One of the challenges of reading, praying, and singing the psalms is the fact that they often divide the world in half. The Psalms constantly draw lines in the sand: good guys and bad guys, righteous and unrighteous. This is challenging and troubling because we know that the world is actually a really messy place. People don’t go around with signs on their foreheads, black and white shirts. We can’t see peoples’ hearts. Life seems a lot more complicated than that. People are not made out of blocks of wood. They have stories. There are good days and bad days and mediocre days. People soar to heights of wisdom and glory and plummet to depths of folly and poor reasoning skills – sometimes within minutes. But any given lifetime is full of ups and downs, accomplishments and failures, obedience and disobedience. So who is the psalmist talking about? Are these good guys and bad guys just imaginary categories? Or do they apply to real, flesh and blood people in history?
Last week’s sermon was on Psalm 109, and there David clearly believes in particular people who are bad guys, particular men who need to be cross examined, convicted of injustice, and made to eat the desserts of their evil schemes and lies. But then what about Psalm 14 that says that there is no one who does good. All have gone aside, all have become filthy: there is none who does good, no, not one (Ps. 14:1-3). How can there be good guys if everyone is bad? Paul even quotes Psalm 14 in Romans affirming that it’s true. There are none righteous. But what about all the psalms that say there are righteous people?
Psalm 32 is a key to answering these questions. The very last verse is a command for the righteous to be glad in the Lord, to rejoice and for all the upright in heart to shout for joy (32:11). So who are those guys?
The answer of Psalm 32 is that they are people who have been surrounded by mercy. This is what the previous verse says: many sorrows shall be to the wicked, but he that trusteth in the Lord, mercy shall compass him about (32:10).
Here’s that dichotomy again: the wicked get sorrow, but the opposite of wicked here is not righteous – at least not yet. He gets to that in the next verse. In the first instance, David says the opposite of the wicked are those who trust the Lord. Those who trust the Lord have mercy built up around them like walls, like armor.
What do these people trust Yahweh for? If we keep working backwards in the psalm, we learn again that there are basically two different kinds of people in the world: brothers and brutes (32:8-9). Brothers listen to instruction and are teachable and correctable. They look to the eyes of their friends, their spouse, their children, their elders, and understand the way they should go, and they follow. Brothers trust that the Lord is working through the people around them. Brothers trust the Lord by trusting the input, suggestions, feedback, and correction of other brothers. But brutes do not trust the Lord, and so they do not trust the other people in their life. Brutes are threatened by the input, feedback, and correction of other people. Brutes are like beasts of burden, stubborn, willful, and have no understanding. They have to be led around with bits and bridles in their mouths. They only respond to yanking and pulling and pain, and even then it’s only reluctantly and with annoyance not with any kind of understanding. This is the difference between the wicked and the righteous, between the wicked and those who trust in the Lord. Who are you? Are you a brother or a brute? Are you teachable, correctable? Or is it your way or the highway? Do you have to be right all the time? Do you only respond to yanks? Do you trust that the Lord is working through other brothers and sisters in your life? Are you a brute or a brother?
The trouble is that everyone is a brute sometimes. Everyone has been hardheaded at times, difficult to correct. Maybe your boss has suggested improvements in your work and your pride was stung. Maybe your wife pointed out some weakness or flaw in you and it caught you off guard, and you’re still wincing, defensively. Maybe a good friend caught you in an inglorious moment in Walmart with the kids and you’re still embarrassed, and you’re pretty sure she has gotten a poor impression of you. Maybe you don’t think your parents trust you enough and so you’re defensive and resist their input, their suggestions. Even if we want to be brothers, how can we not be brutes?
The psalmist answers again, that the central thing, the fundamental thing is not actually what or who you are all by yourself or in your weakest moments, but the most important thing is where you are at any given moment. In verse 10, David said that the difference between the righteous and the wicked was a wall of mercy surrounding the one who trusts the Lord. In verse 7, David lays it out in even more detail: He says that God is his hiding place, where he is safe from all trouble, and in the person of God, He is surrounded with songs of deliverance.
The wall of mercy is made out of music, singing – and the songs being sung are about freedom, about victory, about forgiveness. But how does someone get there? How does one find himself or herself inside the hiding place, inside the protection of God’s mercy? How do you get into a fortress made out of the songs of deliverance?
David explains: It’s actually not hard at all. In reality, we were made for the hiding place. We were made to exist in the protective presence of the Father, Son, and Spirit. The problem, the challenge is not actually getting in so much as it is letting go of the things that keep us out. David didn’t actually find himself outside the presence of God for a moment. As it turns out, it was the presence of God all the time – only it was oppressive. God’s hand was heavy upon him; it was like the middle of summer in a desert. Not because God is a desert, but because David was clinging to his sin.
