Happiness Revisited
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Happiness Revisited

From Series: The Missing Peace

Psalm 32:10-11  (ID: 2545)

It has been said that every person is endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, including the pursuit of happiness. As Alistair Begg considers the theme of happiness, though, he describes two scenes from Psalm 32: one resulting in sorrows, and the other leading to songs of joy. Though everyone begins in the first picture, we can move to the second through God’s grace and confession, experiencing the true happiness we desire.


Sermon Transcript: Print

Father, as we prepare now to turn to the Bible, we ask that you, by the Holy Spirit, will be our teacher. We marvel that you choose to use the voice of mere men, but it just endorses the reality of your amazing grace and wonderful love that you stoop to us in our weakness and in our frailty and in our poverty in order that you might show yourself to be a strong and powerful, initiative-taking God. So we look to you in the pages of your Word. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Please be seated. I invite you to turn now to one further passage of Scripture, which is the Thirty-second Psalm, and we’ve come in the course of our studies to the final two verses, verse 10 and verse 11, which read as follows:

Many are the woes of the wicked,
 but the Lord’s unfailing love
 surrounds the man who trusts in him.

Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;
 sing, all you who are upright in heart!

Now, I don’t know how many of you possess a Constitution of the United States. I think a number of you probably do. I’d be surprised if there isn’t somebody that doesn’t have one with him—or her—with him this morning. I have mine with me and want to quote from it from the second paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” “The pursuit of Happiness.”

It would be surprising if, this weekend, you have not as a hostess asked the people assembled in your home, “Are you all happy about things? Are you happy with what you have? Is there anything I can get for you that would make you happier than you are now?” And someone may have replied, “No, if I was any happier, I would have to be two people, I’m so happy.”  

It’s is often misquoted, though, to suggest that America is prepared to guarantee happiness as an unalienable right. But it doesn’t. It shouldn’t. It can’t. It guarantees the pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right. And so it is that in the realm of academics, people with large brains and significant amounts of time analyze from a psychological and psychiatric perspective and from a sociological perspective the nature of happiness itself. And most of that work describes the pursuit of happiness in terms of its futility. Perhaps it is that the people are so bright, because Einstein, you remember, is the one who said, “I’ve discovered that the men who know the most are themselves the most gloomy.”[1] Giscard d’Estaing, President of France in an earlier era, on one occasion said, “The world is gloomy because it doesn’t know where it is going, and it senses that if it knew, that it would discover that it is headed for disaster.”  I noted that, oh, probably twenty-five years ago, and when I was thinking this week about happiness, it just came right back to my mind.

We don’t need to look very far in either the arts or the sciences to affirm the fact that the quest for happiness and the attainment of happiness is often far apart.

But we don’t really need to look very far in either the arts or the sciences to affirm the fact that the quest for happiness and the attainment of happiness is often far apart.  And no one is a better emblem of the futility of a quest for happiness than our dear friend Woody Allen. You never need to go back in your files to old Woody Allen quotes, because he is prolific in giving material to journalists. Most recently, he gave an interview to David Segel in the Washington Post, and Segel asked him just a straight and simple opening question: “How is life?” To which Woody Allen replied, “You do the best you can within the concentration camp.” He’s a very happy little man. He went on to say, “My 70-plus years will be spent better than those of a beggar on the streets of Calcutta. But we’ll wind up in the same place.” And Segel comments, “The world according to Woody is so bereft of meaning, so godless and absurd, that the only proper response is to curl up on a sofa and howl for your mommy.”[2]

Happiness. Happiness.

Now, the reason we’re here—at “Happiness Revisited,” if you like—is because this psalm, this poem, which has been the focus of our studies—and I saw no reason to deviate from it this morning—the focus of our studies is upon a psalm, a poem, which has begun with the word happiness itself: “[Happy] is he whose transgressions are forgiven …. [Happy] is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him.”[3] And it is a poem written by a man who would have fitted in quite happily to the Chagrin Valley or to the surrounding communities here in a city like Cleveland, insofar as he was successful. He was a leader. He was, in many senses, the kind of individual who had it made. “He had it all,” people would have said. But as is often the case with those who apparently have it all, “all” does not satisfy—bearing testimony to Rockefeller’s response when asked, “How much money do you need, Mr. Rockefeller?” and he replied, “Just a little bit more than I have.” And this particular poet felt the same way about happiness, apparently, because he saw somebody else’s wife, and he decided that if he could have her, then that would be equated to happiness.[4] And whatever gratification he enjoyed in the immediacy of his theft, the events quickly unraveled, distastefully, to murder and to mayhem and to a strength-sapping sadness—in many ways like Richard Cory of an earlier era, immortalized in poetry and then popularized in the hymnody of Paul Simon:

They say that Richard Cory owned one half of this whole town,
And with political connections, he spread his wealth around;
And born into society, a banker’s only child,
He had everything a man could want,
Power, grace, and style.

