation, which requires glossing (cf. above). The parallelism of the couplet is precise, enhanced by its use of terse rhythm and rhyme:
“being lifted (the) violation,
“being covered (the) sin”
The noun ha*f*j& (“sin, error”) in the second line is set parallel with uv^P# in the first line, a term which, in the covenant setting, refers to a breach or violation of the binding agreement. In a more extreme connotation, uv^P# can even refer to the revolt or rebellion of a vassal against his sovereign. Given the religious dimension of the covenant between YHWH and Israel, any sin or transgression (whether from a ritual or ethical standpoint) constitutes a violation of the covenant. That person is truly blessed (i.e. “happy”) when God forgives such a violation—forgiveness here signified by the verbs ac^n` (“lift, carry [away]”) and hs*K* (“cover”).
The second beatitude (v. 2) is more complex, with an irregular meter. Here a specific individual is in view (“Happiness of [the] man…”), with the noun <d*a* used in this sense (rare in the Psalms). The short introductory line leads into the couplet proper, which defines the forgiveness of sin as an action performed specifically by God (YHWH). In point of fact, there are two aspects to the idea of forgiveness in this couplet:
- What God determines (vb bv^j*) regarding the person—that he/she is not ‘crooked’ or perverse (/ou*); there is a judicial connotation here
- What is truly in the person’s spirit—that there is no deceit (hY`m!r=), implying no intention toward perversion; the noun can also connote treachery or betrayal (in a covenant context).
Ultimately, what YHWH determines regarding a person reflects that person’s true nature and character (what is “in the spirit”); God simply makes a (judicial) determination to this effect. Even so, the divine decree of forgiveness is a cause for great happiness among the righteous.
“For I keep quiet, (yet) my substance is worn out,
in my roaring (that still occurs) all the day.”
The verb form yT!v#r^j#h# in the MT is problematic. It would seem to be derived from the root vrj II (“be silent, quiet), which occurs regularly in the Hiphil stem; but, if so, the sense of the parallelism in the couplet becomes difficult to determine. Perhaps, it reflects a sort of grim irony–even though the protagonist keeps quiet (i.e. says no words), the suffering he experiences in his body produces “roaring” that goes on all day long. Dahood (p. 194) suggests that the verb here should be taken as deriving from crj (“scrape, scratch, cut”), more or less identical in meaning with vrj I. The noun cr#j# refers to a shard of pottery, etc, used for scraping, and the noun occurs in Psalm 22:16 in an idiomatic context quite similar to what we find here: the Psalmist feels his “strength dried up like a shard (of pottery) [cr#j#]”. If this line of interpretation is correct, then the verse would need to be translated as a tricolon, something like:
“For I became a scraping(-shard),
my substance was worn out
by my roaring all the day.”
In both renderings, I have translated the plural of <x#u# in an abstract or collective sense that preserves the fundamental meaning of “strength, substance”; however, it also frequently alludes specifically to a person’s bones (as the strength/substance within the body).
“For day and night your hand was heavy upon me,
my <tongue> was turned up by (the) dry (heat) of summer.
As most commentators would point out, yD!v^l= of the MT in the second line is unintelligible, and would seem to require emendation. I tentatively follow the suggestion of Olshausen, adopted by other commentators (cf. Kraus, p. 367), of reading yn]v^l= (“my tongue”) instead. It entails the small correction of a single letter, and fits the imagery of the line (along with that of v. 3, above): that of the harsh heat of summer drying out a person’s tongue. The use of the verb Ep^h* (“turn over, turn about”) here may refer to the motion of the parched tongue in one’s mouth desperately seeking moisture. This oppressive heat is symbolic of the Psalmist’s suffering, recognized as coming from the “hand” of God. Most likely, this suffering is to be understood as stemming from an illness or disease of some kind (cf. the setting of Pss 30-31, discussed in the most recent studies).
Verse 4 concludes with the musical-poetic indicator hl*s# (Selah). The meaning and significance of this term remains one of the most persistently puzzling, if minor, elements of Psalm Studies. The term, as it occurs in the texts that have come done to us, often does not appear to be applied in a clear or consistent manner. Almost certainly it relates to some aspect of the performance tradition of the Psalms, presumably indicating a pause of some kind—marking a change or shift of tone, tempo, etc, perhaps even something like a musical key change. In any case, here the term occurs three times in close succession, and may carry a definite structural and thematic significance for the composition; note:
- Vv. 3-4: The suffering of the Psalmist—Selah
- V. 5: His confession of sin and forgiveness—Selah
- Vv. 6-7a: The safety and protection for the Psalmist—Selah
- Vv. 3-4: The suffering of the Psalmist—Selah
The confession of sin (and forgiveness by YHWH) in verse 5 is central to this structure, providing the transition between suffering (in violation of the covenant, vv. 3-4) and security (back under the covenant protection provided by YHWH, vv. 6-7).
