Psalm 25
Expositor's Bible Commentary
A Psalm of David. Unto thee, O LORD, do I lift up my soul.
Psalm 25:1-22THE recurrence of the phrase "lift up the soul" may have determined the place of this psalm next to Psalm 24:1-10. It is acrostic, but with irregularities. As the text now stands, the second, not the first, word in Psalm 25:2 begins with Beth; Vav is omitted or represented in the "and teach me" of the He verse (Psalm 25:5); Qoph is also omitted, and its place taken by a supernumerary Resh, which letter has thus two verses (Psalm 25:18-19); and Psalm 25:22 begins with Pe, and is outside the scheme of the psalm, both as regards alphabetic structure and subject. The same peculiarities of deficient Vav and superfluous Pe verses reappear in another acrostic psalm (Psalm 34:1-22), in which the initial word of the last verse is, as here, "redeem." Possibly the two psalms are connected.

The fetters of the acrostic structure forbid freedom and progress of thought, and almost compel repetition. It is fitted for meditative reiteration of favourite emotions or familiar axioms, and results in a loosely twined wreath rather than in a column with base, shaft, and capital. A slight trace of consecution of parts may be noticed in the division of the verses (excluding Psalm 25:22) into three sevens, of which the first is prayer, the second meditation on the Divine character and the blessings secured by covenant to them who fear Him, and the third is bent round, wreath-like, to meet the first, and is again prayer. Such alternation of petition and contemplation is like the heart’s beat of the religious life, now expanding in desire, now closing in possession. The psalm has no marks of occasion or period. It deals with the permanent elements in a devout man’s relation to God.

The first prayer section embraces the three standing needs: protection, guidance, and forgiveness. With these are intertwined their pleas according to the logic of faith-The suppliant’s uplifted desires and God’s eternal tenderness and manifested mercy. The order of mention of the needs proceeds from without inwards, for protection from enemies is superficial as compared with illumination as to duty, and deeper than even that, as well as prior in order of time (and therefore last in order of enumeration), is pardon. Similarly the pleas go deeper as they succeed each other; for the psalmist’s trust and waiting is superficial as compared with the plea breathed in the name of "the God of my salvation"; and that general designation leads to the gaze upon the ancient and changeless mercies, which constitute the measure and pattern of God’s working (according to, Psalm 25:7), and upon the self-originated motive, which is the deepest and strongest of all arguments with Him (for Thy goodness’ sake, Psalm 25:7).

A qualification of the guest in God’s house was in Psalm 24:1-10, the negative one that he did not lift up his soul-i.e., set his desires-on the emptinesses of time and sense. Here the psalmist begins with the plea that he has set his on Jehovah, and, as the position of "Unto Thee, Jehovah," at the beginning shows, on Him alone. The very nature of such aspiration after God demands that it shall be exclusive. All in all or not at all is the requirement of true devotion, and such completeness is not attained without continual withdrawal of desire from created good. The tendrils of the heart must be untwined from other props before they can be wreathed round their true stay. The irregularity in Psalm 25:2, where the second, not the first, word of the verse begins with Beth, may be attenuated by treating the Divine name as outside the acrostic order. An acute conjecture, however, that the last clause of Psalm 25:5 really belongs to Psalm 25:1 and should include "my God" now in Psalm 25:2, has much in its favour. Its transposition restores to both verses the two-claused structure which runs through the psalm, gets rid of the acrostical anomaly, and emphasises the subsequent reference to those who wait on Jehovah in Psalm 25:3.

In that case Psalm 25:2 begins with the requisite letter. It passes from plea to petition: "Let me not be shamed." Trust that was not vindicated by deliverance would cover the face with confusion. "Hopes that breed not shame" are the treasure of him whose hope is in Jehovah. Foes unnamed threaten; but the stress of the petitions in the first section of the psalm is less on enemies than on sins. One cry for protection from the former is all that the psalmist utters, and then his prayer swiftly, turns to deeper needs. In the last section the petitions are more exclusively for deliverance from enemies. Needful as such escape is, it is less needful than the knowledge of God’s ways, and the man in extremest peril orders his desires rightly, if he asks holiness first and safety second. The cry in Psalm 25:2 rests upon the confidence nobly, expressed in Psalm 25:3, in which the verbs are not optatives, but futures, declaring a truth certain to be realised in the psalmist’s experience, because it is true for all who, like him, wait on Jehovah. True prayer is the individual’s sheltering himself under the broad folds of the mantle that covers all who pray. The double confidence as to the waiters on Jehovah and the "treacherous without cause" is the summary of human experience as read by faith. Sense has much to adduce in contradiction, but the dictum is nevertheless true, only its truth does not always appear in the small arc of the circle which lies between cradle and grave.

