Psalm XXV: Teach Me, Lord
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to know. I didn’t care about the subject always, I just wanted to know. I started off by asking simple questions that all children ask like, “Why is the sky blue?” or “How does electricity work?” and worked my way into deeper questions like, “Why do people behave the way they do?” or “How did societies conclude that entertainment is more valuable than pretty much anything in society?” (If you don’t believe that’s true look at the average income of a major professional athlete, singer, or actor).
These questions have persisted in my life and I have never stopped asking them (and God willing never will). But as I look back on the journey of learning, I can see it as an apprenticeship, a partnership between myself and many teachers along the way. Initially, my parents helped me to begin this journey, answering all the mundane and banal ‘why’ questions that a toddler could ask before deciding to teach me to read. As soon as I learned to read, my father invested in a set of dark green Collier Encyclopedias. I continued to ask questions and my father would point me to the encyclopedias. After a while, I stopped asking and just went to the bookshelf. But it didn’t end there.
My next evolution in the learning journey came with my first library card. I don’t know how old I was, but it came from the Lithia Springs Public Library and by the time they moved on to modern, digital cards, I had gone through quite a few of the paper ones. I read everything in the kid’s section that was the least bit interesting to me and then to adult non-fiction and finally adult fiction. I learned the card catalog there and at school and I began to really dig into ideas. For those of you who are wondering, yes, this was before the internet. AOL, Yahoo, Google, and all that didn’t come along until I was well out of college and into a career.
I wasn’t always a good student, however. I remember Mrs. Barrett in sixth grade calling a conference with my parents which concluded with the idea that I was being lazy in her English class. I never really got the hang of Math in high school, no matter how many questions I asked. To this day I hate to see numbers and letters together. I would rather write the word two than the number. And I gave up on being a physician when I found out I had to pass Calculus in college. I only lasted one day in the Pre-calculus class I took.
For all the bumps in the road and detours, I have spent my life learning, usually by apprenticing myself to those who were willing to teach me. People like Art Martin and Bob Chandler who were willing to let me look over their shoulders to learn graphic design. People like Colin Harris and Tim Craker who endured me playing devil’s advocate as an undergraduate student and Beverly Johnson-Miller, Bob Stamps, Michael Pasquarello, and others who let me play devil at the seminary. This apprenticeship is what we are talking about as we look into Psalm XXV, an apprenticeship that we undertake at the leading of the Holy Spirit.
The Plea of an Apprentice
So, what exactly is an apprentice? In ages past, there were no colleges or technical schools that people could enroll in to study a particular discipline or subject. People learned a trade (and thus a way of making a living) by becoming an apprentice. The apprentice would seek out a master, someone who was respected for their craft and begin to learn from them. Over time, they would try their hand the master’s work, learning more, until they could do anything the master could do. It was a model similar to that of Jesus and his Disciples. Jesus taught them a new perspective on looking at God and the world (or perhaps a refined perspective from the former) and they learned it with the intent of teaching it to the next generation of disciples.
The fourth and fifth verses of this Psalm provide a way of interpreting it with respect to the idea of becoming an apprentice. The Psalmist writes, “Make your ways known to me, Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth—teach it to me—because you are the God who saves me. I put my hope in you all day long.” In other words, “God, I want to be your apprentice. I want to learn how to see and understand the world the way you see it.” This prayer of the Psalmist can be for us, a model prayer for beginning or continue the journey of being an apprentice of God. A few major themes about this idea of learning from God come out of the text: learning comes from prayer, learning takes many forms, and finally, learning is the way to salvation or wholeness as the Bible understands it.
Learning comes from prayer (conversation with God)
This week I took a little test on varied ways people learn or amass knowledge. It was relatively short, only about thirty questions, but it was interesting to me that during the test I was essentially having a conversation with myself. Yes, I know, you assumed I do that all the time. But the truth is we all do. How many times have you talked your way through working on a project or something around the house saying things like, “Okay, if move this here and that over there, I can make a bigger mess than I already have. Then I’ll have an excuse to have someone else do it.”
The thing is, conversation is one of the major methods we use to learn. Most of us learned the skills we have partly from reading about them but also from watching someone do it and listening to them explain as they did. The Psalmist in Psalm XXV is asking God to engage in that kind of teaching so that he may learn. “Make your ways known to me, Lord”, “Lead me in your truth, teach it to me”, these are among the pleas the Psalmists make in an effort to have a lifelong conversation with God on the way of life.
