One thing is true about the Psalter: it is not to be skimmed, or read quickly. The psalms are meant to be mulled and chewed in a quiet atmosphere in which the alarm clock has been turned off. When read in such a manner, the psalms reveal details of form which add to reader comprehension. Scholarly tradition holds that the Psalter was performed in temple liturgies, that is, out loud where worshipers gathered. Many psalms lend themselves to a readers theater approach that would help to clarify their meaning to physically present listeners (see “Psalms 9 and 10: A Readers Theater”). Psalm 25 can be included in this grouping.
If I were the director, or worship leader, in charge of setting up Psalm 25 for dramatic presentation, I would assign parts in the following way:
- Speaker 1: the individual lifting his prayer to God
- Speaker 2: the chorus
Who are the speakers?
Concerning the identities of the speakers, the individual, Speaker 1, could be you or I. In a deeper sense and in alignment with the basic premise of this blog, the speaker is Jesus Christ. Psalm 25 uses this prosopological approach (speaking in-character as though using a dramatic mask, or costume) to prophesy of the coming Messiah in his human and mediatorial role. Speaker 2 could reasonably be any of the following: 1) an actual chorus of speakers who stand above and beyond the action as an interpretive narrator, 2) the voice of Scripture, as though personified, or 3) the voice of the Holy Spirit. Verse 22, “Redeem Israel, O God, from all their troubles!” favors an actual chorus (#1 above) or the voice of the Holy Spirit in intercession ((#3 above; see Romans 8:27).
Psalm 25 (NIV) in text blocks, or panels
- Panel 1
- Speaker 1, verses 1-2:
1 In you, Lord my God, I put my trust. I trust in you; 2 Do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me.
- Speaker 2, verse 3:
No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame, but shame will come on those who are treacherous without cause.
- Panel 2
- Speaker 1, verses 4-7:
4 Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; 5 guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.
6 Remember, O Lord, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old. 7 Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you are good, O Lord.
- Speaker 2, verses 8-10:
8 Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. 9 He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way. 10 All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful for those who keep the demands of his covenant.
- Panel 3
- Speaker 1, verse 11:
11 For the sake of your name, O Lord, forgive my iniquity, though it is great.
- Speaker 2, verses 12-14:
12 Who, then, is the man that fears the Lord? He will instruct him in the way chosen for him, 13 He will spend his days in prosperity, and his descendants will inherit the land. 14 The Lord confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them.
- Panel 4
- Speaker 1, verses 15-21:
15 My eyes are ever on the Lord, for only he will release my feet from the snare. 16 Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. 17 The troubles of my heart have multiplied; free me from my anguish, 18 Look upon my affliction and my distress and take away all my sins. 19 See how my enemies have increased and how fiercely they hate me! 20 Guard my life and rescue me; let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you. 21 May integrity and uprightness protect me, because my hope is in you.
- Speaker 2, verse 22:
22 Redeem Israel, O God, from all their troubles!
What are the advantages of viewing Psalm 25 this way?
The main advantage of reading Psalm 25 in this statement/response format is that the interplay between God and petitioner becomes apparent. In Panel 1, the individual addresses God, acknowledging his trust in him. He asks God that he would not be put to shame and that God would rescue him from his enemies. Then, the chorus, which could be the Holy Spirit, also addresses God directly. This speech differs from the former in that it states general, biblical principles about the nature and actions of God. It answers the needs of the first speaker with reassurance. “God, no one who puts their faith in you is ever put to shame. As for the enemies, they will be the ones put to shame, since they act treacherously without provocation. Speaker 1 is vindicated and reassured by these statements. Notice that the second person direct address to the Lord made by Speaker 2 in verse 3 is joined by third person statements of general principles. This contrasts with the second person direct address and first person statements of a personal nature in verses 1 and 2. The grammar supports the perception of two distinct speakers, and this becomes more apparent as the poem progresses.
In Panel 2, Speaker 1 asks the Lord to teach and guide him, because God is the one he looks to as Savior. All his hope is in the Lord constantly; there is no one else this individual relies upon. He reminds the Lord and asks the Lord to remember his great mercy and love which stretch back to the beginning. He also brings up the sin issue, asking the Lord to forgive him. He cites two reasons: 1) he is older now and knows better, and 2) he is counting on God’s love and goodness.
In response to this speech, Speaker 2, still in Panel 2, indicates in third person that the Lord is indeed good and upright. He does instruct sinners in how to improve their walk. Speaker 2 specifically mentions “the humble,” thereby implying that Speaker 1, as one of the humble, will be guided in what is right and that the Lord will answer his request positively by teaching him. In other words, “Don’t worry. The Lord hears and will answer your prayer by forgiving you and giving you the guidance you seek.”
In Panel 3, the first person individual speaker very simply repeats his request for forgiveness (verse 11), including the elaboration that his iniquity is very great. Speaker 2 responds in much the same fashion as the first time. This speaker never states, “The Lord does forgive you.” Rather, speaking in third person about the sinner and about the Lord, Speaker 2 implies the Lord’s forgiveness through descriptions of ongoing relationship. First, he describes the kind of person the Lord forgives. This person(s) is one who “fears” the Lord (verses 12 and 14). We learn contextually, by reading many psalms, that “to fear the Lord” means to be humble toward him, both in acknowledgment of his rights as the one and only sovereign creator and in acquiescence, or submission, to those rights. The Lord chooses a path, or “way,” for that person who fears him and will instruct him on how to live his life, or to walk in that “way.” Speaker 2 continues in verse 13 to pronounce a blessing from the Lord to such a person and his descendants. Verse 14 goes deeply into the blessing in store for the persons who fear the Lord, “14 The Lord confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them.” The teaching is remarkable, that to be forgiven means to be drawn in to close and intimate relationship with the Lord Almighty. And so the reader sees by example and illustration what it means when the Lord forgives the great iniquity of those who confess and repent.
Panel 4 contains the longest speech by the first person individual supplicant. It is like a final fireworks, as the end of the prayer-poem approaches. It causes the reader to question whether Speaker 1 has heard the responses given by Speaker 2 earlier in the prayer. Certainly the conditions have not yet changed. Descriptions of these become more personal and detailed, “I am lonely and afflicted” (vs 16) and in “anguish” (vs 17). The hatred of his enemies toward him is described as being fierce (vs 19). Verse 18 includes a request that the speaker’s sins be not just “forgiven,” as in verse 11, but more than that, taken away.
Verse 21 adds a new element to the prayer. Even though the supplicant perceives himself as a sinner, he requests that integrity and uprightness would protect him. The English translation does not indicate whose integrity and uprightness are being specified. Are they abstract, stand-alone qualities, are they characteristics of God, or are they indicative of the supplicant, in spite of his confessed sins? The Septuagint translation interprets the underlying Hebrew text (vorlage) differently, “The harmless and upright joined themselves to me: for I waited for thee, O Lord.” This is very interesting. First, such a statement supports well the interpretation that Christ in this psalm speaks in a mediatorial capacity. Secondly, in his incarnation, the poor and afflicted, the harmless (disenfranchised) ones, did attach themselves to Christ. Their very belief in him as God’s Son indicates their “uprightness” before the Lord (metaphorically their truth, “straightness,” sincerity according to Thayer). On the other hand, if Speaker 1 is making reference to his own integrity and uprightness, this would support the underlying premise of the righteous one confessing mediatorially the sins of others throughout the psalm.
Speaker 2 closes both this panel and the psalm with a prayer that Israel that would be redeemed, or saved, from all their troubles. Both the Hebrew and Greek use a masculine singular for “his troubles,” a grammar supported by the NET. If the Holy Spirit is Speaker 2, “Israel” could be the kingdom or it could be a special name for Christ in his mediatorial capacity (confer Hosea 11:1 and Matthew 2:15). This summary prayer in verse 22 accords well with the interpretation that the individual supplicant, Speaker 1, has spoken throughout the psalm in a mediatorial capacity.
