Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 14, 2017

Psalm 31:1-5; 15-16 Commentary

“In this Psalm the panic of the people of God troubled by the persecution of all the heathen, and by the failing of faith throughout the world, is principally seen.”  Those words could have been written by any alert observer of the world-wide religious scene in 2017, as we witness, for example, the cruel persecution of Middle Eastern Christians by ISIS and the alarming loss of membership in North American churches.  But they were, in fact, written by St. Augustine in his commentary on the Psalms.  And the original words of Psalm 31 were written 3000 years ago.  Apparently the world has never been a friend to the faithful.

There is some small comfort in that; “misery loves company.”  But the larger comfort comes from the two dominant images of Psalm 31—the image of refuge and the image of hands.  All preachers are taught that there needs to be one dominant image in a sermon, something to capture the imagination of the listeners.  So you might want to focus on one or the other, but I think they are directly related.  We find our ultimate refuge in the hands of God.  You can build your sermon around that idea/image.

When I read the word “refuge” today, I have an immediate association—“refugee.”  It’s a word that fills the news.  I can see them: huddled in ramshackle refugee camps in Jordan, hanging over the sides of flimsy boats floating in the Mediterranean, stumbling ashore in Greece and streaming across the borders of various European countries, standing in line at immigration stations, detained in United States airports after President Trump’s executive order to send them back if they came from 7 Muslim nations, or settled into Mid-Western cities by caring Christian churches.

Refugees want out of a bad place and into a good place.  That’s what David, the refugee, wanted.  It seems strange to call a king a refugee, but like all true refugees he was hounded by enemies determined to make his life miserable.  Psalm 31 is filled with references to them and their pursuit of David.  They set traps for him (verse 4).  They conspire against him, plotting to take his life (verse 13).  They spread false rumors about him (verse 18).  They lay siege to him, so that he felt as though he was living in a “besieged city” (verse 21).  We don’t know if David is referring to Saul (cf. I Samuel 23 for an episode that fits our text precisely) or Absalom or the Philistines.  All we know for sure is that they put David in a bad place and he is desperately looking for a good place.

Though he fled to many a place to find refuge, he knew that his ultimate refuge lay not in another place, but in The Other person.  So he opens the Psalm with its central thought.  “In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge.”   Pay careful attention to the words here.  It is Yahweh– not some generic god, not the gods of the nations, but the covenant God of Israel– that provides the ultimate refuge to this refugee.

It is not enough to seek solace in religion.  True refuge is to be found only in the true God who revealed himself to Israel and became human in a Jew named Jesus.  While this may seem politically incorrect in a world filled with refugees who adhere to other religions, it is the consistent message of the Bible that “there is salvation in no one else.”  In love for all refugees, we must tell the truth.

In Psalm 31 salvation is pictured as refuge.  The word suggests a protecting enclosure.  Verse 2 shows us a “rock of refuge,” perhaps a huge monolith rising up out of the desert, or perhaps an immense rocky cave leading deep into the earth.  Verse 3 speaks of a fortress, suggesting a man made castle or fort designed to withstand any attack.  The idea is that David’s enemies want to enclose him in a narrow prison that will restrict and perhaps end his life.  He looks to God to enclose him in a safe but “spacious place” (verse 8) that will give him not only security, but also freedom.  Here is a counter cultural thought.  In complete dependence on God we find complete independence from all the forces that would imprison us.  It is in being God’s servants (verse 16) that we are safe and free.

How do we know we can trust God?   We have sought refuge in many other places—in safer neighborhoods, in more secure investments, in better friends and closer family ties, in more faithful and loving churches, in new countries—and we always find that we aren’t ever as safe or free as we thought we would be.  We are disappointed by our places of refuge; that is what David is alluding to when he says in verse 1, “let me never be put to shame.”

So what makes Yahweh/Jesus a reliably safe refuge?  We might say it’s his love, and that is how our reading for today ends.  “Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love.”  The last word there is the ubiquitous Hebrew word chesed, the word that sums up God’s covenantal commitment to bless his people.  It is finally God’s love for us, demonstrated in Jesus Christ, that provides the ultimate refuge in a dangerous world.

But we have all experienced love that failed, that walked away, that betrayed, that didn’t keep its word, that lied.  And that’s why David appeals to other dimensions of God’s love in our reading for today—righteousness (verse 1) and truth (verse 5).   We can trust God’s love because God always does the right thing and because God is always true to his word.  His is not the fleeting smile (verse 16) of a fickle lover, but the steady sunny gaze of a righteous Spouse who keeps his solemn promise even beyond death.  “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing….”

All of this talk about mighty fortresses and bulwarks might seem a bit too architectural and impersonal to be comforting.  This is where the other image in Psalm 31 is helpful.  God is not merely a rock of refuge; God is a person with hands.  We can relate to this.  Our enemies have hands that set traps and erect siege towers.  So does God.

Psalm 31 contains two of the loveliest references to the hands of God anywhere in the Bible.  Indeed, Jesus thought that verse 5 was so apt that he took those words on his lips with his dying breath.  “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”  Those are not the words of someone who has simply given up; they don’t convey fatalistic resignation.  Indeed, the word “commit” was sometimes used to describe a commercial transaction in which one person entrusted something of inestimable value to the hands of another in the hope of one day getting it back.

Thus, the very next word in verse 5 is “redeem me.”  That, of course, is exactly what God did when he raised Jesus from the dead.  And that is exactly what we can expect when we seek refuge in the hands of God– redemption full and free, deliverance from enemies now and resurrection from the last enemy in the end. As Paul put it in II Timothy 1:12, “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.”

That sounds lovely, doesn’t it?  And completely unrealistic in the times in which we live.  These are terrifying times, even for those of us who aren’t refugees from the Middle East or Africa.  Some of us in America are terrified that our new President will impulsively push some button or insult some enemy or write some executive order that will ignite a conflagration that will consume the whole country.  Others are afraid that our new President will not be able to keep his campaign promises to “make America great again,” that his plan will be stymied by his enemies on the left.  We are a divided nation, and other nations are nervous about that.  These are difficult times for everyone everywhere.

That’s why we need to preach verse 15 with great power.  “Our times are in your hands–” not in the hands of Donald Trump, not in the hands of the Democrats, not in the hands of the terrorists or of Putin or another name, but in the hands of the one “whose name is above all names…. (Phil. 2:9)  The hands that were pierced for our sake now rule the world for our sake (cf. Ephesians 1:22).  All the times of our lives and of our world are in his mighty, merciful hands.

We may wonder exactly how the hands of Jesus hold our times.  I mean, terrible things still happen all the time.  What real effect do his hands have?  The doctrine of providence helps us imagine what it means to take refuge in the hands of the God who is Christ.  Here’s how the old Heidelberg Catechism explains providence.  It “is the almighty and ever present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—all things, in fact, come to us not by chance, but from his fatherly hand.”

The ultimate effect of taking refuge in the hands of Christ is explained in those inspired words of Romans 8:28.  “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, for those who have been called according to his purpose.”  Psalm 31:14 puts that very simply.  When we cry out to Jesus Christ, “You are my God,” we can take refuge in the fact that “our times are in your hands.”


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