Commentary on Psalm 25:1-10
Psalm 25 may qualify as a poetic epitome of teaching ministry of the church.
The psalmist, who desires to learn the ways of the LORD, has a meaningful response to the first lesson from Deuteronomy 30:9-14, which reiterates the desirability and feasibility of life that lives by the word of God. The epistle lesson from Colossians 1:1-14 celebrates the growth of the congregation at Colossae in their understanding and engagement of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As the first order, our psalmist orients his entire being toward God (Psalm 25:1). This ancient poet’s posture parallels the picture of God, who is ever present in “the word of the Lord [that] is very near” (Deuteronomy 30:14). The psalmist refers to himself as “[his] soul,” which is an idiomatic way in Hebrew of referring to oneself. The nucleus of the phrase is nefesh (“soul” or “living being”) that recalls the creation account of Genesis 1-2, where human beings and other creatures are called nefesh. Its Semitic root covers a wide range of meaning from soul to appetite. He lifts up his desire and life energy and directs them to the LORD.
The psalmist clearly recognizes the perils in life. He is confronted by “[his] enemies” (Psalm 25:2b). They could prevail and gloat over their victory to add insult to injury. Above all, he dreads the danger of “shame,” which constitutes a major concern in the biblical world. The loss of honor is a debilitating situation in antiquity as is the case in many parts of today’s world. In vv. 2-3, he mentions “shame” repeatedly with three words derived from the same root. From the psalmist’s perspective, God should prevent him from being humiliated. First, it affects adversely “those who wait for [God]” (v. 3). The Hebrew word that signifies waiting shares the same etymology with tiqvah (“hope”). The root originates from the practice of making thread by twisting fibers together. God cannot let down those who hope and wait for God’s intervention, anxiously wringing their hands.
In the security of confidence in the LORD, the psalmist wants to learn and follow God’s way (vv. 4-5). In the Hebrew text, these two verses are twins. They begin and end with words based on the root that refers to a “way,” as if he is saying, “I will KNOW your way. I will GO your way.” He is determined to do this, for he recognizes God as his salvation. The Hebrew word for “salvation” includes not only deliverance from the present dangers in life (as depicted in vv. 2-3) but also the well-being and prospering that accompany the observance of the law (torah as referred to in Deuteronomy 30:10).
The psalmist has a good reason to count on God’s mercy and steadfast love, for these are some of the things that one can be sure will last forever — “they have been from old” (Psalm 25:6). His petition that the LORD “be mindful” enlists a simple Hebrew word that means “remember.” This Hebrew verb is oriented not so much to the past as to the present. The psalmist is not merely asking God to recall something that could be forgotten. The psalmist petitions God to act based on the categories of mercy and steadfast love.
Mercy and steadfast love are linked together elsewhere in the book of Psalms (40:11; 103:4). Our psalmist conceptualizes the divine attributes as two sides of the coin. In the Greek Septuagint, they are translated with two synonyms that mean “compassion.” The Latin Vulgate uses miseratio and misericordia; the former may signify the emotion of pity, whereas the latter includes willingness to do something about it.
The latter of the pair (“steadfast love”; mentioned three times in 25:6, 7, 10) translates hesed, a Hebrew word that has vexed many generations of translators, for there is no suitable English word that can convey its meaning. The modern convention of rendering it as “steadfast love” is based on the observation that it portrays faithful compassion that never fails. In the gospel lesson from Luke 10 for this Sunday, the Samaritan who extends gratuitous assistance to the poor person victimized by random violence illustrates such virtue. Jesus challenges his interlocutor to do likewise and be “the neighbor” — no longer merely someone in the vicinity but one who has the opportunity to show mercy unconditionally.
When the psalmist asks God to remember mercy and steadfast love, he prays that God may not “remember the sins of [his] youth or [his] transgressions” (v. 7a). Again, the psalmist prays that God may not base divine decision on the past. The petitioner cannot rule out the wrongs that he must have committed as a reckless youth. As a fallible human being, he makes his straightforward confession of sins (“transgressions” NRSV). He is neither able nor willing to claim innocence as the basis for God’s aid. He can only rely on God’s mercy and steadfast love (v. 7b).
He can be sure of God’s deliverance, for even sinners are granted the chance to be taught in the LORD’s way (v. 8). For the humble, God has a special arrangement (v. 9). In the Hebrew language, it is almost impossible to distinguish the humble from the oppressed poor. It is not always possible to keep them apart in today’s world, either, where power and privilege are poised to preempt the care for the powerless. The two halves of the verse make a reasonable pair, in which guidance and instruction are brought together. Yet, there is a subtle overtone that suggests that the first half recommends the humble walk in life, while the second underscores the importance of learning (which translates the Hebrew word that also gave us the word Talmud).
The psalmist’s confidence resides in God’s steadfast love that will endure “for those who keep his covenant and his decrees” (v. 10), which again recalls the first lesson from Deuteronomy 30:9-14. One needs not construe v. 10b as a prerequisite to the proposition presented in v. 10a. The psalmist has already established his helplessness in having himself saved for himself. The psalmist ponders the blessing reserved for those who live faithfully. They will witness God’s faithfulness.