Traveling mercies

When we share prayer requests with each other, what do we ask for? Much of the time, we need God’s help with a problem or concern. We’re worried about our health, or the health of a family member. Our job may be up for grabs. A relationship is sliding downhill. In all these cases, some extra prayer support is welcome.

Sometimes, the request is generic: we’re going on a trip, and ask people to pray that we arrive safely, even though we’re not really worried. Or we don’t actually have any prayer requests to share, because everything’s going fine.

Hey, if I don’t have a problem or worry, there’s nothing to pray about, right?

Or is it that there’s always something to pray about, but only certain things I feel safe admitting to others? I can safely ask for prayer about “a situation at work,” for example, but it’s harder to tell people that most days, I want to murder my boss.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we should tell everybody everything we’re struggling with in life. Nor am I saying that we shouldn’t pray for safety on a trip. But it’s one thing to pray for “traveling mercies” when you’re a missionary journeying into the heart of a remote jungle, and another when you’re getting on a plane to visit the grandkids. In the first case, there’s actually a good chance you won’t get where you’re going. In the second… well, there is COVID. But you get the idea.

In the journey we call life, we need traveling mercies all the time.

. . .

Thus far in our study of the Psalms, we’ve seen many different elements and themes. Some psalms lean more toward praise, others toward lament. Some do both at different points in the same psalm, celebrating God’s goodness, faithfulness, mercy, and steadfast love, especially when the psalmist has been rescued from trouble by God. Some psalms are penitential, emphasizing the need for forgiveness. And along the way, we’ve seen certain themes and features crop up repeatedly: the contrast between the ways of righteousness and wickedness; the need for wisdom and a proper fear of God; the desire for a sure inheritance to pass on to future generations; the care and artistry that goes into constructing an acrostic poem.

All of these features can be found in Psalm 25. I like to call it the “everything pizza” of the Psalms. We’ll spend some time unpacking various elements of the psalm.

But for now, I want to show you how humility is its heart.

. . .

Psalm 25 is another acrostic poem, which means that the first verse begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and each successive verse begins with the next letter of the alphabet. It’s a challenging construction to pull off, and sometimes, the poet has to fudge a bit to make it work.

But that’s not the only element of artistry here. When I read the psalm, I see what is known as a chiastic structure, named after the Greek letter chi, which looks like an X.

Bear with me here; it’s important to what follows.

A chiastic poem gives us a sequence of themes in its verses or stanzas, and then gives us the same themes in reverse order. If there were three themes, for example — we’ll call them A, B, and C for now — we’d see them arranged in an A-B-C-C-B-A sequence. There can even a fourth theme, D, in which case the sequence would be A-B-C-D-C-B-A. Poetically, this would have the effect of highlighting D as the thematic center of the poem.

Elsewhere, for example, I’ve argued that 1 Corinthians 13 has that kind of structure, at the center of which is a description of what loving people don’t do to each other (but the Corinthians were doing). Some scholars argue that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount also has a chiastic structure, at the center of which is the Lord’s Prayer.

What does the chiastic structure of Psalm 25 look like?

I would argue that we see three related kinds of prayer in Psalm 25: prayers for help, wisdom, and mercy. The structure is A-B-C-D-C-B-A, or help-wisdom-mercy-D-mercy-wisdom-help. The prayers for help are in verses 1-3 and 15-22; the prayers for wisdom are verses 4-5 and 12-14; the prayers for mercy are verses 6-7 and 11. Line the verses up; read them carefully. You’ll see the A-A, B-B, C-C parallels of theme and language.

But what’s D? What’s at the structural center of the psalm?

Good and upright is the Lord;
    therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
    and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
    for those who keep his covenant and his decrees
. (vss. 8-10, NRSV)

These verses combine the themes of wisdom (instruction, following God’s way) and the need for mercy (“sinners,” here, a reference to the psalmist and not the psalmist’s enemies). But note what’s at the center of the center: an emphasis on humility.

The Hebrew word here does not mean “humble” in the sense of being self-effacing or modest, but in the sense of being humbled by life, being humiliated, downtrodden, or broken.

Part of the lesson of Psalm 25, I think, is that the very heart of an upright prayer is humility. We don’t just pray for traveling mercies to cover our bases when everything is more or less going okay. We recognize our need for mercy 24/7, wherever we go on our journey.

And Jesus, it seems, taught similarly, as we’ll see in the next post.

3 thoughts on “Traveling mercies

  1. Do any of the psalms have rhyme in the Hebrew language? Do any of them have rhythm?

    1. Yes, absolutely. But it’s hard to translate that into English. The closest attempt that I know of where someone tries to at least keep the cadence of the Hebrew overall is Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms…

      1. Thanks. I wasn’t interested in English translations that tried to do the same, I just wondered if poetry to ancient Israel included what is pleasing to my ear. I don’t appreciate even English poetry if it has neither rhyme nor meter: incorporating those PLUS worthy ideas takes real skill. In my opinion.

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