Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 25

Psalm 25

This Psalm is an acrostic, in which, for the most part, each verse or couplet begins with a successive letter of the alphabet; on the acrostic format, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 9-10. As a poetic or literary device, the acrostic seems quite artificial, placing constraints on the poem, which, from our standpoint today at least, are altogether arbitrary, and add little to the artistic merit of the work. However, the device does have practical value, as an aid for the memorization of a relatively long poem, such as we have here. Because of the acrostic arrangement, it seemed best to comment on each letter-couplet (or line) individually. I have, however, also divided the Psalm into two parts—verses 1-11 and 12-22; this week’s study will examine the first part.

This Psalm generally follows a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format, though with some minor irregularity. The superscription identifies the poem simply as “belonging to David”, perhaps intending to indicate his composition of the words, but not (necessarily) the music; the significance of the lack of the word romz+m! (“musical composition”), or comparable term, in the superscriptions remains uncertain.

The Hebrew letters that make up the acrostic are indicated in the translations below; as far as possible, I have attempted to keep the corresponding English of the first word in the first position of the translation.

Verses 1-11

Verse 1 [a]

“To you [;yl#a@], YHWH, I lift up my soul,
<…. > my Mightiest (One).”

Verse 1, as it stands now, consists of a single line, not a couplet; this, along with the fact that the first word of v. 2 is out of place, disrupting the acrostic, has led some commentators to theorize that the surviving text is corrupt. According to this view, yh^l)a$ (“my Mightiest [One]”, i.e. “my God”) is part of a lost second line, parallel with YHWH in line 1. One can only speculate as to how this line might have read. Unfortunately, no help is to be found from the Dead Sea Scrolls, since verse 1 is not preserved in the surviving Psalms MSS.

Verse 2 [b]

“In you [;B=] I trust—let me not feel shame,
do not let my enemies rejoice because of me.”

As in many other Psalms we have examined thus far, we find here the theme of unknown enemies or adversaries who threaten the Psalmist. The verb jf^B* is also frequent in these Psalms; it has the basic meaning of trusting, but also with the specific connotation of finding safety or security (in someone or something). God Himself is the place of safety for the Psalmist. The imperfect forms with the negative particle la^ have jussive/cohortative force—i.e., “may I not…”, “let me not…”, etc. Victory by his enemies would bring the Psalmist shame (vb vWB)—not only for the defeat itself and the “rejoicing/exultation” (vb Jl^u*) of his enemies, but because it would mean that his trust in YHWH was all in vain.

Verse 3 [g]

“Indeed [<G~] all (those) calling (on) you will not feel shame;
but they will feel shame, (the) disloyal (one)s (making) empty (the bond).”

I follow Dahood (p. 155f) in identifying the basic meaning of the verb hw~q* (II) here as “call (on)”, supported by the context of the occurrences in Psalm 40:2; 52:11, etc. The attested meaning “gather” is doubtless related— “call [i.e. bring] together”, similar to the situation with the roots lh^q* and ar^q*. To “call on” YHWH implies faithfulness to him, and devotion/loyalty to the covenant bond. Such a person will never feel shame; by contrast, those who are disloyal (vb dg~B*) to the covenant, who make the bond void or “empty” (<q*yr@), they will experience shame. The root dg~B* can be used to express unfaithfulness in marriage, which is also a fitting symbol for disloyalty to the covenant with YHWH (i.e. religious unfaithfulness); cf. further below on v. 11.

Less certain is Dahood’s suggestion that the initial word <G~ be understood here in its meaning “with the voice, aloud”, as attested in Canaanite. With very few exceptions (Psalm 137:1?), this word in the Old Testament is used in its weaker sense as a particle of addition or emphasis (“also, even”).

Verse 4 [d]

“Your ways [;yk#r*D=], YHWH, make known to me,
your paths teach me (to travel).”

Faithfulness to YHWH is described with the familiar idiom of traveling (walking) a path. This metaphor was especially popular in Wisdom literature, and, as we have noted on numerous occasions, many Psalms, in the form we have them, were influenced by Wisdom traditions.

Verse 5ab [h]

“Make me walk [yn]k@yr!d=h^] in (the way of) your truth and teach me,
for you (are the) Mighty (One) of my salvation.”

The same imagery continues from v. 4, with the cognate verb Er^D*, “walk/tread the path (or way)”, related to Er#D# (“way”).

Verse 5c [w]

“<And> (on) you [;toa<w+>] do I call all the day (long).”

The place of this single line in the acrostic is uncertain. It does not properly begin with the requisite letter, and the single line raises the possibility that something has dropped out of the text (cf. on verse 1 above). Even if we were to grant that the text is corrupt here, any sort of reliable reconstruction would be virtually impossible at this point. In order to preserve the acrostic, I have emended the first word to begin with the w-conjunction (cf. Kraus, p. 318). The same meaning is given here to the verb hw~q* (II) as in v. 3 (cf. above).

Verse 6 [z]

“Remember [rk)z+] your (act)s of compassion, YHWH,
and your (act)s of kindness, that they (are) from (the) distant (past).”

