First Sunday in Lent (Year B)

Psalm 25 is one of those Psalms which seems to lend itself less toward commentary and more toward verbalization.

March 1, 2009

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Commentary on Psalm 25:1-10

Psalm 25 is one of those Psalms which seems to lend itself less toward commentary and more toward verbalization.

Just pray it! Just sing it! If you choose to stop reading these comments right now in order to do just that, you have my blessing.

For those of you who choose to read on, let me skip right to verse 6 and all of its peculiarity. “Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.” Is the Psalmist doing what I think he is doing? Is it really appropriate to remind God of God’s personality inventory?  It is difficult to believe that God would need reminding of who God is. What defendant would stand before a judge and remind that judge of her lenient reputation? This bold move takes the focus off the character of the defendant and places it on the character of the judge. Even more, imagine saying to the judge, “For your sake, your honor, forgive me.” Is it not usually for the sake of the accused that the judge would forgive?

The purpose of this “line of questioning” is to present one possible angle of exploration in the Psalms. What can the Psalmist’s words tell us about the Psalmist and, in particular, his relationship to God? First, the Psalmist is clearly in a precarious situation. Enemies are overpowering him (verse 2), the “wantonly treacherous” are all around him (verse 3), and the sins of his youth disturb him (verse 7). Given these circumstances, the Psalmist’s reminder to God could be a last ditch effort to brown-nose or beg God. However, since we have no way of knowing for certain the intentions of the Psalmist, let us assume they are better than that of a brown-noser or beggar. What is certain is the Psalmist knows that God can help. Here is one whose situation is dire, whose need for aid is genuine, and whose certainty that God is the one who can provide is exemplary.

This Lenten Psalm moves us to ask some questions of ourselves. What can our words to God tell us about ourselves and, in particular, our relationship to God? When we cry out to God, do we begin with an assertion of trust? Are we willing to engage in such honest conversation with God? Are we so certain about God’s ability to help us that we would dare remind God of God’s goodness, mercy, salvation? Are we willing to wait on the Lord? And wait? And wait?

The Psalmist invites us to pray this prayer in solidarity with the whole people of God. It is through these prayers that we come to know who we are. Lent is the perfect time to teach and participate in this reflective discipline.

Ultimately, this type of exploration leads us to the ever-important question about who God is. By overhearing the Psalmist remind God who God is, we come to know that God is trustworthy, merciful, steadfastly loving, and one who desires a relationship with us. God’s reputation to provide is firmly established.

By way of an addendum to these comments, it is interesting to note some of the more “technical” details about this Psalm. Furthermore, we notice the way in which such details lend themselves to a homiletical exploration of a Psalm. Psalm 25 has all of the major elements of an individual lament: direct address to God, petition, description of trouble, appeal to the character of God, statements of confidence in God, and a promise of sacrifice or praise (yes, there are elements of praise in lament Psalms). Preachers may want to explore whether or not these elements appear as such in their sermons. Consider what occasions might call for sermons which reflect a lament Psalm. Might the first Sunday in Lent be such a time? Mindful of the Gospel pericope that will be read alongside this Psalm, the preacher may want to explore how Jesus might have cried out to God when he was tempted in the wilderness. Indeed, the homiletical implications are complexified when one acknowledges it is the divine one, Jesus, who joins the whole people of God in crying out to God.

A second “technical” detail explains why Psalm 25 appears to be somewhat random. One could surmise that the Psalmist’s situation might lead to a kind of paranoia, which rarely yields clarity and focus. However, the lack of logical structure is more likely due to its artificial patterning as an acrostic poem; that is, a poem whose organization is driven by the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. (This is similar to the Sunday School activity of taking the letters G, O, and D, and coming up with adjectives that describe God using those letters. The result was often a forced, “God is good, open and dear.”) This structure in Hebrew poetry is used for pedagogical reasons. That is to say, the structure of the prayer itself gives instruction on how to pray. Therefore, it might be worth considering how the structure of a sermon on this type of Psalm instructs the hearer to pray in a way similar to that of the Psalmist. Although the preacher certainly could give a systematic lesson on how to pray (step one is to address God, step two is to describe your situation, etc.), this Psalm, along with other acrostic Psalms, suggests another way to guide and invite hearers into prayerful lives.