First Sunday of Advent (Year C)

“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.”

December 2, 2012

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Commentary on Psalm 25:1-10

“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.”

This Psalm is a plea from the depth of a suffering soul to the God in whom the speaker trusts for deliverance and mercy. Yet despite this trust, the text is a cry of desperation. It points to our longing for God not only to deliver us from our troubles, but also for God to see us fully. As we enter Advent, we wait for God to see us through the darkness, and to bestow the mercy that we trust God alone to give.

While the lectionary reading is limited to verses 1-10, considering the entire Psalm provides a richer understanding of the Psalmist’s prayer. In many ways, Psalm 25 is a brilliantly woven text. The Psalm as a whole appears to be two prayers woven together: one expressing the experience of a suffering individual who feels the absence of God, and the other expressing a community’s trust in God’s direction and deliverance. The individual and communal voices alternate, with verses 1-7, 11-12, and 16-21 voicing the individual, and verses 8-10, 13-15, and 22 voicing the community. It may be that two prayers were interwoven in this way for use in a worship context.

The result of this interweaving is a compelling prayer that contains all the elements of a lament:

  • Petition: As we see from the first two verses, this Psalm is addressed to God, calling upon God to hear the sufferer’s plea. The speaker pleads for God’s attention to and for deliverance from suffering (verses 1-3 and 16-21), and also for forgiveness of sins of the past, which seem to be haunting the speaker and contributing to that affliction (verse 6-7 and 11-12).

Woven together with this plea is a petition for instruction in following the right path (verses 4-5 and 8-10). While mercy is dependent on God and not on our own deserving, the Psalmist knows that such mercy is most often found by walking the way that God has provided within the covenant community (verses 10, 13-15).

  • Complaint: While we don’t have here a description of the precise nature and source of the Psalmist’s suffering, it is clear that the situation is dire; the Psalm is rife with the language of shame, guilt, loneliness, and affliction. Whatever the cause of the individual’s suffering, a significant piece of the pain expressed here is God’s apparent absence in the midst of it.

This absence is a source of shame for the speaker, who is persecuted for maintaining faith in a God who seems either unwilling or unable to respond (verse 2-3 and 20). Indeed, for the Psalmist that persecution is a “violent hatred” (verse 19) that further intensifies the acute pain of the experience.

  • Appeal to God’s character: The speaker takes this complaint to God precisely because God is the one who can be trusted to provide deliverance. In verses 6-7, 11, and 18, the Psalmist calls on God to make known the steadfast love that characterizes the Divine Reality. Here we see another example of the brilliant weaving of this Psalm: the appeal to God’s character is interwoven with a particular plea for forgiveness. “Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love . . . Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” (verses 6-7).

    It is as if the speaker is saying, “Remember, God, both who you are and who I am, and forget the sin that seems to stand between us.” The natures of God and of the human being both seem hidden under suffering and shame, and only God’s attention to the afflicted can restore them.

  • Statements of confidence in God, and promise of sacrifice or praise: These final two elements of Psalms of lament are less explicit and frequent here than in other such Psalms (see Psalm 22). The speaker asserts trust in God (verse 2), maintains the goodness and uprightness of the Lord (verse 8), and repeats the refrain of waiting for God to respond, implying assurance that a response will come (verses 3, 5, 21).

The speaker praises God for the sureness of God’s instruction (verses 8-10). But the overlying theme of this lament remains that of suffering and divine absence; the Psalmist’s faith remains interwoven with fear and doubt, and the Psalm ends with a plea for the redemption of all Israel (verse 22).

Advent often seems to come to us as a pinhole of light surrounded by darkness. The world, with its suffering, its violence, its ruthlessness, at times seems so dark, and the light seems so puny. We want it to be enough, but we’re not really convinced it will be. We fear that the light that God has promised won’t really shine in the darkest corners of our world, or of ourselves. And it is only dimly, through that pinhole of light, that we see ourselves, reduced to our shortcomings, and we long for God to look past those faults and really see us.

With the Psalmist, as a community and as individuals, we pray, “See me, God, and show me that mercy and steadfast love for which I long, and which I can receive only from you.” As the season of Advent begins, we cry the lament of Psalm 25, and wait for the salvation that we know is ours.