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