Psalm 31 – Into Your Hands, I Commend My Spirit
I love this time of year. There is beauty everywhere. If only I could freeze frame all of the colors of fall. I look about and try to etch a memory indelibly into my mind, but it doesn’t work. Nothing remains in my memory, even sights of beauty. I walk from one room into another and forget what I’m looking for. I write so many notes to myself to jog my memories that I have notes for my notes. The price of growing old, I guess.
This beauty is but a fleeting moment for us to enjoy. We can’t store them up for tomorrow or the next day much though we may want to. We have to let these days go like the falling leaves, trusting that in the spring new leaves will grow; new beauty will assault our memories. But for today, we have the autumn leaves. And I ask myself, what more do I have to let go of this year? How is God stripping me yet again in this life? Like the trees I am being stripped bare of adornment, externals, till nothing is left but the bare bones, the frame from which new life will grow.
Psalm 31 might be termed an autobiography in three parts, much like Psalm 23. There are three psalms joined into one, a triple cry for deliverance.
In verses 1-8 the writer is seeking assurance of protection from some impending trouble. He begins with a statement of trust in God, then he asks God to listen to him and rescue him. “Take me out of the net which is hidden for me,” he pleads. He doesn’t know the exact nature of what is about to come, just that evil lies in wait for him.
He commits his spirit, his life, into God’s hands, confident that God will protect him, uttering the words that Jesus himself used before his death with one small change. Jesus added the word Father. Where the writer of the psalm was committing his life into God’s hands, confident that he would escape death, Jesus was committing his life to the Father in his death. As one commentator states: “A psalm which comes into the mind of the Sufferer of all sufferers at the moment of death is a psalm to be reverenced.” (Interpreter’s Bible, Vol 4, p. 163).
As is common in laments, the writer thanks God in advance for all he will do. The writer rejoices for God has not let him fall into the hands of his enemies and has set his feet in a broad place, a metaphor found in other Psalms. In this case the writer escapes the snares and traps that had been set for him.
Then there is an abrupt change from rejoicing to lament in verse 9. Verses 9-12 are the words of one who is being plagued by physical disease, an ailment that has been long standing. He has been crying his eyes out with grief, his strength is gone, even his bones are wasting away. When dealing with grief and prolonged illness it can feel like your whole life has been like this; that it has been forever, even if it has not been the case.
He has forgotten the joy experienced in verse 7 and now all is sadness. The writer is an object of scorn, even horror. People flee from him. In verses 13 – 18, the lament shifts to someone who is being lied about. They are whispering together against him he says. They are scheming to take his life. It could be that in his suffering he is paranoid, imagining that people are plotting against him. This is easy to do. The machinations of the mind can be wild indeed. Or it could be that people are plotting against him. He escaped the plots in the first part of his life only to be attacked even stronger later.
Perhaps the writer was afflicted with leprosy or some other disease making him unclean. Later Christians saw Jesus, the suffering servant in this passage. He was a sight that people couldn’t bear to look at, so marred was his form from being scourged. People ran away from him during his last hours.
Who are the pariahs of our times? Who do we run from? Perhaps victims of AIDS who are considered unclean? Perhaps those disfigured by war and disability that we don’t want to look at because it upsets us? As I grow older and face the weakening of my bones, this passage takes on new meaning. Are the old among us the new pariahs that we put away into “homes” so that we don’t have to deal with them?
But even in this state of great suffering, the writer remains faithful. He puts his trust in God, asking God to deliver him from his persecutors, asking God to put them to shame, even send to hell, those who would lie against him. Some commentators would clean up this passage, stating it is unchristian to condemn another to hell and spiritualizing the passage to mean our own failings and sins being condemned to the land of shadows. While this can be one way of using the passage, it is highly unlikely the writer meant any such thing. When in despair and pain, it is human to respond with anger and the desire for revenge.
The last section, verses 19-24, is a hymn of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance from the suffering of the previous verses. Now comes the happy ending. At the end of life, the writer is able to look back at his life and see how God has been present. It is with confidence that he can say, “Blessed be the Lord, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me.” He then instructs others, those younger, those yet to come, to trust in the Lord who saved him. It is the Lord who delivers justice, who “requites him who acts haughtily,” not us. So be strong and wait for the Lord.
Thus is one life, a mixture of suffering and blessings. The challenges of youth give way to even greater challenges in mid-life. Those who remain firm in faith, trusting in their God, will reach peace and quiet after the storms of life. Over all, the one phrase chosen by Jesus resounds, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Repeatedly throughout life, we are challenged to let go, to place our life into God’s hands, just as the trees let go of their leaves. We do so in preparation for that final letting go at the end of our life.
So as to my initial question – what might God be asking me to let go of this fall? – I don’t know. But I’ll trust in the Lord. Whatever challenges may be facing me, whatever new losses, I will land on firm ground for God is with me.
Copyright October 2012 Robertson