Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday)

We enter Holy Week hearing “Hosannas” from the crowd and move from triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the cross of humiliation.

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 28, 2010

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Commentary on Psalm 31:9-16

We enter Holy Week hearing “Hosannas” from the crowd and move from triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the cross of humiliation.

The words of our Psalm for today have a very familiar ring. These verses will not let us go for they bring us to the cry of Jesus and the agony of death by crucifixion.

Within this surrounding context of faith, confidence and praising the LORD for deliverance (verses 1-8 and verses 17-24), our text for Passion/Palm Sunday draws upon the central verses of the Psalm (verses 9-16), expressing the lament of the Psalmist. The words of lament are set within this framework.

The opening verses of the Psalm express the faith and confidence of the Psalmist in God: “In you, O LORD, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me. Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, and strong fortress to save me!” (verses 1-2). As we enter Holy Week, verse five in this Psalm is familiar to us in Jesus’ words from the cross: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). The verses that immediately precede our text express the joy and confidence of the Psalmist in the presence of the LORD: “I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have taken heed of my adversaries, and have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy; you have set my feet in a broad place” (verses 7-8).

The verse that immediately follows our text encloses our text in the faith of the Psalmist who lives in the faith of deliverance from the wicked: “Do not let me be put to shame, O LORD, for I call on you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go dumbfounded to Sheol” (verse 17). The Psalmist continues to enclose the lament of the Psalm, praising the LORD for deliverance: “O how abundant is your goodness that you have laid up for those who fear you, and accomplished for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of everyone! In the shelter of your presence you hide them from human plots; you hold them safe under your shelter from contentious tongues” (verse 19-20).

The cry of the Psalmist opens our text: “Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also” (verse 9). When we are in distress, the many members of our body are affected. The grief, aloneness, and despair encompass us in our hopelessness. It is a downward spiral from which we can not free or save ourselves. The graciousness for which the Psalmist prays expresses faith and confidence in the midst of lament.

The lament spirals even deeper as the Psalmist expresses the reality of life: “For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away” (verse 10). As strength fails and the last breath of life is taken, we are in the presence of the Holy. We have all been there with a loved one as life ebbs away; there is nothing more to be said in the silence of the moment and the rattle of death.

The scene changes from the dying one to those who stand by: “I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, and an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the stress flee from me” (verse 11). The scene of persons fleeing from us and being left alone is one we all fear. Who will hold my hand? Who will wipe my brow? Who will wet my lips? We ask, “Where are Jesus’ disciples?” as we move in this week to Good Friday.

The Psalmist walks with us into the valley of death: “I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel” (verse 12). The gift of mind is a treasure that we hope will never leave us. When it does we are like “a broken vessel” that is useless. The valley of death comes to each of us as the lament draws us deeper and deeper into the reality of death. Can it get any more profound?

A person lies dying and you are by the bedside thinking that the sense of hearing has left your dying friend and you are probably wrong. Listen to the admonition: “Don’t say anything you don’t want your friend to hear.” Hear the experience of the Psalmist: “For I hear the whispering of many — terror all around! — as they scheme together against me, and they plot to take my life” (verse 13).

At the deepest point of lament the words of faith and trust come forth: “But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, ‘You are my God'” (verse 14). God is not absent at the point of death as others whisper and scheme and plot. The only one the Psalmist can trust is the one whom we call LORD. The LORD God, who created us from the dust of the ground and breathes into us the breath of life, is the same God who is present with us for our last breath: “My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors” (verse 15). Even death is God’s time, a time of deliverance. This is the faith in which we live and proclaim: “You are my God.”

A benediction concludes the assigned verses from this Psalm: “Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love” (verse 16). All of life from birth to death rests in the hand of the God who created us and who redeems us. God’s face shines in benediction love upon us all the days of our lives. This is the faith the Psalmist proclaims and the faith in which the Psalm calls us to live as servants of the God whose steadfast love is with us always.

We will hear Jesus’ final words from the cross on Good Friday express the faith in which the Son lived in the steadfast love of the Father. The prayer of the dying Jesus teaches us to pray: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).