In his book years ago The Closing of the American Mind Allan Bloom lamented the decline of true education in this nation’s colleges and universities. Bloom decried the way many professors had dispensed with the traditional canons of literature in favor of whatever was trendy and vogue. He mourned the fact that critical thinking and thoughtful discernment had been displaced by that great hallmark of postmodern purity: openness. The mark of being educated, Bloom sadly wrote, shifted from being a person with a sharply honed mind to being someone who is open to all and critical of nothing.
Meanwhile in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (released about the same time when Bloom published his work) Mark Noll lamented what he perceived to be a marked decline of education in also Christian circles. Noll gnashed his teeth over the fact that there were precious few evangelicals recognized as excellent scientists, political analysts, historians, economists, or writers.
In many ways things have gotten worse since Bloom and Noll wrote their tomes. Neither author in the 1980s could have foreseen the rise of social media and the shoot-from-the-hip (and don’t bother to think too long) style in which people now bandy about their opinions as if they were long-considered, well thought out concepts or precepts. Noll and Bloom could not have known that split-screen shouting matches on cable news outlets would replace careful argumentation and thought.
But that is why Psalm 25 is such a challenge. Because if there is one overriding theme or motif in this ancient poem it is this psalm’s presentation of the notion that the way to address the challenges of life is through further education and instruction. When I read Psalm 25, I find myself drawn to its utter realism. If you enter into the rhythms and patterns of these verses, what you will find is probably something akin to your own life. If you are like most people, including most Christian people, then the pattern of your piety is probably something of a see-saw: there are ups and downs; good, strong seasons and dry, weak seasons. Clearly this is the experience of this Hebrew poet, too. Just look at how the various parts of Psalm 25 are interspersed and woven together.
On the one hand there is lofty praise of God as the psalmist lifts his entire soul up to heaven, placing himself squarely before the throne of Yahweh in a fervent desire to praise God. On the other hand those words are followed by honest admissions of hardship, loneliness, and grief. Even those who lift the essence of themselves up to God are not guaranteed that they’ll never have a bad day.
On the one hand there are places in this psalm in which the psalmist expresses firm desires to learn about God and live according to his divine ways only. On the other hand those same verses are accompanied by other passages which unstintingly confess sins past and present (the Lectionary stops short of some of those confessional verses but they are a vital part of the larger psalm). The sins and follies of youth are laid out for God to see, but so are the struggles and setbacks of the psalmist’s present life. The life of faith is not always a bed of roses, and we don’t always come out smelling like a rose ourselves, either!
On the one hand there is in this psalm some truly soaring rhetoric on how God rewards the faithful, satisfying with good stuff those who fear God and who strive to live by the light of God’s covenant. On the other hand it is clear that despite this belief that God gives good things to his beloved ones, nevertheless this psalmist faces the traps and snares of his enemies.
There is here praise but also lament; piety but also pity; fond aspirations but also sinful failures; firm hope but also real hurt. A description of real life does not get much more honest or realistic than this!
Probably this psalmist had exactly real life in mind when he wrote this, too. Psalm 25 is one of several poems in the Hebrew psalter that is an acrostic, which means that each successive line of this psalm begins with the next letter of the alphabet. Since the Hebrew alphabet has twenty-two letters, Psalm 25 has twenty-two lines, the first one beginning with the Hebrew equivalent of the letter “A,” the second one starting with the letter “B” and so on down to the equivalent of the letter “Z” in the last line.
One of the reasons psalms got written as acrostics was to help people memorize the poem. In a time when no one had access to books or any other kind of printed material, people had to memorize everything. They could not just go and “look it up” in their own personal copies of the Bible. By composing a poem as an acrostic people would have an easier time memorizing it. The ABC pattern is a mnemonic device (which also might argue for reading the entire Psalm and not coming to a full stop at verse 10).
Perhaps this psalmist wanted to make sure that people could memorize his poem for two reasons: first, because he knew how well his poetic sentiments fit in with real life. This psalm is something worth carrying around with you as you lead a similarly real life of sin, suffering, hurt, and disappointment. But second, and just as importantly, this psalmist wanted to remind people that in and through all these varied experiences is ever and always the need to be instructed by God. The psalmist wanted people to memorize a poem about instruction by God because it is precisely the very act of memorization–of rehearsing something over and over until you make it a part of who you are–that is the key.