“My sin I made known to you,
and my perversion I did not cover;
I said, ‘I will throw (out) over me
my violation toward YHWH!’
and you lifted (away from me)
(the) perversion of my sin.”
There is a similar three-part structure to this central verse, involving each of the three pairs of couplets:
- Repentance/recognition of sin (violation of the covenant) [5a]
- Formal confession of sin, as being directed toward YHWH [5b]
- Forgiveness of sin (restoration of the covenant bond) [5c]
The syntax of the middle couplet is a bit difficult; in particular, the expression hwhyl (“to YHWH”) is ambiguous, and may carry a double meaning: (a) he makes his confession “to YHWH”, but also (b) admits that his is sin is a violation directed “toward YHWH” (that is, in violation of the binding agreement with YHWH). Dahood (p. 195) suggests that the lamed (l=) here is vocative (“O, YHWH”), and this also is possible.
Note that the idiom of “covering” (vb hs*K*) sin here has the exact opposite meaning as it does in v. 1 (cf. above). When the sinful human being “covers” sin, he/she tries to hide it; when God “covers” that person’s sin, he removes it from consideration, wiping it away.
“Upon this shall he pray,
every loyal (one), to you—
for (in the) time of outpouring reaching,
through a flood of many waters,
they will not touch him (at all)!”
This is a most difficult verse, both metrically and syntactically. A two beat (2+2) bicolon is followed by three beat (3+3+3) tricolon. The overall idea is clear enough: the faithful/loyal (dys!j*) follower of YHWH will pray to Him in the manner described in v. 5, repenting and confessing any sin, and the covenant bond will be restored. At that point, the faithful one comes back under the covenant protection provided by YHWH, and he will then be kept safe from any danger or trouble that he might encounter (symbolized as a flood of “many waters”). The manner of expressing this matrix of ideas, in terms of the syntax of the verse, however, is quite difficult, at least in the text as it has come down to us. The main problem lies in the third line (the first of the tricolon), which in the Hebrew MT reads:
qr^ ax)m= tu@l=
The word qr^, as vocalized, would normally be understood as an adjective meaning “thin, weak”, which is often used (in prose) as a more generic adverb (with restrictive force), i.e., “only”. However, here qr more likely derives from the root qyr! (“pour out, draw out, empty”). This would fit the idea of an outpouring of water, as well as the violent/military aspect of the verb—i.e., drawing out the sword, an armed force pouring out (Gen 14:14), etc. This does not eliminate all of the syntactical difficulties (note the awkwardness in English of the literal translation above), but it at least provides a plausible framework for the verse as a whole.
“You are (the) covering for me,
from oppression you shall guard me,
(with) cries of deliverance you surround me!”
Here the protection provided by YHWH is more clearly emphasized. He serves as a “covering” (rt#s@), a “guard” (vb rx^n`), and one who “surrounds” (vb bb^s*) the righteous.
The precise meaning of the last line is a bit obscure. The verb /n`r* means “shout, cry”, i.e., making a piercing, ringing cry, like that of a bird. The use of the verb in Psalm 63:8  suggests a similar connotation of protection that is otherwise not clearly attested elsewhere in the Old Testament. The allusion here may be precisely that of Ps 63:8—viz., the cry of bird protecting its young, surrounded by the parent’s wings. Also possible are the metaphorical “cries” of attackers against the shields (?) that surround and protect the righteous, or even the cries of soldiers holding the protective shields. The same verb is used, in a somewhat different sense, in the closing lines of verse 11 (cf. below).
“I will make you understand and give you direction in (the) way that you shall walk,
I will give you counsel, my eye (ever) upon you.”
With verse 8, the remaining lines of the Psalm become longer—here a 4+3 couplet. In vv. 8-9 YHWH responds to the Psalmist’s prayer. Even though God had already given answer by healing/delivering him, now He provides a direct (formal) response. It comes in the form of a promise to give understanding and direction to His faithful follower; we can see rather clearly here the influence of Wisdom-tradition, which is found quite frequently in the Psalms (especially the closing portions). The verbs are in the Hiphil (causative) stem, indicating what YHWH will make happen for the Psalmist:
- “I will make you understand” (vb lk^c*), i.e., give knowledge, wisdom; see the note on the term lyK!c=m^ in the superscription, above.
