Commentary on Psalm 31:9-16
As the worshiping church follows the Gospel narrative into Jerusalem and toward the cross, the song-prayers of the Psalms provide the “soundtrack” for the drama that unfolds. These words—already old and beloved by the time of Jesus’ passion—harmonize with Mark’s exposition, Isaiah’s foreshadowing, and the theological application in Philippians to offer a very human emotional and psychological dimension to the momentous events of Holy Week.
An overview of Psalm 31
This psalm requests divine help in the midst of personal crisis. The particular difficulty in which the psalmist finds herself seems to involve social conflict of some kind: neighbors are scornful and dismissive of the psalmist and her suffering (verses 11–12), and some of these neighbors rise to the level of outright enemies who plot against the psalmist and attack her with slanderous lies at the very least (verses 13, 15–18, 20). She feels bound up—stuck fast in her suffering like an animal trapped in a net (verse 4). She is ashamed (verses 1, 17) and is experiencing significant stress, a sense of isolation, and physical pain that makes her feel as if she is dying (verses 9–10).
The psalmist moves back and forth between asking God to save her from this crisis and declaring that she trusts that God will answer these petitions. Her confidence in God’s reliability and compassion is what makes her turn to God for help in the first place, and this confidence is grounded not only in general knowledge of God’s character as faithful, steadfast, loving, and powerful (for example, verses 6, 23) but also in her own prior experience of God’s attentiveness and deliverance (for example, verses 7–8, 21–22). Verse 5 summarizes this dynamic: the psalmist can commit her spirit to God because God has already proven faithful to redeem.
As it is in so many of the psalms, the value of remembering the past and sharing one’s story with the community is on display in Psalm 31. Not only do these practices build resilience in the ones who voice them, but such testimonies offer encouragement, solidarity, and hope for others in similar difficulties. Indeed, the concluding verses of the psalm reflect this idea of personal testimony as pastoral service to the whole community (verses 23–24).
The rhetoric and imagery
The language the psalmists use in their song-prayers is always worth noticing. These poems are both theologically rich and profoundly emotive. They reflect the beliefs and feelings of ancient faith communities, but they also model for us ways to work through our own feelings and help shape our beliefs. A few aspects of the poetry of Psalm 31 that might be helpful to draw out include the following:
- Throughout the psalm, various images for God as a refuge appear. The psalmist describes God as a refuge (verses 1, 2, 4, 19), a rock (verses 2–3), a fortress (verses 2–3), and a shelter (verse 20).
- The psalmist’s description of her suffering in verses 9–13 is all-inclusive: eye, soul, body, life, strength, bones, and the implication of ears. The sense is that every aspect of her existence is being impacted negatively by the crisis confronting her.
- Verse 13 is likely a reference to Jeremiah 20:10. Connecting her experience with that of a famous prophet legitimizes the psalmist’s lament, and it also gives meaning to her suffering by weaving it into a larger story of God’s servants.
- The strong disjunctive “but” at the start of verse 14 establishes the contrast between what the psalmist is experiencing or feeling and what she chooses to believe. Her situation does not appear to have changed (because she goes on to ask for help again), but she is taking control of her story by reframing the situation and placing it within a larger theological context.
As a general note, the psalmist does not hold back in describing her current emotional state. She is in distress and says so to God (as did the prophet Jeremiah, and as does Jesus). She feels like she is already dead, like everyone is against her. She is completely honest with God—and with the worshiping community within which this song-prayer is voiced.
Psalm 31 and Holy Week
One of the most poignant and significant dimensions of Jesus’ passion is the way it underscores his humanity. For those of us who live in a world filled with suffering of all kinds—sickness and untimely death, family dysfunction, natural disasters, socioeconomic injustice, racism and nationalism, and the list goes on—remembering the story of Jesus’ suffering provides us with a theology of God as empathetic and in solidarity with those who suffer.
Being able to say “I am not alone in this” can be a powerful factor of resilience. When we pray Psalm 31, we join our voices with countless other people of faith who have prayed these words out of their pain throughout the millennia. And remembering that Jesus himself felt these things and prayed these words in his lowest moments further strengthens this sense of companionship.
Psalm 31 also, like all the lament psalms, stands as a reminder that faith and anguish are not mutually exclusive. It is perfectly acceptable to stand in the depths of depression—and say so!—while remaining a person of sincere faith in a God of love, mercy, and justice. Though Mark’s account of the cross records Jesus praying Psalm 22 rather than Psalm 31 (we have to read Luke’s Gospel for that one), both accounts model honest acknowledgment of pain in the midst of faithful obedience.
As Christians encounter and experience suffering in the world today, we should not feel pressured to put on rose-colored glasses and think only of Easter Sunday’s resurrection joy. On the contrary, we should follow Jesus in admitting our hurts, doubts, angers, and fears—both to each other and to the God whom we can trust to care. In doing so, we practice the honesty that is necessary for healthy relationships, and we name the brokenness of a world that needs the salvation Easter offers.
- I use feminine pronouns not because I think the historical author of the psalm was a woman but because I am reading the psalm as a woman.