The covenant loyalty of YHWH is rooted in the distant past, and similarly extends into the distant future—the word <l*ou can connote both aspects. Probably the Psalmist has in mind all that God has done for the ancestors of Israel, His many acts of compassion (<j^r^) and kindness (ds#j#). The latter term, in particular, can signify loyalty in a covenant-context. The appeal to what God has done in the past is meant to spur action on behalf of His people (represented by the Psalmist) in the present. This literary-theological device appears frequently in Old Testament narrative, as well as in the poetry.

Verse 7 [j]

“(The) sins of [twaF)h^] my youth, do not remember (them),
(but) according to your kindness, may you remember me—
in response to you (own) goodness, YHWH.”

There are several formal difficulties in this verse. To begin with, the meter is distended in the first line, and the word yu^v*p=W (“and my [act]s of rebellion”) feels like a (secondary) addition; I have tentatively omitted it in the translation above.  If original, the use of uv*P# would indicate a more serious kind of sin—unfaithfulness to the covenant with YHWH, in the active sense of treacherous disloyalty or outright “rebellion” against God. This would suggest that the Psalmist represents a person who had previously been an adherent of Canaanite religion (and/or its syncretistic Israelite forms), with its ‘idolatry’, but then subsequently converted to Yahwism. Cf. below on verse 11.

As it stands, the verse is a tricolon, unusual within the structure of the Psalm, though there is a legitimate (partial) parallelism between the second and third lines. An interesting explanation (cf. Kraus, p. 318) is that the second line (7b) originally completed the couplet in v. 5, but came to be transferred to the current location during the course of transmission. In any case, the plea for YHWH to ignore the sins of a person’s youth, focusing on one’s current faithfulness, is natural in the context of such a prayer.

Verse 8 [f]

“(Indeed,) good and straight (is) YHWH,
(and the one)s sinning He will instruct in the way.”

The Wisdom language of vv. 4-5 (cf. above) continues here, emphasizing that God instructs His people when they sin. This is not the flagrant sin of rebellion or blatant transgression against the covenant, but follows the idea of “sins of youth” from v. 7, connoting especially unintentional error, the sin of negligence or carelessness. However, the use of uv*P# (“rebellion”) in v. 7, if original, would imply a more serious kind of sin—unfaithfulness to YHWH—which requires special forgiveness (cf. below).

The last word of the first line (/K@-lu^) is seemingly out of place, disrupting the rhythm of the couplet, and may well be a secondary addition and corruption of the original text; I have tentatively omitted in the translation above. If retained, it functions as a join between the two lines, translated literally as “upon this”, in conventional English something like “and so…”.

Verse 9 [y]

“He makes (the) oppressed (one)s walk in the judgment,
and He will teach (the) oppressed (to walk) in His way.”

Again, the Wisdom motif of “walking in the way” is used, along with the verb Er^D* (cf. above). The proper nuance of fP*v=m! (“judgment”) must be understood, as it here connotes God’s justice, such as he establishes for the righteous, as opposed to the punishment that comes upon the wicked. The judgments of God are good and holy, and are synonymous with His “way” (Er#D#).

Verse 10 [k]

“All [lK*] (the) paths of YHWH (are) kindness and truth
for (the one)s guarding His binding (agreement) and His repeated (command)s.”

The context of covenant-loyalty, implicit throughout, is now stated clearly here. Faithfulness and devotion to YHWH is defined in terms of loyalty to the binding agreement (tyr!B=). Such loyalty is expressed specifically as fulfilling the “repeated (instruction)s” by YHWH recorded in the Torah. For the one loyal to YHWH, walking in his paths becomes a blessing, as the person experiences the goodness and truth of God Himself.

Verse 11 [l]

“In response to [/u^m^l=] your (own) name, YHWH,
give pardon for my crookedness, for it (is) great (indeed)!”

Human “crookedness” (/ou*) is in contrast to the “straightness” (rv*y`, v. 8) of God. Even for the faithful ones among God’s people there is a measure of “crookedness”, marked by occasional sinning (vv. 7-8). The prayer here is for YHWH to give pardon (vb jl^s*) for such sin, purely on the basis of God’s own name—that is, His essential nature and character as the Mightiest, the Creator, and the One who is always straight and true. The opening word /u^m^l= is a prepositional particle derived, in part, from the root hnu, meaning to answer or give response. I translate it above, rather literally, as “in response to”. God responds with forgiveness, not because of anything the Psalmist has done (or will do), but simply because God’s name—His identity and His own loyalty to the covenant-bond—prompts it.

The declaration of the Psalmist’s “crookedness” as being great (lit. “much”, br^) may simply be an instance of pious exaggeration, a recognition of human imperfection in comparison with the holiness of God; however, it is also possible that something more is involved. In discussing verse 7 (above), I noted that the inclusion of the noun uv^P# (plur. “[act]s of rebellion”), if original, would imply that the Psalmist, at one point (in his “youth”), was an adherent of Canaanite religion—that is, of ‘idolatry’, presumably in the syncretistic forms that were relatively common and widespread throughout Israel. The idiom “great sin” (hl*d)g+ ha*f*j&) has this connotation, especially in the “Golden Calf” episode in Exodus 32 (vv. 21, 30-31; cf. also Gen 20:9; 2 Kings 17:21). The comparable br* uv^P# (“great rebellion”) would express this idea even more forcefully (Psalm 19:14; cf. Dahood, p. 125). The same idiom in Akkadian and Canaanite is used to denote adultery, which itself serves as a fitting metaphor in the Old Testament for unfaithfulness to YHWH.

References marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, Biblischer Kommentar series, 5th edition (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978), published in English translation as Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

May 5: Psalm 51:10-13

Psalm 51:10-13

In the previous note, in this series exploring the references to the Spirit (j^Wr) of God in the Old Testament, we examined the tradition of the Saul-David conflict as narrated in 1 Samuel, and how it is expressed in terms of the spirit of God. As I have discussed, there was a strong principle of charismatic leadership in early Israel—that is to say, the qualified leader of the people was marked by possession of a divine spirit, their giftedness a product of being specially touched by the spirit of God. This entailed the possession of wisdom and understanding (to guide the people), but also the (physical) strength and skill needed to lead the people in times of battle. From Moses to his successor Joshua, through the Judges and the first kings (Saul and David), this principle of divinely-inspired leadership was maintained. Only with the establishment of a hereditary monarchy did the principle gradually fade; even then, the king was seen as holding a special relationship with YHWH, reflected in the repeated phrase that “YHWH was with him (i.e. with the king)”. Rooted in the ancient concept of covenant loyalty, it came to be a central component of the (Judean) royal theology, focused on the Davidic line—beginning with David (1 Sam 16:18; 18:14; 2 Sam 5:10; cf. also 1 Chron 11:9; 2 Chron 1:1) it was emphasized especially with Hezekiah at the time of the Assyrian crisis (2 Kings 18:7), and underlies the significance of the Immanuel title in Isa 7:14; 8:8, 10.

We saw how, when David was chosen (and anointed) to be the next king, the spirit of YHWH “rushed” to him (1 Sam 16:13); correspondingly, the same spirit that had been upon Saul departed from him (16:14ff), and, in that vacuum, an evil spirit from YHWH came to afflict Saul in its place. This same sort of idea is expressed in Psalm 51, which, according to the superscription, was composed by David after his condemnation by the prophet Nathan (2 Sam 12:1-15) for his role in the Bathsheba/Uriah affair (chap. 11). Certainly it is a penitential Psalm, in which the Psalmist asks for forgiveness from YHWH, vowing to repent and amend his ways, making right the wrongs he may have done.

The motif of the spirit (j^Wr) is introduced in verse 10 [12], at the climax of the Psalmist’s plea to be forgiven:

“Create for me a clean heart, O Mightiest,
and make new (the) firm spirit in my inner (part)s”

Here a clean (rohf*) heart is parallel with a firm/fixed (/okn`) spirit. The passive participle /okn` (from the root /WK) denotes the idea of something being firm, sound, secure (i.e. healthy and whole). If the motif in the first line is that of cleansing, in the second line it is healing and renewal. It may be better to translate j^Wr here in the more fundamental sense of “breath” (i.e. life-breath), but the same use of the word in vv. 11-12 [13-14] clearly indicates that a broader meaning is in view as well.

To the extent that the Psalm genuine comes from David—or at least reflects the Israelite/Judean royal theology—there may well be an allusion here to the tradition of charismatic leadership noted above, whereby the king is touched/possessed by a divine spirit. If so, then the king is praying that he would not share in Saul’s fate, when the divine spirit departed from him. Certainly, the language of verse 11 [13] may be rooted in this idea, at least in part:

“Do not throw me out (away) from your face,
and your holy spirit—do not take (it away) from me!”

The sense of the ancient tradition appears to have been generalized, set in a broader religious and ethical context. The relationship between the Psalmist and YHWH is in danger of being broken, expressed here from both sides: (a) being removed from God’s presence (line 1), and (b) God’s presence being removed from him (line 2). This is one of the only occurrences in the Old Testament of the expression “holy spirit”; it must not be understood here from the later Jewish or Christian standpoint, but simply as reflecting a specific quality or aspect of God’s spirit—namely holiness and purity. Literally the expression is “spirit of your holiness” (;v=d=q* j^Wr), the holiness (vd#q), from the root vdq) of El-Yahweh being a key attribute and central tenet of Israelite religion. The regular/frequent impurity of human beings was fundamentally incompatible with the purity of YHWH; this was realized both in the ritual and ethical sphere of Israelite religious culture, and had to be dealt with accordingly. The Psalmist’s sin threatened the removal of God’s holy presence (and his removal from that presence).

The thoughts expressed in the two couplets of vv. 10-11 [12-13] are combined together, in summary form, within the third (v. 12 [14]), and it brings the Psalmist’s petition to a close:

“Return to me a rejoicing (in) your salvation,
and may you lay hold of me (with) a stimulating spirit!”

The term uv^y#, typically translated “salvation”, in the royal theological context of the Psalms often reflects the idea of the covenant bond between the ruler (as vassal) and YHWH (as Sovereign). This bond means that YHWH is obliged to bring help and assistance to the ruler in his time of need, unless the terms of the agreement have been violated. While such language could easily be broadened to apply to God’s people in a more general sense, the royal/Davidic background in such Psalms needs to be recognized. The breaking of the bond results in the Psalmist being unable to rejoice in the salvation that YHWH, his Sovereign, can provide; he prays that this would be “returned” to him.