Why does a grammatical shift of person indicate a change of speaker?
Verbs in many languages express “person,” the English word used to describe who the subject of the verb is speaking about. Some languages also use pronouns to help clarify meaning. For example, a sentence may say, “I run,” or “We run,” “You run,” or “He runs,” etc. Why is it important to notice person in speech?
Let’s set up an imaginary scenario. Let’s pretend that I am talking to you and that you and I are alone together. Let’s further assume that no one is listening in. I may make statements such as, “I am hungry,” or, “I want you to help me.” I may say, “You are doing a good job.” The common practices of ordinary language are such that grammatical person remains consistent during a speech segment. So let’s say I am talking to you, and your name is Viva. I might say something like, “Viva, I’m hungry. I want you to help me get some lunch ready.” However, I wouldn’t say, “Viva, I’m hungry. I want you to help me get some lunch ready. Viva is a good and kind person who always helps whoever asks her,” if the situation hadn’t changed and I was still talking directly to you, Viva. If I did speak like that, a hypothetical reader (who is now listening in) might think that 1) I was speaking to a very young child, 2) that Viva had a learning difficulty of some sort, 3) perhaps I was trying to brainwash Viva, or 4) that I was making a dramatic aside to an outside party listening in. Number 4 might occur if I were on a reality TV show and I suddenly turned to speak in third person about Viva to the assumed audience. These possibilities serve to demonstrate that in normal direct address to someone labeled, “you,” when the two persons are alone together, the speaker continues to use second person throughout a consecutive speech segment. They do not grammatically shift to third person and speak about the person whom they previously had been addressing, if nothing in the setup has changed. Such a shift would normally imply the presence of a third party to the conversation.
In the example given above, a reader might see on the printed page, “Viva, I’m hungry. I want you to help me get some lunch ready. Viva is a good and kind person who always helps whoever asks her.” Rules of ordinary, common speech would cause the reader to assume the presence of a third person, who either 1) speaks the final sentence or 2) to whom the final sentence is being spoken. The type of written material would influence the reader’s conclusions concerning which of those two possibilities is correct. For example, if the reader is reading a novel, she might assume the narrator spoke that last line to the reading audience.
The above example illustrates the principle that in ordinary, plain speech an individual who directly addresses another individual does so continuously throughout the speech event. The speaker does not switch second person “you,” to third person “he,” if continually addressing the same individual. If I am speaking directly to you, I would not suddenly begin referring to you in third person, not while I am still talking to you directly.
Therefore, when we as readers encounter grammatical changes of person in a single speech event, such as second person switches to third person and back again, we normally assume another individual to be present, either as speaker or as listener. As demonstrated above, Psalm 25 continuously switches from reference to the Lord in second person to reference about the Lord in third person, and back again. For example, consider verses 7b-8, “7b According to your love remember me, for you are good, O Lord [second person]. 8 Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways [third person].” Verse 7b addresses the Lord directly in second person, you. Verse 8 without warning switches to describing the Lord in third person, he and his. As readers daily schooled in the norms of plain, ordinary speech, we would naturally begin looking for explanations to explain the shift.
What possibilities might explain the shift of person in Psalm 25?
In Psalm 25, there are various possibilities that might explain the shift in person.
- The first person speaker turns from addressing the Lord in second person to addressing himself about the Lord in third person.
- The first person speaker turns from addressing the Lord in second person to addressing an assumed audience about the Lord in third person.
- A third party privy to the prayer makes narrative statements to the Lord (verses 3 and 22) or about the Lord (verses 8-10 and 12-14). In this scenario, the first person speaker either may or may not be aware of the third party who functions as a narrator.
Let’s discuss each of these possibilities one at a time.
- The first person speaker addresses himself about the Lord. In this scenario, the supplicant, that is, the first person speaker, begins by addressing the Lord directly using first and second person, “In you, Lord my God, I put my trust,” (verse 1). Then, even though his prayer hasn’t ended, he breaks off addressing the Lord and begins talking about the Lord in third person, “Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways (verse 8). Is he now talking to himself about the Lord?
- If number one is the case, then the entire prayer becomes a kind of metacognitive debate. If he is talking to himself, it would appear to be an attempt to convince himself that the Lord will answer his prayer because that is the Lord’s nature. This would preclude (leave out) his waiting on the Lord in order to receive the Lord’s reply. The psalmist does indeed state in verse 5 LXX that he has waited on the Lord all day long; the NIV uses the word “hoped” rather than “waited.” Trying to convince oneself about the reliability of the Lord is not the same as waiting on the Lord to answer one’s prayer. Possibility one, therefore, must be rejected.
- The first person speaker turns from addressing the Lord in second person to addressing an assumed audience about the Lord in third person.
- If number two is the case, that the supplicant turns to address an audience, as in a liturgical setting, then the intimacy of the personal confessions and appeals would be broken. This scenario seems unlikely in that the passion and intimacy of the prayer directed to the Lord lead one to believe that the prayer is genuine and earnest, as prayed by a real person in a real situation. If the prayer was originally conceived for a liturgical setting, then its basic premise would be false. An honest reader must reject this notion.
- A third party privy to the prayer makes narrative statements to the Lord (verses 3 and 22) or about the Lord (verses 8-10 and 12-14).
- Verse 3 is problematic in that the statements are second person addressed to the Lord and third person about those who are treacherous without provocation. It may be spoken by a narrator (a dramatic chorus viewing the prayer from the outside or the Holy Spirit), or it may be spoken by the supplicant. I feel it is the Holy Spirit, due to its content and tone, which differ from the statements in first person of personal need. Verse 3 aside, the remaining verses fit well with assignment to a third party.
- Is the first person speaker aware that third party proclamations about the nature and character of the Lord are being inserted into his prayer from time to time? It appears not. While it seems as though the Speaker 2 statements are spoken in reply to and with regard to the contents of the statements by Speaker 1, the reverse does not seem to be the case. Statements by Speaker 1 remain consistent throughout the psalm. His thoughts do not seem to have responded to the words of reassurance consistently spoken by Speaker 2. Therefore, I believe that we the reader can hear these inserted statements, but Speaker 1 does not.
- Of the three possibilities set forth to explain the grammatical shift in person within the prayer that is Psalm 25, I believe that the third possibility appears most probable in that it best explains the normal rules of speech under which we all function.
- There are changes of grammatical person throughout Psalm 25.
- These indicate a change of speaker.
- Speaker 1 is an individual supplicant confessing his suffering and sin to the Lord, asking forgiveness, and asking the Lord for his intervention in overcoming his enemies.
- Speaker 2 is an outside voice apparent to the reader of the psalm, but not apparent to the supplicant.
- The content of the statements by the two speakers vary considerably.
- Statements by Speaker 1 are all spoken in first and second person. They express anxiety, urgency, stress, emotional pain, confession of sin, and a beseeching attitude of trust and hope in the Lord. These are consistent throughout the psalm.
- Statements by Speaker 2 are all spoken in second and third person. They express strong confidence in the Lord’s consistent love, goodness, and faithfulness toward those who fear him by keeping the demands of his covenant. They express no anxiety.
- Psalm 25 is consistent with other psalms that clearly and directly indicate Christ as King, mediator, and persecuted supplicant.
- Most likely Speaker 1 in Psalm 25 is the prophetic, in-character (prosopological) voice of Christ during the trials of his incarnation.
- Most likely Speaker 2 is the voice of the Holy Spirit having heard the prayers of Christ and also praying to the Lord God on behalf of Christ and Israel.
