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Psalm 25 Biblical Commentary:
This psalm is an individual lament (rather than a lament composed for public worship)––a literary form expressing sorrow over a loss. There are a number of laments in Hebrew scripture, to include several psalms of lament as well as the book of Lamentations.
A lament might be inspired by any form of calamity, such as defeat in battle, exile, illness, or death. The lamenter might engage in any number of outward signs of sorrow, such as wearing sackcloth, sitting in ashes, fasting, or loud weeping. The purpose of the lament was to persuade God to provide relief from the calamitous circumstances.
In this psalm, verses 1-7 and 16-22 petition God for relief. Verses 8-15 constitute wisdom sayings that focus on the value of God’s instruction and the wisdom of following God’s guidance.
Hebrew poetry follows different forms (parallelism, dirges, acrostics, etc.), as does poetry in the English language (sonnet, narrative, epic, free verse, etc.). This poem follows the acrostic model in which each verse begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. That is obviously a rigorous discipline, which is reflected in the fact that the author doesn’t use two letters of the alphabet, uses one twice, and adds a letter at the end.
To appreciate the difficulty posed by the acrostic model, consider how difficult you would find it to compose a 26 verse poem with each verse starting with the next letter of the alphabet from A to Z.
PSALM 25:1-7. TO YOU, YAHWEH, DO I LIFT UP MY SOUL
1 To you, Yahweh, do I lift up my soul.
2 My God, I have trusted in you.
Don’t let me be shamed.
Don’t let my enemies triumph over me.
3 Yes, no one who waits for you shall be shamed.
They shall be shamed who deal treacherously without cause.
4 Show me your ways, Yahweh.
Teach me your paths.
5 Guide me in your truth, and teach me,
For you are the God of my salvation,
I wait for you all day long.
6 Yahweh, remember your tender mercies and your loving kindness,
for they are from old times.
7 Don’t remember the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions.
“To you, Yahweh” (v. 1a). “YHWH” or Yahweh comes from a form of the Hebrew verb “to be” that means “I am who I am.” This is the word that God used to identify himself to Moses. When Moses asked God his name, God replied, YHWH or “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). In deference to the holiness of God’s name, the Jewish people often refuse to say YHWH, but instead say “Adonai,” which means “My Lord.”
“do I lift up my soul” (nepes) (v. 1). In this context, the phrase “lift up” indicates deference––respect––honor. The psalmist is saying that he looks up to God––respects God––honors God with his soul (his very life).
The Israelites thought of the person holistically, and would never have divided the person into body and soul, as the Greeks were later to do. They could not have conceived of a soul apart from a body–– or of the soul continuing to live after the body died.
The Israelites used the word nepes to mean breath, the animating force that gives the creature life––and, by extension, the living creature itself. Therefore, when God breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, “the man became a living being” (nepes) (Genesis 2:7).
Nepes is also associated with blood, because blood is another force necessary for life. Therefore, we have a commandment that says, “Only be sure that you do not eat the blood; for the blood is the life (nepes), and you shall not eat the life (nepes) with the meat” (Deuteronomy 12:23).
“My God, I have trusted (Hebrew: batah) in you” (v. 2a). The Hebrew word batah means “to feel secure” or “to have confidence in.” In relationship with God, that kind of confidence is circular. (1) People trust, and God vindicates their trust. (2) God’s positive response then gives the people all the more reason to trust.
“Don’t let me be shamed” (Hebrew: bos) (v. 2b). The word bos goes beyond humiliation to public disgrace. There are various reasons why a person might feel disgraced. One would be the result of guilt that becomes public knowledge. Another would be defeat or failure. In the context of this verse that speaks of enemies, the author is praying not to be disgraced by being defeated by his enemies.
Don’t let my enemies triumph (Hebrew: alas) over me” (v. 2c). The word alas has to do with rejoicing. The psalmist is praying that his enemies might not have the opportunity to rejoice at his defeat––to stand over him clapping their hands and laughing.
“Yes, no one who waits for you shall be shamed” (v. 3a). Throughout scripture, we find an emphasis on waiting for the Lord (Genesis 49:18; Psalm 37: 9; Hosea 12:6; Zephaniah 3:8; Romans 8:25; Galatians 5:5). To “wait for” the Lord is to live in faith––to live in the expectation that Yahweh’s “compassion doesn’t fail”––that his mercies never come to an end––that his faithfulness is not only great but assured. To “wait for” the Lord is to live in the certainty that the Lord has the power and the will to bless those who are faithful. To “wait for” the Lord is to see beyond one’s present circumstance to a future blessed by the hand of the Lord.
