through my groaning all day long” Psalm 32
I’m not sure I know why myself—and I’m not sure I want to know—but one of the first novels I read that simply wouldn’t exit the chambers of my heart was Alan Paton’s Too Late the Phalarope, a novel of sin and self-righteousness, set in apartheid South Africa. The pulsating portrayal of Pieter van Vlaanderin’s guilt simply wouldn’t let me alone. I became him—like I said, I don’t know why.
Van Vlaanderin, a police officer sworn to uphold laws which keep races apart, has sexual relations with a black woman. His marriage is cold and stultifying, but he knows very well that his sin is not his wife’s fault. In the face of his own overwhelming desire, he falls. But he doesn’t get away with it, and the truth comes out.
The real horror of the story, however, is his inability to find forgiveness. The sorrow in his heart just won’t go away.
Too Late the Phalarope put me through agonies more terrifying than any I’d ever undergone myself when, as an undergraduate, I read the novel. When van Vlaanderin kept silent, his bones wasted away through his groaning all day long, and so did mine. Reading the novel was excruciating, and that’s why it was so memorable.
And that’s why, perhaps, Too Late the Phalarope comes to mind when I read the third verse of Psalm 32: I can’t help thinking of the bone-wasting agonies of Pieter van Vlaanderin, a man from supposedly God-fearing family who couldn’t find forgiveness.
Post Bathsheeba, David’s bones shook with horror and guilt at what he’d done. We know that’s true, after all, from Psalm 51. “My sin is always before me,” David says, after Nathan let him know the truth. Full of misery, David asks the Lord for forgiveness: “Let the bones you have crushed rejoice.”
Some scholars speculate that Psalm 32 should really be Psalm 52. The 32nd Psalm seems, after all, a kind of retrospective poem David might have written to explain exactly what happened when finally he found the forgiveness he was looking for in Psalm 51. “This is how it went,” he seems to say. Then he explains how it was that he acknowledged his sin and confessed. David’s songs—both 32 and 52—record the reality of God’s forgiveness only because they first acknowledge the reality of his sin, or so it seems to me.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Psalm 32 begins in defining blessedness as the condition of the forgiven, the state of mind and soul of those who know that every last inch of the blackened corners of their hearts have been scoured, those who don’t try to cover things, those who conceal nothing from the watchful eyes of God—as if they could.
I sometimes wonder whether those who confess faith in God can really know his grace if they haven’t known their own sin, if they haven’t felt the groaning of their bones, as David says, if they haven’t felt something of to the horror that Pieter van Vlaanderin knew—as did David.