Quite often our prayer life is shaped by the immediate. Our prayers reflect what we are facing at that particular moment on that particular day in that particular week. This was often the case for the psalmist, too. What we find in the psalter is typically a snapshot of what the psalmist was facing at that particular moment on that particular day in that particular week. For David, that could have reflected his distress on account of his enemies’ attacks, or his anguish over his own wrongful actions, or his praise to God for answered prayer. For us it could be our distress over events in our country, or anguish over our children’s poor choices, or praise to God for a new job. This is where we generally live in our prayer lives.
Psalm 25 takes a step back from the immediate, the urgent, that which is most pressing. What the psalmist offers here is a broader view of life, a view that encompasses all of life. Psalm 25 is an alphabetic acrostic poem with the first letter in most lines beginning with succeeding letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This construction is said to offer a comprehensive view on that subject at hand. Our selection for today’s lectionary doesn’t allow for that all-encompassing view, but we do get a glimpse of some important themes in the life of one whose trust is in the Lord.
Our psalm begins with a declaration of trust. This is a pledge of allegiance in no uncertain terms. From the outset the psalmist declares that his whole person is given over to God and to God’s ways. Doesn’t everything else flow from such a declaration of trust and identity? Aren’t we always living and acting in accordance with the object of our trust and allegiance? Some have said that we become what we worship. The psalmist declares emphatically that it is the Lord in whom he will trust and all else flows from that identity.
In verse 2 the psalmist addresses some of the troubles that life may bring. He is concerned that he may suffer shame and possibly further defeat from his enemies. The recognition of possible perils in life serves a possible corrective for many today who perceive life with God to be a pain-free, enemy-free existence. In order to be able to pray for our enemies, as instructed by Jesus, is to recognize that we may have enemies. In our current American culture, we must be careful with this, though, as I believe we often display an unfounded persecution complex. The truth is that we still wield a great amount of power and influence, so our talk of enemies needs to be grounded in reality.
For the psalmist, shame is a real threat and the expectation is that God should do something about it. The honor/shame culture, still lingering today, was part of the fabric of existence in antiquity. Prevalent to our discussion today is how shame threatens the psalmist’s identity. Three times the psalmist speaks of shame, and his posture before this looming threat is patient hope. This posture can be instructive for us as we face those things in life that are threatening. The psalmist chooses to hope, and knows that those who hope in the Lord will not ultimately be defeated. The source for such hope is not in the character and personality of the one hoping; rather, the source for such hope is in the character and actions of the Lord. In verse 6 the psalmist calls to mind the Lord’s great love and mercy, “for they are from of old.” The psalmist has hope for the present and future because of the ways the Lord has acted in the past. To hope is to remember forward. To hope is to recall those particular ways God has acted in the past, and to let that continue to shape our identity as ones who trust in the Lord. And the so the psalmist hopes—hopes as one waiting for God to show up with good news.
Having made such a grand declaration of trust, the psalmist still recognizes the need to learn the ways of God. The ways of God are not known in the same way we come to know other things. Humans are not created with a pre-packaged understanding of God; rather, we are created as needy beings who need to learn the ways of God. In our culture, we love things and products that are intuitive. We expect to be able to navigate our gadgets and our world with ease. It should just make sense. We get into trouble when we carry these expectations into our relationship with God. Discipleship requires formation and learning. We have to be schooled into the ways of the Lord. This requires humility on our part, for in learning we acknowledge that we are not omniscient and we are not complete. The psalmist declares that the Lord will teach us, not because there is something inherently worthy in us, but because God is good and upright (v.8).
This psalm can be so instructive for the church today. That we might be a people whose identity and trust is solely in the Lord, and that we might be a humble people open to learning something new. May these two markers shape our prayer life today, and do so without ceasing.