- “I will give you direction” (vb hr*y`), lit. “I will cast (the arrow) for you”, pointing the way, giving direction; this use of hry is often summarized as “instruct[ion]”, the proper translation of the derived noun hr*oT (Torah).
The main verb in the second line would appear to be Ju^y` (“counsel, advise, guide”), keeping with the same line of imagery. However, Dahood (p. 196) offers the intriguing suggestion that the form hx*u&ya! should be parsed as the verb hx*u* (“close, shut”, cf. Prov 16:30) preceded by the negative particle ya!, otherwise clearly attested in the Old Testament only at Job 22:30. I am very nearly persuaded by this analysis, which, if correct, would mean that the second line should be translated as “my eye upon you is not (ever) closed”.
“You must not be like a horse (or) like a mule, without understanding,
with muzzle and harness (needed) to curb its surging (nature)—
otherwise (there is) no coming near to you!”
This verse, an extended and irregular (4+4+3) tricolon, continues the address of YHWH to the Psalmist, following the Wisdom-aspect of this section with a colorful bit of proverbial instruction. There is some difficulty in the second line, particularly the meaning of MT oyd=u#. I tentatively follow Dahood here (p. 197), deriving it from a root ddu, rare in the Old Testament (cf. Job 10:17), but attested in Ugaritic as the cognate ²dd, with the meaning “swell (up), expand”. The illustration of the horse that needs a muzzle and harness to control it suggests a comparable meaning for wydu here—viz., a wild and untamed nature, that swells and surges and is difficult to control.
There is also some difficulty in determining the precise meaning of the third line. We would expect the third person singular, rather than the second person suffix of ;yl#a@ (“to you”); but this may simply indicate a sudden shift applying the proverb directly to the Psalmist. In this respect, the shorter third line functions as a warning: if you act in a reckless and heedless manner, ignoring the sound instruction and wisdom (from God), no one will want to come near you! Perhaps, the idea in view is that YHWH Himself will not wish to come near such a person.
In this brief final section, the Wisdom instruction is broadened, directed to the people of God, the righteous ones, as a whole. This is typical of the closing lines of many Psalms, as has been previously noted.
“Many (are the) afflictions (belonging) to (the) wicked,
but (the one) seeking protection in YHWH will have goodness surrounding him!”
Ultimately, the wicked will have “afflictions” (pl. of the noun boak=m^), or “pains”; the root bak can also connote sadness and sorrow. Probably this refers to the final fate of the wicked, the punishment which God has in store for (l=) them. By contrast, the righteous will continue to be surrounded vb bb^s*, used above in v. 7) by the covenant protection and blessing provided by YHWH. The loyal and faithful one both seeks the protection of God, and also finds it; this is the fundamental meaning of the verb jf^B*, used frequently in the Psalms, and, quite naturally, it also connotes the trust one places in YHWH. The common noun ds#j# means “goodness”, but often connotes faithfulness and loyalty, in the context of the covenant; here it signifies the blessing that comes to those who are loyal to YHWH. The contrast between the righteous and the wicked is a staple of Wisdom literature, and features in many of the Psalms (cf. especially in Psalm 1).
“Rejoice in YHWH, and spin round (with joy), (you) righteous (one)s,
and give a (ringing) cry all (you the one)s straight of heart!”
The final couplet is an exhortation for the righteous to praise God. The joyous twirling (spinning/dancing in a circle) of the righteous parallels the motif of the righteous being surrounded (vb bb^s*) by His protection (v. 7). The same verb /n`r* was also used in v. 7, referring to a ringing cry. There it seems to allude to the piercing cry of a bird protecting its young (cf. also Ps 63:8 , noted above). Here it is the protected ones (i.e. the righteous) who cry out, in joy. Those faithful and loyal to YHWH (and to the covenant with Him) are characterized in traditional terms as “just, right[eous]” ones (<yqyD!x^); like dsj, the root qdx can also connote faithfulness and loyalty. Another traditional expression is “straight of heart” (here bl@ yr@v=y]), which implies the faithfulness of one’s intention, which goes deeper than a practical observance of the covenant (i.e., the Torah).
References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, I. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed. Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); in English translation as Psalms 1-59. A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).