The grace of God is like a cool, clean waterfall rushing splashing down a hillside. The mercy of God is never ending, never dried up. But sin is a desert full of mirages. Sin promises fulfillment and never delivers, and in our dehydrated delusions we lunge again and again for the pool of water that is not there, for the satisfaction that is not there, for the joy that is not there. And we come up empty with handfuls and mouthfuls of burning, choking sand. Maybe it’s in this diet, this homeschool curriculum, this relationship. If only I was on my own, away from my parents. If only I was married. If only I had children. If only my children were more obedient. If only they were like their children. If only my marriage was more like their marriage. If only my spouse was more like him, more like her. If only I made more money. If only we had a better house, car, job, if only, if only, if only. And discontent and envy over what others have been given pours like lighter fluid all of our lives, and all it takes is a sloppy conversation, a sketchy movie, a lazy afternoon, a little lack of sleep, and a spark ignites the blaze. And there you are lunging in the sand, wondering why it’s hot, why it’s dry, why it hurts, why you’ve come up empty again.
But unlike a real desert, the way sin works, it’s actually all a mirage. In fact, it’s rather like a desert on a movie set, with a painted background and fans blowing offset like you’re caught in a sand storm. But right on the other side of the fake backdrop is the real Pacific Ocean, lapping the edge of the world calmly, happily again and again, always there, always cool, always welcoming. When you refuse to confess your sin, when you hold on to it, when you make excuses for it, when you defend it, when you hide it, when you keep silent all day and night, you are like a crazy man refusing to leave the movie set. You cling to your sand, you cling to your empty imaginations, and you claim it’s burning up and you’re thirsty and it’s hopeless and you’re a victim of circumstances and no one understands you. Many sorrows shall be to the wicked.
And in the course of our lives we often have people right next to us and in the set around the corner from us. Multiple people chasing mirages in movie set deserts gives the larger impression that there’s actually something real about it. But the question is actually: do you really want deliverance? Do you really want a hiding place? Well then, let go of the idols. It’s not hard to find the hiding place, the Hiding Place has already found you, but you won’t feel safe until you’re forgiven.
And that’s the key: sin is not merely a delusion. Sin is rejection of God. It is the dark opposite of God. This is why you cannot have God and sin. And so long as you cling to the lust, to the lies, to the envy, to the pride, to the critical spirit, you are creating the tension. But the way out is actually easy. They way out is to let go of the sin. When you let go, when you walk off the set of sand, there is an ocean of grace waiting for you, forgiveness that goes on and on. “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in who spirit there is no guile.” In Hebrew, the same word for “blessed” often simply means “happy.”
In the end, the Psalms are right. There really are only two kinds of people in the world: the wicked and the righteous, the good and the evil. But the fundamental difference is not found in their natural inclinations. The fundamental difference is whether you open your mouth and confess your sin or whether you keep silent. If you keep silent and keep your sin hidden, pretending it’s not there, it’s not a big deal, then you are trying to be your own hiding place. You’re trying to keep yourself safe from trouble. But there are no songs of deliverance in that castle, and it’s really more like a dungeon.
You see, the real division in the world is not so much between different kinds of people; we’re pretty much all the same when you get right down to it. There are none righteous. The real division is how we view God. When you imagine God as an ogre, a judge, a fierce despot, you are actually imaging God as a brute and so you mimic the stubborn hardness you think He is. But when you come to see God as your Father, a loving Father who made you and cares for every detail of your life, Who sent His Son in His love to be your older brother and to make a way for you to come home, then you become a brother because you relax and you realize you’re in a safe place, a hiding place. You’ve come home, and now no danger can touch you. And when you confess your sins to God and to one another, you find a God who is more eager to forgive than you are to confess. And we know this because we have met Jesus who is not an Olympian deity at the far reaches of the cosmos. Jesus is a man who was seen and heard and touched and was tempted like us, yet did not sin. But out of love, He freely took our sin, took our guilt, took our shame. God imputed to Him our sin on the cross. He laid our sin on Him. And now there is no condemnation because there is no more sin to impute, and your sin is covered by the blood of the Lamb. “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity…”
There are only two kinds of people in the world: the wicked and the righteous, brothers and brutes, but Psalm 32 says that a pretty good way to tell them apart is by whether they are smiling or not. Happy is the man whose transgression is forgiven, but many sorrows shall be to the wicked. The righteous are not sinless and they still have their fair share of brutish instincts, but now they are surrounded by the walls of covenant mercy. They are guarded on every side with the songs of deliverance. The righteous are sinners who have been washed in the blood of the lamb. The upright in heart are those who have learned the songs of deliverance. They have found shelter in Jesus, their Hiding Place, and now they are not afraid of any danger or trouble. They open their mouths and confess their sins because they are not lost in a deserted, dry land. They have run with mouths full of laughter into an ocean of grace and now they are shouting for joy.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.