Notes and Observations
The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has suggested one helpful approach to preaching and teaching the psalms is to ask what an “anti-psalm” might look like. What, in other words, might be the opposite tone of that expressed by a particular psalm, whether it expresses trust, praise, complaint or something else?
So what might an “anti-Psalm 25” sound like? Might the poet say something like, “I’m on my own in this mess. I have to somehow dig myself out of this trouble. Since I can’t count on anyone else for help, there’s no point in paying any attention to God either. God doesn’t care anyway”?
Such an “anti-Psalm 25,” with its deep resonance within North American culture, might make a helpful entrance into a study of the actual Psalm 25. After all, this psalm alternates between pleas for help and expressions of confidence in God. Of course, this alternation may make it difficult to preach and teach any kind of development or movement within it. Yet its structure reflects the shape of much of human life. After all, because God’s children are confident in God’s good purposes and plans, we dare to plead for God’s help. And when God graciously gives that help, the Spirit fuels our confidence in God’s loving ways.
On top of that, daily life often seems to alternate between reasons for such pleas for help and reasons for expressions of confidence in God’s loving care. So those who preach and teach this psalm may want to give hearers an example of a day and its developments that move back and forth between pleas for help and expressions of confidence. Or they may want to invite hearers to reflect on such a day in their own recent past.
Psalm 25’s author completely depends on the Lord. So we might think of her as a baby bird stretching her hungry mouth toward a feeding mother, a little child pleading for a grandparent’s help or a servant standing at his boss’s pay window. The psalmist, after all, recognizes that only God can give her the help she desperately needs.
Christians are familiar with pleas for such provision. We offer them for things like our daily bread, health and strength, safe travels and protection. We beg God to bless not only ourselves, but also our families, friends, neighbors, co-workers, leaders, various needy people and even enemies. We plead with God to bless our nations and world – all because we recognize that we depend on God for every good thing.
As the psalmist professes in verse 2, “No one whose hope is in [the Lord] will ever be put to shame, but they will be put to shame who are treacherous without excuse.” The psalmist can plead for God’s help because he’s confident that God cares for God’s children. He may even have past experiences of God’s upholding in mind as he recites this psalm. It’s as if he says, says James Mayes, “In the midst of all the troubles of life, I place my hope in you, and you alone, O Lord.”
Yet Psalm 25 stretches our common conception of dependence. We tend to focus on our dependence on and confidence in God to make things better. Yet in verse 1 the psalmist intimates that we completely depend on God for guidance as well. After all, in commenting on the poet’s prayer, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul,” Karl Jacobson notes that the psalms always at least loosely link such “lifting” to the need for teaching and guidance.
So those who preach and teach Psalm 25 may challenge hearers to ask themselves how often they plead for God to lead them. Do we realize just how much we depend on God not just for some kind of deliverance, but also for God’s guidance? We sometimes ask God to guide us as we make hard decisions about family members, friends and jobs. Yet how often do we simply ask God to guide us into faithful daily lives of love, obedience and mercy?
Such pleas for leading certainly pack Psalm 25. “Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths,” the psalmist begs in verse 4. “Guide me in your truth and teach me,” he prays in verse 5. In verses 8 and 9 the psalmist goes on to profess that the Lord “instructs sinners in his ways. He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.”
Such “guidance” imagery is familiar to some climbers and hikers. Psalm 25’s God is like a guide who helps lead novices through unfamiliar territory or up a treacherous mountain. It suggests that Christians are completely dependent on God because we’re lost without God’s loving and expert guidance.
Yet verses 4 and 5 seem to add another dimension to God’s guidance. There the psalmist admits he needs to learn God’s way. To use the guide/hiker imagery, he realizes that he’ll never get to the end of the trail or top of the mountain unless his guide shows him how to get there. However, the psalmist also realizes that he won’t arrive at his destination unless his guide also actively leads him there. It’s as if he knows that he needs God the guide not only to show him the trail map, but also to lead him along that trail.
The psalmist sees God’s instruction as part of God’s saving work. God graciously frees God’s children from slavery to sin, Satan and death. But how will we use that freedom? The psalmist recognizes that we can only live in true freedom if God shows us how to live in the ways for which God creates us.
Yet the psalmist isn’t finished when she professes her dependence on God for deliverance and guidance. She goes on to publicly recognize how much she depends on God to both remember and forget. “Remember, O Lord, your great mercy and love,” she prays in verses 6 and 7. “Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your great love remember me.”
So it’s almost as if as she reflects on her need for God’s teaching and guiding, the psalmist remembers that she hasn’t always followed those ways. As a result, she basically begs God to forget her rebelliousness. However, the psalmist also pleads with God to remember God’s great love and mercy, as well as the psalmist herself. So she pleads for God to exercise what we might call selective memory. After all, even as we beg and depend on God to forget our rebelliousness, we also plead with and rely on God to remember God’s loving care for us.
This God on whom we so completely depend is according to verse 8, “Good and upright.” God is, in other words, characterized by compassion and mercy. All of the ways of this good and upright God are, according to verse 10, “loving and faithful for those who keep the demands of the covenant.” In fact, God is so very good that God instructs not just God’s dependent sons and daughters, but also those who refuse to recognize their dependence, who rebel against God’s good and perfect ways (10).
Psalm 25 is part of the Revised Common Lectionary’s readings for the first Sunday in Lent. The other readings focus largely on baptism. In that context, Jacobson suggests that Psalm 25 addresses both the benefit and importance of the covenant God makes with those who are baptized. It models an attitude and approach to life for those who are baptized.
The July, 1986 Life magazine dubbed the stretch of US Route 50 that crosses the center of Nevada “The Loneliest Road in America.” That particular section of Route 50 spans mostly desolate terrain that’s pockmarked by several large valleys and basins. Life called it lonely because there are long distances between the few small towns on the road and relatively low numbers of people travel on it.
Psalm 25 talks a great deal about God’s “ways” and “paths.” Yet those who seek to travel in faith along those ways sometimes feel like they’re the loneliest highways, not just in America, but also in the whole world. Those who wish to let God teach them about and guide them along God’s ways may feel as though no one is traveling in obedience with them.
Yet those who travel US Route 50 through Nevada from east to west end their lonely journey alongside one of North America’s most dazzling natural wonders, Lake Tahoe. There’s a metaphor that will, with the Holy Spirit’s help, preach and teach.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 22, 2015
Psalm 25:1-10 Commentary