- All of the above is consistent with Scripture considered as a whole and in parts, both Old and New Testaments.
How do these conclusions, based upon consideration of the grammatical changes of person in Psalm 25, help the reader’s faith?
First, two speakers are better than one. Two speakers implies the supernatural presence of deity listening to the words of the psalmist’s prayer. The supplications of this prayer will be answered. This informs the reader that her prayers will also be heard, understood, accepted, and answered. Our Lord is Spirit, but he is God who sees, hears, and speaks.
Psalm 145:19 NIV He fulfils the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them.
Second, the presence of two speakers implies the presence of the Trinity within the words of Psalm 25: The Lord God to whom the supplications are directed, Christ the mediator making supplication for himself and the people he represents, and the Holy Spirit, the Helper, who helps the supplicant in his prayer.
Finally, the words and prayers of Speaker 2 are highly reassuring and certainly speak to people of faith of all times and places. By reading Psalm 25 with the understanding that Christ our mediator is praying for his mission and for the forgiveness of our sins and that the Holy Spirit is in full agreement with the words of his prayer, our faith is helped.
A popular myth in circulation today says that the God of the Old Testament was harsh, stern, cruel, and mean–an unforgiving judge eager to punish, while the God of the New Testament, as represented by Jesus Christ, is all love. Psalm 25 gives the lie to this myth. In Psalm 25, God is all-over invitation, love, and goodness to those who acknowledge him and want those things.
Psalm 25 is a prayer by an individual person surrounded by strong enemies. He asks the Lord for help and rescue from them, even as he confesses his sin and asks forgiveness. He asks the Lord to teach and guide him. He looks to the Lord always, and places his hope in the Lord.
In response to these petitions and statements of hope and faith, an unidentified narrative voice provides strong reassurances concerning God’s nature and actions toward those who humble themselves and seek him, just as the psalmist is doing. Listen to these words from Psalm 25 NIV.
3 No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame, but shame will come on those who are treacherous without cause.
8 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways.
9 He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.
10 All the ways of the LORD are loving and faithful toward those who keep the demands of his covenant.
12 Who, then, are those who fear the LORD? He will instruct them in the ways they should choose.
13 They will spend their days in prosperity, and their descendants will inherit the land.
14 The LORD confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them.
Did you catch that? God is “good…upright…loving…faithful” toward those who “fear the Lord.” To “fear” the Lord in this context means to give him belief, honor, respect, and an honest attempt at obedience. To these people the Lord promises relationship When Scripture speaks verse 14, “The Lord confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them,” this is a biblical way of saying that the Lord will meet and speak with those who want him. He will share himself with them. They will spend time together in fellowship. What more could any human want than to be in a special relationship of friendship with her creator?
How is all this possible?
The other portions of Psalm 25 show a person in deep prayer with the Lord, fighting as it were for his very life. He confesses sin, confesses belief, hope, and trust in the loving goodness of the Lord, and asks the Lord to rescue him from his strong enemies. This could be a recorded prayer of Jesus Christ, our mediator, when he took on human flesh and nature and died as a sacrifice upon the cross for us. In the verse below, to “intercede” means to pray for someone:
Romans 8:34 Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died–more than that, who was raised to life–is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. (NIV)
The God of the Old Testament is the God who appointed Christ his Son to die for us as one of us. Was God being “mean” to his Son? No, they both were displaying God’s love for us. God is love, and God loves in the Old Testament, just as much as in the New. Psalm 25 assures us of his love.
A Bit of a Meandering Approach…
I remember the third stanza of Psalm 24 (verses 7-10) from my Sunday School childhood. Our teacher had selected this psalm for her class to memorize and present in a little program to the church. What did it mean? Who knows? We were never taught. My young mind created an image of large and heavy, wood and iron gates, fairytale style, cranking themselves up all by themselves, so that a King on a horse could enter over a stone road paved in large, boulder-like slabs to whatever it was that lay beyond. Did I know that the King was the Lord Almighty Jesus Christ at his ascension? No, not at all. The words held no concrete meaning for me at that point in my life. Actually, that the words came from “the Bible” meant nothing to me either. Nevertheless, I always remembered those few lines of this little poem. Our teacher had us perform the psalm chorus style. Although I enjoyed following her stage directions to deliver these final verses in a loud, strong voice, no internal emotion accompanied my recitation. No wonder, since the words held no meaning for my tiny life.
I reread this poem in January, and in the margin I wrote, “Awesome.” Then I forgot about it. This morning, when I read it again, my first reaction was one of confusion. What does Stanza 1 have to do with Stanza 2? And how do we get from there to Stanza 3? Nevertheless, I knew that something amazing was happening in the third stanza, and I wrote the one word response, “Wow.”
Finding the psalm to be beyond me, I went straight to my most spiritual commentator, John Barclay. In light of what I’ve written here, you my reader may understand why I burst out laughing, as in “LOL!”, when I read what Barclay had written. He wrote bunches, far more than normal.
Although it seems perfectly true, as all the commentators say, that this Psalm (and perhaps all the rest) was used to be sung in parts, by the different bands of sacred music which David (no doubt by the direction of the Holy Ghost) had appointed for the service of the Sanctuary; yet, if we attend any further than that, to the dull, dry, bare, and beggarly disquisitions of the carnally-minded … [academics] …, concerning the procession of the ark, its being received into the temple, and set upon its own place, with such like childish ideas, and nugatory [worthless, trivial] observations, retailed and enumerated every day, and almost in every place of worship, in the most stale and tedious manner imaginable; now do we find our whole spirit, fervor, and devotion, in the most amazing manner, all at once, as if it were by enchantment, damped, destroyed, and shrunk to nothing, after the manner, if we may so say, of the plump kine [cows], and full ears of corn, which were devoured and swallowed up by the lean, thin, blasted and shriveled!–But if, ceasing from the… [academicians], we take the spirit of the Psalm from the Spirit who inspired it, and read it in its own light, the light of its parallels, and especially the light of the New Testament, we will find, instead of the darkness of the Mosaic veil, the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus, filling our whole hearts… (Barclay, 147).
I hope you were able to wade through that–he did, after all, write those words in the early 1800’s, before texting, Twitter, and bit-speech were ever invented. I laughed when I read his impassioned description of dry, dead academia because of the confidence and unabashed moxy he displays in his vigorous attack of the “letter” that kills (2 Corinthians 3:6). I laughed because he sums up my thought exactly and bludgeons where I barely dare to hint.
So, what did Barclay (and others in my bibliography) find in Psalm 24? In short–a summation of the entire Bible and gospel.
Stanza 1, which is verses 1 and 2, represents Christ before time in his sovereignty and great creative act, as God and with God.
1 The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, 2 for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers. (ESV)
His parallel verses are John 1:1 and Colossians 1:17. I would add a phrase from Hebrews 1:3, “he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 He was in the beginning with God.
3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3 ESV)
16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities– all things were created through him and for him.
17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col 1:16-17 ESV)
Stanza 2 extends from verse 3 through 6 and displays Christ in his sinless human nature making atonement as mediator between those sinners who nonetheless desire God, and God in his holiness. It is by the obedience of belief in this one man Christ that God declares every willing human righteous, who is “found in him… not having a righteousness of [their] own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” (Philippians 3:9 ESV) This verse from Philippians is almost a restatement of Psalm 24:3-6 and presents the gospel message in a nutshell. In Psalm 24, verses 3-5 refer to Christ, and verse 6 to his followers.