The psalmist states his faith that no one who waits on the Lord will experience bos (disgrace).
They shall be shamed who deal treacherously (Hebrew: bagad) without cause” (Hebrew: reyqam) (v. 3b). The word bagad suggests betrayal or unfaithfulness. This betrayal could be against one’s husband or wife––one’s friends––one’s country––or one’s God.
The word reyqam means empty or without something. In this case, it means without cause.
We must ask what would be sufficient cause to justify treacherous behavior. The Bible offers a number of examples:
- Joshua and the other men who spied out the Promised Land before the Israelites entered it could be considered as acting treacherously to the existing population of that land (Numbers 13-14).
- Jael offered reassurance and hospitality to Sisera, but when he went to sleep she drove a stake through his temple, killing him (Judges 4).
- The inhabitants of Jericho would surely have considered Rahab as acting treacherously when she protected the Israelite spies (Joshua 2 & 6).
However, in each of these cases, the Israelites held that these people acted with adequate cause, because they were carrying out God’s will.
“Show me your ways, (Hebrew: derek) Yahweh. Teach me your paths” (Hebrew: orah) (v. 4). Both derek and orah mean path or way. That could be a physical pathway, but here these words are used metaphorically for the kind of life that the person is leading. The psalmist is praying that God will show him the Godly kind of life that God would call him to lead––that God would teach him what is involved in that kind of life and how he might lead it.
“Guide me in your truth (Hebrew: emet), and teach me” (v. 5a). Truth (emet) is that which is real, dependable, stable––that which a person can count on. The psalmist is therefore praying the God would reveal to him those things that would give his life a solid foundation––those things that would allow him to lead a Godly life––those things on which he could base his life without fear of failure.
“For you are the God of my salvation” (Hebrew: yesa) (v. 5b). Yesa means deliverance or salvation. When we think of salvation, we often mean our eternal well-being. In this case, the psalmist is praying for deliverance from his enemies.
“I wait for you all day long” (v. 5c). See the comments on waiting in verse 4 above.
“Yahweh, remember your tender mercies (Hebrew: raham) and your loving kindness” (Hebrew: hesed) (v. 6a). When singular, raham means womb. When plural, it means compassion or mercy. The connection of this word with the womb gives us a picture of a mother’s tender affection for her child––her willingness to show mercy when her husband might not––her desire to help her errant child back onto the right path.
The word hesed has a rich variety of meanings –– kindness, lovingkindness, mercy, goodness, faithfulness, or love. Yahweh has demonstrated his hesed (loving kindness) by his faithful adherence to the covenant promises. Yahweh’s love for humanity is definitely of the “for better, for worse” variety.
Like the Greek word, agape (love), in the New Testament, hesed (loving kindness) is a word that involves action––expressed through kind or loving actions rather than just feelings.
“for they are from old times” (Hebrew: olam) (v. 6b). The word olam means a very long time, and can look either forwards or backwards––to the future or to the past. In this instance, it is looking back––to the past––to the beginning of creation when Yahweh began preparations to create the man and the woman (Genesis 1-2).
“Don’t remember the sins (Hebrew: hatta’t) of my youth, nor my transgressions” (Hebrew: pesa) (v.7a). Sins (hatta’t) and trespasses (pesa) are much alike, but pesa (trespasses) has a more rebellious character. Both disrupt the relationship between the sinner/transgressor and God, necessitating some sort of intervention to restore that relationship.
In the Old Testament, the remedy involved animal sacrifices in which the animal bore the punishment for the sin of the person offering the sacrifice. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ became the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.
The psalmist prays that Yahweh will not remember the sins of his youth. For one thing, those sins are from the distant past. While Yahweh has the right to remember them and to hold the sinner accountable––his nature is to show mercy, which implies forgetting old sins.
There is no statute of limitations (a rule forbidding punishment of old transgressions) on sin––No automatic forgiveness after a certain number of years. We are dependent on God’s mercy.
Are youthful sins different from the sins of more mature people? They might be more impulsive, but mature people are not immune to impulse. The same tempters apply to both groups––sex, money, power, and drugs being lifelong tempters for many people. Youthful blood runs hotter though, and young people haven’t learned some of the disciplines that they might develop as they mature. Note the word “might” in that last sentence. No guarantees.
A personal note: I have been young and am now old. The sins that haunt me tend to be from my youth. It isn’t that I haven’t sinned since then. I can’t explain why earlier sins come so easily to mind now––and later sins not so much. I know only that I can appreciate the psalmist’s concern for the sins of his youth. “Don’t remember the sins of my youth, Lord––and help me to accept the reality of your forgiveness.”