The precise meaning of the final line is difficult to determine. The verb Em^s* has the basic meaning “lay (upon)” or “lean (upon)”, often in the specific (ritual) context of the laying on of hands. The prayer is that YHWH will again lay His ‘hands’ upon the Psalmist, by way of a blessing that will restore the covenant bond. Here the place of the noun j^Wr (“spirit”) is ambiguous—is it a spirit from God that comes upon the Psalmist by this “laying on” (par with v. 11), or does it refer to the effect of this in/on the spirit within the Psalmist (par with v. 10)? The word hb*yd!n+ is a bit difficult to translate (it can be a noun or adjective), the root bdn fundamentally indicating an impulse—i.e., something that prompts a person to act, etc. What is being described? There are two possibilities:

    • The spirit of YHWH stimulates the Psalmist to repentance and a newfound loyalty, etc
    • By laying hold of him, YHWH stimulates the Psalmist’s spirit so that, from now on, he will be inclined to act in faithful/loyal manner

Both are valid ways of reading the line, but probably the emphasis is more on the action of God’s spirit.

In the concluding notes of this series, we will explore further the expression “holy spirit” as it came to be used subsequently in Jewish literature and tradition. However, it is first necessary to continue our Old Testament study with a survey of additional references to the j^Wr of God in the Psalms and Prophets. A key aspect of this will focus again on the specific association between the Spirit and prophetic inspiration, and how this developed over time.

“…Spirit and Life”: 1 John 5:16-18

1 John 5:16-18

“If any (one) should see his brother sinning sin (that is) not toward death [mh\ pro\$ qa/naton], he will ask and (God) will give him life—(that is,) the (one)s not sinning toward death. There is sin toward death, and about that (sin) I do not say that he should make (such a) request.”

Verses 16-18 are among the most notoriously difficult in all the New Testament to interpret. They have challenged commentators and theologians for centuries. We must presume that the language and point of reference would have been more readily understandable to the original audience than for us today. At this distance removed, it is virtually impossible to establish the context and background of the passage with any certainty. There are two points which have been especially difficult to understand:

    1. The statement in verse 18, to the effect that believers (those “born of God”) do not sin, when elsewhere it is recognized that believers do sin (v. 16, etc)
    2. The distinction between sin that is “toward death [pro\$ qa/naton]” and sin that is not so.

The latter is especially significant since the reference to “death” (qa/nato$) would seem to relate to the giving of “life” (zwh/) mentioned in verse 16. However, since both points above are important for an understanding of the statement(s) in verse 16, it is necessary to discuss each of them in some detail. It will be helpful, I think, to begin with first point—the statement in verse 18.

1 John 5:18

“We have seen [i.e. known] that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin [ou)x a(marta/nei]…”

I have intentionally stopped after the first clause, since it is this particular statement which has proven difficult to interpret, from a theological standpoint. First, the perfect participle (with the article)—o( gegennhme/no$, “the one having come to be born” (i.e. born “…out of God“)—is used by the author as a descriptive title for believers (also in 3:9). The verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”) is used repeatedly this way (2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4; cf. also Jn 1:13; 3:3-8). This statement essentially repeats the earlier declarations in 3:9

“Every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not do/make sin [i.e. act sinfully]…”

and also in the prior v. 6:

“Every (one) remaining in him does not sin…”

At the same time, it is quite clear that believers in Christ do sin (1:8-10; 2:1-2, etc). How is this evidence to be reconciled? There are several possibilities:

    • The statements in 3:9 & 5:18 reflect prescriptive, rather than descriptive, language—i.e., expressing how things ought to be, the ideal, rather than how things actually are.
    • The present tense of the verb a(marta/nw in 3:6-9 and 5:18 specifically indicates a practice of sinning—i.e. continual or habitual. According to this interpretation, true believers do sin, but do not continually sin.
    • The “sinlessness” of believers expressed in 3:6, 9 and 5:18 reflects the essential reality of our union with Christ, but not necessarily the daily life and practice of practice of believers, which entails the regular dynamic of both sin and forgiveness.

There are, perhaps, elements of truth in all three of these interpretive approaches. The first option is the simplest, but, in my view, is something of an artificial (modern) distinction. Probably the majority of commentators (and translators) adopt the second option, but, again, there is little clear indication of such a distinction in the text itself. The use of the present tense of a(marta/nw scarcely need be limited to the idea of repeated or continual sin; much more likely is a simple distinction between past sins (cleansed upon coming to faith in Jesus) and present sins committed during the time now that one is a believer.

In my view, the third option above best fits the thought (and theology) of the letter, and is likely to be closest to the mark. Note, in particular, the way that the “sinlessness” is worded and qualified:

    • “the one having come to be born of God…”
    • “the one remaining/abiding in him…”

To understand this better, let us examine the context of each of the statements in 3:6, 9, and 5:18.

