Year A, B, C: Passion Sunday
Psalm 31 is a personal lament, a cry for deliverance from enemies and affliction. It is well suited as the psalm set for Passion Sunday each year.
The verses chosen for the lectionary reading amount to only part of the main petition of the psalm. While it does give a recitation of the psalmist’s woes and a graphic account of their fear over the scheming of enemies, other parts of the petition and complaint (vv. 1-8 and 17-18) are omitted. More importantly, the lengthy section of praise at the end of the psalm (vv. 19-24) is also neglected. The poetry in the selection set is moving, but general enough in its images that people with a variety of laments might make this prayer their own.
The words of vv. 9-13 echo the anguish of the suffering servant in the reading from Isaiah set for Passion Sunday (Isa 50:4-9a). We could also imagine them on the lips of Jesus as he faced the ordeals of the last week of his earthly life. The strong sense of grief, sorrow, misery, being scorned, broken and the object of plots in the psalm in vv. 9-13 is countered by the psalmist’s own trust in the Lord (v. 14). The detailed and vivid description of the psalmist’s plight and concerns contrasts sharply with the simplicity and brevity of the statement of trust, ‘I trust in you, O Lord, I say, “You are my God”’. We are left in no uncertainty of either the strength of the attack faced or of the seeming flimsiness of statements of faith and trust. Yet it is the latter, like the apparent frailty of the servant in Isaiah 50, which is held before us. In the praise section of the psalm (vv. 19-24, omitted today) we learn that behind the ‘thin’ statement of v. 14 there lies the ‘abundant goodness’ (v. 19) of God’s own faithfulness.
In v. 15 the lectionary reading continues to develop the nature of the psalmist’s trust 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, and 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 connection of this psalm with the gospel of the day in which we hear of the passion of Jesus (Matt 26:14 to 27:66) sets Jesus up as the archetypal pray-er of such a psalm as Psalm 31. He is the model of those who bear such opposition and anguish yet hold to that ‘thin’ line of trust and faith in the God who is faithful. Our celebration of the passion of Jesus looks toward the celebration of his resurrection on Easter day. But we are not there yet and the omission of the praise section of the psalm is a reminder that resurrection hope by no means leaves behind the turmoil and troubles of this life. All those things which confront us now are seen, and prayed about, and endured in the context of the trust we place in the One who is faithful to the promise of new life.
Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:
Psalm 31:14-16 provides a call to worship or a call to prayer, especially confession. In this example the first person singular has been altered to plural to better suit corporate worship:
We trust in you, O LORDOld Testament reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a
Our times are in your hand;
Let your face shine upon your servants;
save us in your steadfast love.
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