The prayer for deliverance glides into that for guidance, since the latter is the deeper need, and the former will scarcely be answered unless the suppliant’s will docilely offers the latter. The soul lifted to Jehovah will long to know His will and submit itself to His manifold teachings. "Thy ways" and "Thy paths" necessarily mean here the ways in which Jehovah desires that the psalmist should go. "In Thy truth" is ambiguous, both as to the preposition and the noun. The clause may either present God’s truth (i.e., faithfulness) as His motive for answering the prayer, or His truth (i.e., the objective revelation) as the path for men. Predominant usage inclines to the former signification of the noun, but the possibility still remains of regarding God’s faithfulness as the path in which the psalmist desires to be led, i.e., to experience it. The cry for forgiveness strikes a deeper note of pathos, and, as asking a more wondrous blessing, grasps still more firmly the thought of what Jehovah is and always has been. The appeal is made to "Thy compassions and lovingkindnesses," as belonging to His nature, and to their past exercise as having been "from of old." Emboldened thus, the psalmist can look back on his own past, both on his outbursts of youthful passion and levity, which he calls "failures," as missing the mark, and on the darker evils of later manhood, which he calls "rebellions," and can trust that Jehovah will think upon him according to His mercy, and for the sake of His goodness or love. The vivid realisation of that Eternal Mercy as the very mainspring of God’s actions, and as setting forth, in many an ancient deed, the eternal pattern or His dealings, enables a man to bear the thought of his own sins.

The contemplation of the Divine character prepares the way for the transition to the second group of seven verses, which are mainly meditation on that character and on God’s dealings and the blessedness of those who fear Him (Psalm 25:8-14). The thought of God beautifully draws the singer from himself. How deeply and lovingly he had pondered on the name of the Lord before he attained to the grand truth that His goodness and very uprightness pledged Him to show sinners where they should walk! Since there is at the heart of things an infinitely pure and equally loving Being, nothing is more impossible than that He should wrap Himself in thick darkness and leave men to grope after duty. Revelation of the path of life in some fashion is the only conduct consistent with His character. All presumptions are in favor of such Divine teaching: and the fact of sin makes it only the more certain. That fact may separate men from God, but not God from men, and if they transgress, the more need both in their characters and in God’s. is there that He should speak. But while their being sinners does not prevent His utterance, their disposition determines their actual reception of His teaching, and "the meek" or lowly of heart are His true scholars. His instruction is not wasted on them, and, being welcomed, is increased. A fuller communication of His will rewards the humble acceptance of it. Sinners are led in the way; the meek are taught His way. Here the conception of God’s way is in transition from its meaning in Psalm 25:4 to that in Psalm 25:10, where it distinctly must mean His manner of dealing with men. They who accept His teaching, and order their paths as He would have them do, will learn that the impulse and meaning of all which He does to them are "mercy and truth," the two great attributes to which the former petitions appealed, and which the humble of heart, who observe the conditions of God’s covenant which is witness of His own character and of their duty, will see gleaming with lambent light even in calamities.

The participators, then, in this blessed knowledge have a threefold character: sinners humble: keepers of the covenant and testimonies. The thought of these requirements drives the psalmist back on himself, as it will do all devout souls, and forces from him a short ejaculation of prayer, which breaks with much pathos and beauty the calm flow of contemplation. The pleas for forgiveness of the "iniquity" which makes him feel unworthy of Jehovah’s guidance are remarkable. "For Thy name’s sake" appeals to the revealed character of God, as concerned in the suppliant’s pardon, inasmuch as it will be honoured thereby, and God will be true to Himself in forgiving. "For it is great" speaks the boldness of helplessness. The magnitude of sin demands a Divine intervention. None else than God can deal with it. Faith makes the very greatness of sin and extremity of need a reason for God’s act of pardon.