The solution to sin, the way through suffering, the method for clinging to God’s rich promises even during periods when you yourself don’t seem to be on the receiving end of those promises–in and through it all this psalmist clearly believes that receiving divine tutoring is somehow the answer. This may not be an obvious answer. This may not be an easy answer. Being instructed by God may not eliminate life’s pains or even, all by itself, tie off every loose end of life. But in receiving divine instruction there is somehow hope.
In the course of this poem just about every conceivable Hebrew verb and synonym having to do with instructing gets used at least once. The psalmist dug deep into his Hebrew thesaurus to pummel readers with a variety of words having to do with education. He asks God to instruct him in the course of his hymns of praise, in the course of his petitions for help, in the course of his pleas from the midst of life’s valleys. In fact, let’s scan through this poem specifically to note how frequently this motif pops up.
In verse 4 the poet talks about God’s ways and paths and asks God to guide and to show these divine roadways. In verse 5 God’s truth comes to the fore, and the psalmist pleas that God will guide to and also teach that truth. In verse 8 he begs God to instruct him and then in verse 9 petitions that God again guide and teach. Verse 12 features yet another request for instruction and verse 14 depicts Yahweh confiding his covenant and making known the truth of his love and faithfulness.
The posture of the faithful over against God is one of humble submission to the ongoing education God alone can provide. Unlike people today, and perhaps unlike people in many eras of history, this psalmist sees sin and turns to divine tutelage as the solution. He sees suffering and seeks to understand it based on what God can divulge through further instruction. He experiences loneliness and so decides to learn more about God’s covenant faithfulness as a way to parse those lonely times.
We think of the word “disciple” as meaning “follower,” and in a sense that’s true. But the original word used in the New Testament for “disciple” really means “student.” The original disciples hooked up with Jesus not merely to tag along behind him to see what might happen next. No, they apprenticed themselves to Jesus because they sensed that he was an interesting rabbi at whose feet they dearly desired to learn the great things he would impart to them, his inner circle of learners.
Disciples are students. They follow the Master not merely to be close to where the action is but to learn. But I wonder if we sometimes forget that today. It seems that maybe we’ve kept the follower part of our definition of “disciple” but have largely left the student part alone. We join a church and just kind of trot along with the crowd, coming to worship more to watch what happens than to do any hard thinking; turning worship into an event to make us feel a certain way more than a time to make us think a certain way.
But when worship becomes entertainment and sermons a spectacle to be observed more than a lesson to be chewed on and mulled over, then disciples become spectators not learners. It’s bad enough if we treat worship as a passive entertainment experience but if at the same time we also restrict our Christian learning to only that hour or two of worship on a Sunday, then we all but ensure that we will not often, if ever, assume the posture of Psalm 25. We will not make a part of our daily lives this psalmist’s example of trying to make sense of life’s richly varied experiences by being incessant and attentive students of God.
Psalm 25 was written as an acrostic to help people memorize it, carry it with them, make it part of the warp, woof, and weave of the everyday. But how well do we or our contemporaries do in seeing life as a learning experience at the feet of God?
Some time ago I read an article about memory in which the author pointed out that printing written materials was never designed to replace memory but to help us memorize better. But over time, precisely because we have so much that is already written down, the act of memorizing has waned. This is also why we don’t even know the telephone numbers of people we call all the time: they are stored in the phone’s memory so you just hit “Jill” such that if you ever need to call Jill from a phone that is not yours . . . These days if you want to win “Jeopardy” on TV like the recent champ Mr. Holzhauer, you had better know a lot in your head. For most of us, though, we don’t need to remember stuff: we can always look it up on line after all.
So it goes with many things, including Scripture. When you’ve got a half-dozen Bibles scattered around your house, you assume that you have such ready access to the Bible that you don’t need to spend much time memorizing its texts or meditating on them. But even as storing a number into the memory of your phone is very different than storing it in your own brain, so also the words in an unopened Bible on the shelf next to the dinner table: those words are not going to float across thin air and somehow become part of who you are. Making them part of your very self requires reading, reflecting, memorizing.
It means being a student of God, in short.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 14, 2019
Psalm 25:1-10 Commentary