Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 31 is the prayer of a servant of God for God’s protection and deliverance from his enemies. It’s a prayer that Christians can hardly hear without thinking of Jesus Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. After all, it’s not just that the Revised Common Lectionary uses it as the psalm for Passion Sunday. Luke also says Jesus prays verse 5a (“Into your hands I commit my spirit”) as he dies on the cross.
So some Christians may hear at least echoes of Psalm 31 in Jesus’ prayer from the cross. Some scholars even suggest Jesus prayed the entire psalm as he dangled between heaven and earth on that good and terrible Friday. One can imagine Psalm 31 at least ran through his mind as he suffered and died, plotted against by those who’d made themselves his enemies and abandoned by virtually everyone, including his Heavenly Father.
However, a commitment to remaining faithful to Psalm 31 and its original setting discourages preachers and teachers from leaping too quickly from the psalmist’s day across the ages to Golgotha. After all, Jesus is neither the first nor the last servant of God to pray at least the sentiments of this psalm. In fact, those who preach and teach Psalm 31 may benefit from reflecting on and helping hearers to reflect on who else might pray it.
We know enough about the isolating effects of bullying, for example, to imagine that one of its victims might pray something like this. Or consider the victims of spousal or other abuse who sometimes feel isolated from and rejected by their family members and friends. One might also imagine Christians whom others persecute for their faith offering Psalm 31’s prayer.
At the heart of Psalm 31 is the poet’s profession, “In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge” (1). It’s imagery that’s echoed by her references to God as a “rock,” “fortress” and “shelter.” In fact, as James Mays writes, we might even say that Psalm 31 is itself a kind of taking refuge in the Lord.
The psalmist begins the section of that taking refuge on which the Lectionary focuses by pleading for God’s “mercy.” That suggests he recognizes he doesn’t necessarily deserve the deliverance for which he begs. He’s basically asking God to alleviate his misery in a way that’s consistent with God’s gracious, faithful nature.
The pile of words and phrases that the psalmist heaps up to describe her misery is high and grim. The cause of her distress lies not in illness, some other kind of duress or even, as is the case in Psalm 51, the psalmist’s sin. No, it’s other people who are making her life so miserable. She hears “the slander of many.” Terror lies on “every” side of her. People “conspire against” her and “plot to take her life.” The imagery is reminiscent of a city or army that’s surrounded and besieged by an aggressive enemy.
Everywhere the psalmist looks, she sees only enemies and threats.
This distress is draining every part of her life. It’s affecting her physically, causing her eyes to weaken with sorrow and her body to weaken with grief. Her distress is weakening the psalmist and even her very bones. However, her duress is also draining the psalmist emotionally. Her whole life is consumed with her misery and groaning. The picture is of a servant of God who can think of little but the suffering that other people are causing her.
Yet this psalmist must not only suffer deeply; he must also suffer alone. His enemies, their torment and his awful plight have isolated him from those he so desperately needs, his family and friends. The NIV Study Bible suggests such abandonment by friends was a common experience at a time when God seemed to have withdrawn God’s blessing. So, for example, in Psalm 38:11 the poet grieves, “My friends and companions avoid me because of my wounds; my neighbors stay far away.” It’s abandonment God’s suffering servants like Job (“My kinsmen have gone away; my friends have forgotten me”) and Jeremiah (“Your brothers, your own family – even they have betrayed you”) also experienced.
Such isolation is disturbing because, among other things, few prospects are more sobering than that of having to experience distress all by ourselves. When we suffer, most of us long to have people come and stay alongside of us, comforting, encouraging and praying for us. Yet precisely when the psalmist most needs such a supportive community, people avoid her. They treat her like so much worthless trash (“broken pottery”).
Verses 11 and 12 offer preachers and teachers a good opportunity to reflect on their own faithfulness to those who are in misery. They also offer opportunities to challenge ourselves and hearers to stay physically and emotionally close to those who are in distress.
And yet the despair that easily grows out of such misery does not get the last word either in the prayer that is Psalm 31 or the section of it on which the Lectionary focuses. Verse 14 serves as a kind of pivot from despair to hope. With its great “but” it’s as if the psalmist lifts her eyes from her misery and the enemies who surround her to the God who created and cares for her.
Candidly, we live much of our lives within that pivot. Many of God’s children suffer the deep distress of sickness, unemployment, loneliness, despair and other maladies. It’s never easy to lift our eyes and hearts above that misery. Yet we live in hope even in the face of such distress. So the psalmist can profess, “I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hands.”
The image our times being in God’s hands is an especially vivid one that invites Psalm 31’s preachers and teachers’ reflection. As James Mays notes, the psalmist isn’t claiming that the length of her life depends on God. Instead she seems to be affirming that God holds her destiny, the things that shape her life, firmly in the palm of God’s hand. While her enemies have some power over her, while they may have her “in their clutches” as it were, the psalmist insists they can’t hold her, because she belongs to God. In fact, as the Apostle Paul might add, even the psalmist’s mighty enemies can’t rip her out of God’s loving hands.
Melody Knowles suggests that the psalmist believes once God realizes his desperate plight, God will act to right the wrong in her life. After all, the poet prays, “Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I am in distress” (italics added). He can beg God to pay attention to his plight because that’s part of God’s nature. The God to whom he turns is a God of “unfailing love.” His enemies harass the psalmist. His friends have abandoned him. Yet the psalmist can “be strong and take heart.” “The Lord preserves the faithful.”
Jeanette Cooper Hicks tells the story of a young Afghani girl who’d been badly burned when she accidentally triggered an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). For five weeks military doctors tended to her ghastly wounds. While her face was horribly scarred, the young woman showed remarkable courage and resilience as she slowly recovered.
When, however, medical personnel released to her family, it simply couldn’t afford to clean and dress her wounds. As it struggled just to survive, the family lacked both the supplies and skills to help her heal. She became a burden, a liability to her family. As a result, they placed her outside her home where she eventually died.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 29, 2015
Psalm 31:9-16 Commentary