Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)

Despite the limited number of verses included from this psalm in the lectionary, Psalm 71 nevertheless provides us with a unique opportunity to learn from the faith and life experiences of an elder psalmist.

February 3, 2013

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Commentary on Psalm 71:1-6

Despite the limited number of verses included from this psalm in the lectionary, Psalm 71 nevertheless provides us with a unique opportunity to learn from the faith and life experiences of an elder psalmist.

Many commentators note that elements of this psalm are strongly reminiscent of the known use of the temple precincts as a place of temporary refuge for an accused individual to flee from his accusers.1 For example, there are close parallels between this text and Psalms 18 and 31. While the motif of the temple as protective sanctuary is certainly present, we do not seem to be dealing here with the memoirs of an alleged felon. Instead, we are more likely hearing from an aged psalmist looking back over his life and faith experiences, perhaps from the context of a current situation of distress (cf. verses 9, 17, 18).

From his advanced location in the course of life, this psalmist is able to impart several key lessons for the life of faith.2 First, a strong faith in and devotion to God is no fail-safe insurance against problems and complications in life. From the context of the complete psalm text, it seems this individual is one who has devoted his life to God, perhaps at the temple as a musician. Yet the very first verse of the psalm identifies God as a place of refuge for the psalmist. A place of refuge implies that there is someone or something from which refuge is desired, and thus indicative of a life that is not free from trouble.

Further, practices of faith and devotion to God may actually, at times, invite problems into one’s life. In addition to the highlighted needs for refuge, deliverance, and rescue in the first two verses of the psalm, verse 4 references “the grasp of the unjust and cruel.” While we do not have all the details of the writer’s life, it would seem that he is not merely speaking hypothetically, but instead has some concrete situation and/or persecutors pertaining to himself in mind.

Perhaps a psalmist does not seem as likely to provoke open, even threatening ridicule as a prophet, such as Jeremiah, or as Jesus himself in his hometown of Nazareth in the accompanying Gospel for this day. Yet, herein may lie the core of this lesson — any expression of faith brings with it the possibility of ridicule by the unfaithful.

Second, the psalmist affirms that it is God’s very nature to provide refuge, deliverance, and rescue to those whom he calls his own and to service in his name. In verse 2, for example, the psalmist appeals to the righteousness of God. This is not an attribute nervously hoped for in the divine, as if it may or may not be found, but one that is fully and confidently expected. Similarly in verse 3, the psalmist urges God to be his “rock of refuge.”

However, the role of “rock of refuge” is not something the psalmist hopes to be able to impress upon God and in some way create. Instead, the psalmist already knows God to be such a rock: “For you are my rock and my fortress” (verse 3). In verse 5 the psalmist goes on to confess trust and hope in the Lord since the days of his youth. This is a statement of experience from one who knows these things to be perpetually true of the God of Israel.

Third, we learn from the psalmist that we are wholly dependent on God. God is the only source of hope or support either mentioned or suggested in our text. Not only has the psalmist leaned upon God from birth, he even confesses that it is God who took him from his mother’s womb (verse 6). This realization of complete dependence on God is no doubt one that grew with the psalmist’s experience and age.

Generally speaking, the younger we are, the less we tend to be mindful of the interdependent nature of life. Furthermore, modern society has managed, in various ways, to continue reducing God’s necessity or even involvement in human life. Therefore, the significance of the psalmist’s witness to our dependence on God is difficult to overstate.

Finally, a significant aspect of our lives should be the praise of God. The psalmist declares, “My praise is continually of you” (verse 6). This is the only possible response to God’s steadfastness and grace. Even though the psalmist may still experience trouble and even persecution as a result of his faith, he will nonetheless maintain trust and hope in the same God we know to be our rock and fortress, and who is therefore worthy of our continual praise.

1See especially Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 60-150: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989), 71-72.

2The writer of Ecclesiastes similarly offers sage advice from a later-in-life perspective.