1 Jn 3:6. The statement is: “Every one remaining in him does not sin”. This is contrasted with the parallel statement in v. 6b: “every one sinning has not looked upon [i.e. seen] him and has not known him”. The combination of these statements would suggest that, if a believer commits sin, then he/she has not seen/known Christ, and (thus) is not a true believer. However, that is not quite the logic of the verse; consider the structure of it, outlined as follows:

    • The one remaining in Christ [i.e. the believer]
      —does not sin [i.e. characteristic of the believer]
      —the one who does sin (“sinning”) [i.e. characteristic of the unbeliever]
    • The one who has not seen/known Christ [i.e. the non-believer]

The thrust of the statement is the kind of dualistic contrast so common in Johannine thought and expression—seeing/not-seeing, knowing/not-knowing, believer/non-believer. How, then, should we regard the similar contrast between not-sinning and sinning? This is made more clear when we look at the prior statements in vv. 3-5, working backward:

    • “in him [i.e. Jesus Christ] there is not (any) sin” (v. 5b)
      —this is a fundamental statement of Jesus’ sinlessness; the “sinlessness” of believers must be understood first, and primarily, through this.
    • “and you have seen/known that that (one) [i.e. Jesus] was made to shine forth [i.e. revealed], (so) that he might take up [i.e. take away] sin” (v. 5a)
      —a central aspect of Jesus’ mission and work on earth, esp. his sacrificial death, was to “take away” sin (cf. Jn 1:29, etc); it is through this work of Jesus that we (believers) are cleansed from sin (1 Jn 1:7).
    • “The one doing sin does/acts without law [a)nomi/a], and sin is (being/acting) without law [a)nomi/a]” (v. 4)
      —on the surface, this seems simply to reflect the traditional principle that “sin” entails the violation of religious and ethical standards (“law”, “commandments”); however, the Gospel and Letters of John understand and interpret the “commandments” (e)ntolai/) for believers in a distinctive way (cf. especially the two-fold ‘commandment’ in 1 Jn 3:23-24). If “sin” is defined as being “without the commandments” then, here in the letter, this essentially means being without (real) trust in Jesus and without (true) love.
    • “Every one holding this hope upon him makes himself pure, even as that one [i.e. Jesus] is pure.” (v. 3)
      —this statement focuses more on the attitude and behavior of believers, with the expression “makes himself pure” (a(gni/zei e(auto\n); it functions as an exhortation for believers to live and act according to their true identity (in Christ). Paul does much the same thing when he exhorts his readers, e.g., “If we live in/by the Spirit, we should also ‘walk in line’ in/by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25).
    • “Loved (one)s, (even) now we are offspring [i.e. children] of God, but it is not yet made to shine forth [i.e. revealed] what we will be…” (v. 2)
      —this declaration is vital to an understanding of the author’s perspective here in the letter; it reflects the two aspects of a “realized” and “future” eschatology, applying it to our identity as believers (“children of God”). Already now, in the present, we are “born of God”, yet this will not be experienced fully for us until the end time. Thus, while we partake of the sinlessness of Christ, we do not act sinlessly at every point of our lives on earth.

1 Jn 3:9. At first glance, throughout verses 2-6ff, the author seems to be speaking generally about “sin”, and it is easy to insert a conventional religious and ethical sense of the word, as though he were simply summarizing traditional immorality such as we see in the Pauline “vice lists” (Rom 1:29-31; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21, etc). Yet, a careful reading of the letter itself indicates that this really is not what he is describing. Indeed, apart from 2:15-17 and (possibly) 5:21, there is very little evidence of traditional ethical teaching in the letter. Which is not to say that the Johannine congregations were careless about such things; however, the emphasis in the letter is specifically on the two-fold “commandment” for believers stated in 3:23-24, etc—of (proper) trust in Jesus and (true) love for fellow believers. We must keep in mind the rhetorical background of the letter, which is directed against the would-be believers (“antichrists”) who have separated from the Johannine congregations. The author views them as breaking both of these “commandments”, and are thus sinning in a fundamental way that the remainder of the faithful are not.

In verse 10, the author begins transitioning his discussion toward the two-fold commandment, beginning with the duty to love one another, according to Jesus’ own example (Jn 13:34-35, etc). This is prefaced by the dualistic contrast of righteousness/sin and God vs. Devil, sharpening and intensifying the line of rhetoric. These characterize true believers, against those who are not (e.g. the Johannine separatists):

    • “the one doing justice/righteousness” vs. “the one doing sin” (vv. 7-8a)
    • “(the works of God)” vs. “the works of the Devil” (v. 8b)
    • “the one born out of God” vs. “the one (born) out of the Devil” (vv. 8a, 9a)

It is thus not merely a question of committing (or not committing) particular sins, but of attributes and qualities characterizing two different “groups” of human beings (and supposed Christians). Again, it is the purity and sinlessness of Jesus himself, the Son of God, by which we come to be made pure and ‘without sin’—i.e. “born of God”, “offspring of God”. The essence and character of this fundamental identity is clearly expressed in verse 7:

“the (one) doing justice is just, even as that (one) [i.e. Jesus] is just”

Doing justice does not make a person just; quite the reverse—the believer’s “just-ness” in Christ results in his/her acting justly. Note how this is expressed in verse 9; it will be useful to look at each component in the verse:

    • “Every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not do sin”
      • “(in) that [i.e. because] His seed remains in him”
      • “and he is not able to sin”
        • “(in) that [i.e. because] he has come to be (born) out of God”

This is one of the most elliptical statements in the letter:

    • “the one having come to be born out of God”
      —”he does not sin”
      ——”His seed remains in him”
      —”he is not able to sin”
    • “he has come to be born out of God”

Central to the “sinlessness” of believers is the essential reality that God’s seed (spe/rma) remains/abides [me/nei] in us. We may fairly interpret this “seed” as the living/abiding Spirit of His Son (which is also His own Spirit). Just as there is no sin in the Son, even so there is no sin abiding/remaining in us.