(Don’t read too much into that last paragraph. My sins wouldn’t make a very exciting movie, but they nevertheless hurt people and breached my relationship with God.)
“Remember me according to your loving kindness (Hebrew: hesed), for your goodness’ (Hebrew: tob) sake, Yahweh” (v.7b).
This is the third time the psalmist has used the word remember. In the first instance, he prayed that Yahweh would remember his tender mercies (v. 6a). In the second instance, he prayed that God would not remember the sins of his youth (v. 7a). Now he asks that Yahweh will remember him “according to your loving kindness, for your goodness’ sake.” He wants Yahweh to act in accord with his “loving kindness” character.
See the comments on verse 6a above for the meaning of hesed.
The word tob (translated goodness here) has a variety of meanings, such as good or moral or profitable or plentiful. In this context, the psalmist uses tob to remind Yahweh of Yahweh’s essential nature, which is good. He is asking Yahweh to act in accord with his nature.
PSALM 25:8-14. GOOD AND UPRIGHT IS YAHWEH
8 Good and upright is Yahweh,
therefore he will instruct sinners in the way.
9 He will guide the humble in justice.
He will teach the humble his way.
10 All the paths of Yahweh are loving kindness and truth
to such as keep his covenant and his testimonies.
11 For your name’s sake, Yahweh,
pardon my iniquity, for it is great.
12 What man is he who fears Yahweh?
He shall instruct him in the way that he shall choose.
13 His soul shall dwell at ease.
His seed shall inherit the land.
14 The friendship of Yahweh is with those who fear him.
He will show them his covenant.
“Good (Hebrew: tob) and upright (Hebrew: yasar) is Yahweh” (v. 8a). For the meaning of tob, see the comments on verse 7b above.
The word yasar (upright) means straight or right or upright or without guile. It carries the idea of genuine, straightforward, and honest. Yahweh is upright in that he doesn’t come with a hidden agenda in his dealings with people:
- He revealed himself and his expectations clearly in the law and the prophets.
- He revealed himself more fully in the person of Jesus Christ.
- He continues to reveal himself through the scriptures.
- He continues to reveal himself in the life and work of the church.
Yahweh is upright in that he keeps his promises:
- That sometimes happens slowly, as it did with Abraham, who was young when God made a covenant promise (Genesis 12:2)––and old when the promise was fulfilled (Genesis 21:1-5).
- God sometimes fulfills promises in unexpected ways. If we aren’t watching with eyes of faith, we might miss seeing them.
- We live in faith that God, who has been faithful in this life, will also be faithful to us in the life to come.
“therefore he will instruct (Hebrew: yarah) sinners in the way” (Hebrew: darek) (v. 8b). The word yarah usually means throw or shoot, and is sometimes used in the Old Testament for shooting arrows. It seems peculiar that the psalmist would use yarah in this verse. My best guess is that the psalmist is expressing his faith that Yahweh will lead sinners to the way in a path that is straight as an arrow’s flight.
Derek (way) is often used for a path or road. In this verse, it describes Yahweh as leading sinners onto the pathway that is in keeping with Yahweh’s plan for that person’s life. This brings to mind these words from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
“Enter in by the narrow gate;
for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction,
and many are those who enter in by it.
How narrow is the gate, and restricted is the way that leads to life!
Few are those who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14; see also Luke 13:24).
“He will guide (Hebrew: darek) the humble (Hebrew: anaw) in justice” (Hebrew: mispat) (v. 9a). For the meaning of derek see the comments on verse 8b above.
The word humble (anaw––also translated meek or gentle) can easily be misunderstood as meaning timid or of low self-esteem. That is far from the Biblical meaning. The Bible described Moses as “very anaw, more so than anyone else on earth” (Numbers 12:3). Moses demonstrated his anaw at the burning bush, where he was afraid to look at God (Exodus 3:6). He protested, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” (Exodus 3:11). Finally, in desperation, he said, “O Lord, I am not eloquent, …for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue” (Exodus 4:10).
BUT, humble though he might be in God’s presence, Moses was hardly timid when he appeared before Pharaoh. He did not hesitate to act, even though his actions brought about plagues to devastate the Egyptians. His gentleness resurfaced when the Israelites made the golden calf and Moses prayed to God for their lives (Exodus 32:11-14). On that occasion he was not timid even in God’s presence, but argued persuasively that God should spare the people. But then he broke the tablets in anger when he found the people dancing at the foot of the mountain. He forced the Israelites to grind the golden calf to dust, mix it with water, and drink it––converting gold to dung. Moses was anaw, but hardly weak or indecisive.
