Psalm 25 – Guilt, Hope, and Forgiveness
TEXT (HEBREW AT END)
1. Of David.
To You, O LORD I lift up my life;
2. my God, in You I trust; may I not be abashed, may my enemies not exult over me.
3. O let none who look to You be abashed; let the baselessly treacherous be abashed.
4. Let me know Your paths, O LORD, teach me Your ways;
5. guide me with Your truth and teach me, for You are God, my deliverer; it is You I look to every day.
6. O LORD, be mindful of Your compassion and Your steadfast love; for they are eternal.
7. Be not mindful of my youthful sins and transgressions, in keeping with Your steadfast love; You should be mindful of me, for the sake of Your goodness, O LORD.
8. Good and upright is the LORD; therefore He shows sinners the way.
9. He guides the lowly in justice, and teaches the lowly His way.
10 A1l the LORD’s ways are steadfast love and faithfulness for those who keep His covenant and His decrees.
11. For Your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my iniquity, for it is great.
12. Who is the man who fears the LORD? He shall show him what way to choose.
13. He shall have a good life, and his children shall inherit the land.
14. The counsel of the LORD is for those who fear Him; His covenant He makes known to them.
15. My eyes are ever toward the LORD; indeed, He will loose my feet from a net.1
16. Turn to me, be gracious unto me, for I am alone and afflicted.
17. The distress of my heart increases; deliver me from my straits.
18. Consider my affliction and suffering, and forgive all my sins.
19. Consider how numerous my enemies are, how they hate me with a violent hatred!
20. Protect my life and save me; let me not be abashed, for I have sought refuge in You.
21. May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I look to You.
22. Redeem Israel, O God, from all its distress.
1. i.e., a trap for animals
If one feels remorse over significant sin, what assurance is there that God will forgive? Psalm 25 reflects one individual’s search (written in first-person singular) for an answer to that question.
The varied literary structures of Psalm 25 focus the reader’s attention on different emphases of the poem: guilt, a search for hope, and a degree of assurance (this last aspect rooted in a fascinating place). I explore these steps, respectively, in light of the structures that reveal them: the chiasmus that highlights the sin and the guilt; the alphabetical arrangement and word repetition that focus on hope; and the historical reference that reassures. (I thereby do a certain injustice to the psalm, which integrates all three structures and moves among them.)
Chiasmus—Sin and Guilt
Two structures call attention to one central verse.
In terms of speaking to (second person) or about (third person) God, the division is as follows: verses 1–7 “to”; verses 8–10 “about”; verse 11 “to”; verses 12–15 “about”; and verses 16–22 “to.” Verse 11 is thereby highlighted, reflecting the beginning and the end, but isolated within a long central section.
A pattern of word and subject repetition also emphasizes this verse. Several commentators have noted the grand chiasmic structure of Psalm 25. (A chiasmic structure repeats themes, words, phrases, or the like in a reverse pattern―e.g., ABC, CBA.) Although there is some disagreement, the following approximates a consensus of an A-B-C-B-A structure.
A. The outer frame is made up of verses 1–7 and 15–22, which are prayers of supplication, both beginning with a statement of the speaker’s commitment. Within the parallel sets, the beginning of the first reflects the end of the second, reinforcing the chiasm, as follows: The first and last verses, 1 and 22, both break poetic pattern and stand alone as stark overview statements. Further, verses 1–3 and 19–21 repeat four identical Hebrew words or roots―“my life” (nafshi); “my enemies” (oyvai); “abashed” (root, b-o-sh); and “look to” (root, k-v-h), a strong inclusio for the poem..
B. The inner frame is composed of verses 8–10 and 12–14, which describe God’s relation to others, and the sections are dominated by four uses of the root d-r-ch (“way,” which had been used twice before in verses 4–5).
C. The central verse, 11, stands alone.
Verse 11 reads, “For Your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my iniquity for it is great.” Arising from a deep sense of guilt not hinted at elsewhere, the essence of the speaker’s prayer bursts forth in the midst of his thinking about God and others. (We shall see below that the context of a larger group is vital to the speaker’s consideration of his sin and guilt, for which reason sections B and B-1, with their emphasis on others, are the immediate context for this one line.)
Structure and Its Flaws
Psalm 25 is one of eight alphabetic acrostics within Psalms. Interestingly, in most of the others the full alphabet (22 letters) does not appear in a regular, smooth pattern. Scholars differ as to whether there are purposes or other logical explanations to either the choice of the acrostic form or to the deviations and, if there are, what they are. (Psalm 25 somewhat resembles the deviations of Psalm 34, with some differences.) They tend to agree that there was a twenty-two letter acrostic archetypical format and even that the “model” of twenty-two verses was sometimes pursued without the acrostic. (Note the Book of Lamentations, comprised of four acrostic poems with all twenty-two letters in sequence, and then a fifth poem of twenty-two verses without an acrostic.) The following comments presume that the author chose the structure deliberately and that the deviations may also be purposeful.