This brings us again to the statement in 1 Jn 5:18; let us now examine the verse in its entirety:

“We have seen that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin, but (rather) the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him, and the evil does not attach (itself) to him.”

The difficulty of the wording (and meaning) is reflected by several key variant readings, which I discussed briefly in an earlier Saturday Series study. The main question is whether the second occurrence of the verb genna/w (aorist pass. participle, gennhqei/$) refers to Jesus, as the Son of God, or the believer as child/offspring of God. Commentators and textual critics are divided on this question, which involves three different major variants, two involving the object pronoun, and one involving the form of the verb:

    • o( gennhqei\$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= au)to/n
      “the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him”
    • o( gennhqei\$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= e(auto/n
      “the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) himself”
    • o( ge/nnhsi$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= au)to/n
      “the coming to be (born) [i.e. birth] out of God keeps watch (over) him”

It would seem that the first reading best explains the rise of the other two, and, in my view, is more likely to be original. Though the verb genna/w, used in a symbolic or spiritual sense, otherwise always applies to the believer rather than Jesus (Jn 18:37 refers more properly to his physical/human birth), the emphasis in the letter on Jesus on the Son of God, and on that as the basis for our being “born of God”/”offspring of God”, makes it highly likely that the author is playing on such a dual-meaning here. This would also seem to be confirmed by 3:9 (cf. above), which speaks of God’s “seed” (i.e. son/offspring) abiding in the believer. It is this seed, this “offspring” born of God, which guards believers, keeping and protecting us from evil.

This detailed study should, I think, shed some light on the author’s thought and mode of expression. Still, it does not entirely explain the statement at the beginning of verse 18. A clearer understanding requires that we now turn to the second interpretive difficulty highlighted above—namely, the meaning of the expression “sin(ning) toward death” in vv. 16-18. This will be discussed in the next note.

March 12: Matt 6:12; Luke 11:4a, continued

Matthew 6:12; Luke 11:4a (continued)

In the previous note, we discussed the petition in the Lord’s Prayer for the forgiveness (lit. release, sending away) of debto)fei/lhma, something which one owes and ought to pay back (vb. o)fei/lw). The Didache (8:2) version of the Prayer uses the singular, but Matthew’s version has the plural: “may you release for us our (deb)ts (that we) owe [o)feilh/mata]”. The corresponding Hebrew and Aramaic root would presumably be bwj, the noun boj referring to an obligation or debt. When used in a religious context, relating to sin, it would mean something like “guilt”. This religious usage is largely absent from the o)feil– word group in Greek, which may explain why the Lukan version of the Prayer reads “our sins [ta\$ a(marti/a$ h(mw=n]” instead of “our debts“.

Taking the Matthean version of this petition, on its own, the person to whom the debts are owed is not immediately clear. However, based the context in the Sermon on the Mount (especially vv. 14-15 which follow) it is apparent that these are things we owe to God, a point the Lukan version makes explicit by referring to sins. But what are these “debts” precisely?

In ancient Israel, sin was closely connected with the holiness expected of the people (Lev 19:2, etc), along with the various religious obligations which that entailed. These obligations are documented and described throughout the Old Testament Torah, the chief ones being related to the ritual purity required for contact with the sanctuary and sacred precincts of the Tabernacle/Temple. There were, of course, various sins and crimes (and other failings) which might be committed at the social level, but a carefully study of the Torah shows that even these are closely tied to the ritual holiness that defined the Israelite religious identity.

Jesus, following a line of teaching begun by the Prophets, turns this around—making the social-ethical aspect of religion take priority over the ritual dimenion. This is a thematic emphasis expressed, for example, throughout the Sermon on the Mount (see esp. the instruction in Matt 5:23-24), and it is certainly present here in this petition of the Prayer. Consider that Jesus might have said “may you release for us our debts we owe, even as we released the debts owed to us”; however, instead, the second half of the petition personalizes the matter, in terms of social relationships—not the debt owed (o)fei/lhma) but the person who owes the debt (o)feile/th$). The Lukan version makes the same point with a verbal participle: “…for (the one) owing [o)fei/lonti] to us”. Indeed, in Luke this is turned into a more inclusive, universal principle: “…for every [panti] (one) owing to us”.

As discussed in the prior note, a precise interpretation of this part of the Prayer depends on how one resolves the (text-)critical question, both in terms of the differences between the Matthean and Lukan versions, and the form of the verb a)fi/hmi (“send away, release”) in the second half of the petition. If the reading a)fh/kamen (“we [have] released”) is correct, then it implies that having our debts released by God requires that we (first) be willing to forgive the things owed to us by others. This condition is expressed a bit differently in the two versions:

    • Matt: “…even as [w($ kai\] we (also have) released our (deb)tors owing (to us)” — i.e., this is something we have done.
    • Luke: “…for we (our)selves also release every (one) owing to us” — i.e., this is something we regularly do (and are willing to do).

