Human beings, young and old, forget. We forget promises, events, names, and locations. Then, something happens to trigger a long-forgotten memory. It comes back to mind.
How is it with God’s memory? In Psalm 25:6-7, we read, “Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O Lord!” (ESV) Had God forgotten His mercy? Does David need to remind Him of His steadfast love? No. As he says, “they have been from of old.” Reaching back into eternity, God has been practicing mercy and love throughout time. Why, then, is David reminding God of this?
As one studies the Hebrew Old Testament, he is struck with the effective nature of words that relate to thought and feeling. In English, such words tend to be restricted to the mind. In Hebrew, they include the effecting of the thoughts of the mind. Example: love is not a feeling. It is an activity. If love is restricted to the mind or heart, it is not love. It may be infatuation or desire or appreciation or adoration or even self-love (I love you = I want you for my own purposes).
So it is with the word remember, especially when it is applied to God. It is not a mental process alone. It is remembering for a purpose. When God “remembers” something, it is not because He had forgotten. What we observe in the thought processes of the omniscient mind is this: God is calling something specific to His mind in order to act upon it.
Think of it this way: God writes a book. In it are all of His plans for the history of His creation. He places the book on a shelf. At all times, God knows where the book is and what it contains. When the right time comes, He takes the book off the shelf, opens it up to the right chapter, and puts into effect what is written there.
David is asking the Lord to open His “memory-book” to the Mercy chapter and carry out what is written there. God had not forgotten His steadfast love. “Remember Your Mercy” is a call for action. When every requirement has been fulfilled, God re-calls His mercy and immediately acts on it. At times, everything is just right, except that God’s child has not prayed as David did. “You do not have because you do not ask.” (James 4:2) God wants acts of faith. He wants us to “remind” Him of things He already intends to do.
Not only does David want God to remember something; he also wants Him to NOT remember something: “Do not remember my sins.” That is, “Do not call my sins to Your mind for the purpose of taking action.” Acting upon that memory would mean eternal punishment. In the book of Jeremiah, we hear God’s response: “I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (31:34) It’s not so much, “I will forgive and forget,” as it is, “I will not re-call their sins to My mind for the purpose of punishing them.” That purpose was carried out when God beheld His Son on the cross and re-called the sins of the whole world for the purpose of punishing Jesus.
We join David in his prayer: “Do not remember my transgressions. According to Your steadfast love remember me.” Only when the Lord excludes our sins from His active thoughts, only when His memory of us is immersed in His steadfast love, only when He looks on us and remembers the righteousness of Christ—only then are we secure in our salvation.
Now, hear the word of the Lord and be secure: “I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake; And I will not remember your sins.” (Isaiah 43:25) AMEN!
John Pfeiffer is retired from the pastoral and teaching ministry. He is a former president of Immanuel Lutheran College.