Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 10, 2016
Psalm 25:1-10 Commentary
On first reading (and, I confess, second and third as well), I could not imagine preaching on Psalm 25. I mean, it jumps all over the place and has no easily discernible preaching theme. In one place it seems that David has a guilt complex, in another a persecution complex, and in still others an inferiority complex and perhaps a psychosomatic disorder. Everything is wrong for poor David. No wonder it is widely considered something of an ugly duckling among the Psalms. It has all the attractiveness of (I must admit) my own prayers. Indeed, maybe that’s the best way to approach it. Psalm 25 is the spontaneous, unrehearsed, non-artistic prayer of everyman and everywoman.
But upon further reflection and with the help of several expert exegetes, I’ve discovered that Psalm 25 is really a lovely swan, a very carefully crafted work of art. For one thing, it is an alphabetic acrostic; every new verse beginning with the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Why would David go to all that trouble? Well, if we study the Psalm carefully, we’ll find that he uses nearly every available Hebrew word for instruction. That’s the purpose of the Psalm—to instruct people in how to pray when they are in trouble. The alphabetic acrostic was designed to help them remember the ABC’s of prayer, a bit like the acronym ACTS (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication) that has helped many a high school student learn to pray less selfishly.
The petitions in each verse were chosen to fit that alphabetic pattern, which helps to account for the seemingly random character of the prayer. But the end result is not an artificial prayer; in fact, the combined requests represent the great concerns of the ordinary believing life. The acrostic “has been used to the poet’s purpose to create a genuine and poignant prayer that gathers up the needs and hopes of the people who live in the midst of opposition to their faith, facing the dangers of history, aware of their sinfulness, but trusting the Lord and living in hope of the Lord’s salvation.” (James Luther Mays) Or as the hoary old commentator Delitzsch put it: “it contains nothing but what is common to the believing consciousness of the church of every age.”
What’s more, there is a discernible chiastic structure in Psalm 25 that helps us find its central theme. It looks like this:
A vss. 1-3 contrast: the righteous/enemy
B vss. 4-7 request for instruction
C vss. 8-14 covenant relationship
B’ vss. 15-18 request for deliverance
A’ vss. 15-21 contrast: the righteousness/enemy
Karl Jacobson summarizes the effect of this chiastic structure. It “seeks to guide the reader from (or perhaps through) the stark contrasts of reality—the righteous and the enemy—and the fearsome threats of shame and treachery. The two fold structure of acrostic and chiastic deftly guides the reader/prayer to the promise/reality of the covenant cradled at its center.”
So, how do we preach this lovely swan of a prayer that centers on covenant? In spite of its art (or perhaps because of it), it is still so filled with such disparate stuff that it’s hard to decide what to focus on in a sermon. So, let’s try an inductive approach, simply walking into the Psalm verse by verse until we find something we can focus on in a sermon. The very first thing we hit in our search is this passionate opening plea that reveals both the posture and the heart of prayer. “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.”
One can picture David with upraised arms, reaching up to God, holding his soul, (in Hebrew) his nephesh, his very life in his hands. Psalm 25 instructs us that prayer is not first of all petition, or thanksgiving, or lament, or confession, though all of those things are important aspects of prayer. Prayer is, at its heart, holding up our lives to God, because all of life depends on God. As David says next, “in you, I put my trust, O God.” A sermon on Psalm 25 could start and stop right there by contrasting David’s prayer with the way most of us try to control our own lives.
But David moves on to plead with God about his enemies. This concern with enemies is, understandably, a constant theme in the Psalms, whether they spring from the life experiences of David or from the national experience of the Exile. In the Exile, Israel was overcome by her enemies, in spite of her trust in her covenant God. That was a deeply embarrassing thing; they were shamed by their defeat and deportation. So praying about enemies who might put us to shame has always been a part of prayer.
Is it today? As I think about my life, I’m not immediately aware of any personal enemies. But if I think deeper, I can identify people or organizations that are deeply hostile to my biblically oriented faith and life. And reading the news I can easily spot religious fanatics and philosophical movements that would love to wipe out the church of Jesus Christ. As I think about my human enemies, I recall Paul reminding us that our battle is not with flesh and blood, but with principalities and powers, with the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. So, a sermon on Psalm 25 could focus on how to pray about enemies.
