Psalm 25 is the reading for the first Sunday in Lent, the season in which Christians prepare themselves for the passion of Jesus.
Jesus, this preacher, prophet, sage, and teacher, begins a journey to Jerusalem that will end in a life-changing event for all humanity. Before we examine Psalm 25, let us briefly explore the accompanying biblical passage for the first Sunday in Lent in the Revised Common Lectionary.
Genesis 9:8-17 is the concluding scene of the flood narrative. Noah, his family, and representatives of every living creature have been spared from the devastating waters. Noah emerges from the ark, offers sacrifices to God, and God makes a solemn promise, a covenant, with Noah, his family, and all living creatures: "I have set my bow in the clouds . . . the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh" (Genesis 9:13, 15).
Mark 1:9-15 relates the story of John baptizing Jesus in the waters of the Jordan River. As Jesus came up out of the water, a dove descended and a voice declared, "You are my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased" (Mark 1:11). First Peter 3:18-22 draws parallels between the Genesis flood and the rite of baptism. According to the author, water is not just a means for the removal of dirt from the body, but "an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 3:21).
What is the tie to Psalm 25? We find in its words no mention of floods or waters of baptism. Rather, its themes are words of trust, teaching and instruction, right paths, and covenants. How do we understand such words on this first Sunday of Lent?
Psalm 25 is classified as an Individual Lament. The psalm singer lifts up the very essence of her being, her nephesh (usually translated as "soul"), to God (verse 1), asking God not to put her to shame or let her enemies rejoice over her. She then requests that God teach her and all those who wait for God's goodness the ways of God (verses 2-5). Verse 6 is, I think, the heart of Psalm 25. In it, the psalm singer implores God to remember God's mercy (NRSV; translated in other verses in the NRSV as "compassion") and steadfast love (NRSV; lovingkindness, KJV; love, NIV).
Mercy (raham) and steadfast love (hesed) are two of the words found in God's self-revelatory words to Moses in Exod 34:6-7. Recall that these words were spoken by God to Moses on Mount Sinai after the Israelites had fashioned the Golden Calf and worshipped before it. When Moses came down from the mountain, he broke the first set of tablets of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 31:19); in Exodus 34, he ascended the mountain again and God encountered him once again, this time not only giving Moses the Ten Commandments, but also a self-description that echoes throughout the pages of the Old Testament:
"The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful (raham) and gracious, slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love (hesed) and faithfulness." (Exodus 34:6)
The words are woven into many psalms (e.g., 86:15; 103:8; 111:4; 145:8). The word raham (compassion or mercy) is derived from the Hebrew noun, rehem, which means "womb." God's compassion or mercy is tied closely to the concept of "womb love," the love a mother feels for her yet-to-be-born child.
Over and over, the psalmists remember and call upon God's compassion, God's "womb love": "Be mindful of your mercy (raham), O Lord, and of your steadfast love" (25:6); "Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy (raham), turn to me" (69:16); "The Lord is good to all, and his compassion (raham) is over all that he has made" (145:9). References to God from the verbal root raham occur no less than twenty-two times in the Psalter.
The word hesed is one of the most difficult Hebrew words to translate. It refers to the covenant love of God for God's people. God makes covenants with humanity in a number of places in the Old Testament. The first is in Genesis 9:13, "I have set my bow in the clouds and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth." God covenants never to destroy the earth by flood again. In Genesis 15, God covenants with Abraham that Abraham will have many descendants who will occupy the land of promise. In Exodus 20, God covenants with the children of Israel to be their God and that they would be God's people. In 2 Samuel 7, God covenants with David that there would always be a king of the Davidic line to sit on the throne of Israel.
God's hesed, God's covenant love for his people, is a pervasive theme of the biblical text, in spite of humanity's persistent disobedience of God. The ultimate act of hesed by God was the coming of Jesus, a dramatic reaching out of God in covenant love to humanity. As a result, John the Baptist was able to proclaim, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near" (Mark 1:15).
The singer of Psalm 25 seeks to walk in the paths and ways that God desires, and acknowledges that only through diligent study and learning can we discover those paths (verses 4-5, 8-10). The coming of Jesus, prompted by God's raham and hesed, gave humanity a new means for finding and walking the paths and ways of God. The flood waters, transformed by the waters of baptism, have become more than a means of cleansing, but a means of participating in the kingdom that Jesus inaugurated (1 Peter 3:21).