3 Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? 4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. 5 He will receive blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of his salvation. 6 Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Selah (ESV)
Stanza 3, verses 7 through 10, closes this short psalm with a dramatized declaration of Christ’s victory in battle over sin and death and his ascension to kingly reign alongside his Father in heaven–Christ is both Savior and Lord, both human and God, the point of connection between earth and heaven. Verse 8 makes reference to the battles Christ fought in his incarnation as human, and verse 10 displays him as the LORD of hosts, the King of glory, coequal with God.
7 Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. 8 Who is this King of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle! 9 Lift up your heads, O gates! And lift them up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. 10 Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory! Selah (ESV)
A Bit of Editorial Meditation
There is no doubt that it is difficult for us as readers today to comprehend the life and vitality of these 10 verses. We are inundated by media that proclaim a worldview in staunch contrast and opposition to the faith-view presented in Psalm 24. Further, we are limited by a contemporary language that has descended to near illiteracy. Finally, we experience noise all around us constantly, noise which distracts us and robs us of contemplative moments when we can simply ask God by his Spirit to open the understanding of our spirit made in his image.
Yet these are not insurmountable obstacles. I believe a deeper issue lies at the heart of our inability to appreciate God’s biblical treasure map to us, our love letter-in-a-bottle, that is, Holy Scripture. The issue is pinpointed when we answer the question, Who do I worship? Negotiating daily life in today’s age has taught me to place myself at the center of everything. How am I doing? How do I rate? Are my needs being met? Am I performing adequately? Even our church worship services tend toward the me, me, me. Have I met God today? Have I been fulfilled by this service? Rather than, Have I presented God with a sacrifice of worship that pleases him?
Yes, the church is included in Psalm 24:6, but it’s not a psalm about the church, it’s a psalm about Jesus Christ. In order to fully appreciate Psalm 24 I need to accept that it’s a psalm not about me–it’s not about my successes and failures, my needs, my wants, my poverty, my riches–it’s a psalm about the person and fantastic success of Jesus Christ in his eternality and temporal mission. In all honesty, I find that most of my waking thoughts are about myself. Most of the living I do is an attempt to make my self happy, to fulfill my needs as I perceive them, and yes, even when I go to church. To let all that go and to find contentment in extolling an outsider–not myself–that is today’s challenge. To let someone else’s success be my own–that is rest. I do it for my favorite football team–why can’t I do it for Jesus Christ?
Am I making sense?
Psalm 143 is the final psalm in the grouping historically know as the Penitential Psalms. The other six psalms are: Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. Psalm 143 clearly states where the Christian’s focus should abide: God.
- When reading through Psalm 143, the repetition of certain words pop out. Repetition is a strong clue when deciphering any passage of Scripture. In general, according to the way language functions, the more often a word or concept gets repeated, the more important it becomes. Repetition of variants of the word “you” or “your” are striking in Psalm 143. These occur in 10 of the 12 verses, or 83.3% of the time. By comparison, variants of “you” occur in 54.5% of the verses in Psalm 32, and the least percentage, 21.7%, occurs in Psalm 38.
- Additionally there are five verses in which the word “Lord” occurs in direct address to God.
- Repetitions of “you” and “Lord” demonstrate to the reader where the psalmist’s focus lies.
Interestingly, in the only two verses in which the psalmist does not address God directly (as displayed in the words “you,” “your,” and “Lord”), his focus shifts first, to the enemy (vs 3), and second, to himself (vs 4) in an introspective examination of how his spirit is doing.
3 The enemy pursues me,
he crushes me to the ground;
he makes me dwell in the darkness
like those long dead.
4 So my spirit grows faint within me;
my heart within me is dismayed.(NIV)
Were the psalmist’s focus to remain on the enemy and the landscape within his own spirit, Psalm 143 would be depressing, rather than uplifting to faith. As it is, Psalm 143 encourages both the psalmist who prays this prayer and the reader, whose heart can join in, as she applies the prayer to Christ in his suffering and to her own circumstances.
In Psalm 143, the reader encounters words and phrases such as: mercy, faithfulness, righteousness, relief, what your hands have done, morning, unfailing love, my trust in you, the way I should go, to you I lift up my soul, I hide myself in you, your will, you are my God, your good Spirit, level ground, your name’s sake, your unfailing love, I am your servant. Psalm 143 teaches us to focus our thoughts and prayers upon the Lord, and our hearts will be lifted up.
What about Penitence?
As this study has shown, several of the so-called Penitential Psalms have little or nothing to do with traditional concepts of penitence, such as confession and remorse for sins committed. Verse 2 is the only verse out of the 12 that approaches the topic of sin. And it appears to do so only in order to dismiss it quickly.
2 Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no one living is righteous before you.
Within the context of the psalm itself, this is as much as to say, “I am not interested in confession of my sins right now, for the enemy is pursuing me hotly and I shall soon be crushed to death (vs 7) if you do not help me quickly right now.” Why should God help him? The psalmist answers, “For I am your servant” (closing words of vs 12). Either the psalmist is arrogant in his deft brushing aside of the sin question, or he is confident of a special relationship between himself and his God. Rather than displaying arrogance, the psalmist appeals to God’s grace, which has been established in long relationship with him.
The question for each of us as readers is, Do I have this confidence before the Lord in my hour of greatest need? Am I certain of my relationship with him? Or, do I feel a need to be punished for my sins before I can ask and expect God to help me? Fortunately for the psalmist, the firm ground of his relationship with God had been established long before he cried out to the Lord in this psalm. He was secure in his overall position of obedient servant to an all-powerful, loving God. Therefore, he was able to apply himself whole heartedly to his most pressing need of asking God to save and rescue him from immediate trouble and danger.
Now is the time for each one of us to examine our relationship with God, so that when we need his help the most, we will be free to ask quickly, just as God is free to give. The ground has already been laid by the saving work of Jesus Christ upon the cross. Reader, have you laid hold of Christ’s blessing? I encourage you to enter into prayer with Jesus Christ right now, in order to make sure that you are his servant. The moment when you need his help the most is not the time to begin to debate with yourself on all kinds of issues and paroxysms of guilt and repentance. Get all that settled in advance, now, so that when you face an emergency, you, the Lord’s servant, will be able to immediately claim your birthright in Christ and quickly ask for the help you need.
Is all this contained in Psalm 143? Ask the playwright and set designer, and he will tell you, yes, it is. Read it for yourself, and see.
This concludes the series on the Penitential Psalms. Link to the first chapter of the series
1 [A Song of Degrees.] Out of the depths have I cried to thee, O Lord. 2 O Lord, hearken to my voice; let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication. 3 If thou, O Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? 4 For with thee is forgiveness: 5 for thy name’s sake have I waited for thee, O Lord, my soul has waited for thy word. 6 My soul has hoped in the Lord; from the morning watch till night. 7 Let Israel hope in the Lord: for with the Lord is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. 8 And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities. (Psalm 129(130) LXE, Brenton)
Prophecy, if prophecy, must tell a story. A large function of the Psalter is to prophesy. The seven penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143) prophesy of Christ: his innocence, the sacrificial nature of his atoning death, his human suffering, his resurrection, and the victory of his people. These portions of the life of Christ are not necessarily presented in chronological order within the penitential psalms. While other psalms speak of Christ’s suffering (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 102, and 143), Psalm 130 speaks from the grave (the depths) without making direct statements of suffering. Rather, the unique element of Psalm 130 is an extreme period of waiting, “For thy name’s sake have I waited for thee, O Lord, my soul has waited for thy word. My soul has hoped in the Lord; from the morning watch till night,” (Psalm 130:5-6 LXE). It is not difficult for faith to hear within these verses the voice of Christ as he waits within the grave for his resurrection.
