< November 29, 2015 >

Commentary on Psalm 25:1-10

 

At first blush, Psalm 25 may seem an odd song for Advent.

At this time of year, the songs of Advent and Christmas fill the airwaves and are heard constantly in malls, stores, and homes. But here is Psalm 25 -- an ancient, acrostic song that pleads for honor in the face of enemies, of the sins of youth being forgotten, and humility in the face of God’s way -- appointed for the First Sunday in Advent.

To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
           do not let me be put to shame;
           do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
         let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

Maybe an odd choice at first glance, but an ancient psalm with an urgent word.1

Beth Tanner writes that the psalm “is not reacting to a single happening but is more of a reflection on the events that have shaped the life of the one praying.”1 That is, the psalm is not about a single moment in time or in life -- but is about the totality of life lived with God.

This “total” view offers a happy point of contact with Advent. Because Advent, properly celebrated, isn’t just about “this Christmas” or just about “the first Christmas.” Advent is about the church’s faith that all of life -- past, present, and future -- is lived in the presence of God. Advent is about trusting the promise even while awaiting for the promise to be kept by God.

A Roman Catholic priest taught me that, “In Advent, the church celebrates Christ’s coming in history, mystery, and majesty.”

In history: We celebrate on God’s surprising historical entry into the world in the birth, life, and death of Jesus of Nazareth.

In mystery: We celebrate on the resurrected Christ’s mysterious presence “wherever two or three gather” in Christ’s name.

In majesty: We celebrate the promise that one-day Christ will come in majesty, wiping away every tear and emptying every grave.

Reflecting on the totality of life, rather than praying from just one moment of crisis or experience of joy, Psalm 25 celebrates the loving and faithful character of God by praying for God’s continued presence in life: “Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!”

A comment on the structure of Psalm 25. Psalm 25 is one of the Psalter’s alphabetic acrostic poems. The first letter of each verse of the psalm begins with a succeeding letter of the alphabet (or the alef-bet, as it is called in Hebrew). This artificial structure may be what leads to the sense that the poem is not being prayed from any one moment of crisis, any one moment of joy, or any one experience of trust -- but rather from a reflective perspective about all of life.

The Revised Common Lectionary oddly ends this week’s reading after v. 10, which is sort of like stopping a recitation of the alphabet after the letter m, or interrupting the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer after, “and forgive us our trespasses … ”

The choice to end the reading after v. 10 is even more odd, because as Clint McCann argues, verse 11 is the center of the psalm. McCann argues that “the psalmist intended to focus attention on the center of the psalm.” In particular, the center of the psalm is chiastically arranged around a central petition in v. 11:

  1. 8-10 Praise
  2. 11 Petition
  3. 12-15 Assurance

As McCann concludes, “the evidence does suggest that there are structural and stylistic regularities in Psalm 25 that focus attention on v. 11.”2

The choice to end this week’s reading at v. 10 can be defended, however, as necessary for the needs of Advent. By ending the psalm at v. 10, the lectionary in effect changes the psalm from a prayer for forgiveness (“for your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great”) into a song of praise: “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.

The main theological focus of Psalm 25:1-10 is the trustworthiness of God’s guidance, especially as made available through God’s teaching. Note the emphasis on teaching:

  • Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.
  • Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
  • Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
  • He leads the humble in what is right,
  • He teaches the humble his way.

A second major focus of vv. 1-10 is on waiting for God’s help, especially for divine help that bestows honor on those whom the world has shamed:

            Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;

                        let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

The term “wait” here translates the Hebrew word qawah, which means both to “wait” and to “hope.” The waiting described here isn’t just waiting, like one waits for a meeting to start. It means more to wait and hope, like the sort of waiting one does in a hospital waiting room while a loved one is undergoing surgery, or perhaps the sort of waiting one does while waiting for a verdict to be handed down, or again, perhaps the kind of waiting one does after one has put in an offer to buy a home.

And waiting and hoping for God’s promises to be kept. We are pulled into Advent by God’s promises: You are mine. You are loved. You have been reconciled. You are a new creation. We believe those things. And we wait for the fullness of those promises to be kept.


Notes:

1 The Book of Psalms, with Nancy deClaissé-Walford and Rolf Jacobson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 254.

2 “The Book of Psalms,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 14 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), p. 777.