Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday)

Three psalms in particular have served as a treasure trove of evocative imagery for the Gospel writers’ renditions of the crucifixion.

Entry into the City
Detail from "Entry into the City," John August Swanson. Used with permission from the artist. Image © 1990 by John August Swanson, 36” by 48”,  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

March 24, 2013

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Commentary on Psalm 31:9-16

Three psalms in particular have served as a treasure trove of evocative imagery for the Gospel writers’ renditions of the crucifixion.

Jesus’ cry of dereliction, quoting the opening words of Psalm 22 (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46 in Aramaic) is the best known, but the derisive wagging of heads, sarcastic mocking of Jesus’ trust in God, division of his garments, his thirst, and final prayer can all be traced to Psalms 22, 69, and our text, Psalm 31. As a result, the Church has used these Psalms as liturgical commentaries on the events of Holy Week down through the ages.

In addition, Psalms 22 and 31 also share unusual formal characteristics. Both are essentially laments, prayers for deliverance that alternate petitions with statements of trust and conclude with extensive hymns of praise or thanksgiving. Both make reference to the psalmist’s shame and humiliation at the hands of persecuting enemies.

This juxtaposition of lament and praise has troubled commentators with regard to the actual genre of the psalm, the recognition of which is so crucial to interpretation. It seems, however, that what we have here is a creative rearrangement of the salient portions of the lament in a concentric array that highlights the psalmist’s dread of being humiliated for his faith and his thankful praise when his prayer in this regard is answered:

A  Petition: May I never be disappointed 1-2

    B  Reason 3-4

       C  Statement of Trust 5-6

            X Vow to Praise 7-8

    B’ Reason 9-13

       C’ Statement of Trust 14-15

A’ Petition: May I never be disappointed 16-18

            X’ Praise and Exhortation 19-24

  • The Petitions are linked by the repetition of ‘al-‘evoshah “may I never be disappointed” verses 1, 17 (see JPS, NET for this translation of bosh instead of the usual “let me never be ashamed”).
  • The Reasons are linked by three instances of “for” in each (two occurrences of ki and a causal min or ulemaan).
  • The Statements of Trust, not surprisingly, echo each other with batacheti “I have trusted” verses 6, 14 and beyadecha “into your hand” verses 5 (the source of Jesus’ “Into your hand I commit my spirit [Luke 23:46]), and 15, chiastically arranged, it should be noted.
  • The Praise sections are connected by the common reference to God’s hesed “faithfulness, commitment (NRSV: “steadfast love”)” verses 7, 21.

The combination of concentric (A A’, B B’) and paneled (B C, B’ C’) structuring while setting the salient aspects of the lament in stark relief, has the effect of obscuring the timeline of the psalmist’s experience and suggesting to readers that we are dealing with a double prayer, here, one in verses 1-8, and a “rerun” in verses 9-18. Actually, the literary architecture is meant to clarify the psalmist’s problem. He clearly asks never to be disappointed/humiliated/ashamed (Hebrew, bosh) because of his faithful stance with regard to Yahweh.

The Lectionary has chosen to utilize the second of these supposed dual prayers as our Psalm Reading for Palm/Passion Sunday. Apparently, this is to save time needed for the pageantry of Palm Sunday and/or the drama of the reading, or acting out, of the Passion Narrative should the congregation be observing the day as Sunday of the Passion. While this is an important consideration, much of the psalm’s rhetorical effect is lost, not least of which is the prayer in verse 5 that Jesus offers on the cross (Luke 23:46).

It might be asked why the psalmist is so worried about being humiliated for his faith. We need only think of Job, John 9, or even Psalm 32 that follows our text to realize that biblical culture as a whole closely connected sin and illness and that the shunning of the ill because of their supposed sinfulness was common (see Psalm 6:3, 8; 22:7; 38:11; 88:8-9). Here, he protests that although he is ill, it is not due to any lack of trust on his part.

As such, this text provides a profound glimpse into the cultural humiliation of Jesus’ Passion and accounts for the psalmist’s repeated relational testimony in which he calls God my rock, fortress, stronghold, and refuge (verses 3-4) and points to God’s faithfulness (hesed) to him (verses 7, 16, 21). In the same way Jesus was mocked and humiliated by the crowds despite his innocence.

In fact, this marvelous psalm, for all its rhetorical flourish, is essentially a testimony to the hesed that marks all of God’s relations with us. It should not be missed that both the center of the structure and its climax are replete with praise for that divine hesed shown to the psalmist and that it concludes with an appeal to experience this for ourselves.