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Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

Psalm 31 is a personal lament, a cry for deliverance from enemies and affliction. It is attributed to David, along with most of the psalms in the first book of Psalms, Pss 1-41, though we do not know its origin in detail, nor its precise date. Many of the psalms were collected as part of the oral tradition of Israel’s worship over the centuries, first into smaller collections, and then only brought together into the larger collection we now know very late in Old Testament times.  It is presumed the psalms were used in the worshipping community as part of temple services and private devotions, and were often set to music (though this psalm does not specify a tune as some possibly do).

In v. 1, the psalmist seeks refuge in the Lord, and prays not to be put to shame. The writer appeals to God’s righteousness, which contrasts with the wickedness of the adversaries. While in v. 1 the psalmist approaches God, in v. 2, the writer asks God to incline and to rescue them. The psalmist uses the metaphors of a rock of refuge and that of a strong fortress in which he can shelter. The theology of the psalmist echoes the sentiment that we can draw near to God (only) as God draws near to us.

In v. 3, the psalmist spells out that God is indeed a rock and fortress. They appeal to God’s good name in calling for God to lead and guide, to deliver from the hidden net set for them. This is in keeping with much of the prophetic spirit in Israel, that saw the fortunes of God’s people reflecting on the honour of God and God’s good name. It is an appeal for God to save, lest those around the psalmist conclude that God is not responsive or caring. Similar sentiments were included in Psalm 23 last week.

In v. 5, the psalmist commends their spirit to God in the words echoed by Christ on the cross, “Into your hand I commit my spirit”. In the following portion of this verse (not quoted by Christ, but perhaps implied in the first statement), the psalmist is thankful for the faithful deliverance God has shown.

The verses chosen for the lectionary reading skip over the main body of the psalm, which includes a recitation of the psalmist’s woes and a graphic account of their fear over the scheming of enemies. The poetry is moving, but general enough in its images that people with a variety of laments might make this prayer their own.

In v. 15 the lectionary again takes up the psalm with the affirmation, “My times are in your hand,” an acknowledgement that the psalmist’s life rests with God. They then pray, “deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors,” a cry for deliverance. In v. 16, the psalmist asks for a sense of God’s presence, “let your face shine upon your servant,” and again for deliverance, “save me in your steadfast love.” This is an appeal to God’s hesed, God’s longsuffering care (‘loyalty’ etc.), for the people.

The theology of this psalm implies that God is responsive to those who call upon God, that it is in God’s nature to deliver and save God’s people when they are afflicted by illness or enemies, and to hear them when they cry.  There is a quiet confidence in God’s love and willingness to help that is at the heart of faith. The assurance that in God, the person of faith may find refuge accords well with the gospel of the day, in which Jesus encourages his followers to believe in God, who has prepared a place for them (John 14). Our celebration of the resurrection of Jesus in this Easter season, by no means leaves behind the turmoil and troubles of this life. All now are seen, and prayed about, in the context of the promise and power of God seen in the resurrection of Jesus.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship

There are a number of verses in this psalm which could be used in various places in worship. Verses 3-5 can be adapted for a call to worship:

You are indeed our rock and our fortress;
You are indeed our rock and our fortress;
Into your hand we commit our spirit;
you have redeemed us, O Lord, faithful God.
Verse 16 can serve as an appropriate response in the prayers of confession:
Let your face shine upon your servants;
save us in your steadfast love.
Finally later verses in the psalm, not included in this week’s reading, can be used for the final blessing:
Blessed be the Lord, who has wondrously shown steadfast love to you.
The Lord has heard your supplications when you cried out for help.
Love the Lord, all you his saints.
The Lord preserves the faithful.
Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
all you who wait for the Lord.
And the blessing of God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Be with you now and forever.
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