To be able to gain an understanding of the meaning of "sin" in the psalms the reader must be able to extricate themself from the English equivalent or counterpart. Within the community of God today "sin" has been defined by many as simply doing those things which are alien to the nature of God.
However in the penitential Psalms (Psalm 6; Psalm 32; Psalm 38; Psalm 51; Psalm 102; Psalm 130; Psalm 143), with particular reference to Psalms 32 and Psalm 51 there are three separate words used to bring across the intended meaning and impact of Sin.
Firstly in v1 of both Psalm 32 and Psalm 51 the word 'transgressions'(NRSV) is used, exclaiming in a theological sense "wilful, self-assertive defiance of God". Hans-Joachim Kraus here likens transgressions to a revolt or rebellion which breaks away from the divine will of God, preferring the use of "wicked deeds" instead.
Secondly both Psalms use the word iniquity(NRSV) and it is at this point that the waters become some what muddied with differing opinions as to the root of the word. Tate brings out the discussion of the issues here over whether its roots lie in "bending and twisting"(see its use in Psalm 38:6 NRSV) or "perversion". Peter Craigie in his commentary on psalm 32 views iniquity as indicating some offence or criminality, or even lack of respect for the divine will. As used in Psalm 51:2 the term is seen as a collective, or quasi-abstract, noun denoting the sum of past misdeeds against God and man. In Job 15:4-4 for instance it used in relation to the doing away of a fear of Yahweh, but in Psalm 78:37-38 it is used in context with not being steadfast towards him.Hence iniquity brings to us a sense of erring, deviating or straying from a given path. Ronald Youngblood in his essay uses as a backdrop the idea of a path or way and illustrates how each of the words used for sin, all have some connection to this central idea of motion along a path. Life then is a journey along a path that has been established by and leads directly to him. Sin is any deviation or change in direction from that path which if followed will lead to some other destination.
Thirdly there is the word commonly translated as sin which carries the idea of missing the mark (often intentionally), God's will for our lives.
Sin in the Psalms then can be seen as Youngblood so well points out, as deviating, missing, loosing sight of, or changing from that intended path way which Yahweh has set out for mankind. This moving from the path is something that is intentional on the part of the sinner, but until they are prepared to admit this they are like the writer of Psalm 32, who tried to hide his sin from God.
What then did the Psalmist’s see as the consequences for this deviating from Yahweh's chosen path? It is apparent from Psalm 51:2 that one of the consequences of iniquity is uncleanness. Therefore as Kraus points out "the guilt over this stands between God and humankind ", causing them to waste away (Psalm 32:3 NRSV). Robert Jenson observes here that what afflicts the Psalmist is not some outside sickness or affliction but an inward destruction of personal health caused by the his own impenitence.
Another consequence of sin arguably could be "blood guilt" and this theme is taken up by John Goldingay who examines Psalm 51:16 in detail, trying to find a definitive answer to the question of whether or not the Psalmist had incurred blood guilt. Goldingay's conclusion is that as the Psalmist is restored by Yahweh he is enabled to fulfil his obligation of giving praise (Pslam 51:15) to Yahweh. Thus he is "thereby delivered from the possibility of incurring blood guilt by not warning other sinners to turn from their evil ways", and in a sense he prays to be kept from being answerable for the lostness of others by his failing to challenge and invite them to return to Yahweh.
J. K. Zink in his article "Uncleanness and Sin, A study of Job 14:4 and Psalm 51:7" looks at the advancement in interpretation of Psalm 51:5 (NRSV) over past 50 years. He points out there has been a progression from the more traditional view of this being about "original sin" ie. The view of Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin and others, to a much more open interpretation. The latter more open view includes original sin, human frailty, a collective expression of a request for forgiveness, sexual impurity, the ritual ceremony and the spiritual realities of cleansing and forgiveness. The very scope of this area of discussion is so vast that it would not be possible to deal with it in this essay.
So the main importance here is to show: 1. that there is an awareness of the discussion and, 2. many commentators felt that the Psalmist recognised that a sinful nature was inherited while, 3. others see this area as yet to fully explored in all its possible interpretations.
The results of sin were uncleanness and separation from God. Uncleanness involved disqualification from the ritual and required a sin offering for atonement. In Psalm 51 the Psalmist expresses his awareness of guilt and realises that only a broken and contrite spirit can restore him to God. He also expresses the need for ceremonial purification by seeking to be sprinkled with hyssop and holy water(Pslam 51:7). Psalm 130 seeks to highlight the human condition, it does this by pointing out that at every turn and twist in life one is faced with the inescapable fact that one must deal with God. This human condition is unable to be transformed by any other process than one that is instigated by Yahweh. Release comes not at the behest of the sinner but he can only ascend from the depths of despair and brokenness through God whose nature it is to forgive.
Just as the Psalmist of Psalm 32 and Psalm 51 used 3 words in parallel to emphasis the total lostness of sin so they use 3 words that tells of the forgiveness that Yahweh offers.
