Psalm 25 is widely considered to be an ugly duckling among the Psalms. At first (and second and third) reading, it seems to lack cohesion and logical progression. But like the proverbial ugly duckling, there’s something beautiful here waiting to be discovered. It begins when one reads the Hebrew text and discovers that we have an alphabetical acrostic here, albeit a slightly irregular one. The writer has carefully constructed this poem to cover the waterfront of life from A to Z, or more accurately from aleph to kaph.
We make further progress in finding beauty here when we discern a chiastic structure that points to the central thought. It goes like this:
verses 1-3—contrast; the righteous/the enemy
verses 4-7—request for instruction
verses 8-14—covenant relationship
verses 15-18—request for deliverance
verses 19-21—contrast: the righteous/the enemy
This chiasm combined with the acrostic schema point us to the covenant relationship cradled at the center of the Psalm.
That covenant relationship is the basis for the trust expressed here in the midst of all the troubles of life. The last verse, which at first seems like a bit of an add-on, is really a clue to reading the whole Psalm. “Redeem Israel, O God, from all their troubles.” An old spiritual captures the spirit of Psalm 25. “Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen.” The Psalmist is troubled by a deep sense of sin, by an unknown affliction that might be related to that sin, by enemies who want to use that affliction to besmirch the Psalmist reputation, and by a sense of being lost and needing guidance for the journey of life.
Over against that trouble or, better, soaring above it all, is the completeness and sufficiency of God’s covenant benevolence: his mercy, love, goodness, uprightness, faithfulness, and grace. Troubles are aplenty, but grace is abounding.
So the Psalmist begins with an expression of trust in that covenant relationship, in spite of all the troubles of life. Here is a real challenge to lay before your congregation. “To you, O Yahweh, I lift up my soul; in you I trust, O my God.” This is a fine Lenten prayer. As we begin our journey to the cross, we echo what could have been the words of Jesus as Lent began for him. As the opposition intensified and the accusations got nastier and his own sense of the weight of our sin increased and his need for divine guidance grew more desperate, Jesus may well have used this Psalm in one of his many times of prayer on the way to the cross. Particularly, verses 1-3 sound like the words of a suffering Savior.
Verses 4-7 sound like the words of a suffering sinner, especially verses 6 and 7. (I’ll come back later to verses 4 and 5 and their theme of needing to know God’s ways.) Verses 6 and 7, with their three fold repetition of the word “remember” remind us that Lent is about repentance and forgiveness. The contrast between verses 6 and 7 is exquisitely beautiful. Note the contrast between “remember and remember not,” “your love and my sins,” “from of old and my youth.” “Remember, O Yahweh, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old. Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways.” Here is the Gospel in a nutshell; “according to your love remember me, for you are good, O Yahweh.
Verses 8-10 are neither Christ’s words on the way to the cross nor our words on the journey of Lenten penitence; they are a reflection on the covenant relationship that was Christ’s motivation and is our hope. Verse 8 is the core theological vision of Yahweh in the Old Testament. “Good and upright is the Lord.” The rest of this section on the covenant (through verse 14) is an exposition of the goodness and righteousness of our Lord. Verse 14 (unfortunately not a part of our reading for today) is the exclamation point of this section. “Yahweh confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them.” The word “confides” suggests a close friendship in which secrets are shared. It’s a stunning thought. The Lord of the universe leans in close and whispers secrets in our sinful ears.
What does the Lord whisper? Well, that is the unique feature of Psalm 25, the aspect of this ugly duckling Psalm that is especially beautiful and surprising. Remember that I said I would come back to verses 4 and 5? After expressing his trust in Yahweh in the face of those who “are treacherous without a cause (verses 2-3),” the Psalmist inexplicably begins to pray that Yahweh will “show me your ways, teach me your paths, guide me in your truth and teach me.”
That theme of teaching and instruction in the ways of Yahweh is not an unrelated intrusion into a Psalm fundamentally about God’s covenant mercy. It is central to that covenant mercy. It is one of the ways God expresses his covenant mercy. That’s why prayers for God’s instruction run through this Psalm, especially in the reading for today. “He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way. All the ways of Yahweh are loving and faithful….”
The “ways of the Lord” are not first of all the rules and regulations that comprise so much of the Pentateuch. And given our Pauline caution regarding the misuse of the law of God, we would be hard pressed to appreciate such an emphasis. But Psalm 25 focuses on the covenant relationship. Thus, “the ways of God” here have to do with walking with Yahweh, as his friend. We are on a journey through a world that is filled with trouble, O Lord, so guide us by showing us how to live in covenant relationship, with you as our God, our Savior, and our Friend.
That is the beautiful and distinct feature of Psalm 25, and we should help our people to see it. We aren’t used to seeing instruction in God’s ways as a part of the gift of salvation. We think of forgiveness of our sins, deliverance from our enemies, being reconciled to God and experiencing Shalom. But sanctification is as much a part of salvation as justification and adoption and glorification. To be able to live for God on the road to heaven, we need instruction and the Holy Spirit. Indeed, before he died, Jesus told the grieving disciples that he would send another Comforter, the Spirit of truth who would lead them into all the truth. Without that Spirit showing us the ways of God, we would not be able to stay on “the Way” in our Lenten journey or on the rest of the Pilgrim Way. The Cross was followed very quickly by Pentecost, so that we could stay on “the Way.”
Or as verse 8 so eloquently puts it: “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways.” To do otherwise, to leave us to our devices once we are forgiven and reconciled, is very much like pardoning a serial killer and then letting him loose on society with no guidance and help. Recidivism is the nasty truth about sinners.
So we need to pray Psalm 25 daily, but especially in this time of Lent as we focus on repentance and forgiveness in the context of God’s covenant mercy on the cross. “Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.”
As I reflected on the blessing of knowing God’s ways, several cultural references rose to the surface of my brain from my long forgotten past. I saw Ricky Schroder (remember that adorable little boy) as a fuzzy cheeked young detective in the gritty crime drama, “NYPD Blue.” He is struggling not only with his new job as a homicide detective, but also with his out of control life as a twenty something. He sobs to his partner, “I don’t know how to live my life.” How many twenty somethings would say the same thing today? Instead of inventing a life (the typical postmodern response to the difficulty of living in a rudderless world), why not listen to the Lord who wants to teach us how to live?
That old TV series reminded me of all old rock song by the Zombies, “Time of the Season.” The singer is trying to seduce a young woman/girl. “What’s your name? Who’s your Daddy? Is he rich like me? Has he taken any time to show you how to live?” The good news is that our Heavenly Daddy has taken the time not only to save from our failures through Christ, but also to show us how to live by his Word and Spirit.
Finally (a relief, eh?), I heard and saw on my mental TV screen one of those old anti-drunk- driving commercials. Remember? “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk!” If you really care about someone, you won’t let them do things that will destroy their lives. In an age of “every man or woman for themselves,” God is a Friend who doesn’t just let us do our own thing. He intervenes with the Word who gave his life to save ours and with words designed to help us live in the Shalom given by Christ.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 18, 2018
Psalm 25:1-10 Commentary