Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) Year B

The Psalms enrich preaching during Holy Week and Easter, even if few preachers base an entire sermon on the Psalms.

April 5, 2009

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Commentary on Psalm 31:9-16

The Psalms enrich preaching during Holy Week and Easter, even if few preachers base an entire sermon on the Psalms.

Jesus prayed the Psalms from the cross, and the Gospels quote the Psalms to tell of Jesus’ passion. Strong liturgical traditions invoke the Psalms during Holy Week and Easter. Most important, at a season when Jesus’ humanity is so fully revealed, the Psalms show what it means to be a human being before God. No book of the Bible is more forthright about human experience, and none more militantly declares God’s faithfulness, even when God seems absent. There is every reason for preachers to mine the Psalms in Holy Week and Easter, as preachers have done from the beginning of the Christian story.

If your congregation uses this Sunday as Palm Sunday; celebrating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem; you’ll do well to bypass the lectionary Psalm, and use Psalm 24 instead. “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the King of glory may come in.” (24:7). This Psalm is fit for a king to enter a city. George Frederick Handel thought so too, for this is the text he set to music in his Messiah to evoke Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem before his passion.

But if your congregation observes this day as the Sunday of the Passion, Psalm 31 does important business.

First, it shows human suffering in the most graphic terms. If an aim of worship on this day is to ponder Jesus’ passion, Psalm 31 goes there. Second, Psalm 31 proclaims God’s faithfulness. By quoting this Psalm, Jesus expressed his trust in God; even when God did not deliver him from crucifixion.

In Luke’s version of the passion (23:46), Jesus died praying Psalm 31:5: “Father, ‘Into your hand I commit my spirit.'” But Luke did not quote the next line, “you have redeemed me, Oh Lord, faithful God.” Perhaps the implication is that Jesus committed his spirit into God’s hands, no matter what. Jesus never stopped trusting God even when he felt abandoned.

It could be that Jesus prayed the whole Psalm from the cross,1  writes biblical scholar James Limburg. Of course, there is no way to know for sure. But we may faithfully imagine Psalm 31 in the broader context of Holy Week.

Jesus rode into Jerusalem toward his death, yet the people treated him like a conquering hero. They threw down their garments for him to ride over; they waved palm branches and roared their approval rating. But as Jesus moved through the crowd, he was not moved by their expectations of him. His one desire was to remain faithful to God’s will.

Later that week Jesus prayed that God might ‘remove this cup’ of suffering, then he committed himself to accept God’s will. Psalm 31offers a similar prayer: “Take me out of the net that is hidden for me.” But even so, “into your hand I commit my Spirit” (31:4, 5).

The image of the hand is important in Psalm 31 (verse 5, 8, 15). According to the New Interpreter’s Bible, “hand” means “grasp” or “power.” The psalmist declares that God’s hand upholds him.2  First comes the prayer: “Into your hand I commit my spirit, for you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God” (31:5). Then comes the statement: “you…have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy, you have set my feet in a broad place” (31:8). And later, despite great suffering, the Psalmist affirms, “my times are in your hand,” and continues to pray for deliverance from “the hand of my enemies and persecutors.”

Jesus knew that even when he was literally in the clutches of his foes, they could never grasp or possess him. They might seize him, but they could not hold him. He knew that he was not “in the hand of the enemy” (31:8) but in the “hand” of God (31:5, 15).

Central to this Psalm is the confession of trust in God. Preachers call their hearers to look upon Jesus’ suffering through the eyes of faith. Psalm 31:9-13 can be used to help people picture Jesus on the cross. Here we see “an object of dread,” “horror,” and “scorn.” There is no hope of rescue, for Jesus has “passed out of mind like one who is dead” (31:12). His body is broken like a smashed vessel, his eye wasted from grief. Strength fails and bones waste away. Around his broken body, betrayal is in the air, so thick you can smell it. Enemies sneer and snicker, neighbors flee in terror. The soundtrack for Jesus’ death is mockery and hissing.

No voice of consolation comes from the bystanders. But if Jesus had prayed this entire Psalm, there would be inner consolation: “I trust in you, O LORD, I say, ‘You are my God,’ my times are in my hand” (31:14-15).

Yet the Psalm is anything but serene. It is not the prayer of one who gives up and welcomes death, but a plea for deliverance “from the hand of my enemies and persecutors” (verse 15). So too Jesus prayed, “remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36). Psalm 31 can be used to help people imagine Jesus’ struggle: first to continue living, and then, while dying, to keep on trusting God. It was a battle all the way.

The Psalmist felt separated from God: “I had said in my alarm, ‘I am driven far from your sight'” (31:22). So too Jesus felt abandoned as he cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34, quoting Psalm 22:1). Jesus had no advocate; no voice but the Psalms. It seems fitting, then, that preachers listen to these Psalms for the echo of Jesus’ voice.

That voice will resound at Easter, in a different key: trust in God is vindicated by resurrection from the dead. Psalm 31 points toward this hope. It ends with a word of encouragement: “Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all who wait for the LORD” (31:24). It takes courage to follow Jesus through Holy Week. The spectacle of his passion is not for the faint of heart, for to watch Jesus die is to face our own death too. Only by faith can we say, “I trust in you, O Lord… ‘you are my God,’ my times are in your hand” (31:14-15).

1James Limburg, Psalms (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 102.
2New Interpreters’ Bible volume VI (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 801.