Or, we could focus on that theme of shame and its frequent companion, guilt. I’m not at all sure that David is making that modern day distinction between guilt and shame. You know, guilt is about what we do, whereas shame is about who we are. But, quite apart from modern psychology, David is very concerned about shame, and he clearly feels very guilty his sins, even those of the distant past. “Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you are good, O Lord.”
Note how David asks God to have a selective memory; don’t remember my sins, but do remember me. That would be rich sermon fodder. It might be helpful to explore guilt and shame with a post-modern generation that feels little of the former (because of a moral relativism that doesn’t recognize the absolutes of God’s law) and is overwhelmed by the latter (because a history of broken families has left them with deep questions about self-identity and self-worth).
But I think that the most fruitful avenue for preaching (and the one most true to the Psalm itself) is this theme of instruction. “Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me. Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.” Not content with deliverance from enemies and forgiveness of sins, David focuses on learning and doing God’s covenantal will (“the demands of the covenant”).
Put theologically, David knows that being part of God’s covenant of grace involves more than justification and deliverance. It also includes sanctification, a life in which “integrity and uprightness protect me…. (verse 21)” We cannot do God’s will if we don’t know it. So prayer is incomplete without a fervent plea for instruction. With Israel, we know that God wants us to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:5, 6).” But we genuinely don’t know what that involves in a morally gray world.
It might be helpful in your sermon to explore the number of spheres in which we are confused about God’s will. Politically, which party/candidate best reflects God’s will for society? Economically, what is the best way to organize the markets? And what does God want us to do with our money? Relationally, how must we deal with raising our children? What should we do with a troubled marriage? Socially, how can we best help the poor, the marginalized, the sexually different? Whether you use the Ten Commandments or the Seven Deadly Sins, you should help your congregation see our desperate need for God to teach us his way.
But don’t miss the fact that the central obligation of the covenant is to “walk before me and be blameless.” (Gen. 17:1) Covenantal living is first of all God centered living. “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.” And this is where we need God’s help the most. We do not know how to center our lives on the invisible God. And we’ll never find out by just thinking hard, by investigating religious phenomena, by experimenting with spiritual practices. While those things might be of some help, only God can help us live God centered lives.
David insists that this instruction cannot be earned; it is the gift of God’s grace. “Show me, teach me, guide me…, for you are God my Savior.” All of salvation is a gracious gift, including the part we have to work at. So we must pray about our sanctification. And God will answer, because of who he is. “Good and upright is the Lord…. All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful, for those who keep the demands of the covenant.”
This blend of demand and gift, of human responsibility and divine grace, addresses the “easy believism” of relativistic postmodernism and the strict legalism of conservative right wing ideology. God’s covenant makes demands on us, but only God can show us the way to live by those demands.
That way is the way of the Spirit of Christ, as Paul said so definitively in Romans 8:1-4. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so God condemned sin in sinful man in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit.”
Every sermon should have one riveting image to capture the imagination of the listeners. As I meditated on this Psalm, I kept seeing an image that is hanging all over my home. It is the image of a path through wild country. Whenever my wife and I vacation in the mountains of Colorado or the desert of Arizona, she takes striking pictures of lonely paths leading off into the distance between snow covered peaks or cactus filled wasteland. That is a picture of “the way of the Lord” for which we pray in Psalm 25.
Recently I received a request to preach at a summer vacation chapel on the shores of Lake Michigan. They asked me to address a theme. I’ll share their request because it may help you think about the prayer for instruction in Psalm 25. “Many people get the idea that one can ‘just believe in Jesus’ and then really do nothing else. Many Christians have so emphasized the need for conversion, for the opening act of faith and commitment, that they have a big gap in their vision of what being a Christian is all about. It is as though they were standing on one side of a deep, wide river, looking across to the further bank. On this bank you declare your faith. On the opposite bank is the ultimate result- final salvation itself. But what are people supposed to do in the meantime? Are there bridges between the two? The bridges in question go by many names, and one bridge is named character.” Source: N.T. Wright. After You Believe. Why Christian Character Matters.
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