And you remember those graphic lyrics, as Simon writes cynically—I can’t remember the opening line—and it goes,

And those orgies on his yacht!
Oh yes, he surely must be happy with everything he’s got.

And then the end of the song, and the end of the poem,

And Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head.

And I work in his factory,
And I curse the life I’m living,
And I curse my poverty,
And I wish that I could be Richard Cory.[5]

Oh no you don’t. No you don’t! You only think you do.

Now, the story of the psalm—and I need to summarize it so we can get to the final two verses, because there are visitors here—is essentially this: The writer has broken God’s law. As a result of breaking God’s law, he faces the inescapable consequences. When he tries to cover it up—essentially, to do a Dustin Hoffman on it: just a little secret; just the Robinsons’ affair; most of all, we’ve got to hide it from the kids—when he tries to do that, his predicament becomes worse and worse and worse. It’s deeper, and his despair is even more bone-chilling. It is, by contrast, when he comes out of hiding, when he opens up, when he refuses to remain silent, when he confesses his sin, when he discovers forgiveness and cleansing, that he is then enabled to sing about happiness. He is, if you like, in this particular psalm, looking at life from both sides now. And he has looked at it from the side of relentless despair, and then he is able to look at it from the perspective of a quite liberating happiness.

Now, I hope this is helpful—and I have nowhere else to go with it; therefore, I really hope it is helpful—but I’d like to have us think in terms of just two pictures. The pictures are here as word pictures. If it helps you to form them in your mind, then that’s fine. It does me. Because what we’re going to do is look at two pictures; it’s as if we’re going to walk into a gallery and be shown two particular pictures. Then we’re going to ask the question, “Where does David fit in these pictures?” And then, finally, we’re going to ask the question, “Where do I fit in relationship to these pictures?” Because all of us fit in these pictures we’re about to discover.

The Sorrows of the Wicked

Picture number one, then, is entitled The Sorrows of the Wicked. If you go in galleries—and I do every so often, because Susan is more interested than I am, and I want to be a good companion in life, but I am growing to like things as well, I suppose—and I’m always interested to see what they put on that little card as descriptive of what it is that I’m looking at up here, because it isn’t always really obvious when you look at it. And they have a title down here, and you say, “Oh! So that’s what the fellow meant when he was doing that,” or “That’s what she was trying to achieve.” But here it is pretty straightforward. The picture has a title, and the title is The Woes—verse 10 in the NIV—The Woes of the Wicked, or The Sorrows of the Wicked, or The Pangs of the Wicked. So in other words, the picture is a scene. It’s a scene of people. It’s a crowd scene. And it’s not just any crowd. It is a crowd of the wicked.

Now, wicked is not a very contemporary word; therefore, we need to unpack it. Most of us, if we had to define wicked—put a colon, and then that little dash, and give your definition of wicked—would probably get it all pretty well wrong. We already read in Psalm 9 a description, in part, of the wicked: “The wicked return to the grave, all the nations that forget God.”[6] So wickedness and the forgetfulness of God go hand in hand. “The wicked are ensnared by the work[s] of their hands.”[7] So wickedness and wicked activities meet. And the wickedness that is referenced here is described in terms of the “transgression,” of overstepping the mark—verse 1. Of being a sinner—verse 2; failing to attain to the standard that God has set, missing the mark of God’s appointing. Of being iniquitous—being marked by “iniquity,”[8] which is nothing other than an internal balance, an internal bias, which is a bias in upon ourselves. And when we look at this picture, and it’s a fairly large picture, it’s a big canvas, and it is completely populated, and again we say, “Who are all these people in this picture?” And the answer is, it is a picture of the wicked.

Now, we shouldn’t expect that these individuals would all be the kind of characters that you would find in the post office on the wall, as, “Have you seen this person? Do you have any help?” or the kind of picture that would be flashed up on the screen where they do those things on Saturday night where they try and find America’s Most Wanted. Surely some of the people there would be like that, but the majority wouldn’t. The majority would be like us: fairly well put together, quite nice, hair combed or whatever way you do it, and looking just as if we’ve come off the pages of any photograph album at all.