In Psalm 25, a first deviation shall not concern us. (In short―it is commonly understood that the author shifted the second letter of the alphabet from the first to the second word of “its” line to isolate and thereby emphasize “My God,” the present first word of the verse.) Two letters are missing―the sixth letter of the alphabet (vav) and the nineteenth (koph). The number of twenty-two verses is maintained by inclusion of a second verse beginning with the twentieth letter (resh) and the addition of a final verse (which begins with a peh, as does the added verse in Psalm 34). I return to possible implications below. [There are those who suggest that verse 22, with its different subject and extra letter, was not in the original. I note, however, that (a) its “oddity” is similar to the first verse and is therefore part of the inclusion noted above; (b) it is necessary for the twenty-two verse count; (c) Psalms often uses a change in the last verse as a literary technique; and (d) scholars who emphasize word and syllable count, such as Freedman and Benun, feel that the text is correct as it stands.]
There are more repeated terms and roots in Psalm 25 than there are verses. Although no one term stands out as exceptional, I note one triple repetition―“look to” (implying hope) in verses 3, 5, and 21, in Hebrew, k-v-h, part of the inclusio. Benun suggests that it is no accident that the first two letters of this root are precisely the two letters missing from the alphabetical progression. (Indeed, one of the appearances of “wait for” comes in verse 5, three words before the vav verse should have appeared. Similarly, two words before the missing koph verse there is the word “my straits,” verse 17, which includes those two letters koph-vav in order.) The missing letters, then, reflect the emphasis of the three repetitions on hope. Benun finds this combination of emphasis and its absence in the alphabet “ironic.”
I suggest that it is more than ironic. If Psalm 25’s subjects are trust, guilt, and forgiveness, the relationship among the three is dependent on the existence of order in this world, God’s order. By way of suggesting that order or reflecting it, the poet chooses frequent repetition and an alphabetical progression. It is precisely the alphabetical omissions that create an enormous tension. Is there or is there not hope? The format is beautifully bipolar. Beginning and end, the speaker professes to wait for God. The alphabetic structure should be a solid, confirming element. However, through the omissions, the poem hints that hope may be missing.
Assurance in the People’s Past
The poet suggests that the response to this challenge is found in another story, indicated through literary reference—the episode of the golden calf.
Of course, in order to claim a link between two texts, one needs a critical mass of connections. In the case of Psalm 25, there are numbers of linguistic links to the golden calf story, which are then reinforced by thematic links, as follows.
The linguistic links, by verses (references to the golden calf narrative, in Exodus, are in brackets): “Let me know Your paths,” verse 4 [33:13]; “Your compassion,” 6 [33:19]; “Your compassion and Your steadfast love,” 6 [34:7]; “be mindful,” 6 and 7 [32:1]; “sins, transgressions,” 7 [34:7]; “good,” 8, 9, and 13 [33:19]; “iniquity,” 11 [34:7]; “pardon…iniquity,” 11 [34:9]; “steadfast love,” 6, 7, and 10 [34:5]; “keep,” 10 [34:7]; “land,” 13 [32:13]; “covenant,” 10 and 14 [34:10]; “be gracious,” 16 [33:19]; “consider,” 18 and 19 [33:12]; and “forgive sins,” 18 [32:32]. Similarly, themes are parallel: that the enemy not rejoice (3 [32:32]); divine guidance (9 [33:14]); and inheriting the land (13 [32:13; 34:9]).
Readers are referred to the golden calf story (Ex. 32–34). Briefly: While Moses is on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments, the Israelites sin by worshipping at the golden calf. Their fate should have been sealed, but Moses’ intervention is successful, and God forgives the people. This is the story that informs our speaker. In the words of Bazak, “It is clear from our psalm that the forgiveness of the sin of the golden calf is that which gives the poet [I would say speaker] the hope that his personal sin, too great to bear, will be granted atonement.”
That contention has merit. Although not defined, the speaker’s sin is “great,” and the psalm’s structure (as noted above) indicates that he has doubts about there being hope. Here the speaker finds his ultimate assurance in the history of the people as a whole. The path to God, though requested by the individual, is discovered in the national history, as the poet's use of literary references demonstrates.
Whereas it is not the purpose of these essays to explore post-biblical developments, I nevertheless note that this approach sets the tone for later Jewish tradition. The High Holiday liturgy, particularly that of the Day of Atonement, which allows each individual to concentrate on personal sin, makes repeated reference to the forgiveness section of the golden calf story, as reassuring proof of God’s forgiving nature. (That same liturgy also includes the half-verse from Psalm 25, “Pardon my iniquity for it is great,” which stands out for its use of the singular within the context of the prayers, which are almost entirely in the plural.)
