Literary analysis of Psalm 25 – “To You, O Lord, I will lift up my soul”

missing photoSong 25 makes an intruder out of its reader or listener. The sense is of overhearing an intensely intimate prayer.* And yet, paradoxically, the frame of the song, that which determines its structure, is formal — each line begins, in Hebrew, with a letter of the alphabet, in their proper order. Perhaps the contradiction between such an ordered structure and so personal a prayer can be explained by the very fact that the singer is using the format of the alphabet: the Kabbalists believed that the Hebrew letters “are the structural elements, the stones from which the edifice of Creation was built” (Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, p. 168). Though there are over 2000 years between King David and the Kabbalists, certainly as a poet –and, afterall, David’s Praisesongs are songs in words– he would know that the letters of the alphabet are the writer’s only means of embodying thought. The singer’s central theme in Song 25 is of his own unworthiness and of his hope for redemption. If, then, the letters are essential to compositions in words, what more appropriate way to express his theme than by using the alphabet format? That is, the very letters that underlie creation –be it of the universe or of individual writings– reveal David’s attempt, to re-create, re-form, himself, so that he will be worthy of redemption.

The song is composed of four sections. The first, verses 1 to 7, pleads with God to be beneficent toward the singer, to be led by His “compassion” and “steadfast love” when considering the singer’s youthful “sins and transgressions” and to teach the singer God’s “paths” of truth that he might triumph over his “baselessly treacherous” foes. The pattern of repetition in these verses gives a sense of the melody within one line of verse being picked up in the next line of the same verse and then again sounded in the verse that follows. Thus “shamed” in v. 2 reappears twice in v. 3; “hope” in v. 3 echoes in v. 5; “paths”, voiced twice in v. 4, reiterates in v. 5; the parallel “instruct” and “inform” in v. 4 reappears in “instruct” in v. 5; “kindness” in v. 6 repeats in v. 7, along with its synonyms, “mercies” in v. 6 and “goodness” in v. 7; “recall” in v. 6 is the twice repeated verb in v. 7. The effect is of a tapestry of words, as themes weave together. Even the ideas the words express intermingle, as the singer turns from personal prayer (verses 1, 2, 4, 5) to a plea for all who trust in God (v. 3), then to a consideration of those very attributes of God (v. 6) which will allow God’s compassion to His followers, but disgrace to his deniers.
 The song’s second section, verses 8 to 14, further describes God’s qualities –goodness, uprightness; just, kind and truthful in judgement. God’s “paths” of the first section becomes His “way” in the second; in both, God is portrayed as guiding His followers. The life of his follower will, accordingly, “repose in bounty, and his seed will inherit the earth” (v. 13). To him will God make known His covenant (v. 14). Verse 11 seemingly breaks the pattern by re-introducing the singer’s individual plight. But, in fact, the verse splits in two: its first line praising God’s name; its second, asking for forgiveness for his sinfulness, just as he had in v. 7. Thus the verse connects the two sections of the song, being both praise and a plea:
                                                          For the sake of Your name, Adonai,
                                                                                   may You forgive my crime, which is great. (v. 11)
Verses 15 to 21, the song’s third section, resound the singer’s plea for forgiveness:
                                                          My eyes at all times to Adonai,
                                                                                 for He draws my feet from the net.
                                                          Turn to me and grant me grace,
                                                                                  for alone and afflicted am I.
                                                          The distress of my heart has grown great.
                                                                                   From my straits bring me out. (v. 15, v. 16, v. 17)
The theme of the singer’s loneliness and distress in these three verses begins with “my eyes” (v. 15) –the singer’s eyes are, at all times, fixed upon God. The implication is that he both seeks out God’s ways and follows them. In turn, he asks God to be mindful of his distress and of his enemies’ perfidy. Verses 18 and 19, complementing v. 15, each begin with the verb “see” (“See my affliction” in v. 18 is followed by “See my enemies'” in v. 19). While verses 18 to 21 resound the themes of the song’s first section:  “affliction and suffering” in v. 18 pick up the offenses and crimes of v. 7 and v. 11; the enemies in v. 19 are those depicted in v. 2 and 3; the shame that v. 20 seeks shelter from is that of v. 2 and v. 3; and the hope of v. 21 echoes that of v. 3 and v. 5. The section ends as it begins, with affirmation and assurance –God who “draws [his] feet from the net” of his enemies in v. 15 will “guard” and “save” the singer in v. 20 so that he will find “shelter in You'”. And finally, as the song closes with its fourth, one-line, section — “Redeem, God, Israel from all its straits”– the plea the singer utters for his own self, in v. 17 (“From my straits bring me out”), transforms into his prayer for all the people Israel.
The alphabet framework of the song is straightforward, with the interesting variation of v. 2, which gives precedence to Adonai over the letter “bet”, so that “aleph” begins the first word and “bet” the second word of the opening of the one verse, rather than the expected pattern of the second letter beginning the next verse, v. 3. (Verse 3 begins with “gimmel”.) The remainder of the letters of the alphabet proceed to form, in turn, the first letter of the first word of each verse progressively til the song’s end. But for one striking puzzle:  the 6th letter, “waw”, and the 19th, “qof”, are both omitted from the frame. The reason for the omission may be in the Hebrew word for “hope” whose root is comprised of these two letters, along with “het”. For, of the several words for “hope” in Hebrew, it is this particular one the singer chooses in his 3 repetitions of the word in the song (v. 3, v. 5, v. 21). Moreover, the addition of the “het” to the “gof’ and “waw” increases the positive connotations of the word “hope”. For its very shape is commonly compared to a doorway; in this case, one through which the righteous may enter that state of being predicted by the singer in verses 12 and 13:
                                                          Whosoever the man who fears Adonai,
                                                                                     He will guide him in the way he should choose.
                                                              His life will repose in bounty,
                                                                                      and his seed will inherit the earth.
Thus, rather than an omission, the two letters are, on the contrary, sounded –indeed, trumpeted– within the song.**
*Perhaps this is the reason that Sephardic Jews recite Song 25 upon beginning the Amidah prayers.
**Jeremiah uses the noun “hope”, formed of the exact same root, to declare that Adonai is the hope of Israel (14:8; 17:13; 50:7).
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