Living under the Cloud of Guilt

Your conscience may be invisible but it is certainly not inactive! Who hasn't been kept awake by its pleadings? With incredible regularity, an unforgiven conscience can rob us of an appetite, steal our sleep, and drive us to distraction.

Do you remember Edgar Allan Poe's haunting short story "The Tell-Tale Heart"? The main character has committed murder. Unable to escape the lingering guilt of his deed, he begins to hear the heartbeat of the victim he has buried under his floorboards. A cold sweat covers him as the beat-beat-beat goes on . . . relentlessly. It refuses to go away. Ultimately, it becomes clear that the pounding that drove the man mad was not in the grave down below but the pounding within his own chest. So it is with an unforgiven conscience.

The ancient songwriter David was no stranger to this maddening malady. As we shall soon discover, the longer he refused to come to terms with the enormity of his grinding guilt, the more he became physically ill and emotionally distraught. Only forgiveness can take away that grind.

As we begin to read through this song, two things catch the eye even before we get to verse one. First, we notice this is a Psalm of David. It is a song the man David was led to write under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. So, at the outset let's remember that the song he writes describes some situation from David's personal experience.

Second, we notice this is a "maskil," a term that is unfamiliar to us. Maskil is a transliterated Hebrew word that appears before thirteen of the songs in this ancient hymnbook of the Hebrews. Most likely it is from sakal, a Hebrew verb meaning "to be prudent, circumspect, wise—to have insight;" it has to do with intelligent knowledge gained through reason. According to my English dictionary, "insight" means "the act or power to see into a situation." Putting all this together we understand that the Thirty-second Psalm is designed to give its readers wisdom and insight when dealing with certain situations.

The situation in this case is the grind that accompanies a guilt-ridden conscience. Psalm 51 should be considered along with Psalm 32. Both were written after David's adultery with Bathsheba and his attempt to cover up his sin by arranging her husband's death on the battlefield. Of the two, Psalm 51 was written first, during the anguish of guilt under which David suffered so severely. Psalm 32 was written after the anguish, after his forgiveness had been secured and his peace of mind restored. So, the theme of Psalm 32 could be "The Peace Following Forgiveness" and how it can be achieved. We learn right away that this song is incredibly relevant; we live in a world filled with people living under a thick cloud of guilt, a society in desperate need of forgiveness.

As you read the psalm, allow yourself to enter into the feelings of David. It is obvious that he is joyful at the outset, rejoicing in his present state of forgiveness (32:1–2). He then falls into a reflective mood as he thinks back to days past (32:3–5). Twice during this section of the song, he adds the word selah, which most scholars believe is a musical notation indicating a pause, most likely for reflection. When we come across this musical notation, it is best to pause and then read the section again, only this time more slowly and thoughtfully. The next three verses (32:6–8) look ahead to the future, directly addressing anyone who may read these words. David's conclusion (32:9–11) exhorts his readers to live in an upright manner. Here, then, is an outline of the song.

  1. Expression of Present Joy (32:1–2)
  2. Reflection on Past Sins (32:3–5)
    1. Reluctance to confess (32:3–4)
    2. Willingness to confess (32:5)
  3. Provision for Future Needs (32:6–8)
    1. Invitation (32:6)
    2. Protection (32:7)
    3. Guidance (32:8)
  4. Application to Every Believer (32:9–11)
    1. Don't be stubborn! (32:9)
    2. Take your choice! (32:10)
    3. Remain upright! (32:11)

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Adapted from Charles R. Swindoll, Living the Psalms: Encouragement for the Daily Grind (Brentwood, Tenn.: Worthy Publishing, a division of Worthy Media, Inc., 2012). Copyright © 2012 by Charles R. Swindoll, Inc. All rights are reserved. Used by permission.

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