This brings us back to Psalm 25 and the last verse. Despite one word repetition (“distress,” from verse 17) and despite a truncated form that is similar to that of the first verse, the last verse has been dismissed by many scholars over the years: it “is not original but was added later when the psalm was adopted for liturgical purposes” (Buttenwieser, an early articulation). As I noted above, the “rhythm” argues that this is not so. More important, that elimination of the final verse also does not appreciate the subtle closing of the psalm. The speaker has found his confidence and the missing hope in the history of the people. It is his final request, through the radical change of the last line, that all the people, the source of his strength, also find relief from their distress, thus “repaying” the nation for its support for him.
So ends this interwoven exploration of guilt, hope, and forgiveness. The themes are, of course, pan-generational, giving the poem its perennial appeal and relevance. The reader, whether thousands of years ago or today, encounters the question of the reassurance of history and how (and to what degree, for the reader) that national history (which some might call myth) provides the strength needed to face one’s own feelings of great guilt.
* * * * * * * * * *
An Additional Note
I have found no compelling explanation for the use of the letter peh for the last verse. It has been noted that the first letters of the first, middle, and last verse thus spell “aleph,” which is both the first letter of the alphabet and a biblical root meaning “teach.” This is possibly just a curiosity, and I leave the question as one of the many to which we do not have a definitive answer.
The author of these essays is Rabbi Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
א לְדָוִד אֵלֶיךָ יְהוָה נַפְשִׁי אֶשָּׂא
ב אֱלֹהַי בְּךָ בָטַחְתִּי אַל-אֵבוֹשָׁה אַל-יַעַלְצוּ אוֹיְבַי לִי
ג גַּם כָּל-קֹוֶיךָ לֹא יֵבֹשׁוּ יֵבֹשׁוּ הַבּוֹגְדִים רֵיקָם
ד דְּרָכֶיךָ יְהוָה הוֹדִיעֵנִי אֹרְחוֹתֶיךָ לַמְּדֵנִי
ה הַדְרִיכֵנִי בַאֲמִתֶּךָ וְלַמְּדֵנִי כִּי-אַתָּה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׁעִי אוֹתְךָ קִוִּיתִי כָּל-הַיּוֹם
ו זְכֹר-רַחֲמֶיךָ יְהוָה וַחֲסָדֶיךָ כִּי מֵעוֹלָם הֵמָּה
ז חַטֹּאות נְעוּרַי וּפְשָׁעַי אַל-תִּזְכֹּר
כְּחַסְדְּךָ זְכָר-לִי-אַתָּה לְמַעַן טוּבְךָ יְהוָה
ח טוֹב-וְיָשָׁר יְהוָה עַל-כֵּן יוֹרֶה חַטָּאִים בַּדָּרֶךְ
ט יַדְרֵךְ עֲנָוִים בַּמִּשְׁפָּט וִילַמֵּד עֲנָוִים דַּרְכּוֹ
י כָּל-אָרְחוֹת יְהוָה חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת לְנֹצְרֵי בְרִיתוֹ וְעֵדֹתָיו
יא לְמַעַן-שִׁמְךָ יְהוָה וְסָלַחְתָּ לַעֲוֹנִי כִּי רַב-הוּא
יב מִי-זֶה הָאִישׁ יְרֵא יְהוָה יוֹרֶנּוּ בְּדֶרֶךְ יִבְחָר
יג נַפְשׁוֹ בְּטוֹב תָּלִין וְזַרְעוֹ יִירַשׁ אָרֶץ
יד סוֹד יְהוָה לִירֵאָיו וּבְרִיתוֹ לְהוֹדִיעָם
טו עֵינַי תָּמִיד אֶל-יְהוָה כִּי הוּא-יוֹצִיא מֵרֶשֶׁת רַגְלָי
טז פְּנֵה-אֵלַי וְחָנֵּנִי כִּי-יָחִיד וְעָנִי אָנִי
יז צָרוֹת לְבָבִי הִרְחִיבוּ מִמְּצוּקוֹתַי הוֹצִיאֵנִי
יח רְאֵה עָנְיִי וַעֲמָלִי וְשָׂא לְכָל-חַטֹּאותָי
יט רְאֵה-אֹיְבַי כִּי-רָבּוּ וְשִׂנְאַת חָמָס שְׂנֵאוּנִי
כ שָׁמְרָה נַפְשִׁי וְהַצִּילֵנִי אַל-אֵבוֹשׁ כִּי-חָסִיתִי בָךְ
כא תֹּם-וָיֹשֶׁר יִצְּרוּנִי כִּי קִוִּיתִיךָ
כב פְּדֵה אֱלֹהִים אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִכֹּל צָרוֹתָיו