Essentially, many in the picture would be people of substance. They would be the kind of the people that you would find on the society pages in magazines when you go to a new town, and—for example, we were most recently in Tampa with Truth For Life—and you go into your hotel, and there’s always that big glossy magazine there that is completely worthless. There’s nothing in it you can read; it’s just a bunch of advertisements trying to get you to spend money that you don’t have on things you really don’t need. And there are always the pictures there of the society folks in Tampa. And they were at the Red Cross, or the Green Cross, or whatever else it was, and they’re all looking their absolute best. All these lovely, glossy pictures of the wicked. 

“Well,” you say, “that’s not fair. You don’t know all the people in the pictures.” No, I don’t, but I know that every person by nature is in this picture. The picture of the wicked has no exceptions. It encompasses all. For all by nature go our own way, all by our natures refuse the truth, and all by our natures have our hearts closed to God. That doesn’t sound very nice, but it’s what the Bible says. Actually, what the Bible says—and this is a picture of sin—is that we are dead in our sins.[9] We’re dead. And so unless somehow our deadness can be alleviated by a power outside of ourselves, we will remain dead. But dead people cannot make themselves alive.  And wicked people cannot be relieved of their wickedness.

If you look carefully at the picture, as well, you’ll see that there is sorrow in the eyes of many of the faces. Because, as David says, “Many are the woes of the wicked.” And when he describes his condition on another occasion, in Psalm 102, it’s amazing the emotional and physical impact that sin, that wickedness, has had upon him. So he describes a situation where his body is racked by fever and frailty—that he has eating disorders and weight loss and sleeplessness and rejection and melancholy and despair.[10] And the more you look at the picture, no matter how apparently lovely it appears, it’s a stark picture, it’s a sad picture. It’s the kind of picture that makes you almost recoil from it.

Picture number one, the title is there, just off to the side: The Sorrows of the Wicked.

The Songs of the Righteous

Now, they did well to put that in the north side of the gallery, where it’s a little chilly. Now our guide takes us through into the south side of the gallery, where the sun comes in through the skylight windows and it’s really quite attractive and pleasant. And it’s no surprise that picture number two is found there. This picture has a title as well, and the title at the side of this picture is The Songs of the Righteous. Songs of the Righteous. It once again is a group scene: people, a crowd, albeit a smaller crowd. And this crowd comprises those who, according to verse 11, “are upright in heart.” “Upright in heart.”

In the same way that we don’t make much reference to wickedness, I’m not sure anybody has said to anyone this morning, “Now, come along, Fred. I wish you were a little more upright in heart.” But are you upright in heart? Am I upright in heart? And if I were to be upright in heart, what would that mean? What would that look like? Would that mean that I was a perfect person? That I was a man of impeccable character?

No. The upright in heart are those who trust in him. Verse 10: “The Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the man” or the woman “who trusts in him.” Then, “Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous.” Who are the righteous? The ones who trust in him. “Sing, all you who are upright in heart!” Who are the upright in heart? The ones who trust in him. The righteous! This righteousness coming as a result of the confessing of his sin—verse 3: “When I kept silent, I was a waster.”[11] Verse 5: “When I acknowledged my sin and didn’t cover up my iniquity—confessed my transgressions—then you forgave my sin.”[12] And the songs of the upright, the songs of the redeemed, are songs of God’s wonderful faithfulness, of his covenant love. The Lord’s unfailing love surrounds such individuals.

From Picture One to Picture Two

Now, I saw on TV the other day, in the advertisements, a scene with little children, and they were sitting on what looked like a sort of plastic blanket. And it had a variety of scenes on the blanket, and then, if they pressed the scene, it made a noise. And I thought, “Oh, I’d like to try one of those.” But I don’t have an excuse to buy it, so if you get one for Christmas, you might want to bring it over early after Christmas and just let me press some of the scenes. And the response of the children, albeit an acted response, was quite dramatic: “Woah-ho! That’s amazing!” You pressed, and it made that noise, and then you pressed over there, and it made another noise.

No matter how appealing the inducements to sinful deeds, the pathway is strewn with regret.

Now, you gotta stretch your imagination here, but I want to suggest that if you walk up to the canvas in picture number one and press it, it makes a noise. And the noise that you hear when you press canvas number one is the noise of self-assertive boasting, or it is the noise of self-inflicted groaning. When you press the canvas of the wicked, it is all arrogant boasting or horrible groaning. When you press the canvas of number two—picture number two—then you find that if you go up and press the tummy of somebody who appears in that canvas, then it comes out as songs of deliverance. All of a sudden, you press it, and somebody goes, animatedly, “How can I say thanks for the things you[’ve] done for me, things so underserved?”[13] We stand back from the picture and say, “That’s amazing! That’s amazing! Why are they saying that?”

