< November 29, 2009 >

Commentary on Psalm 25:1-10

 

Psalm 25:1-10 appears three times in the Revised Common Lectionary:

in ordinary time (Proper 21), on the first Sunday of Lent, and on the first Sunday of Advent. This varied use of the psalm testifies to its sweeping content and broad application to the life of faith.

The psalm is an alphabetic acrostic. Each line begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the first with aleph (verse 1) and proceeding to taw (verse 21). The final verse stands outside this arrangement. It concludes the psalm with a petition to God on behalf of Israel. The acrostic form suggests the psalm is a literary product. It was likely composed as a broad and inclusive statement of faith. Therefore, it is understandable that the work fits numerous occasions in the church year.

This psalm reads like the complaint of an individual person who calls on God for help and professes faith that God will answer. Psalms of this type dominate the Psalter. They have a recognizable form that is evident in Psalm 25 also: such psalms typically begin with complaint or petition (see verses 1-12); they usually include a description of trouble and suffering (verses 16, 19) as well as assurance that God will hear and answer the plea (verses 12, 13-15).

Although Psalm 25 has this form, it seems to have been written as a model prayer, based on the cries of individuals to God in earlier psalms. The fact that model prayers like this appear in the Psalter indicates how important it is regularly to recite words that call us to faith and dependence on God.

Psalm 25:1-10 expresses some of the most central and important theological themes in the Psalter (and in the Bible): dependence on God for protection from enemies (verses 1-2); requests for God to direct and teach (verses 4-5); confession of sin and cries for forgiveness (verses 6-10; cf. verses 11-12); and confidence in God's abiding presence and faithfulness (verses 6, 10). References to "waiting" for God make this section of the psalm particularly appropriate for Advent (verses 3, 5; cf. verse 21). 

Psalm 25 begins with a reference that indicates dependence and humility. To lift the hands toward God was for ancient Israelites a posture of prayer and supplication. The expression "I lift my soul" is a metaphor for what the outstretched hands meant (verse 1). It indicates that the person is open to God's grace, leadership, and direction. The outstretched soul does not depend on self, but on God.

The psalmist's trust in God implied in verse 1 becomes explicit in verse 2 ("in you I trust"). Then the psalmist asks not to be "put to shame" (verse 2). This petition concerns the view of the psalmist in the community. As verse 3 makes clear, however, it is not a petty or purely personal plea. Rather, the psalmist asks God to set public opinion in order according to faithfulness to God. Verses 4-5 then show that the psalmist's dependence on God is intended to lead to a right way of life. 

Verse 6 asks God to "remember" (NRSV "be mindful") God's faithfulness in the past. It asks specifically to recall "mercy" and "steadfast love." "Steadfast love" here translates a form of the Hebrew word hesed, a particularly rich theological term that refers to God's covenant faithfulness. The psalmist says God's mercy and steadfast love are "from of old." While the meaning of this reference is uncertain (it could simply refer to the dim and distant past; see Genesis 6:4), the psalmist may have in mind God's goodness to Israel after the exodus from Egypt recorded in Exodus 34.

Just a few verses later verse 10 includes a cluster of terms, including hesed, that also recall this portion of Exodus: "steadfast love," (Exodus 34:6), "faithfulness" (Exodus 34:6), and "covenant" (Exodus 34:10). Although verse 11 is not included in the lectionary reading, it is helpful to note that it too includes terms that seem to have Exodus 34 in mind ("pardon" in Exodus 34:9 and "guilt" in Exodus 34:7, 9). Exodus 34 tells how God forgave Israel for making the golden calf (the event itself is reported in Exodus 32). The golden calf episode was essentially the original sin for the people of Israel. Israel remembered above all that God was "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Exodus 34:6). The psalmist calls on that character in Psalm 25:6-10.

In verses 7-10, the psalmist asks God for forgiveness and guidance and affirms God's gracious instruction. Thus, the psalmist appeals to God's graciousness to the people of Israel for pardon from individual sin and guilt. Verse 7 uses the word "remember" two times (as in the opening of verse 6). The first occurrence asks God to "not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions." The second instance asks God instead to "remember me" in accordance with God's steadfast love. Verses 8-10 return to declarations about God and God's instruction. But these verses characterize God's instruction with the terms "steadfast love" and "faithfulness," just as earlier verses called on such divine mercy when asking for forgiveness.  

Psalm 25:1-10 speaks to the church in Advent with themes of faith and dependence on God that are crucially important. As the believer anticipates God's salvation, he or she displays the kind of dependence on God that characterizes the whole psalm and the whole Christian faith. Such waiting is not passive, however. The person who waits for the Lord must be attentive to what God will do. Prayer and reflection are the main expressions of this waiting. Such active waiting, in turn, naturally encourages kindness and compassion to others. Verse 9 says this directly: "He leads the humble in what is right."