The first word used is 'covered', this describes the state of the Psalmist's sin, which has as both Psalm 32 and Psalm 51 point out has been obliterated or blotted out. Marvin Tate points to the likelihood of a written scroll or tablet being in the mind of the Psalmist and that in Babylonian usage there is precedence for this. The idea of blotting out from such a scroll is considered by Artur Weiser, who suggests that "from the book of guilt" be added after "blot out" in Psalm 51.
Secondly the verb used in verse 2 of Psalm 51:2 has it's origin in the domestic practice of washing clothes, thus the Psalmist desires to be cleansed from sin in the same manner one would go about washing one's own clothes.
As we seen earlier the sin had disqualified the Psalmist from partaking of the ritual and it is here that the third word for forgiveness is used. In the sense of being cleansed from sin as dross would be from metal, or being cleansed from disease or in the manner by which unclean things would be removed from the temple. Hence these three terms for forgiveness are used poetically in parallel to display the complete nature of Yahweh's forgiveness.
The forgiveness in Psalm 130 is something that is awaited with an intense yearning by the psalmist and displays the hope that his present predicament will be altered. An encounter with Yahweh for this Psalmist means an encounter with grace, forgiveness and redemption. Patrick Miller points out that one should not in the midst of these words for forgiveness miss the indications of the nature of Yahweh's redemptive work, which is "the vindication of his purpose so that individuals and community are led to worship, serve and fear him". He goes on to make another point that this is a theme that is found through out the entire Psalter.
This theme of Yahweh's redemptive work is also found in Psalm 25 where the Psalmist first establishes Yahweh's history of forgiveness and in Psalm 25:7 he proceeds to have himself included in it. It becomes obvious at this juncture that the people of the Old Testament had a confidence that because of how they had seen Yahweh work in the past, they knew that to find forgiveness for their sinful deeds meant a turning to Yahweh in repentance.
This however is not the complete picture displayed here because such Psalms as Psalm 6, Psalm 90 and Psalm 38 leave no doubt that the writers believe that with the salvation that they pray for, will come also forgiveness. For Rev McKeating the forgiveness motif of the Psalms is intrinsically tied to Yahweh's salvation, and he sees forgiveness as being paralleled to healing (Psalm103:3). As McKeating makes clear the implication is that to the people of the Old Testament it was not a spiritual salvation to which they ascribed, but that forgiveness was but one of the many benefits bestowed by Yahweh. Sin and disaster throughout the biblical period were always directly linked.
The Psalmist of Psalm 32 writes about how his silence or lack of seeking forgiveness cost him as his body wasted away (Psalm 32:3 NRSV). Craigie makes note that some commentators see this as a sign of some psychosomatic illness, "which they see as a bodily reaction to the internally contained conflicts of guilt". Even John Calvin saw the possibility that sin without forgiveness could possible lead to some mental malady, and it would remain thus "till he was restored to the favour of God". Von Rad points out the connection the people saw between sin and disease, using such passages as Psalm 32:1ff, Psalm 35:3ff, 3 Psalm 9:8-11, Psalm 41:4 to show how close this is to the theological assertion made by the Yahwist in Genesis 3. The Yahwist indicates "how all the disturbances in our natural life have their roots in a disturbed relationship to God".
As a means of applying the understanding of sin and forgiveness to today's Christian walk it becomes important to focus in on what the author finds are the major points of this essay.
Firstly with an expanded understanding of what Sin was to the people of the Old Testament it becomes a personal challenge for every Christian to move away from the more liberal attitude of today. This attitude of it not being important to change our lifestyle, with a main emphasis on confession and acceptance of Christ falls into insignificance when the Old Testament understanding of purity and cleanliness before God is applied. With the unchanging nature of God one is made question how a God who put such an emphasis on these two qualities (purity and cleanliness) could suffer a generation who comes to his son seeking forgiveness but without a broken and contrite spirit and a willingness to turn aside from their sinful ways.
Secondly as one looks today at a generation with so many emotional burdens and insecurities which are devastating the health of the population it has to be considered, is this the result of unconfessed sin and are writers like Von Rad and others correct when they tie this humankind's mental health?
Thirdly the idea of those who are called "blessed" (ie, those who have come before God and have sort and found that forgiveness) could in some way incur the wrath of God like the watch of Ezekiel 3:16-17(as instructed by God) is at the least a sobering fact. This has the concept raised by Goldingay of blood guilt and must bring to the mind of the God's people that with blessing comes responsibility. How great would be the sorrow on the last day when confronted with a book of accusation which listed all the lost opportunities one had for evangelism. Just the possibility of such an idea must cause all to question their own commitment to bring others to Christ.
Fourthly the everlasting love of God as shown in Psalm 130 should be of encouragement to those who do fail but are earnestly seeking to fulfil God's plan for their lives. It should encourage the redeemed to be of a like nature to the lost and sinful around them. Not looking upon them with distain or disgust, but seeing them through the eyes of a God whose love has no bounds.