Passing from self, the singer again recurs to his theme, reiterating in vivid language and with some amplification the former thoughts. In Psalm 25:8-10 the character of Jehovah was the main subject, and the men whom He blessed were in the background. In Psalm 25:12-14 they stand forward. Their designation now is the wide one of "those who fear Jehovah," and the blessings they receive are, first, that of being taught the way, which has been prominent thus far, but here has a new phase, as being "the way that he should choose"; i.e., God’s teaching illuminates the path, and tells a man what he ought to do, while his freedom of choice is uninfringed. Next, outward blessings of settled prosperity shall be his, and his children shall have the promises to Israel fulfilled in their possession of the land. These outward blessings belong to the Old Testament epoch, and can only partially be applied to the present stage of Providence. But the final element of the good man’s blessedness (Psalm 25:14) is eternally true. Whether we translate the first word "secret" or "friendship," the sense is substantially the same. Obedience and the true fear of Jehovah directly tend to discernment of His purposes, and will besides be rewarded by whispers from heaven. God would not hide from Abraham what he would do, and still His friend will know His mind better than the disobedient. The last clause of Psalm 25:14 is capable of various renderings. "His covenant" may be in the accusative, and the verb a periphrastic future, as the A.V. takes it, or the former word may be nominative, and the clause be rendered, "And His covenant [is] to make them to know." But the absolute use of the verb without a specification of the object taught is somewhat harsh, and probably the former rendering is to be preferred. The deeper teaching of the covenant which follows on the fear of the Lord includes both its obligations and blessings, and the knowledge is not mere intellectual perception, but vital experience. In this region life is knowledge, and knowledge life. Whoso "keeps His covenant" (Psalm 25:10) will ever grow in appropriation of its blessings and apprehension of its obligations by his submissive will.

The third heptad of verses returns to simple petition, and that, with one exception (Psalm 25:18 b), for deliverance from enemies. This recurrence, in increased intensity, of the consciousness of hostility is not usual, for the psalms which begin with it generally pray themselves out of it. "The peace which passeth understanding," which is the best answer to prayer, has not fully settled on the heaving sea. A heavy ground swell runs in these last short petitions, which all mean substantially the same thing. But there is a beginning of calm; and the renewed petitions are a pattern of that continual knocking of which such great things are said and recorded in Scripture. The section begins with a declaration of patient expectance: "Mine eyes are ever towards Jehovah," with wistful fixedness which does not doubt though it has long to look. Nets are wrapped round his feet, inextricably but for one hand. We can bear to feel our limbs entangled and fettered, if our eyes are free to gaze, and fixed in gazing, upwards. The desired deliverance is thrice presented (Psalm 25:16, "turn unto"; Psalm 25:18, "look upon"; Psalm 25:19, "consider," lit. look upon) as the result of Jehovah’s face being directed towards the psalmist.

When Jehovah turns to a man, the light streaming from His face makes darkness day. The pains on which He "looks" are soothed; the enemies whom He beholds shrivel beneath His eye. The psalmist believes that God’s presence, in the deeper sense of that phrase, as manifested partly through delivering acts and partly through inward consciousness, is his one need, in which all deliverances and gladnesses are enwrapped. He plaintively pleads, "For I am alone and afflicted." The soul that has awakened to the sense of the awful solitude of personal being, and stretched out yearning desires to the only God, and felt that with Him it would know no pain in loneliness, will not cry in vain. In Psalm 25:17 a slight alteration in the text, the transference of the final Vav of one word to the beginning of the next, gets rid of the incongruous phrase "are enlarged" as applied to troubles (lit. straits), and gives a prayer which is in keeping with the familiar use of the verb in reference to afflictions: "The troubles of my heart do Thou enlarge, {cf. Psalm 18:36} and from my distresses," etc. Psalm 25:18 should begin with Qoph, but has Resh, which is repeated in the following verse, to which it rightly belongs. It is at least noteworthy that the anomaly makes the petition for Jehovah’s "look" more emphatic, and brings into prominence the twofold direction of it. The "look" on the psalmist’s affliction and pain will be tender and sympathetic, as a mother eagle’s on her sick eaglet; that on his foes will be stern and destructive, many though they be. In Psalm 25:11 the prayer for pardon was sustained by the plea that the sin was "great"; in Psalm 25:19 that for deliverance from foes rests on the fact that "they are many," for which the verb cognate with the adjective of Psalm 25:11 is used. Thus both dangers without and evils within are regarded as crying out by their multitude, for God’s intervention. The wreath is twined so that its end is brought round to its beginning. "Let me not be ashamed, for I trust in Thee," is the second petition of the first part repeated; and "I wait on Thee," which is the last word of the psalm, omitting the superfluous verse, echoes the clause which it is proposed to transfer to Psalm 25:1. Thus the two final verses correspond to the two initial, the last but one to the first but one, and the last to the first. The final prayer is that "integrity (probably complete devotion of heart to God) and uprightness" (in relation to men) may preserve him, as guardian angels; but this does not assert the possession of these, but is a petition for the gift of them quite as much as for their preserving action. The implication of that petition is that no harm can imperil or destroy him whom these characteristics guard. That is true in the whole sweep of human life, however often contradicted in the judgment of sense.

Like Psalm 34:1-22, this concludes with a supplementary verse beginning with Pe, a letter already represented in the acrostic scheme. This may be a later addition for liturgical purposes.

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