This psalm is categorized as one of the penitential psalms, but the heading lists it as a maskil, a teaching. In one of the other penitential pslams (51), David vows that as a result of his forgiveness, he will teach sinners the way (51:13). It is quite possible that this psalm is a fulfillment of that promise. Here we learn the way of sin and forgiveness.
Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the LORD imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile . . .
We may readily divide the psalm into four stanzas. The first (vv. 1-2) is a declaration of blessedness. The word is in the plural—”Blessednesses to him . . .” who is forgiven. So the psalm begins in jubilation. The second stanza recounts what it had been like for David before he broke down under God’s chastisement and confessed his sin, and what happened when he finally turned back to God (vv. 3-5). The third stanza promises deliverance and salvation for those who seek the Lord when He may be found (vv. 6-7). And the last stanza applies the lesson that all of us as sinners need to learn (vv. 8-11).
The whole psalm must be taken together, but our emphasis is going to be on the first stanza. This is the portion that St. Paul quotes at the beginning of the fourth chapter of Romans, and it is a pivotal text.
In this stanza, three different words for sin are used. The first, translated transgression (peshah), means a “going away,” or “rebellion.” The second is sin (chattath), and means a “falling short,” and is almost equivalent to the New Testament word for sin, which is harmartia. It is an archery term, and refers to falling short of the target (or standard). And the last word is rendered as iniquity, and means “corrupt,” or “perverted.” Sin is considered from every angle—it is rebellion against the person of God Himself, it is falling short of His holy law, and it is a twisting or corruption of the image of God in man. It is bad in every way. This is important because we live in a day when our healers approach us with therapy-speak, or with drugs, or with House Bill 728. But if men are sinners then all this sort of thing does is rearrange the sinful furniture. Sin is lawlessness, and we were born into a race that finds this irresistably attractive. The fact that sin is a death wish (Prov. 8) does not keep it from being a wish.
But there are also three words for grace. The grace of God meets us where we are. There are three gracious things done for us in this same stanza. First, we are forgiven, and it refers to our sins being “lifted off.” The picture here is very much like what happened to the pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress. The great burden rolls off our back. The second blessing is that God covers our sin. The imagery is taken from the Day of Atonement. God provides a just covering by means of propitiation, the transaction of the mercy seat. The third gracious thing God does with regard to our sins is something He does not do—He does not impute or reckon our sins against us. This is a book-keeping term; God does not count our sins against us. We, however, still try to keep a running tally, and we have to learn that our God does not do this.
David had been silent about his guilt, but not silent about his sorrow (v. 3). God’s hand was heavy upon him, and he dried up like the desert (v. 4). The word Selah most likely means “pause for reflection or meditation,” and a Selah is found on either side of verse 5. David acknowledged his sin, and he did not hide his iniquity. He decided to confess his transgression—he again uses all three words for sin that were used earlier. He does not hold back anything in his confession. As the great Puritan Thomas Watson put it, he did not confess his sins at wholesale. He says more than that he has done evil. He says he has done this evil. Notice the immediacy of grace: “I will confess . . . thou forgavest.” So mercy does not always look merciful at the first. Nathan’s countenance when he first approached David was no doubt severe, but it was the mercy of God coming toward David — as David later recognized.
The godly are characterized as those who seek God when He may be found (v. 6). This is urged upon us elsewhere (Is. 55:6-7). The fact that God may be found implies that a time is coming when He will not be found. Today, if you hear His voice . . . We live in a day of grace, in a time of grace, in an age of blessed grace. It is not to be abused or taken for granted.
We then, as workers together with him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain. (For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succoured thee: behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.) (2 Cor. 6:1-2)
For those who take refuge from Him in Him, He provides a great deliverance. God is my hiding place. Later, we see that the one who trusts in the Lord is compassed round about with mercies (v. 10). Here we see that God surrounds Him with songs of deliverance. Think about it, and meditate upon it.
David will teach you some basic instruction (v. 8). Listen up. Don’t be a donkey when it comes to your sinning (v. 9). Your theology of sin and forgiveness needs to be more than a bit and bridle. Sorrows flood the wicked, but mercies surround the one who trusts in the Lord(v. 10). What should the standing demeanor of the forgiven be? Gladness, joy, a joy that shouts (v. 11).
The second verse of this pslam indicated that perhaps Nathanael was not conceited as he sometimes appears (Jn. 1:47). The center of our experienced faith is the forgiveness of sin. Blessed is the man who sin is not imputed to him (Rom. 4:6-8). Not imputing sin amounts to the same thing as imputing the righteousness apart from works. And this is glorious.