Clearly there is a principal of reciprocity involved, and it is conditional—only if we are willing to release (i.e. cancel) the things owed to us can we expect God to release the things we owe. Here, again, debt is understood, not in the sense of money or ordinary social obligations (though that can be involved), but in the ethical and moral sense. The “debts” owed to us (by other people) encompass any wrong or injustice toward us which might come about during the course of our life on earth, whether intentional or unintentional, in simple matters or major violations. We must be willing to “wipe away” and cancel the obligation such persons have to correct the wrong on our behalf. This also extends to any injustice or disruption which affects the relationship between two people. Jesus’ teaching in this regard is surprisingly practical, as we see in examples in the Sermon on the Mount such as 5:23-26. At the same time, the ethic required by Jesus of his followers cuts against the grain of the natural human desire for justice and retribution, especially in the command to love and pray for one’s enemies, refusing to strike back at one who mistreats us (5:38-47). Even if a person wrongs us many times, we must be willing to forgive (cf. below).

The conditional aspect of the petition—we are in a position to ask for forgiveness from God only when we forgive others—can make some Christians uncomfortable, as it suggests a requirement (something we must do) before we are forgiven by God. Yet, this is clearly a significant part of Jesus’ teaching; the saying which follows the Prayer in Matt 6:14-15 leaves no doubt of the condition required:

“For if you would release for (other) men their (moment)s of falling alongside, (so) also will your heavenly Father release (them) for you; but if you do not release (them) for (other) men, your heavenly Father will not release your (moment)s of falling alongside (either).”

The word para/ptwma, usually translated (somewhat inaccurately) as “trespass”, is here rendered more literally “(moment) of falling alongside”; in English idiom we might say “falling over the line”, i.e. any religious or moral failing, usually (but not always) unintentional. Mark 11:25 has a simpler saying which expresses much the same idea, and in language very much reminiscent of the traditions in the Sermon on the Mount:

“when you stand speaking out toward (God) [i.e. praying], you must release (it) [i.e. forgive] if you hold anything against anyone, (so) that also your Father the (One) in the heavens might release for you your (own moment)s of falling alongside”

Luke 6:37 has an even simpler and more concise saying (utilizing the verb a)polu/w):

“you must loose (others) from (their bond/debt), and you will be loosed from (yours)” [cp. Matt 7:1f].

This basic instruction occurs a number of times throughout the Gospel tradition, including several parables where Jesus employs the concrete metaphor of “debt” (using the verb o)fei/lw), as he does in the Lord’s Prayer:

1. The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt 18:21-35). This parable is introduced by the saying of Jesus in v. 22 (preceded by a question by Peter, v. 21):

“Lord, how many (times) shall my brother sin unto [i.e. against] me and I (still) release [i.e. forgive] it for him? until seven (times)?”
Jesus’ answer:
“I do not say to you ‘until seven (times)’, but ‘until seventy (times) seven'” [compare Lk 17:3-4]

In the parable itself, the reciprocal (and conditional) principle in Matt 6:12, 14-15 is illustrated most vividly, in terms of the monetary debt owed by a person. The much larger amount owed by the unforgiving servant to his master, of course, represents the “debt” a person owes to God.

2. The Parable of the “Dishonest Manager” (Luke 16:1-9). This is another parable involving a servant who collects money that is owed—this time it is done on behalf of his master. An interpretation of this parable has proven difficult for commentators, but the thrust of the illustration appears to be that the manager of an estate, who is being relieved of his position, decides, in the course of his final duties, to help his own future interests by deducting a certain amount from the bill owed by the servants (tenant farmers) on the estate. Most likely, the amount he deducts represents his own commission (he is presumably not stealing from what is owed to his master), and, as a result, lessens the burden for the other servants. This is practical advice, similar to the example given in Matt 5:25-26, but it underlies a spiritual principle: one’s relationship with God is based on, and should be reflected by, our wise efforts to make things right with our fellow human beings, acting fairly and mercifully, etc. The reciprocity of Matt 6:12, 14-15 is expressed again in the sayings which follow the parable (vv. 10-12).

3. The Parable on Forgiveness, part of the anointing scene in Luke 7:36-50 (vv. 41-47). Here a different sort of reciprocal principle is expressed, one which is doubtless more familiar (and appealing) to Christians today: our religious (and ethical) behavior should reflect our gratitude to God for his forgiving us our debt (i.e. sins).

All three of these parables use the verb o)fei/lw to illustrate the idea of sin and injustice, etc, as “debt”, something we owe both to God and to others, and the requirement that we “send it way”, by forgiving it (for others) and making things right again. It is important to keep this concept in mind as we consider the Prayer within the context of Jesus’ wider teaching. In the next note, we will turn to the subsequent petition(s) to see how Jesus further instructs his followers to respond to sin and evil in the world.

These notes on the Lord’s Prayer commemorate the start of the new feature “Monday Notes on Prayer” on this site.