Further, Psalm 130 contains no direct statements of personal sin or guilt, as do Psalms 38 and 51. Rather, Psalm 130 is a penitential psalm of atonement, due to its discussion of sin and forgiveness without personal confession of any sort. The word forgiveness in verse 4, which is ἱλασμός (il-as-mohss) in Greek, is a relatively rare word in Scripture, although it plays an enormous role in Christian evangelism and doctrine. Arndt and Gingrich (1) define it with two meanings: 1) propitiation or expiation, and 2) a sin-offering. While the major English translations (they are translating from Hebrew, not Greek) have “forgiveness” in verse 4, they use words such as “Day of Atonement” in Leviticus 25:9, “ram of atonement” in Numbers 5:8, “sin-offering” in Ezekiel 44:27, “propitiation” or “atoning sacrifice” in 1 John 2:2, and the same for 1 John 4:10. All of these occurrences in the Greek Septuagint are represented by the word ἱλασμός (il-as-mohss), which is translated as forgiveness in Psalm 130:4 (LXE Brenton) or atonement (NETS, Pietersma). (See footnotes 2 and 3.) Important to our discussion of the seven penitential psalms, this is the only occurrence of this word anywhere in the entire Psalter.
Who will receive the atoning forgiveness of verse 4? Verses 7 and 8 each name Israel. Israel, in the New Testament sense of the word (Romans 11:26), includes all believers, both saints of the Old Testament and saints of the New. What at first glance might seem to be a psalm of personal lament, therefore, is an intercessory prayer for the beneficiaries of Christ’s death. When God answers the Lord’s prayer for resurrection from the grave (verses 1-2 and 5-6 above), then his “unfailing love” (verse 7) and “full redemption” (verse 7) will be magnificently realized, for “He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins” (verse 8).
Comments: For those readers who consult commentaries, you might find that the point of view I present above, namely, that Christ is the subject of this prayer/poem–he is the one who is praying to God his Father from the grave–is underrepresented (4). The thesis of my approach is simple: the Psalter in its first person singular prayers speaks the voice of Christ.
I want to repeat what I wrote in the first post of this series on penitential psalms, “My purpose here is to hold up a road sign to you that says, “Have you tried this pathway through Psalms?” The pathway we will consider is Christ and his cross. Even in the so-called grouping of seven Penitential Psalms, we find Christ ever present and revealed. These psalms are not primarily about experiencing emotions of penitence designed to lead us to repentance. Rather, they are primarily about the life of Jesus Christ during his incarnation. My premise is that Psalms reveal Christ. He is their primary focus. As we see Christ revealed, we also learn about God’s love for us, and that is what makes them important” (The Penitential Psalms: A Fresh Look–New Series).
Premising Christ as speaker in all the penitential psalms at first appears to provide obstacles, the most difficult being what to do with a psalm of pure confession, such as Psalm 51. However, when we consider the seven psalms as a unified whole with the understanding that Christ is speaker throughout (except of course in those places which imply or directly state that God is addressing Christ, Psalm 102), we see that a clear picture of the several elements of the complete gospel emerges:
- Christ’s passion of human suffering (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 102, and 143)
- Christ’s innocence (Psalms 6, 102, and 130)
- the wrath of God upon Christ, the wrath that achieved propitiation (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 102, and 143)
- the persecution of Christ by his enemies (Psalms 6, 38, 102, and 143)
- Christ’s identity as both God and man (Psalm 102)
- Christ’s resurrection (Psalm 102:13)
- Christ’s prayer for his resurrection (Psalm 130)
- end results for Israel (or Zion) and the Church won by Christ in his victory through the cross (51, 102, and 130)
When the reader perceives Christ in their center, the penitential psalms (and the Psalter as a whole) gain a cohesion and sense of meaning that a consideration of each psalm separately does not provide. Also, this viewpoint provides deeper and more certain theological meanings than the isolated concepts of confession and repentance might individually supply. These psalms offer a great hope for the one who reads, a hope placed on the solid ground of the actions of the Son of God, rather than upon the alternative actions of an unnamed sinner with whom the reader must strain to identify. Once again, my purpose here is to hold up a road sign that says, “Have you tried this pathway through Psalms?” My prayer is that as you spend time with the Lord, asking him to reveal his presence to you within the words of Christ as expressed in these seven psalms, that God through his Holy Spirit will answer your heart to the fullest extent.
1 Arndt, William F. and F. Wilbur Gingrich, Editors. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd Edition. Revised and Augmented by F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker from Walter Bauer’s Fifth Edition, 1958. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979.
2 Brenton, Sir Lancelot C. L. The Septuagint Version: Greek and English. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970.
3 Pietersma, Albert, ed. A New English Translation of the Septuagint: The Psalms. Translated by Albert Pietersma. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Available online at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/24-ps-nets.pdf. Accessed April 27, 2018.
4 John Barclay hears only the voice of Christ in Psalm 130. See Barclay, John. The Psalms of David, and the Paraphrases and Hymns: With a Dissertation on the Book of Psalms, and Explanatory Introductions to Each. Edinburgh: James Gall, 1826. Reprinted Digitally by Forgotten Books, registered trademark of FB &c Ltd., London, 2017. Available at http://www.ForgottenBooks.com, 2017. A better quality copy is available at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433068259260;view=1up;seq=205;size=75. Accessed April 11, 2019.
One person can never transfer to another their own conscious perception. Only the Holy Spirit of God can do that. Scripture calls this transfer having “the mind of Christ.”
But we have the mind of Christ. (1Co 2:16 ESV)
In this sense the Bible is an interactive book. The Holy Spirit can place directly into our conscious perception thoughts and feelings he wishes to convey. It’s very exciting when the Lord does this to us as we read his Word. My prayer is that you, the reader, after reading the words I write here, will at some point turn to Psalm 102 (101 in the Septuagint) and read through it out loud, slowly and carefully, listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit in your heart. Prayerfully, God will share with you the insights that he has shared with me. Additionally, intellect alone can appreciate what I write here. That’s the best we can ever give each other: intellect shaping into communication the insights of our heart.
Here is my devotional guideline for Psalm 102.
Outline of my understanding of this psalm:
- Speaker One (the Son): Verses 1-11 (12 LXX).
- Speaker Two (God the Father): Verses 12-22 (13-23 LXX).
- Speaker One (the Son): Verses 23-24a (24-25a LXX).
- Speaker Two (God the Father): Verses 24b-28 (25b-29 LXX).
Text I am using for Psalm 102 (101 LXX):
(102) A Prayer for the Poor; when he is deeply afflicted, and pours out his supplication before the Lord.1 Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come to thee.2 Turn not away thy face from me: in the day when I am afflicted, incline thine ear to me: in the day when I shall call upon thee, speedily hear me.3 For my days have vanished like smoke, and my bones have been parched like a stick.4 I am blighted like grass, and my heart is dried up; for I have forgotten to eat my bread.5 By reason of the voice of my groaning, my bone has cleaved to my flesh.6 I have become like a pelican of the wilderness;7 I have become like an owl in a ruined house. I have watched, and am become as a sparrow dwelling alone on a roof.8 All the day long mine enemies have reproached me; and they that praised me have sworn against me.9 For I have eaten ashes as it were bread, and mingled my drink with weeping;10 because of thine anger and thy wrath: for thou hast lifted me up, and dashed me down.11 My days have declined like a shadow; and I am withered like grass.12 But thou, Lord, endurest for ever, and thy memorial to generation and generation.13 Thou shalt arise, and have mercy upon Sion: for it is time to have mercy upon her, for the set time is come.14 For thy servants have taken pleasure in her stones, and they shall pity her dust.15 So the nations shall fear thy name, O Lord, and all kings thy glory.16 For the Lord shall build up Sion, * and shall appear in his glory.17 He has had regard to the prayer of the lowly, and has not despised their petition.18 Let this be written for another generation; and the people that shall be created shall praise the Lord.19 For he has looked out from the height of his sanctuary; the Lord looked upon the earth from heaven;20 to hear the groaning of the fettered ones, to loosen the sons of the slain;21 to proclaim the name of the Lord in Sion, and his praise in Jerusalem;22 when the people are gathered together, and the kings, to serve the Lord.23 He answered him in the way of his strength: tell me the fewness of my days.24 Take me not away in the midst of my days: thy years are✡ through all generations.25 In the † beginning thou, O Lord, didst lay the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands.26 They shall perish, but thou remainest: and they all shall wax old as a garment; and as a vesture shalt thou fold them, and they shall be changed.27 But thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail.
