This year, Cairn University rallies around Psalm 25:4 as the One Scripture, One University key verse. It reads, “Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.” To better grasp the meaning of this verse, we must first consider the context of the psalm. The inspired heading of Psalm 25 says, “Of David,” which likely reveals the author of the text. Though it offers no other historical description of the situation that prompted David to write this poem, the psalm itself gives enough clues to piece together what the author was experiencing. A careful reading of the psalm reveals at least three important motifs:
David was suffering humiliating—and perhaps dangerous—persecution from his enemies. He indicates he has multiple enemies (19a) and calls them “wantonly treacherous” (3b), writing that they have “violent hatred” toward him (19b). He begins and ends the psalm with a description of this persecution (2b–3, 15–20). The persecution has caused him to feel “lonely and afflicted” (16b). His persecution may be related to the second motif in the psalm:
David’s sin burdens him and has a certain but undefined relationship to this persecution. David juxtaposes the many references to his trials with just as many references to his sin. He describes his persecution not just as an outward trial but as “troubles of my heart” (17a). He asks the Lord to forget about and forgive all his sins (7a; 18b). He acknowledges that his guilt is “great” (11b).
David does not seek this forgiveness simply to cleanse his own troubled conscience. He wants forgiveness based not on any merit of his own but according to God’s covenant love (7–8) and for the sake of God’s reputation (11a). David bases his search for forgiveness in gospel principles: by God’s grace alone, not on any human merit or work. As a man after God’s own heart, David’s humility and contrition over his sin rise to the surface. This leads into the third major motif of the psalm:
David exalts God because of His holy character. Even a cursory reading of the psalm will illuminate a collage of righteous characteristics of the Lord: God is a God of salvation (5b), mercy (6a), steadfast love (6a, 7b, 10a), goodness (7c), 8a), uprightness (8a), faithfulness (10a), and grace (16a). What a list! This collage highlights David’s rightness in lifting up his soul to God (1) rather than trusting in his own sinful self.
With this context in mind, we consider again David’s words in verse 4: “Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.” What immediately strikes the reader is that David’s language is imperatival. It is the language of command. Both verbs (“make” and “teach”) are written in the imperative form in Hebrew. Generally, it is not advisable to command God to do anything. He commands us—not the other way around!
One cannot even imagine this kind of language with other lesser authority figures in life. “Teach me your syllabus, O professor!” “Teach me the law, O officer!” “Teach me the proper protocol, O drill sergeant!” Such audacity would get us into serious trouble. But this is where the context of the rest of the poem enlightens us. We should not understand David’s command language apart from his humble attitude as demonstrated in the rest of the psalm. David writes the first command in a causative stem in Hebrew (a hiphil): “Cause me to know your ways, O LORD.” This is not David arrogantly commanding God to fill his head with knowledge; rather, this is David contritely recognizing that even the areas of life that seem to be in his control are not. Here we stand in the beautiful junction of divine initiative in our sanctification and human responsibility to grow in knowledge and morality. David was totally reliant on God for not only his salvation, forgiveness, and deliverance from his enemies, but even in the day-to-day spirituality and walk with the Lord.
And what does it mean to “know” the paths and ways of the Lord? This is not simply just an intellectual knowledge of God’s covenant (cf. 14). Surely David already knew the details of God’s covenant(s)! David uses the verb “know” in a more relational manner. To know the covenant is to obey the covenant, to follow it, to love it, to enter into the relationship with the God who initiated it. It is an experiential, active, relational knowledge that David desires the Lord to help him with.
What are the “ways” and the “paths” that David desires God to teach him? Once again, the rest of the psalm unfolds the meaning. Verse 8 tells us that God “instructs sinners in the way.” This is followed soon by verse 10: “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness.” Clearly the road David desires to follow travels opposite those who walk in sin. Verse 9 tells us that God “teaches the humble his way.” Verse 12 lets us know that for those who fear the Lord, God will instruct in the “way” that He should choose. Those who think they know all things and have life figured out cannot be taught the kind of knowledge David seeks here. God desires the truly humble to draw near to Him in all submission and obedience.
Finally, before leaving this psalm, we should pay close attention to the community emphasis. David does not desire these blessings of relationship with God for himself alone. Though David writes many of the psalm’s verses in first-person language (e.g., 1–2, 4–5, 7, etc.), he broadens to many others to indicate his desire to see the entire community of believers know the Lord’s paths and understand His ways (e.g., 3, 8–10, 14, etc.).
Indeed, the psalm ends with a certain shift that has taken many Bible scholars off-guard. Psalm 25 was written in an acrostic format. Each verse begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This alphabetical pattern ends at verse 21, leaving verse 22 to hang on its own. Critical scholars have long tried to excise this verse from the poem or explain it away as a later addition, but the communal nature of the verse fits well within the context: “Redeem Israel, O God, out of all his troubles.” The experience of David represents the experience of his fellow Israelites. Though he personally suffered hardship and sin, he knows this can only reflect the hardship and sin his people feel as well. He wants the Israelites to know God’s ways and paths just as he has learned them. He desires for them to experience the redemptive power of God’s atonement and forgiveness for the humble and contrite sinner.
And isn’t that what we want for the Cairn community as well? As we suffer hardship, as we repent of sin, as we feel the sting of persecution, may we be so privileged as to endure these trials together, lifting one another up through the bond of the gospel. Help us, Lord, to know your ways; teach us your paths!
Dr. Bryan Murawski is associate professor in the School of Divinity. He can be reached at email@example.com.