March 11: Matt 6:12; Luke 11:4a

Matthew 6:12; Luke 11:4a

The next petition of the Lord’s Prayer, and the 2nd of the second part of the Prayer, has traditionally been translated in terms of forgiveness. While this is generally correct, it obscures the actual Greek vocabulary that is used. There are again certain differences between the Matthean and Lukan versions, but the basic form of the petition is the same; it begins as follows:

kai\ a&fe$ h(mi=n
“and may you release for us…”

The conjunctive particle (kai, “and”) indicates the close connection, in thought and form, with the previous petition, though this may not be immediately apparent to the average reader. This connective sequence for the petitions will be discussed as we proceed. The verb a)fi/hmi, usually translated “forgive” is more accurately rendered as “release”, though a more literal rendering would actually be “set/send (away) from”. In the New Testament, it is used regularly (along with the related noun a&fesi$) in connection with the sins of a person (or people), i.e. “releasing” sin, in the sense of sending it away. The ancient Day of Atonement ritual gives a concrete symbol for this in the “scapegoat” that is sent away into the wilderness carrying the sins of the people (Lev 16:20-22). Of the many New Testament examples where the verb and noun are used in this sense (for release of sins), cf. Mark 1:4; 2:9-10 par; 3:28-29 par; 11:25; Matt 18:35; 26:28; Luke 1:77; 7:47-48; 17:3-4; Acts 2:38; 5:31; Col 1:14; James 5:15; 1 John 1:9, etc. The opposite of releasing sin is to hold it, using a verb such as e&xw or krate/w, as in the famous formula in John 20:23 (cp. Matt 16:18):

“Anyone (for) whom you would release th(eir) sins, they have been released for them, and anyone (for) whom you would hold (them) firm, they have been held firm.”

Indeed, it is the release of sins that is expressed in the Lukan form of the petition: kai\ a&fe$ h(mi=n ta\$ a(marti/a$ h(mw=n, “and may you release for us our sins“. In Matthew’s version, however, the wording is different:

kai\ a&fe$ h(mi=n ta\ o)feilh/mata h(mw=n
“and may you release for us our (deb)ts (we) owe

The Didache (8:2) follows Matthew’s version, but uses the singular noun instead of the plural: “…our (deb)t (we) owe [th\n o)feilh/n h(mw=n]”. The difference here between Matthew and Luke is just part of the textual complication related to the form of this petition. First, we must note that Matthew is consistent in the wording used in both parts of the petition:

“and may you release [a&fe$] for us our (deb)ts (that we) owe [o)feilh/mata], even as we (have) released [a)fh/kamen] our (deb)tors (who) owe [o)feile/th$ pl] (to us)”

In Luke, however, the wording is different, resulting in a (partially) mixed metaphor:

“and may you release [a&fe$] for us our sins [a(marti/a$], for we (our)selves also release [a)fi/omen] every (one) owing [o)fei/lonti] (anything) to us”

How are we to account for these differences? Some commentators would chalk them up to different ways that the original (Aramaic) words of Jesus were rendered into Greek. This is certainly possible. In particular, it is likely that the Lukan form attempts to explain a (Semitic) concept of sin as (religious) debt which might have seemed strange to Greek hearers and readers. In this regard, Matthew’s version is almost certainly closer to the original, the Aramaic of which might have been something like (cf. Fitzmyer, p. 901):

an`y+b^oj Hn`l^ qb%v=W
an`y+b^Y`j^l= an`q=b^v= yd]K=
ûš®buq lán¹h µôbayn¹°
k§dî š§báqn¹° l§µayy¹bayn¹°

Fitzmyer (p. 906) also cites an interesting example (in Aramaic) from the Qumran texts (4Q534, col. ii. 17) in which “sin” “debt” (i.e. guilt) are juxtaposed: “its sin and its debt” ([htb]wjw hafj).

In any case, the Lukan ‘modifications’ clarify the text in several important ways:

    • That the debts a person owes to God are to be understood in terms of sin, as opposed to money or other ‘ordinary’ debt.
    • Retaining the specific idea of debt in the second half of the petition implies that what a person must forgive for others includes things like ‘ordinary’ debt—i.e., wrongs and injustices brought about during the course of daily life and business.
    • The final pronoun makes clear that the wrongs to be forgiven are things done specifically to us (believers).
    • The use of the adjective pa=$ (“every [one]”) also gives to the petition a universal context and setting which otherwise has to be inferred in the Matthean version.

The meaning of this petition, both within the Prayer and the wider Gospel context, will be discussed in more detail in the next daily note. However, before continuing it is worth pointing out a couple of other textual variants which can affect how the passage is interpreted. In Matthew’s version, for the second occurrence of the verb a)fi/hmi

    • The majority of manuscripts have the present tense, a)fi/emen/a)fi/omen, “even as we release…”.
    • The aorist form (a)fh/kamen), adopted above, is read by a smaller (but diverse) range of witnesses: a* B Z 1 22 124mg 1365 1582 vulgatemss, and some Syriac and Coptic manuscripts (Metzger, p. 13).

These readings each give a slightly different nuance to the petition. The use of the present tense suggests that the disciples are to follow God’s example—as He has cancelled our debts, so we will forgive the debts of others. The aorist implies a different sort of reciprocal principle, such as Jesus emphasizes in vv. 14-15 (and elsewhere in his teaching): if we want God to forgive us, we must (first) forgive any wrongs others have done to us. Both external evidence, and the context of the Sermon on the Mount, argue in favor of the aorist form. The Didache has the present (a)fi/emen), which also appears in some manuscripts of Luke (instead of a)fi/omen).

References marked “Fitzmyer” above (and throughout this series) are to  the Commentary on Luke by Joseph A. Fitzmyer in the Anchor Bible [AB] series, Vol. 28/A, 1985. References marked “Metzger” are to the UBS/Metzger Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd edition).

These notes on the Lord’s Prayer commemorate the start of the new feature “Monday Notes on Prayer” on this site.