Learning takes many forms (think learning methods – visual, auditory, kinesthetic/tactile)
I am a combination visual/kinesthetic learner. I found this out on Tuesday when I took the test I mentioned before and I can’t say I was that surprised. Like most people, I use more than one kind of learning style and like many, mine is a combination of hearing someone talk about it and then working out the kinks myself. A good example was when I learned to play guitar. Dan, Danny, and host of other musicians at the church I was going to all took the time to show me little tricks and tips for creating chords, strumming patterns, and picking patterns. I watched and then I tried the best I could. It has only taken the last fifteen years for me to become an absolutely mediocre musician.
Our own knowledge of faith is born out a similar conversation that we have with God, an intentional engagement between Creation and Creator to be or become at shalom or well-being. But this conversation is one that looks different from person to person, circumstance to circumstance. Some people have this conversation through prayers, some through the study of the Bible and biblical things, some through their engagement with the world around them. If we were to look at the words of the Psalmist in Hebrew, we would find that the Psalmist is using nearly every Hebrew verb for teach or teaching available in the language. (Mays 1994, 125) It is as if the writer wants to make sure that the audience gets the idea no matter what.
Notice how the writer uses so many different metaphors for learning: teach me your ways, lead me in truth, make your ways known to me, guide the weak, teach sinners, teach them the paths. One theologian says, “The subject of the instruction prayed for is identified in diverse ways as though no one way defined it adequately” (Mays 1994, 126). The methods of God’s teaching are varied as well: covenants and laws in verse ten, compassion and faithful love in verse six, and integrity and virtue in verse twenty-one.
Learning is the way to salvation or wholeness (the end result of learning is being remade to wholeness)
When I was in the tenth grade, I had to take geometry, the one math that made sense to me because it was about remembering axioms and looking at pictures with very little algebra involved. Of all the various forms of math that exist, it is probably as advanced as I have ever been able to understand. In that respect, my ability to do math is not exactly what you would consider a holistic knowledge.
Yet, that is what the Psalmist seeks in this prayer/song. The Psalm is one that calls out to God with the hope of learning the ways of God that the person will find salvation or wholeness. In the first three verses, the Psalmist shows his trust in God saying, “I offer my life to you, Lord. My God, I trust you.” This trust becomes the basis for the relationship that allows the person to become a disciple of God, a comfort and safety that allows for an environment of instruction.
Then, the Psalmist declares their intent to be a disciple in verse four, “Make your ways known to me, Lord; teach me your paths.” Throughout the next seven verses, the Psalmist seeks to define how they might be a disciple; they seek to follow the path God shows them in verses four and five, they recognize the need for praise in verse six, and then they seek reconciliation with God in verse seven through eleven. This pattern is a pattern of discipleship: seek to follow God, praise God, and be reconciled when you fall.
The next section talks about who are those who honor God and what God does in response. The idea here is that being a follower of God has a specific result in our lives. The Psalmist says, “They will live a good life, and their descendants will possess the land” and God will “make his covenant known to them.” The life of being a disciple leads to this very specific way of being that connects us to God and his blessings and his protection, “because he will keep their feet from the net.”
The closing section is a plea for forgiveness and mercy. It is a cry for the salvation of the individual but also for all the people of God. Ultimately, that is what the Psalm becomes a primer for the idea that being a disciple of God, following in the paths and ways of God, becomes our salvation, our way to wholeness and well-being, shalom as we said last week. This is the goal of the biblical story from Genesis to Revelation, that we as a part of Creation are made whole, restored to a place of peace with God, peace with one another, and peace with Creation. It starts with following the teachings of the covenant and laws and continues for us into the teachings of Jesus. It is a path that walks from Mount Sinai to the Sermon on the Mount to show us how we have come to understand God and how we believe God has revealed himself to us.
Being good apprentices
A few things could be said of a good apprentice. First, they learn, whatever their style or way of doing so, they learn the trade. In our case, the trade is being disciples, followers of God, through our understanding of a personal experiential faith and the examples of others who walked ahead of us or with us now. Second, they practice. We do not become disciples by talking about it. Love God and neighbor. Show mercy. Give freely. Serve without reservation. When it comes to faith, we don’t step into the water and wade out a little deeper, it’s all deep end, just jump. And finally, good apprentices become teachers to master the art. We become disciples to make disciples. As Jesus says in Matthew, “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.”
Buttrick, George Arthur, ed. The Interpreter’s Bible: Psalms and Proverbs. Vol. 4. 12 vols. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1955.
Mays, James Luther. Psalms. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
Weiser, Artur. The Psalms. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962.