At first glance, this is not a good choice for a Palm Sunday text. I mean, how do we connect David’s feeling that “there is terror on every side” with Jesus’ experience of being surrounded by an adoring crowd shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David?” But when the lectionary reminds us that this is also Passion Sunday, we can clearly see the connection between Psalm 31 and the experience of Jesus on that Sunday.
Indeed, Psalm 31 can be seen as a cryptic prophecy of all that Jesus would experience during that entire week after Palm Sunday. It doesn’t take much imagination to see in verses 9-15 a brief description of the awful events of Maundy Thursday, as spelled out in great detail in the Gospel reading for today (Luke 22:14-23:56). We know that Jesus used verse 5 as his last word from the cross, but there are scholars who wonder if he didn’t quietly murmur the entire Psalm as he hung there. No wonder all three years of the lectionary cycle have us reading Psalm 31 on this Passion/Palm Sunday.
The appropriateness of this Psalm for this Sunday becomes even more obvious when we probe more deeply into the distress the original author was experiencing. He describes physical distress in verses 9 and 10. In verse 11 and 12 he complains of being attacked by enemies so powerful that all his neighbors treat him with utter contempt and even his friends run away from him. Everyone reacts to him as if he were already dead. And, says verse 13, all of this is the result of a conspiracy against him; “they conspire against me and plot to take my life.”
That is a perfect prediction of what would happen to Jesus on Palm Sunday and in the days following. Even as the echoes of the “hosannas” finally faded from the Temple courts, a conspiracy was being hatched among Jesus’ enemies. “Every day he was teaching in the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him.” (Luke 19:47) Truly, there was “terror on every side.” Jesus understood this terrible time all too well. Indeed, at one point in his Triumphal Entry, Jesus echoed David’s famous words about “times” (verse 15). He wept over Jerusalem’s fate, “because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:44) He knew that the time of his departure had come.
Jesus struggled with that time, even as David did in Psalm 31, and as we do in times of terrible distress. The agonized prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, complete with sweat like drops of blood, revealed the depths of Jesus’ terror at what awaited him. Not only were his enemies against him, not only did his friends flee away into the darkness and his closest friend deny ever knowing him, but even his heavenly Father would forsake him. With besieged (verse 21) believers of all times, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
But in the end, he was able to cry out with his last breath, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” How could Jesus move from feeling so God-forsaken that he can only call his Eternal Father, “my God,” to feeling so confident that he once again calls God, “Father?” How could he entrust himself again into his Father’s hands? How can we move from terror to trust, when “terror is on every side?”
David shows us in verses 14-15. “But I trust in you, O Yahweh; I say, ‘You are my God.’“ Yes, he had moments of despair, but overall this Psalm is a confession of David’s deep faith. The tone is set by verse 1, “In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge….” Yes, his enemies are many and they are strong, but God is “a rock of refuge, a strong fortress.” David is not speaking in general terms there. And he is not speaking for the people of God as a body, as the Psalms so often do. His a deeply personal trust. Note the frequency of the pronouns “my” and “me” throughout the Psalm, and especially in the great confession of faith in verses 14 and 15. “I trust in you, O Yahweh, [because] you are my God.”
Because David was so confident that Yahweh was his own God, he saw all the times of his life, even this terrible time when he was the victim of a plot against his life, as in God’s hands. “My times are in your hands….” That is the phrase here that will really preach. David had come to see his life as a series of times, or chapters. This experience in my life is not the whole story. This is just one chapter in my life story. There were chapters before and there will be chapters after, and all of them are in God’s hands.
One can’t help but recall that famous poem by David’s greatest son, Solomon. I’m thinking here of Ecclesiastes 3, traditionally attributed to Solomon (though not so much by modern scholars). Regardless of that authorial issue, Ecclesiastes 3 surely captures the “times of our lives.” “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven,” a time for birth and death, for planting and uprooting, for killing and healing, for war and for peace.
Note that word “season” in Ecclesiastes 3:1. It has the sense of appointed time; for everything there is a time that has been fixed, set. As we live through the chapters of life’s story, we are keeping appointments made by God. I know. That raises a jumble of questions about the bad times of life and how they can conceivably fit into the good plan of a loving God. But the thought here is not an unfamiliar one for those who believe in God’s sovereignty. David was even blunter in Psalm 139:16. “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”
Picturing “my God” as such a sovereign can be discomforting for some, especially in times of terror. Whether we are comforted and encouraged by David’s assurance about the times of life will depend on how we see the hands that hold those times. David clearly saw God as the great Planner who has made appointments for us, or as the brilliant Author who, together with us, is writing the story of our lives. But that view of God doesn’t help very much if we don’t know the character of this God. David did, because years before, when he was but a lad, he had experienced the love and care of God out there on the Judean hills where he tended his father’s sheep. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want….”