Hebrews 5:7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.
8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. (ESV)
John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (ESV)
1 John 3:1 See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. (ESV)John 17:26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (ESV)
Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (ESV)
1 Peter 1:10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully,
11 inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.
12 It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (ESV)Luke 1:68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people
69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us;
…78 because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:68-79 ESV)
12 But thou, Lord, endurest for ever, and thy memorial to generation and generation.13 Thou shalt arise, and have mercy upon Sion: for it is time to have mercy upon her, for the set time is come.14 For thy servants have taken pleasure in her stones, and they shall pity her dust.15 So the nations shall fear thy name, O Lord, and all kings thy glory.16 For the Lord shall build up Sion, * and shall appear in his glory.17 He has had regard to the prayer of the lowly, and has not despised their petition.18 Let this be written for another generation; and the people that shall be created shall praise the Lord.19 For he has looked out from the height of his sanctuary; the Lord looked upon the earth from heaven;20 to hear the groaning of the fettered ones, to loosen the sons of the slain;21 to proclaim the name of the Lord in Sion, and his praise in Jerusalem;22 when the people are gathered together, and the kings, to serve the Lord.
Hebrews 4:14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.
15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (ESV)
Romans 8:31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?
32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.
34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died– more than that, who was raised– who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,
39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (ESV)
In the “theodramatic” (1) setting of Psalm 102, the Holy Author creates a divine conversation between Father and Son. Scripture supplies confirmation when the New Testament writer of the Letter to the Hebrews quotes in Hebrews 1:10-12 a portion of the entire dialogue, verses 25-27, writing as a matter of fact that in these verses God addresses the Son. Though not directly stated, God the Father is implied.
Where else can the reader find evidence of this dramatic, readers theater style interpretation? First, reading through the text of Psalm 102, the entire sense of the psalm inevitably reveals a conversation. Minimally, the main speaker addresses God directly in verses 1, 2, 10, and 24. Further direct addresses that carry a different content and tone are found in verses 12-22 and again in verses 25-28. The change in content and tone correspond to a change in speaker. Second, as stated above, the Letter to the Hebrews explicitly identifies a second speaker, God, for verses 25-27. Finally, the Septuagint text leads the way in the Hebrews’ interpretation by plainly labelling in common, everyday language the presence of two speakers, “He [speaker one] answered him [speaker two] in the way of his strength: tell me the fewness of my days” (Psalm 101:23 LXE, verse 24 in modern language versions).
With the presence of two speakers acknowledged, the reader can discern the boundaries of the several speech parts. A reasonable assignment is the following:
- Speaker One (the Son): Verses 1-11 (12 LXX).
- Speaker Two (God the Father): Verses 12-22 (13-23 LXX).
- Speaker One (the Son): Verses 23-24a (24-25a LXX).
- Speaker Two (God the Father): Verses 24b-28 (25b-29 LXX).
When perceived as a divine dialogue between Father and Son, the devotional aspects of this amazing psalm expand greatly.
Bates, Matthew W. The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament & Early Christian Interpretations of the Old Testament. Oxford University Press: Oxford, United Kingdom, 2015 and Paperback Edition 2016, p 170.
Tragically, not many commentators hear the voice of Christ in Psalm 102. Spurgeon (1) does not. Generally, those who don’t hear the voice of Christ fail to hear the divine dialogue within this amazing psalm. Because two or more witnesses biblically establish a valid testimony (Deuteronomy 17:6; Matthew 18:16; John 8:18), I’m going to take time at the outset to provide these additional witnesses to my own. First, here is a link to the text itself, where the reader can find the entirety of Septuagint Psalm 101(102), and below that is an excerpt that contains the portion quoted in Hebrews 1:10-12.
Reader Resource: Bilingual Text LXX (Septuagint in Greek) and LXE (Brenton’s English Translation). Notice that in the Greek Septuagint and in Brenton’s translation, Psalm 102 in our English Bibles is numbered as Psalm 101. Also, verse numbers may differ, depending upon which Septuagint edition is being used. The numbers to the left follow the Masoretic tradition while those in parenthesis follow the numbering used by the link given.
23(24) He answered him in the way of his strength: tell me the fewness of my days.
24a(25a) Take me not away in the midst of my days: 24b(25b) thy years [are] through all generations.
25(26) In the beginning thou, O Lord, didst lay the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands.
26(27) They shall perish, but thou remainest: and [they all] shall wax old as a garment; and as a vesture shalt thou fold them, and they shall be changed.
27(28) But thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail.
28(29) The children of thy servants shall dwell [securely], and their seed shall prosper for ever.
Here is the same text as presented in the ESV with the Septuagint English in brackets alongside: Psalm 102:23-28.
23 He has broken my strength in midcourse; [LXX: He answered him in the way of his strength:]
he has shortened my days. [LXX: tell me the fewness of my days.]
24 “O my God,” I say, “take me not away in the midst of my days— [LXX: Take me not away in the midst of my days:]
you whose years endure throughout all generations!” [LXX: thy years [are] through all generations.]
25 Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
26 They will perish, but you will remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
27 but you are the same, and your years have no end.
28 The children of your servants shall dwell secure;
their offspring shall be established before you.
Finally, here is the portion (ESV) which the author of Hebrews quotes from the Septuagint:
10 And, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
11 they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment,
12 like a robe you will roll them up,
like a garment they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will have no end.”
Second, as witness #1, here is how I perceive the dialogue in Psalm 101(102). Note that verse numbers differ and are dependent upon the edition being used. For reader convenience I am using the Masoretic numbers and referencing in brackets the numbers found in the “Bilingual Text” link in the “Reader Resource” paragraph at the top of this article.
- Verses 1 – 11 [1-12 in the bilingual link given above]. God’s Son speaks to his Father in the days of his incarnation and Passion.
- Verses 12 – 22 [13-23] God the Father replies through the Holy Spirit to his Son.
- Verses 23 – 24a [24-25a] God the Son answers God the Father. (23 “He answered him in the way of his strength: tell me the fewness of my days. 24a Take me not away in the midst of may days:)
- Verses 24b – 28 [25b-29] God the Father answers the Son. (24b “thy years are through all generations. 25 In the beginning thou, O Lord …]
Witness #2: John Barclay (2).
[Barclay uses the Masoretic numbering] In this Psalm we behold the sufferings of Christ, as expressed in his own person, by the Holy Ghost, from the beginning to verse 12, contrasted with the following glory, as declared by the same Spirit in the person of the Father, from verse 12 to 23. Then from the 23d to the middle of verse 24, the dialogue is again renewed, as at the beginning of the Psalm, in the person of the Son–to whom, from the middle of verse 24, to the end of the Psalm, the Father is again represented, as replying according to the former manner, mentioned from ver. 12 to 23: for so this Psalm, ver. 25, &c. is expressly applied and interpreted by the Holy Ghost, Heb. I. ‘Unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever–And thou, Lord, in the beginning, hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of think hands,’ &c.–‘And they shall be changed: but thou are the same, and thy years shall not fail.’
