Commentary on Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
This psalmist is a refugee.
In fact, the Psalter is “refugee literature,” in a very real sense. It’s written by refugees, for refugees.1 The Psalms give voice to those who yearn for a place of safety and protection. Moreover, the voice of those refugees is so clear and compelling that the Psalms heighten our attention to the cries of those seeking refuge in our midst.
From its opening verses, Psalm 31 presents the fundamental relationship between the psalmist and God: “In you, O Yahweh, I seek refuge” (verse 1). This imagery of the psalmist as refugee and God as refuge recurs explicitly at the beginning and end of the psalm (especially in verses 1-4, 19-20). But the logic of the relationship underlies the entire psalm.
After its opening affirmation of God being a source of protection (verse 1a), the psalmist makes an immediate plea for God to provide that protection (verse 1b-4). The refugee desperately needs deliverance, salvation, and guidance as he tries to evade capture (verse 4).
In the subsequent verses, the refugee issues an assertion of trust in Yahweh alone, that no real power resides elsewhere (verses 6-8). “Idols” are worthless, but Yahweh is of inestimable worth, since Yahweh can lead the refugee to “a broad place” (verse 6). This delivering power of Yahweh provides a strong contrast to the threat of detention, of being ensnared in a net by the enemies (verse 4).
After the bold affirmations of verses 3-8, the refugee turns again to a description of his oppression. He is grief-stricken, worn out. He is completely “wasting away”: eyes, soul, body (verse 9), strength, and bones (verse 10). The refugee is faced with the terrifying reality that he is ceasing to exist.
This bodily disintegration corresponds to his lack of integration within the community that surrounds him. They deride the refugee and are terrified by him (verse 11). They either run away from the refugee (verse 11) or make plans to get rid of him (verse 13). All of this social dis-ease prompts the refugee to think of himself as one already dead (verse 12).
He is a broken vessel (verse 12) no longer useful, something only to be thrown out. Fields of broken vessels, i.e., potsherds, were the ancient equivalent to our modern dumps or landfills (see also Jeremiah 19:2; Job 2:8). That is where the refugee finds himself, as nothing more than human trash.
The psalm is marked by a back-and-forth movement between bitter complaints and sublime confidence — between petitions (verses 1-2, 9-13, 16-18) and affirmations of trust (verses 3-8, 14-15, 19-24). This common movement in the psalms attests the complex emotional state of those seeking refuge. Refugees are alternately terrified by the threats of those who would seek to harm them and hopeful for a new experience of safety.
The psalm ends with expressions of hope and confidence, based on the refugee’s own experience of God’s power and goodness. God has established a pattern of delivering those who seek God’s sheltering presence (v. 20). Thus, the final strains of this psalm are an exhortation to all refugees to take courage and rely on God’s faithfulness and justice.
Preachers should pay particularly close attention to a psalm like this in a political climate like ours. This psalm provides a stark reminder of the plight of refugees in every age. Though the identities and threats change, the experience of refugees remains consistent. They exist at the dangerous periphery of society. They are both feared by those communities and themselves afraid.
This psalm reminds us of God’s fundamental identity as refuge. Over and over, in a cascade of images, Psalm 31, like so many others, portrays God as the place of protection for those seeking refuge. Reading this psalm helps us recognize God as refuge and ourselves, and so many others, as refugees.
Psalm 31, in the larger context of Christian Scripture also helps us identify God the Son as a refugee too. Luke’s Gospel puts this psalm of refuge on the lips of Jesus on the Cross. Indeed, his very last words are an affirmation that he relies completely on God as refuge (Luke 23:46). The resurrection and glorification of Jesus testify God’s ultimate faithfulness to refugees.
In the Bible’s complex theological witness, God is both refuge and refugee. That reality should align our own communities toward refugees. And it defines Christian ministry as a ministry of and for refugees.
Psalm 31 is a prayer for refugees to pray. But it is also a prayer for those of us who do not immediately identify ourselves as refugees. The immediacy of the rhetoric focuses our attention on those who are even now seeking refuge in our midst.
When we read verse 1, “In you, Yahweh, I seek refuge,” we cannot help but hear our own voice. And we realize that we are all refugees. We share a theological kinship with all who seek refuge and share profound responsibility to minister to them.
1. On the many forms of the imagery of God as refuge and their implications for the theology of the Psalms, see Jerome Creach, Yahweh as Refuge and the Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, JSOTSup 217 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1996); and William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 15-30