Solomon, on the other hand, didn’t derive much comfort from this notion of life’s seasons, or divine appointments. In fact, he was weary with the ever-changing story of life. It is vanity, he wrote, again and again. Why the difference between David and the author of Ecclesiastes? Was it because Solomon didn’t see the coming Messiah as clearly as David did? Solomon was wise, worldly wise. He had some sense that God controlled human life. But he wasn’t enough in touch with the end of God’s plan, with the fulfillment that would be Jesus.
I know. That may be a bit of an interpretive stretch, but what I’ve just said about David and Solomon is surely true for us. Knowing that life has seasons, that God is in control, that sooner or later it will all make sense, and even be beautiful, is not enough. We will not be filled with joy and excitement. We will not shout “hosanna to the Son of David,” until we see that the hands holding the times of our lives are the hands of Jesus. We will be able to trust God and say, “you are my God,” only when we can see the nail prints in the hands that hold our times.
David prays passionately right after his confession of faith: “deliver me from my enemies…. Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love.” That prayer has already been answered for those who trust in the Son of David. His apparent triumph on Palm Sunday was the beginning of the tragedy of Good Friday. But that tragedy became the beginning of our triumph. The conspiracy to take his life was part of the plan to save ours (cf. Acts 4:28). Because he died with the words of Psalm 31:5 on his lips, we can live with the words of Psalm 31:14 and 15 on ours.
The theme of your sermon on this text might be something like this: “Because my times are in your hands, I commit my life into your hands.” The early church took that approach to life in their times of terror. Think of Stephen’s last words as those stones smashed him to death. “While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’” (Acts 7:59) Writing about times of terror for believers who go through persecution, Peter said, “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful creator and continue to do good.” (I Peter 4:19)
The opening words of A Tale of Two Cities, Dicken’s classic story about the French Revolution, capture the ambiguity of Palm/Passion Sunday and the times of our lives:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness,
It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
Picturing God as a Master Planner or a Great Author reminded me of a story often told by my predecessor in my last church, Rev. Jacob Eppinga. The catechism class was in revolt. They could not believe that God worked all things for the good of his children. “What about Mrs. Brown?” one asked the Reverend. “Why was she widowed with small children?” After the minister had let them all have their say, he waved his hand. “Follow me,” he said.
Puzzled, the 12 members of the class soon found themselves on a wide, busy street. “This is the Avenue of Life,” the pastor said. “Let’s take a walk”– whereupon he led his entourage into a newly built church. The unpainted wood columns, freestanding along the outer aisles, were especially attractive. An interior decorator was bustling about, directing the painters. He wore a button on his lapel that said, “Quiet, Genius at Work.” But suddenly one of the class members let out a cry of dismay. One painter, directed by the decorator, had begun painting the front column an ugly dark color, obliterating the fresh, natural look. What a shame! The minister agreed. They all left the church, mumbling.
Back on the street again, they walked on until they came to a restaurant. A cook in the window was preparing the days “special.” Someone was making a killing on buttons, for he wore the same one sported by Mr. Interior Decorator. But what a mishmash! Meats and vegetables mixed together that just didn’t belong. After registering their corporate negative judgment, the group was led along to another stop many blocks later. There on the corner a man had set up an easel. Again, he had the same button on. But after an hour the group was disillusioned. Obviously he was no Rembrandt. What they saw on the canvas made no sense at all. They left and wandered into a park.
The boys, after running and cavorting on the grass, became very hungry. The Reverend decided to lead them back to the restaurant. On the way they saw the artist putting the finishing touches on his painting. They were amazed—it was simply beautiful! At the restaurant they all ordered the “special.” It was so delicious they all wanted more. Stuffed, they all went back to the church. All the columns were now almost all black. It made each one look so strong and powerful that all revised their previous opinion.
“What have we learned today?” asked the preacher. Without waiting for their answers he gave his own: “I learned,” he said, “that we can never judge the product at any point in the process.” “I also learned,” he added, “that we can never judge the artist at any point in his work. We must always await the final result.” The minister smiled and continued. “God is a cook, and an artist, and an interior decorator and everything else rolled into one.”
They all agreed, but one girl still had a question. “What about those buttons that said, ‘Quiet, Genius at Work?’” “Oh that,” said the minister, “that’s a text from the Psalms. ‘Be still and know that I am God.’”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 20, 2016
Psalm 31:9-16 Commentary