My Comment: Very few biblical commentators will ascribe verses 12-24a to God the Father or God the Holy Spirit, even among those who readily find the Father replying to Christ in the final speech, verses 24b-28. Most gladly I recognize the kindred spirit that exists between John Barclay and myself.
In contrast to Barclay, the third witness, below, Robert Hawker, is one who readily hears the voice of Christ in his Passion in verses 1-11, yet who does not recognize the words of comfort found in verses 12-22 as proceeding from God the Father. He does, however, hear Christ speaking in verses 23-24a and the Father directly answering him in verses 25 to the end.
Witness #3: Robert Hawker (3).
After verse 28: From the apostle Paul’s quotation of this glorious passage, Heb. I. 10, &c. and his illustration of it, as there explained, it should seem very evident that these verses contain God the Father’s answer to Christ’s prayer, and form a blessed summary of all redemption mercies ensured to the church in Him…Reader, I know not what soul exercises or afflictions your heart may be wounded with; but I venture to believe, that the truest relief under all, is to view Christ in his unequalled sorrows. Poring over ourselves, or over our own sorrows, and magnifying them, will never bring comfort. But if I see Jesus with the eye of faith, in the tribulated path; if I mark his footsteps, and he calls to me, and leads me by the way of the footsteps of his flock, where he feeds his kids, beside the shepherds’ tents; I shall feel comfort.
My Comment: Very often, those commentators who do not perceive the voice of Christ in Psalm 102, but that of an unnamed human suppliant–these authors tend to focus on Christ as Creator, and that portion of Hebrews as a Creation passage. The reasoning is that the author of Hebrews merely “applies” the words of Psalm 102:25-28 to Christ as object. They consider verses 25-28 to be spoken by the unnamed single human speaker who speaks throughout the entire psalm. They argue that though this human poet addresses God throughout the entirety of the psalm, this particular portion is applied by the author of Hebrews as making reference to Christ as Creator. In other words, they see a human speaking to God throughout the psalm, complaining to God for a longer life, reasoning that because God has such a long life and such power to create, why can’t he give some of that to the suffering poet? They fail to grasp the nearly sacrilegious arrogance of such a supplication. These commentators claim that the author of Hebrews by inexplicable “divine” inspiration, wrenched these words in particular from the whole psalm, and applied them in reference to Christ as object (Creator). Not only does this do disservice to the entire concept of the Bible’s having been written in “plain, ordinary speech,” but it completely destroys the comfort Hawker and others preeminently find in this psalm, as they consider the sufferings of Christ and the comfort afforded both him and us, who are in him, by God the Father.
Witness #4: Arthur Pink (4)
Arthur Pink lines up with Hawker as perceiving Christ as speaker up until the Father’s reply quoted in Hebrews (verses 25-28). Myself and Barclay, the reader might recall, saw two sections in which God the Father spoke directly to the Son (verses 12-22 and 24b-28.) Pink sees only the latter. He adds to the discussion, however, by combining the author of Hebrews’ rhetorical (logical, argumentative) use of Christ as Creator with the devotional comfort found in Psalm 102 of Christ as suffering Savior. Pink writes:
“And Thou, Lord, in the beginning, hast laid the foundation of the earth.” The Psalm from which this is quoted is a truly wondrous one … It lays bare before us the Saviour’s very soul. Few, if any, of us would have thought of applying it to Christ, or even dared to, had not the Spirit of God done so here in Heb. 1. This Psalm brings before us the true and perfect humanity of Christ, and depicts Him as the despised and rejected One (p 69, see note 4).
After the above, Pink quotes the entire psalm (an indication of how very impressed he is with it) up through verse 22. He labels verses 23-24a as the “strong crying,” quoted in Hebrews 5:7, “of Him who was ‘acquainted with grief.'” Then Pink writes:
And what was Heaven’s response to this anguished cry of the Saviour? The remainder of the Psalm records God’s answer: “Thy years are throughout all generations. Of old hast Thou laid the foundation of the earth. And the heavens are the work of Thy hands. They shall perish, but Thou shalt endure, yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shalt Thou change them, and they shall be changed: But Thou art the same, and Thy years shall have no end” (vv. 24-27).
Conclusion: In what I hope has not been a manner too arduous to read, I’ve presented four witnesses who agree that through the use of dialogue, Psalm 102 represents both the voice of the Son crying out to his Father in anguish during the days of his incarnation and Passion and the comforting voice of his Father in reply. I have been greatly encouraged recently to have discovered current academic writers who perceive divine dialogue between Father and Son in the book of Psalms (5). I’m sure up to date devotional material, such as this one seeks to be, will also follow.
I have presented these four witnesses so that the reader may have confidence to explore this pathway in a meditatively devotional session of his or her own. For those who follow this blog, I promise that a devotional interpretation of Psalm 102 will be written next.
For now, in consideration of Christian history’s regarding of Psalm 102 as one of the seven so-called penitential psalms, I just want the reader to notice how exactly the Holy Spirit wrote Scripture. We have seen that not all of the so-called “penitential” psalms are penitential in a sense that requires confession and repentance over sin. In this sense of the word, Psalm 51 is the most “penitential,” and Psalm 102 not at all. Note carefully that Psalm 51, which confesses and mourns over sin, does not represent Christ in any way as speaking from the divinity of his being. Rather, he speaks as mediator, a participant in humanity, a sacrificial lamb who took upon himself the sins of the world. Then, just as carefully, note that Psalm 102, which is highly “penitential” in the second meaning of the word, that of poverty and suffering of spirit, presents Christ both in his divinity and his human nature, but quite apart from sin. The reader can conclude that Christ God’s Son, as 2 Corinthians 5:21 states, “knew no sin,” as Psalm 102 demonstrates, and yet God “made him to be sin” “for our sake,” Psalm 51. Praise God.
1 Spurgeon, Charles. The Treasury of David: Containing an Original Exposition of the Book of Psalms; A Collection of Illustrative Extracts from the Whole Range of Literature; A Series of Homiletical Hints upon Almost Every Verse; And Lists of Writers upon Each Psalm in Three Volumes. Peabody: Henrickson Publishers, No Date.
2 Barclay, John. The Psalms of David, and the Paraphrases and Hymns: With a Dissertation on the Book of Psalms, and Explanatory Introductions to Each. Edinburgh: James Gall, 1826. Reprinted Digitally by Forgotten Books, registered trademark of FB &c Ltd., London, 2017. Available at http://www.ForgottenBooks.com, 2017. A better quality copy is available at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433068259260;view=1up;seq=205;size=75.
3 Hawker, Robert S. The Poor Man’s Old Testament Commentary: The Book of Psalms, public domain. Available at http://grace-ebooks.com/library/Robert%20Hawker/RH_Poor%20Man%27s%20Old%20Testament%20Commentary%20Vol%204.pdf, published by Grace Baptist Church of Danville, Kentucky. Accessed May 3, 2018.
4 Pink, Arthur. An Exposition of Hebrews. Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, 1954, pages 68-74.
5 See Bates, Matthew W. The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament & Early Christian Interpretations of the Old Testament. Oxford University Press: Oxford, United Kingdom, 2015 and Paperback Edition 2016. See also Bates, Matthew W. The Hermeneutics of the Apostolic Proclamation: The Center of Paul’s Method of Scriptural Interpretation. Baylor University Press: Wayco, Texas, 2012.