Well, why are they saying that? Why would they be saying that?

Consider it, then, in relationship to David. Think of those two pictures in relationship to the poet himself. When he writes of the woes of the wicked there in verse 10—picture number one—“Many are the woes of the wicked,” this is not some arm’s-length description on the part of a fellow standing on a balcony, looking down and seeing the mess of certain people’s lives. This is a description of someone who has been there, done that, got the T-shirt. This is somebody who’s saying, “Many are the woes of the wicked, and if you doubt that, you should just come and talk to me, because I can tell you that wickedness and woe or pangs or sadness are constant bedfellows.” He stands, as it were, in between the pictures, saying, testifying to the fact that no matter how appealing the inducements to sinful deeds, the pathway is strewn with regret —a pathway that leads to a dungeon of unrelenting torment. He was a tormented soul. And you may be here this morning, and you are a tormented soul. But we’re not there yet; we must stay with David.

How is it, then, that he walked the path—or, if you like, what is the path—from the north side, in all of its gloom and groaning, to the south side, in all of its light and love and laughter and liberty? Well, he tells us exactly what the path is. He says, “I acknowledged my sin. I confessed my transgression. I came clean.”

What About Ourselves?

Finally, what about picture one and picture two in relationship to ourselves? Well, if we’re going to be faithful to the Bible—and I think you would agree that it would be important to be faithful to the Bible—then we have to allow the Bible to say where everybody fits and how they fit. You don’t have any interest in what I have to say concerning how you might be in relationship to these pictures. No, what we need to hear is God speaking to us and assigning our place.

Did you listen carefully to Romans 3? It’s page 797 in the church Bible: “There is no difference”—there’s no difference—“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”[14] “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” All are therefore wicked. Therefore, all of us by nature are in picture number one. We exist in picture number one. We’ve “exchanged the glory of … God,”[15] Paul says in Romans 1. We’ve fallen short of the glory of God, here in Romans chapter 3.

Well then, how would a man or a woman ever get their face erased from picture one and replaced in picture two? Well, the exact same way that David did! Remember what he did? “I acknowledged my transgressions. I confessed my sin. I didn’t try and cover up my self-assertiveness.”

You see, in many ways, the whole of life is just one gigantic cover-up. Interpersonal relationships, in the main, exist to deny other people access to the real us—for all kinds of reasons. “If they find out, they won’t like me. Therefore, I need to be someone other than I am. Or, “If they find out, they might like me too much, and I don’t think they could handle that. Therefore, I’ll be a nasty person.” Unlikely.

And we, by nature, cover things up from God. And we think that if we can continue to do that and inure ourselves against the ravishing, searching, X-ray eye of the Bible, then we’ll actually be happy—only to discover that the more we hide and cover it up, the more unhappy we become, and the more the prospect of being discovered or uncovered is a dreadful thought.  But it was as David stepped down in repentance and in confession and in trusting in God’s promise that he discovered that God is a God who keeps his promise. He’s the God of Isaiah 43: “I, even I, am he who blots out your [transgression], for my own sake.”[16]

Now, let me end in Romans 3. That’s why I read from it. Because the story of the gospel, the story of the good news, the story of the transformation that is described in Psalm 32, answers a fundamental question that any thoughtful person needs to ask—which is, “If it is as has been described so far, on what basis can a righteous God justify the ungodly?” On what basis can a God who is intrinsically holy justify, or put in a right relationship with himself, people who are intrinsically wicked? How can God let wicked people into heaven without spoiling heaven? How can God transfer people from picture one into picture two without making a royal hash of picture two? On what basis can a righteous God justify the ungodly?

And Paul answers it in the little section that we read. The answer is that it is entirely and all of grace. Not by anything we’ve done—that’s what he’s saying again and again—but because of God’s amazing grace. It is entirely and all in Christ. Verse 22: “This righteousness from God”—this provision which God makes, from God—“comes … in Jesus Christ,”[17] verse 22. It is entirely all of faith. It comes in Jesus Christ, through faith. And it is entirely all of God.

Now, that’s substance for a series of sermons on their own. But I think you can get all of that, can’t you? You can understand that. You can fasten on that for a moment. On what basis can a righteous God justify the ungodly? Answer: it is all of grace, it is all in Christ, it is all of faith, and it is all of God. In other words, it’s all about God and what he has chosen in the immensity of his love to do, not about us cleaning ourselves up sufficiently to make an application for picture two to see if we could get transferred to the sunnier side of the gallery.

