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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.