The Greek equivalent to anaw is praus, translated “meek” in Matthew 5:5––“Blessed are the meek.” Jesus described himself as “praus and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29). Matthew described Jesus as a king, “praus, and riding on a donkey” (Matthew 21:5). Jesus modeled praus at his trial, where he refused to defend himself. He was poised and in control, but refused to make claims for himself or to mount a defense.
However, we can hardly call Jesus weak or timid. He upended moneychangers’ tables and used a whip to drive animals from the temple. He lashed Pharisees with his tongue. He exercised authority over illness and demons. He taught with authority. Hardly meek as we usually think of meek!
If Moses and Jesus are models of anaw and praus, their behavior suggests the true meaning of these words. Neither Moses nor Jesus were ambitious for personal enrichment. Both, however, were forceful when upholding a principle or protecting the vulnerable. We might conclude, then, that anaw and praus should be translated “not self-seeking,” rather than “meek.” But more important still was the source of their strength. Both Moses and Jesus knew themselves to be working, not by human strength, but by the power of God. Such a person can work quietly––confidently––certain that they, with God’s help, will prevail.
Justice (Hebrew: mispat) involves bringing people into a right relationship with Yahweh and each other, and these right relationships produce righteous lives.
God’s law provides very specific guidance with regard to just behavior. It requires witnesses to be honest and impartial (Exodus 23:1-3, 6-8). It requires special consideration for widows, orphans, and other vulnerable people (Deuteronomy 24:17). While Israel is always tempted to define its service to God by the performance of cultic duties (ritual sacrifice, Sabbath observance, etc.), the prophets keep reminding them that justice is a basic duty of the faith community (Micah 6:8).
He will teach the humble his way” (v. 9b). The humble are receptive to learning––the proud much less so. I feel certain that Yahweh would be happy to teach both humble and proud his way––but only the humble are likely to learn and to follow.
One of my seminary professors said that first year students were a joy to teach, because they were eager to learn. However, as they progressed to years two and three, they became more and more proud and less and less receptive to hearing what anyone else had to say––and less and less a joy to teach. I suspect that the Lord has experienced the same phenomenon.
“All the paths of Yahweh are loving kindness (Hebrew: hesed) and truth” (Hebrew: hesed) (v. 10a). See the comments on verse 6a above for the meaning of hesed.
Truth (emet) is that which is real, dependable, stable––that which a person can count on. The psalmist is therefore saying that Yahweh will reveal those things that will give his life a solid foundation––those things that will allow him to lead a Godly life––those things on which he can base his life without fear of failure.
“to such as keep (Yahweh’s) covenant (Hebrew: berit) and his testimonies” (Hebrew: edut 5715) (v. 10b). The word berit (covenant) occurs in more than 200 verses in the Old Testament.
A covenant is an agreement, such as a business contract or treaty. In the Bible, God often initiated a covenant with a person or group of people. In such cases, God dictated the terms of the agreement, which always favored the people but required their compliance. By initiating such a covenant, God bound himself to the terms of the covenant. Covenants between God and humans were often solemnized by ritual sacrifice.
Keeping Yahweh’s covenant, therefore, means observing faithfully the behaviors required in the law and the prophets, which revealed God’s will for his people.
Some of the more important Biblical covenants were between God and Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3); Isaac and Jacob (Exodus 2:24; Leviticus 26:42); Noah (Genesis 8:21-22; ); Moses (Exodus 6:4-5; 19:5; 24:7-8; 25:21); David (2 Samuel 7:16; Psalm 89:2-4; 105:8-11); and Israel (Jeremiah 31:3-4, 31-37).
Noah (Genesis 8:21-22; ) Moses (Exodus 6:4-5; 19:5; 24:7-8; 25:21); David (2 Samuel 7:16; Psalm 89:2-4; 105:8-11); and Israel (Jeremiah 31:3-4, 31-37).
These covenants were all preliminary to the covenant established by Jesus (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25).
While the word testimony (edut) can refer to the testimony brought by witnesses in a legal action, it is most often used in the Bible to refer to the tablets of stone on which Yahweh inscribed his laws (Exodus 24:12ff). These laws reflected Yahweh’s testimony––his will for his people. Yahweh commanded the Israelites to place those tablets (edut) into the ark, which represented Yahweh’s presence in the midst of his people.
When the psalmist says, “All the paths of Yahweh are loving kindness and truth to such as keep his covenant and his testimonies,” he is talking about people who faithfully observe Torah law.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 1-72 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Craigie, Peter C., Word Biblical Commentary, Psalms 1-50, Vol. 19 (Dallas: Word Books, 1983)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 1-72, Vol. 14a (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 1-41, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2012)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
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