The Old Testament was originally written mostly in Hebrew. About three centuries before Christ, translations of the Hebraic Scriptures into Greek became common. These translations collectively are called the Septuagint. The word “septuagint” means seventy, and unverified tradition holds that seventy scholars sequestered themselves while making the translation at the request of King Ptolemy II for the national library in Alexandria. Extant Greek manuscripts, translated from Hebrew, are older than the oldest extant Hebrew manuscripts by one to two centuries (1). The New Testament, on the other hand, was originally written in Greek, and its authors regularly read and quoted from the Old Testament Septuagint. Knowing this information helps to clarify why the author of the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews included Psalm 102:25-27 in his list of Old Testament texts that demonstrate God’s calling Jesus Christ his “Son” (2).
In the first chapter of Hebrews, the biblical author quotes several passages from the Old Testament in which God speaks directly to his Son. The three occurrences of God speaking directly to his Son are found in verse 5, quoting Psalm 2:7, verses 10-12, quoting Psalm 102:25-27, and verse 13, quoting Psalm 110:1. In the first and third of these quotations, the reader readily discerns the voice of God speaking to a second person. The text clearly states that this is so. However, when reading the quotation from Psalm 102, as it stands embedded within the context of the entire psalm in most English translations, the reader may wonder how it is that these particular verses refer to the Son. How did the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews arrive at this conclusion? Many commentators simply skip past the confusion by stating that the Hebrews’ author, divinely inspired, applied these verses to Christ. But this begs the question, for if so, then why so? Why these verses in particular?
Knowing that the author of Hebrews was quoting from a Greek text helps tremendously. In fact, it solves the puzzle. The complete context in the Septuagint clearly indicates a dialogue between two speakers. That is, the Septuagint text tags the verses immediately preceding the quotation found in Hebrews with clear transitional phrases of dialogue, “23 He answered him in the way of his strength: tell me the fewness of my days. 24a Take me not away in the midst of my days: 24b [the reply from the second speaker immediately follows here without an identifying tag, but it is clear from the context that a second speaker answers the requests of the first] thy years are through all generations. 25 In the beginning thou, O Lord, didst lay the foundation of the earth…” (3). The Septuagint from which the author of Hebrews quotes (scholars overall agree that the writer is quoting from the Greek text) clearly distinguishes with speech labels the presence of two speakers in dialogue with each other. But the English translations of Psalm 102, which are based upon the Masoretic text (Hebrew), fail to include the tag words, “He answered him…”, found in verse 23a. And the author of the Letter to the Hebrews begins his quotation of Psalm 102 with verse 25, which occurs after the second speaker, God, has already begun speaking. The quotation in Hebrews does not contain the dialogue tags, or labels, but the author implicitly acknowledges their occurrence and assumes that his readers also know this fact. The assumption of dialogue is central to the logic and force of the author’s argument. He presents the Old Testament text as an example of God speaking directly to his Son.
Conclusion: While English versions translated from the Hebrew Masoretic text of Psalm 102:23 do not include the three words, “He answered him…”, the author of Hebrews implicitly acknowledges the prior occurrence of these three words as he begins his quotation in verse 25, which falls after their occurrence in the Septuagint from which he quotes. That the author implicitly acknowledges dialogue in the passage is clear from the entire context of Hebrews 1. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews is demonstrating how Old Testament scripture accords Christ the status of Son. Among his proof texts are several verses that indicate direct speech by God to his Son. Among these is Psalm 102:25-27, quoted in Hebrews 1:10-12. It is clear that the Hebrews’ author is attributing the quotation as a speech statement by God to his Son. Again, the Son is the one to whom God is speaking, both in Hebrews 1:10-12 and in that passage’s source, Psalm 102:25-27. The Son is he to whom God replies. The Son is the “poor” man pouring out his supplication to the Lord, whose voice we hear so plaintively in the first eleven verses of this “penitential” psalm.
Significance: What is the answer to the big question, “So what?” The following blog in this series will, Lord willing, provide answers to that question.
1 Reference works concerning the textual history of the Septuagint include 1) Karen H. Jobes & Moisés Silva. Invitation to the Septuagint. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2000. 2) H.B. Swete, An Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek, Cambridge: University Press, 1900. 3) Timothy Michael Law. When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
2 Although Hebrews begins speaking of God’s Son in verse 2 of chapter 1, the author specifically names Christ as the Son in Hebrews 3:6, “But Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son…”
3 Brenton, Sir Lancelot C. L. The Septuagint Version: Greek and English. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970. Notice that the verse numbering differs from most English versions.
The NETS Bible (Pietersma, Albert, ed. A New English Translation of the Septuagint: The Psalms. Translated by Albert Pietersma. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Available online at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/24-ps-nets.pdf. Accessed April 27, 2018) reads, “24(23) He answered him in the way of my strength, ‘Tell me the paucity of my days. 25(24) Do not take me away at the mid-point of my days,…”
In further confirmation of the Septuagint text, the Latin Vulgate, which translates the Greek, includes the words from Psalm 102:23, “He answered him…”
WE LEARNED what a truly penitential/repentant psalm looks like when we studied Psalm 51. This kind of psalm is rare in the Psalter. Psalm 102(101 LXX) immediately follows Psalm 51 in the list of seven traditional penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143). It bears little resemblance to Psalm 51. Why does the list include Psalm 102?
First, a careful line by line search of Psalm 102 (ESV) (Greek and Brenton English) (English NETS) reveals not a single syllable concerning sin or repentance. Words and phrases present in Psalm 51, such as “blot out my transgressions” (v 1) and “wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me thoroughly from my sin!” (v 2) simply do not occur anywhere in Psalm 102.
Second, what Psalm 102 does contain is a poetic expression of great suffering on the part of the speaker. His suffering is summed up well in the superscription given the psalm before the first verse begins, “A Prayer for the Poor; when he is deeply afflicted, and pours out his supplication before the Lord,” (Psalm 102:1 LXE). While of course this title is not part of the biblical text itself but an ancient editorial addition, the Greek word for “Poor” (πτωχός, ptoe-koes) is a word often used by Jesus in the New Testament. We find one example in the first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 5:3). Thayer describes the meaning of this word “poor” as, “destitute of wealth, influence, position, honors; lowly, afflicted,” (Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament). As explained in greater depth in a previous chapter (Penitential Psalms: A Big Mix-Up?) one possible explanation of the origin of both the word “penitential” and the list of seven psalms is the Greek “pen” word family. One of these “pen” stem words is πένητος (pen-ee-tohss). A “penitose” person is a poor person. Note the similarity to English “penitent.” “Penitose” is a synonym of “Ptoe-koes,” “poor,” which we just saw in the title above Psalm 102.
So, Psalm 102 is the speech of a poor, afflicted person who pours his heart out to the Lord. What else do we find in Psalm 102? Thirdly, we find the psalmist’s direct claim that he has enemies (v 8) who cause him pain, and further, that God himself (v 10) in “anger” and “wrath,” or “raging fury” (NET) has “lifted me up, and dashed me down,” (LXE, Septuagint in English). These last two features, both enemies causing pain and God’s wrath causing pain, are most strongly present in penitential Psalms 6, 38, and 102. Of these three, only Psalm 38 expresses sorrow for sin. Psalm 102, as mentioned in point one above, expresses neither confession nor remorse for anything.
Conclusion: Psalm 102 is “penitential” in the sense that it is the speech of a poor and needy person crying out to the Lord for help. The speaker’s suffering originates in persecution by both enemies and the Lord. There is neither acknowledgement of sin (confession) nor contrition (repentance) of any kind. The more we examine the seven so-called penitential psalms, the one item we find common to all of them is a deep humility of spirit as the psalmist addresses the Lord. To this author, it seems likely that, were we beginning fresh today, we would not begin to think of grouping these seven psalms in a cluster as our church forefathers did.
A Peek Ahead: There is much more to say about Psalm 102, such as, Who is speaking? This topic will form the content of a future post.