Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 31, 2016
Psalm 71:1-6 Commentary
Psalm 71 seems to be an elderly person’s plea for God’s help in dealing with his enemies. While some scholars see this as aging King David’s prayer, the identity of the psalm’s author is not essential to the psalm. In fact, James Mays calls its language “plastic.” By that he seems to suggest that the psalmist’s difficulties can be seen as metaphors for any kind of neediness.
After all, among advancing age’s greatest challenges is dealing with declining physical power. So in times of weakness young people can be as vulnerable as the elderly and so, as a result, might pray this prayer. In fact, the Old Testament, as in Hosea 7:9, speaks of the community as “old” in times of decline. Passages like Jeremiah 2:2 also speak of the community as “young” in times of renewal. So those who preach and teach Psalm 71 may want to reflect with worshipers on how it might be heard as a plea for help by all sorts of different vulnerable people.
Psalm 71 intertwines repeated pleas for help with declarations of trust and descriptions of trouble. That alternation of trouble and trust puzzles some biblical scholars. Yet as Joel LeMon notes, the psalm’s structure reveals how through the years the poet has learned to hold in tension the realities of both trouble and trust in God’s faithful deliverance. “In alternating lines,” he writes, “this prayer expresses sure trust, profound anxiety, and in the end, overarching praise: a reasonable – and laudable – end to the golden years.”
Perhaps the heart of Psalm 71 is verse 5’s “You have been my hope, Sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth.” Mays points out that “my hope” is the predicate of the sentence whose subject is the “Sovereign Lord.” So it’s as if the psalmist is insisting that her hope is based solely on the Lord in whom she trusts. Yet Mays also points out that the form of that verse suggests that the Lord is not just an “other” who is “out there” to provide hope and help, but is also very much present to the psalmist in and through the hope God gives her.
This, of course, is critical because the psalmist is under some kind of unnamed distress. He refers to the “hand of the wicked” and “grasp of evil and cruel men” (4). It’s a vivid picture of God’s enemies as reaching out to grab the psalmist. Yet that’s not the full extent of the psalmist’s plight. After the end of the section the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday, the poet also speaks of enemies who not only speak against him, but also wait to kill him (10). The psalmist and God’s enemies even claim that since God has abandoned the poet, they have their chance to seize him.
Those enemies’ claims are ironic in light of the psalmist’s description of her relationship with the Lord. In saying she has “taken refuge” in God, the poet paints a word picture of someone who’s fleeing for her life with her enemies in hot pursuit. When she finally finds a boulder that offers shelter, she wedges herself into a crag to both hide herself and seek protection. The Lord, professes the psalmist, is that “rock of refuge,” (3) a solid, unyielding source of protection from her enemies. This suggests, says LeMon, that the Lord is close enough to the psalmist for her to be able to run to God from protection from her enemies who are so close by.
Among the reasons why the psalmist can place his hope in the Lord is his long-standing, in fact, lifelong relationship with the Lord. The poet professes that God has been his “hope” and “confidence” ever since he was a child. He has relied on the Lord since he was born. In fact, the psalmist even goes so far as to say that God delivered him from his mother’s womb. So in a psalm the poet fills with vivid images, among the most striking is of God as a midwife who assisted with the psalmist’s birth and then was someone on whom the poet could lean when he was still young and weak. In fact, LeMon says that “relied on” (6) is a picture of a child at his mother’s breast or holding his father’s hand. Since as we age we in many ways become increasingly like young children again, even this description of childlike dependence is consistent with the psalmist’s portrayal of himself as old, frail and gray.
Yet Psalm 71:1-6 especially raise the question of just where God is to the poet. Is God near enough to be taken refuge in (1)? Or is God far off, or at least farther away than the wicked who seem close enough to grab the poet (4)? It’s almost as if the poet vacillates between feeling far away from and close to God. Yet perhaps that’s not surprising. Most worshipers sense God’s nearness at some times and distance at others.
Yet no matter how far away or close by God may feel to the psalmist, she feels free to plead with the God to rescue and deliver her or, to paraphrase verse 4, snatch her away from evildoers’ grasp. She, after all, longs to rest in God’s loving hands rather than squirm in her enemies’ calloused hands. Because God has proven himself faithful throughout the poet’s long life, she’s able to beg God to listen to and save her again. The poet also pleads with God to be her rock and refuge to whom she can always turn. After all, she seems confident that all God has to do is give God’s “command” to “save” her and it will happen.
Mays notes that the passage of time is a major theme of Psalm 71. It uses words like “always” (3 & 14) and “ever” (6). Three times the poet refers to “all day long” (8, 15, 24). The poet asserts that God continues to work over time. In verses 20-21, for examples, he also professes “You will restore my life again … you will bring me up again … You will … comfort me again (italics added).” In doing so he paints a picture of someone who has repeatedly trusted and praised God as well as a God who has repeatedly proved himself faithful.
This relationship offers Psalm 71’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to encourage worshipers to develop and maintain a healthy relationship with the Lord right from the beginning of life. It offers an opportunity to encourage parents to teach their children to trust in the Lord when they’re young. Psalm 71 also offers leaders an opportunity to challenge the worshiping community to do all it can to ensure that even its children rely on the Lord as their “hope” and “confidence.”
Those who lead worship services in nursing homes, care facilities or hospitals know the “staying power” of the psalms and familiar hymns. Those who struggle with the affects of advancing age or illness may have forgotten virtually everything. But some still remember the psalms and hymns they learned as children.
The elderly father of friends struggled with dementia. He no longer even recognized his family members. Yet just days before he died, he joined his family in singing “Amazing Grace” with gusto. Those who preach and teach Psalm 71 may want to add their own examples of this “confidence [in God] from youth” (5) that outlives virtually everything else.
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