Commentary on Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
Psalm 31, along with Psalms 22 and 69, is among the longest and most impressive of the genre known variously as lament, complaint, protest, and/or prayer for help.
Not coincidentally, these three psalms figure prominently in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ passion (see below). Like Psalm 22 in particular, Psalm 31 has a noticeable double intensity — that is, the basic elements of complaint, petition, and expression of trust/praise recur in what Konrad Schaefer describes as a “first movement” (verses 1-8) and a “second movement” (verses 9-22), in which the basic elements match or parallel each other.1 For instance, in today’s lection, verse 5 parallels verse 15. John Goldingay notices the same structural feature, aptly entitling his treatment of Psalm 31, “When a Prayer Needs to be Prayed Twice.”2
As in all the laments (except Psalm 88), expressions of trust/praise like verses 5 and 15 are present; but what is distinctive about Psalm 31 is that such expressions not only begin and conclude the psalm (verses 1a, 19-24), but also appear throughout it (verses 3a, 4b-8, 14-15a). In this regard, Psalm 31 is similar to Psalm 116, a psalm of thanksgiving that is pervaded by expressions of trust (see essay on Psalm 116:1-4, 12-29, Third Sunday of Easter).
The opening line sets the tone of trust, employing one of the most important words in the Psalter — “refuge.” It occurs first in Psalm 2:12, and then it recurs regularly in the prayers that dominate Books I-II (Psalms 1-72; see v. 19; 5:11; 7:1; 11:1; 14:6; 16:1; and 71:1-3, which is very similar to 31:1-3). To “seek refuge” or “take refuge” (CEB) in God means to entrust life and future to God in the midst of trouble, turmoil, and pervasive opposition, all of which are present in Psalm 31 (see especially verses 4, 7-13, 18, 20-22) and in all the other psalmic prayers as well.
For this reason, verse 1a serves as an accurate and admirable summary of the faith of the psalmists throughout the Psalter — that is, they always live in fundamental dependence upon God, not only trusting that God can and will help, but also inviting others to trust and find hope in God (verses 23-24).
The series of synonyms for “refuge” solidifies the point — “rock of refuge” (verse 2; the Hebrew word translated “refuge” is different than in verses 1, 19); “strong fortress”/”fortress” (verses 2-3); “rock” (verse 3; again, a different Hebrew word than “rock” in verse 2). God can be trusted to protect and preserve.
Similarly, the three virtually synonymous verbs — “deliver” (verse 1), “rescue” (verse 2), and “save” (verse 3) — reinforce the point. The phrases “in your righteousness” (verse 1) and “for your name’s sake” (verse 3) invite attention to the character of God. God works to give life, because this activity communicates essentially who God is.
In this regard, it is significant that the Hebrew word hesed, “steadfast love,” becomes a keyword in the psalm, although it occurs only once in today’s lection (verse 16; see verses 7, 21). Rather uniquely, but helpfully, Goldingay translates hesed as “commitment.”3 The psalmists always trust that God is committed to them, and they in turn commit their lives to God.
Verse 5 is one of the clearest affirmations in the Psalter of the psalmists’ commitment to God: “Into your hand I commit my spirit,” or “I entrust my spirit into your hands” (CEB), or in more of a paraphrase, “I turn my life over to you.” The verb translated “commit”/”entrust” is interesting. In other conjugations and contexts, it is used for passing muster on troops and for appointing military officials.
Given this possible nuance, and given the military metaphor in verses 2-3 (“fortress”) and the pervasive opposition confronting the psalmist (verses 7-8, 11, 13, 15, 18, 20), the choice of words suggests that the psalmist’s battle-strategy is to trust God! What a difference it would make if we, as individuals and groups, “fought back” by trusting God instead of lashing out at enemies!
The word “hand” connotes power; and it links verse 5 to verse 15: “My times are in your hand,” or “My future is in your hands” (CEB). The “hand” or power of God is contrasted with “the hand of the enemy” (verse 8; see 15). The bad news is that the power of the opposition to the psalmist (and to God’s will for life) is real and must be endured.
The good news is that God’s power is greater and will ultimately prevail. Such conviction and commitment — such entrusting of self, life, and future to God — empowers the psalmist to resist and endure, and even to invite others to love God, to have courage, and to have hope (verses 23-24). We might even call it resurrection-power, which makes Psalm 31 appropriate for the season of Easter.
Not surprisingly, according to Luke 23:46, Jesus repeats Psalm 31:5a from the cross, in the midst of powerful and pervasive opposition (the kind of opposition described in 31:13 as “terror all around” — see this phrase also in Jeremiah 20:3, 10, which makes it clear that the prophets, along with the psalmists and Jesus, encountered such opposition). Jesus steadfastly resisted the evil forces arrayed against him, but he did not resist violently. Jesus “fought back” by entrusting life and future to God, and so his resistance took the form of love and forgiveness, grounded in the sure and certain hope of resurrection.
Liturgically, the use of Psalm 31 during both Holy Week (Palm/Passion Sunday and Holy Saturday, Years ABC) and the Easter season invites us to hold together cross and resurrection (see the essay on Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Resurrection of Our Lord). A persistent temptation is to separate them, as if resurrection-people have put the cross behind them.
Jesus’ invitation, then and now, is to “take up [the] … cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34, CEB). In a world full of powerful forces that oppose God’s will for life, the resurrection-power to resist and endure begins, as it did for the psalmist and Jesus, with the simple but profound commitment, “Into your hand I commit my spirit.”
1 Konrad Schaefer, Psalms (Berit Olam; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001), 76.
2 John Goldingay, Psalms, Vol. 1: Psalms 1-41 (Baker Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 434.
3 Ibid., 434-436.