Commentary on Psalm 71:1-6
Psalm 71 is a prayer for help by an individual. Psalms of this type typically include (1) an address to the LORD, (2) a complaint about and a description of troubled circumstances, (3) a petition for help, (4) an assurance of being heard, and (5) a promise of praise the psalmist will give in response to God hearing the prayer.
Some of these elements may appear more than one time, and some psalms of this type include other features as well (for example, descriptions of enemies, protestation of innocence). The various parts of the psalm work together, however, to create a prayer that is both honest in its complaint and trust-filled in its plea to God. We may characterize the theology of such psalms as an expression of trust in the midst of trouble.
The lectionary reading from Psalm 71 (verses 1-6) contains all of the elements listed above except the complaint and description of trouble. Since that portion of the psalm is the foundation for the rest, it will be helpful to consider how verses 1-6 fit into the psalm as a whole.
Verses 1-19a alternate between petition and statements of trust, with an accent on the latter. The lectionary reading encapsulates the statements of trust. It begins with the formulaic language of seeking refuge in God (verse 1). The petition in verse 3 also includes the language of shelter and refuge. Verse 5 contains the psalm’s main theme: “For you, O LORD, are my hope, my trust.”
Verse 6 ends the lectionary reading by hinting at a subject that is actually the most distinctive feature of the psalm, namely, the psalmist identifies himself as one advanced in years. In verse 6 he simply says he has relied on God since birth. For the remainder of the psalm, the psalmist refers to age numerous times and marks the psalmist’s faithfulness in terms of age. Verse 9 then pleads for God not to “cast me off in the time of old age.” Verses 17 and 18 return to this theme. The psalmist recalls that God taught him “from my youth” and he remained faithful (verse 17). Verse 18, like verse 9, petitions God’s protection “to old age,” to the time of “gray hairs.” The psalmist wishes to share the message of God’s faithfulness with the next generation and thus asks God to preserve his life so such testimony is possible.
Verse 7 may continue this theme, though this is the most difficult verse to interpret. The psalmist says “I have been a portent to many.” “Portent” (mopet) may be either a sign of God’s power and approval (Exodus 7:3) or God’s wrath (Deuteronomy 28:46). The New Jewish Publication Society understands the word in the first sense and thus translates “I have been an example for many.” If that is the correct sense of the verse, the psalmist may be presenting herself as a model of faithfulness in the midst of trouble, something the psalmist has learned with maturity.
The New Revised Standard Version, however, opts for the second interpretation. The second half of the verse begins with a simple conjunction NRSV reads as adversative (“but you are my strong refuge,” verse 7b). This makes sense against the backdrop of complaints about enemies who seek the psalmist’s life, enemies who deem the psalmist God-forsaken (verses 10-11). If this is the correct interpretation, it relates to the theme of old age in that it simply depicts someone experiencing trauma and the feeling of self-loathing (“I am a portent”) that comes with adversity and the presence of enemies. Regardless of which interpretation of verse 7 is correct, the psalm reminds us that faith does not get easier in old age, but it may grow more important.
Psalm 71 contains numerous words and phrases that appear in other such prayers, especially Psalms 22 and 31. For example, verses 1-3 are almost identical to Psalm 31:1-3 (2-4); verse 6 repeats much of Psalm 22:10 (11); and verse 12 is nearly identical to Psalm 22:11 (12). Like these two psalms, the church typically reads Psalm 71 in relation to the passion of Jesus. It appears in the Revised Common Lectionary as a psalm for Tuesday of Holy Week.
Here, in the season of Epiphany, the selected verses highlight faith in the God who rescues and saves, on whom the psalmist can depend in times of trouble. The link to psalms that are part of Jesus’ passion, however, should inform the interpretation whenever the reading appears. The one who cries to God in Psalm 71:1-6 follows the example of Jesus who also cried to God when in trouble, and the Incarnation provides assurance that God hears and understands precisely because Jesus shares the psalmist’s suffering.
The psalm ends with praise, as many prayers for help do (verses 22-24). It is somewhat unique in the listing of musical instruments (harp and lyre) and describing the singing of praise (see 1 Chronicles 16:5). This is a proper reminder, however, that we should not read the prayer in verses 1-6 as a private expression of piety and trust in God. Rather, such devotion to God should be lived out in the community of believers.