So in conclusion it could be said that Psalms 32 and Psalms 51 define what sin and forgiveness is in combination with the other penitential Psalms but Psalm 130 shows us how we should approach the throne of grace. As the Psalmist of Pslam 130 displays his confidence that his misdeeds will be forgiven so it is possible for others today to do also.
Allen, Leslie. C, Psalms 101-150, Word Biblical Commentary. (Waco, Texas: Word Publishers, 1986, Vol 21).
Calvin, John, "Psalms" Calvins Commentaries. (trans. Rev. James Anderson; Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1845)
Craigie, Peter. C, Psalms 1-50 Word Biblical Commentary. (Waco, Texas: Word Publishers, 1986, Vol 19).
Goldingay John, "Psalm 51:16a (English 51:14a)" Catholic Bible Quarterly 40 (1978) 388-390.
Harris, R. Laird et. al, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. (3 vols.; Chicago: Moody Press, 1980, Vol 2)
Jenson, Robert. W, "Psalm 32" Interpretation. 33, April (1979) 172-176.
Kraus, Hans-Joachim, Psalms 1-59 A Commentary. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988).
McKeating, Rev. Henry, "Divine Forgiveness in the Psalms." Scottish Journal of Theology. Vol 18, March 1965 69-83.
Miller, Patrick. D, "Psalm 130" Interpretation. 33, April (1979)176-181.
Rad, Gerhard. Von, Old Testament Theology. (2 Vols.; London: Oliver and Boyd, 1962, vol. 1)
Tate, Marvin. E, Psalms 51-100 Word Biblical Commentary. (Waco, Texas: Word Publishers, 1986, Vol 20)
VanGemeren, Willem, "Psalms", The Expositor's Bible Commentary. (12 vols.; ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991, vol 5) 1-882.
Weiser, Artur, The Psalms. (London; SCM Press, 1966)
Youngblood, Ronald, "A New Look at the Three Old Testament Roots for "Sin", Biblical and Near Eastern Studies. (ed. Gary A. Tuttle; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978) 201-205.
Zink, J.K., "Uncleanness and Sin, A Study of Job XIV 4 and Psalm LI 7", Vetus Testamentum 17 (1967) July, 354-361.
Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100 Word Biblical Commentary. (Waco, Texas: Word Publishers, 1986, Vol 20) 15.
Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 1-59 A Commentary. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988) 501.
Tate, 15f. Here Tate examines S.R. Driver's argument that there has been confusion of the actual root of ]vi and quotes him as writing "one root means to 'bend' and the other to 'err, go astray'".
R Laird Harris et. al, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. (3 vols.; Chicago: Moody Press, 1980, Vol 2) 650.
Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50 Word Biblical Commentary. (Waco, Texas: Word Publishers, 1986, Vol 19) 266.
Ronald Youngblood, "A New Look at the Three Old Testament Roots for "Sin", Biblical and Near Eastern Studies. (ed. Gary A. Tuttle; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978) 201.
Willem VanGemeren, "Psalms", The Expositor's Bible Commentary. (12 vols.; ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991, vol 5) 271.
Artur Weiser, The Psalms. (London; SCM Press, 1966) 281.
Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology. (2 Vols.; London: Oliver and Boyd, 1962, vol. 1) 272ff. Here Von Rad outlines to the implications of what uncleanness meant to the people of Yahweh. He goes into an in depth discussion of the importance of being clean not only outside, but also inside covering cleanness in relation to the Temple, food, the priests, the objects of the cultus and the necessity for cleanness for the individual. Displaying how to be unclean was to displease Yahweh.
Robert W. Jenson, "Psalm 32" Interpretation. 33, April (1979) 172.
John Goldingay, "Psalm 51:16a (English 51:14a)" Catholic Bible Quarterly 40 (1978) 388f.
Goldingay, 390. For the complete argument put forward by Goldingay see his article "Psalm 51:16a (English 51:14a)" CBQ 40 (1978) 388-390.
J.K. Zink, "Uncleanness and Sin, A Study of Job XIV 4 and Psalm LI 7", Vetus Testamentum 17 (1967) July, 354ff.
Von Rad, 273. "the unclean was the most basic form in which Israel encountered what was displeasing to God".
Patrick D. Miller, "Psalm 130" Interpretation. 33, April (1979)178.
Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150, Word Biblical Commentary. (Waco, Texas: Word Publishers, 1986, Vol 21) 196.
Miller, 180. We hear it in Psalm 103:
The steadfast love of the Lord is
from everlasting to everlasting
upon those who fear him (v.17).
and in Psalm 23:
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
for his name's sake. (v.3.)
VanGemeren, 228. "The psalmist also needs "forgiveness" in view of his failures. He prays for God's covenant "mercy" (rahamim) and "love" (hesed), which he has extended "from of old" (cf. 103:17; 143:5) to his covenant people: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the tribes of Israel (cf. Exod 34:6)".
Rev. Henry McKeating, "Divine Forgiveness in the Psalms." Scottish Journal of Theology. Vol 18, March 1965 p 72.
John Calvin, "Psalms" Calvins Commentaries. (trans. Rev. James Anderson; Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1845) 528.