So where’s your face? I could tell you where it is. If it’s not in picture two, it’s still in picture one. And if by God’s grace… And it makes you marvel, because you say to yourself, “Knowing what I know about myself and what I’m like, it is an amazing thing that I could even have my picture in picture two.” It is an amazing thing. It’s called amazing grace! And if your picture is in picture two, one of the ways you’ll know is because the people you love most and care about most, you will long to have them in the picture with you. And if you and I don’t long to see the faces of those who are in picture one join us in picture two, then there’s something really wrong.

Molly Weir was a journalist and an actress in Scotland in the twentieth century. She died a little while ago. She wrote three books about her childhood in Glasgow, and they became a quite wonderful trilogy of social history in Glasgow. And in the second of the two books, a book entitled Best Foot Forward—her first book is called Shoes Were for Sunday, the last book is called A Toe on the Ladder, the middle book is called Best Foot Forward—she describes her religious environment. And she describes how she went to the Church of Scotland, which is the Presbyterian Church, and then she supplemented that by going to various Bible classes when friends invited her. And she discovered a man who was in a big, interdenominational mission hall in the center of Glasgow called Jock Troup, and he used to come and preach around the neighborhood and outside, and they would sing and have musicians, and then he would preach. And she describes how he could make heaven seem so appealing that you just wanted to run right in, and he could make hell seem so alarming that you wanted to get as far from it as you possibly could.

And she describes going home to her house, where she lived not only with her parents but also with her grandmother. Her grandmother never left the house except one day in the year, Hogmanay—that is, the last day of the year. New Year’s Eve. All the rest of the time, she stayed indoors. Can you imagine that? But that’s a separate issue. Living in a two-room tenement building in Glasgow, 364 days of the year, indoors. So when Molly came home from these evangelistic ventures, full of the story of grace, she urged her grandmother, “You must come! You must come and hear this wonderful story! Granny, please come!” But she wouldn’t leave the house.

Molly then describes going to the Salvation Army, adding that. She was comprehensive in her interests. She goes to the Salvation Army, and here is one of the most poignant quotes in the book:

After the outdoor service we marched up Springburn Road behind the band, and went into their hall, to listen to another short service, and discover how many sinners felt they now wanted to be saved. There was a long bench in the front, called the Penitents’ Bench, where those wishing to be saved knelt …. I found this all very moving, and was saved twice, once for myself and once for Grannie, since she wouldn’t budge outside the house to make sure of her salvation in person.[18]

It’s very Pauline, isn’t it? Paul said it broke his heart to think of his fellow Jews being damned. And he said, “I would be prepared to be accursed if they, by my cursing, would be saved.”[19] And Molly attempts to do what is impossible to do. For we will never be brought into picture two on the tail of our dad, our mom, our sister, or our brother. We are placed there by God’s grace personally, purposefully, and permanently.

I wonder, do you get this?

Father, look upon us in your mercy, we pray. Thank you that you are a God of immense faithfulness and compelling love. Grant that your kindness may show us the futility of our wickedness, the perversity of it, and may woo us and win us as we acknowledge our transgressions and confess our sins and do not seek to cover up our iniquitous hearts.

Accomplish your purposes, we pray. May we sing the songs of the upright. For your Son’s sake. Amen.


[1] Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, et al., “The Russell-Einstein Manifesto,” https://pugwash.org/1955/07/09/statement-manifesto. Paraphrased.

[2] David Segal, “Cloud in the Silver Lining,” Washington Post, July 26, 2006, https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/07/25/AR2006072501666.html.

[3] Psalm 32:1–2 (NIV 1984).

[4] See 2 Samuel 11:2–4.

[5] Paul Simon, “Richard Cory” (1966). Lyrics lightly altered.

[6] Psalm 9:17 (NIV 1984).

[7] Psalm 9:16 (NIV 1984).

[8] Psalm 32:5 (NIV 1984).

[9] See Ephesians 2:1; Colossians 2:13.

[10] See Psalm 102:3–11.

[11] Psalm 32:3 (paraphrased).

[12] Psalm 32:5 (paraphrased).

[13] Andraé Crouch, “To God Be the Glory” (1971).

[14] Romans 3:22–23 (NIV 1984).

[15] Romans 1:23 (NIV 1984).

[16] Isaiah 43:25 (NIV 1984).

[17] Romans 3:22 (NIV 1984).

[18] Molly Weir, Best Foot Forward (London: Pan, 1974), 72.

[19] Romans 9:3 (paraphrased).

Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.