< May 22, 2011 >

Commentary on Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

 

The last words that Jesus spoke from the cross, according to Luke, were taken from this psalm:

"Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, 'Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.' Having said this, he breathed his last." (Luke 23:46; see Psalm 31:5).  The last words of Stephen before he died as a martyr were also from this psalm, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." (Acts 7:59).

My Times Are In Your Hand

The fact that Psalm 31contains one of the "seven last words from the cross" is reason enough to consider it for preaching. It is in fact possible that Jesus recited the entire psalm or at least longer parts of it, with Luke reporting only this verse. 

The psalm is thus associated with the death of Jesus and of Stephen. A portion of it (verses 9-16) is assigned by the lectionary to Passion Sunday (also known as Palm Sunday) in all three series, A,B, and C, with the focus on verse 5 as the antiphon. Because of these associations, the psalm has long been used at the time of death. 

Psalm 31, however, also has something important to say about the life of the believer.  Our approach here will be to consider the psalm as a whole, as the basis for a sermon. The theme is that of trusting in the Lord, no matter what.

We may note the way the word or concept of "hand" occurs in the psalm.  In the words prayed by Jesus from the cross the psalmist addresses God, "Into your hand I commit my spirit" (verse 5). Later on, the psalmist again addresses God, entrusting his life to the Lord, "My times are in your hand" (verse 15). In verse 20 the psalmist declares that the Lord holds the Lord's people safe, presumably holding them in his hands (verse 20). Twice the psalmist refers to the hand of the enemy (verses 8, 15b).  In verse 15a the psalmist puts his life in the hand of the Lord. Finally, verse 20 declares that the Lord shelters and "holds" his people, presumably in his hands.

Psalm 31 as a Lament

The psalm may be classified as an individual lament, exhibiting the elements typical of that genre. Taking Psalm 13 as an example, we identify those elements as:

complaint in you, I and they forms (13:1-2)
call for help (verses 3-4);
affirmation of trust (verse 5);
vow to praise God (verse 6).

In Psalm 31 these elements are scattered about; they will be identified in what follows. 

Into Your Hand (31:1-8)

Psalm 2:12 promises happiness to those who "take refuge" (the same Hebrew word as found in 31:1) in the Lord; Psalm 31 begins with the one praying claiming that promise. The imperatives in this call for help section pile up: "do not let...deliver...Incline...rescue...Be a rock of refuge...a strong fortress" (verses 1-3).

After these urgent requests, the writer expresses trust in God with the words Jesus quoted from the cross: "Into your hand I commit my spirit." That trust is based on previous experience with the Lord, who has redeemed the one praying (verses 8,22) and who has proved faithful (verse 3)

The affirmation of trust theme continues in verses 6-8. After putting himself in the Lord's hands, the psalmist recalls that the Lord has delivered him from the hand of enemies (verse 8). A "broad place" means a place of safety and security.  The psalmist has put his life in the hand of One who had proved to be a rock, a fortress, a trusted guide and that One has proved to be faithful.

In Your Hand (31:9-18)

Verses 9-13 describe the acute situation of the one praying. Here are a series of I complaints
where the psalmist tells of the suffering of the entire person, including eyes, soul, body. This is no short-termed trouble, but one that has been going on for years, in fact for a lifetime (verses 9-10). With verses 11-13 the psalmist shifts into they complaints. He has even heard rumors that some are plotting to murder him!

With verses 14-15 the psalmist shifts into statements of trust, focused in the statement, "My times are in your hands!" Verses 16-18 are a call for help asking God to deliver the psalmist from his enemies.

You Hold Them Safe (31:19-24)

The psalm winds up on a series of positive notes of praise and trust (verses 19-20). The promise of Psalm 2:12 proves to be true: if you take refuge in the Lord, you will be happy, and the Lord will take you as a guest in the Lord's "shelter" (Hebrew, sukkah), also the word for the small shack still used by Jews today to celebrate the wilderness experience. The final words are no longer addressed to God, but to the congregation. The psalmist takes the role of teacher, with some words of instruction: "Love the LORD, be strong and take courage."

My Times Are In Your Hand

A couple of years ago I read Juergen Moltmann's autobiography, entitled simply Weiter Raum in German or in English, A Broad Place. Moltmann took the title from verse 8 of this psalm, as a description of the good life the Lord had given him.

For preaching, one could center on the words in verse 5 as quoted by Jesus on the cross and also in shortened form by Stephen. As a psalm of trust, the psalm comes to focus in verse 15. We could catch the sense of the psalmist from our post-Easter perspective somewhat as follows:  "Despite all the personal distress of physical pain (verse 10) and failure of my friends (verse 13), I am not giving up on you Lord.  You are still my God. Through your son Jesus Christ, "You have redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature" (v. 5; Luther's Small Catechism). Now I put my life, all my times, in your hand (verse 15). And then I am going on with my life, loving you, caring for my neighbors, and living each day with strength and with courage (verses 23-24)."