Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 25, 2018

Psalm 31:9-16 Commentary

The Revised Common Lectionary has two suggested readings from the Psalms for this Sixth Sunday of Lent, Palm Sunday.  The first, Psalm 118, emphasizes the positive side of this day with lots of verses that anticipate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  The second, Psalm 31:9-16, zeros in on the tragedy of Palm Sunday, the gathering storm of his enemies plotting his death and the suffering that conspiracy caused him.  Since Psalm 118 is also the Psalm reading for Easter Sunday next week, I will write about Psalm 31.

The problem (for me and maybe for the preacher reading this) is that the RCL chooses Psalm 31 for Palm Sunday in every year of the three-year cycle.  So, this will be the third time I have written on this Psalm for Palm Sunday plus a bonus time during the Easter season.  For an intensive look at Psalm 31, see the Sermon Commentary Archives for March 14, 2016, April 9, 2017, and May 14, 2017 on this “Center for Excellence in Preaching” website.

Thus, as I approach Psalm 31 yet again, I want to paraphrase a line from one of my favorite hymns, “How Firm a Foundation.”  Affirming the sufficiency of God’s revelation in Scripture, the hymn writer says, “What more can he say than to you he has said….”  As I put fingers to computer keyboard, I want to say, “What more can I say than to you I have said three times already.”

But trying to follow Emily Dickinson’s famous maxim, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” I will endeavor to give a different slant on the powerful truths of Psalm 31 for Palm Sunday 2018.  In the past articles I joined many other writers in seeing Psalm 31 as an insight into the suffering of Jesus during Holy Week and especially on the cross.  This is a time-honored approach with a sound foundation in the text, particularly verse 5 which Jesus took on his lips as he breathed his last.  Our reading for today can very plausibly be read as a prophecy of Jesus’ increasing sufferings on Palm Sunday.  For much more on that angle on this text, see my previous pieces.

But we can also read this Psalm section as an expression of our suffering as we follow Christ to the cross.  Our Lenten journey is part of our pilgrim’s progress to sanctification and glorification, and the road can be hard.  Even as Christ’s suffering intensified as he came closer to his death, our suffering will increase as we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him.  Psalm 31:9-16 gives voice to our difficulties and to our dependence on God in Christ.

Verses 9 and 10 are a cry for mercy out of deep physical and emotional distress.  We could read these verses as a description of the agony produced by a deep sense of sin, the kind of thing we read in the next Psalm (32), where David’s silence after sin brought him much suffering.  And it is true that the Hebrew of verse 10 of this Psalm says, “my strength fails because of my guilt.”  If we adopt that translation, we can talk about the Lenten disciplines of introspection and repentance.  In bygone eras, Christians used to suffer over sin the way Psalm 31 describes.

That is a possible way to deal with verses 9 and 10, and maybe it is a necessary word for our sin-phobic day.  But the rest of Psalm 31 seems to point in a different direction.  The Psalmist suffers not so much because of his own sin, but because of the enemies who surround him.  The conspiracy of these enemies has driven even the Psalmist’s friends away from him, leaving him alone and broken like a shard of pottery in the gutter (verses 11-13).  In words that resonate with the headlines of 2018, verse 13 says, “there is terror on every side.”

It is easy to see why commentators over the years have seen these verses as a foreshadowing of the Palm Sunday conspiracy against Jesus.  As the crowds shouted “Hosanna,” their leaders were plotting Jesus’ demise.  But it is a bit harder to see verses 11-13 as a description of the suffering of contemporary Christians. Unless we live in the Middle East where Islamist extremism makes life miserable for Christians, most of us don’t experience such overt persecution.

The relative ease and freedom most Christians have today might make my angle on Psalm 31 a bit of a reach, unless we pick up on this business of slander in verse 13.  Maybe it is too much to say that there is an organized “conspiracy” against Christians in which our enemies “plot to take our lives.”  But can anyone doubt that there is increasing pressure on Christians to conform to the rapidly changing standards and mores of our society.  In some circles the words “evangelical Christian” are an epithet hurled at people presumed to be ignorant and bigoted.  While I acknowledge that some of the opprobrium heaped on Christians today may well be earned, at least some of the insults approach slander.

This would be a good place to challenge our people about not conforming to the world.  If we have not been persecuted in any way because of our faith and life, is that because we look and act so much like the secularists around us?   That’s a complicated question and should be explored carefully, but the words of Paul in II Timothy 3:12 should make us think.  “All who desire to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.”  Our observance of Lent should make us reflect on how Christ-like our lives really are.

Our reading for today ends with on a high note of confidence in God, and I’m glad for it.  Lent can be a gloomy time focused on sin and repentance and self-abnegating disciplines.  So, it is good to hear these positive words from the lips of someone who suffered much.  Psalm 31 is filled with talk about God as a refuge, a fortress, a shelter, but there is none of that in the first verses of our reading.  It’s almost as though his physical suffering and emotional distress and his terrorist enemies have killed the faith of the Psalmist.  Sometimes it feels that way to us as we journey on to the cross and the empty tomb and beyond.

But the Psalmist has not lost his faith, and that is a challenge to us.  I love the fact that verse 14 begins with that great gospel word, “but.”  Life is hard, “but I trust in you, O Yahweh.”  He still believes in the covenant God of Israel.  And it is personal for him; “I say, ‘You are my God.’”

Then, picking up on the image of hands which runs through Psalm 31, he gives this classic confession of faith that has bolstered the faith of many suffering believer.  “My times are in your hands….”  What an affirmation for the times of our lives, especially for those of us who are feeling very negative about this time in history or in our own lives.  “Our times,” all of them, past, present, future, good and bad, “are in the hands of Yahweh, our God,” the God who entered our time as a human being to redeem the times of our lives.  Jesus said again and again, “It is not my time yet.”  He knew that the times of his life were safely in the hands of the great “I am what I am,” who is sovereign even over something as mysterious and momentous as time.  We might be intimidated by the space/time continuum of Einstein’s theory of relativity, but Psalm 31 reminds us that the times of our lives are safely in the hands of our God.

The section we are studying today ends with a prayer rooted in the unbreakable covenant of God.  Verse 16a is a plea based on the Levitical benediction given by God in Numbers 6.  Through all the times of life, the servants of God have blessed us with these lovely words, “May Yahweh make his face shine upon you.”  Therefore, believers should pray confidently, “Let your face shine on your servant.”  We can be sure that such a prayer will be answered because of Yahweh’s “unfailing love.”

Those last words of our reading, “save me in your unfailing love,” point us to Christ.  He was God’s unfailing love in action to save us.  At the end of this Lenten musing on Psalm 31, it is important to call suffering and persecuted Christians back to Christ.  There is great comfort in remembering that these words about us are quintessentially about Christ.  We are not alone in our struggles.  Jesus went through everything described in Psalm 31 for us and our salvation.

Here’s how Hebrews 2:17-18 put it: “he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sin of the people.  Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”  Hebrews 4:15 and 16 add, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who has been tempted in every way just as we are—yet was without sin.  Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

Illustration Idea

Here’s a simple illustration of the subtle persecution experienced by Christians today.  I offer it as a thought starter for the section of your sermon on verses 11-13.  My aged mother enjoys a daily meal at a wonderful senior citizen’s center.  She has many friends there and they spend many happy hours together.  But one day, she mentioned Jesus as they were eating.  There was stony silence.  She said, “I could feel the walls go up.  ‘Don’t bring that name in here,’ was the message.”


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