Commentary on Psalm 31:9-16
Jesus’ words in Luke 23:46, incorporating the words of Psalm 31:5, “Into your hands I commit my spirit,” forever tie the psalm, along with Psalms 22 and 69, to the passion narratives of Jesus of Nazareth.
But there is much more to this psalm. It is located in Book One of the Psalter’s collection of Davidic psalms and is classified as an individual lament, in which an individual cries out to God in the midst of a perilous, even life-threatening situation. Laments typically consist of five elements:
- an invocation, in which the psalmist invokes the presence of God as she cries for help
- a complaint, or lament, in which the psalm singer tells God what is wrong, the situation in which she finds herself that prompts the words of the psalm
- a petition, in which the singer tells God what she wants God to do to alleviate the oppression that she feels
- words of trust, in which the psalmist recalls times in the past when God came to her rescue or to the rescue of others
- an expression of praise, in which the psalm singer acknowledges the good provisions of God for her.
The five elements of a lament psalm do not follow a strict pattern in each occurrence of a lament, but rather they move fluidly back and forth as the psalm singer presents herself before God in supplication, perhaps reflective of the inner turmoil she is experiencing in the process of working through what is causing the distress.
In Psalm 31, the elements of lament occur as follows:
- Invocation: verses 1, 5, 9, 14, 17 (“O LORD”)
- Complaint or lament: verses 9-13 (verse 9: “my eye wastes away from grief …”)
- Petition: verses 1-2, 15-18 (verse 15: “deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors”)
- Trust: verses 3-8, 14, 19-20 (verse 3: “you are indeed my rock and my fortress”)
- Praise: verses 21-24 (verse 21: “Blessed be the LORD, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me”)
The focus verses of Psalm 31 for the Sunday of the Passion include words of complaint/lament in verses 9-13, brief words of trust in verses 14-15, and words of petition in verses 15-16. In verses 9 and 10, the psalm singer cries out to God about oppression that has caused a wasting of her eye, her soul, her body, her bones, and, indeed, her very strength. In these words, we feel and see the physical devastation that comes with unrelenting distress and oppression. An interesting phenomenon of the laments in the book of Psalms is that the oppressors and adversaries are rarely named (a notable exception is Psalm 137). Rather, they are nameless, faceless others, the timeless “every person” depiction of oppressions that humanity has encountered and will encounter for all time, thereby allowing readers/hearers to place themselves in the midst of the psalms’ story worlds.
The psalm singer continues her complaint/lament in verses 11-13, moving outward from the devastation that has come upon her personally as a result of what the oppressors have done to a recounting of how the oppression has affected her life in society. Because of what the oppressors have done to/said about her, she says that she is “the scorn of my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances” (verse 11). She “hears the whispering” as “they plot to take my life” (verse 13).
But utter despair does not have the final say in this selection from Psalm 31, or, indeed, in Psalm 31 as a whole. In verses 14-16, the psalm singer mingles words of trust in God to care for her in the midst of the situation in which she finds herself and words of petition to the God who she is confident can deliver her. She declares in verse 14, “You are my God,” and in verse 15, “My times are in your hand.” In verses 15-16, she petitions, “deliver me from the hand of my enemies … Let your face shine upon your servant,” and “save me in your steadfast love.” The psalm ends in verse 23 with an admonishment: “Love the LORD, all you his saints. The LORD preserves the faithful …”
Psalm 31, a typical lament psalm, is fitting as a lectionary reading for the Sunday of the Passion. It describes the anguish of one who is oppressed in body and mind and in the society in which she lives, one who cries out to God to right the wrongs brought upon her—the words “O LORD” occur ten times in the Psalm. But cries of lament do not dominate the psalm. In fact, the only complaints/laments are found in verses 9-13, and they are surrounded on either side by words of trust in God and/or petition (verses 3-8 and 14-20). J. Clinton McCann writes, “In short, Psalm 31 is a prayer that teaches us about trusting God, both in dying and living.”1 Richard Clifford adds that the psalm singer “is writing about something more than deliverance from a specific crisis. The canvas is broader—life before God, which consists of multiple dangers, deliverances, and thanksgivings.”2 And James L. Mays offers appropriate summarizing words. He states that verse 15’s, “My times are in your hand,” “does not mean it depends on God how long I live, but my destiny (the occasions when things happen that determine my life) is in the hand of God. … In the mouth of Jesus the sentence is surely a profound interpretation of his entire life.”3
J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. III, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 2015), 391.
Richard J. Clifford. Psalms 1-72. Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 161.
James L. Mays. Psalms, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 144.