Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)

This psalm has long been one of my favorites.

January 31, 2010

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Commentary on Psalm 71:1-6

This psalm has long been one of my favorites.

While it appears to have been written by an older person (verses 9, 18), the psalm taken as a whole is a prayer appropriate at any age. For years, I had verses 17-18 taped onto the wall by my desk, using these words as a prayer to keep my daily task of teaching or preaching in focus.

Structure and Genre
The psalm falls into three parts, each ending on a note of praise: verses 1-8, 9-16 and 17-24. The psalm contains the elements typical of an individual lament or prayer for help, though these elements are scattered about. Especially dominant are calls for help (verses 1-4, 9, 12-13, 18, eight verses) and affirmations of trust (verses 3b, 5-7, 14, 17, 20-21, also eight verses). A “they” complaint occurs in verses 10-11 and the psalm expresses a generous supply of praise (verses 14-16, 19, 22-24).

Considered as a whole, the psalm may well be named a psalm of trust. I have used it as part of a trio of trust psalms, with Psalm 131 providing a picture from the beginning of life, Psalm 23 coming out of the stresses and strains of the midst of life (“even though I walk through the darkest valley”, verse  4) and 71 giving expression to reflections of a senior citizen.

Reading the Psalm

From my youth (71:1-8)
Cries for help dominate the first four verses: “deliver me…rescue me…save me…Rescue me.” The psalm is rich in pictures for God: “rock of refuge…strong fortress…my rock…my fortress…” and then, without imagery, simply “my God.”

Especially striking is the “life review” section in verses 5 and 6. The one praying this psalm is no recent convert to the faith. The pray-er says that the Lord has been “my hope, my trust…from my youth.” Here is a pastoral point worth making: When the psalmist is needing help from those making his life miserable, from difficult situations being faced, he looks back at his lifetime of experience with God. He is saying, “Lord, you’ve helped me out of tough times before. I’ve depended on you ever since I was born! So, Lord, how about bailing me out once again!”

The first section ends on a note of praise.

In the time of old age (71:9-16)
Here is an important insight into the anxieties of an older person. Even though this person has been a believer since youngest childhood (verse 6), this veteran of the faith still has worries, even worries that God might leave him in the lurch! “Forsake” here is the same Hebrew word as is used in the cry of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is just what others are saying about the psalmist, “that person whom God has forsaken.”

After a brief prayer against enemies (the psalmist has not had a chance to appropriate Matthew 5:43-48!) the psalmist vows to praise God by telling the congregation stories about some of the wonderful things God has done (vv. 15-16). This section, too, ends on a note of praise.

From my youth, even to old age (71:17-24)
Verses 17 and 18 pick up the “from my youth” and “to old age” themes of the precious sections, tie them together, and offer some further reflections. As the psalmist looks to the future, he resolves to continue doing what he’s being doing for a lifetime: telling about the “wondrous deeds” of God.

Toward a Sermon on this Psalm

Not Just for Senior Citizens
The unique feature of this psalm is the identification of the author as an older person (see also Psalm 37:25). This makes the psalm obviously well-suited for situations where the majority of the congregation/class is made up of senior citizens. I’ve preached on this psalm in such situations following the psalm’s structure as indicated above:

I. From My Youth (71:1-8)
The preacher can point out the “life review” device here in verses 5 and 6 and indicate that recalling God’s help in the past can be a stabilizing and encouraging approach for facing a difficult future, whether it be loss of a job, loss of a friend or loved one, or loss of good health. The point: when things look bleak or blue, look back at your life with God! Remember that God has helped you out many times in the past. Why wouldn’t God do it again?

II. In the Time of Old Age (71:9-16)
“Old age ain’t for sissies” is a slogan I’ve seen on sweatshirts worn by fellow senior-citizens (not by me, I quickly add). This psalm expresses a realistic view of the later years of a lifetime. There may still be conflicts with others in the community (verses 4, 10-11, 13). There may even be anxiety about one’s relationship to God (verses 9, 18). That a longtime believer should express such worries might alarm us until we remember that Jesus himself expressed the same concerns, praying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

III. From My Youth, Even to Old Age (71:17-24)
Verses 17 and 18 can be prayed by any believer, recalling the blessings of good instruction in the faith from childhood on, and anticipating a future that continues with God.

One of my teachers once said in regard to aging, “The Lord saves the hardest part ’til last!”  What can we do as we approach this “hardest part?” The psalm suggests staying on course, follow living a lifetime of prayer and praise that includes telling of God’s mighty deeds and wondrous gifts.

Times of anxiety and lack of trust are to be expected, even in the lives of God’s senior citizens. Singing praises and telling stories about what God has done are an essential part of such lives, too.