Psalm 31

Save Me Lord, My Trust Is In You

How have you prayed in times of trouble? Was your prayer for deliverance or endurance?

Many times in this web site, I have reflected on tragedy. Bad times present us with a challenge and a choice. The challenge is a closer walk with God. The choice is for faith, or for disappointment. Many times we pray for deliverance. Save us, Lord, from our predicament. Many times, God answers that prayer, not with a change in situation, but with an inner strength to carry on through the battle. In either case, the challenge and the choice are the same. Come closer to the Lord; choose faith over despair.

In his final moments, Jesus could have reflected on that challenge and choice. After all, on the cross, Jesus quoted the Scriptures: "Into your hands Lord, I commend my spirit." (Luke 23:46). On the cross, Jesus reminded his enemies of his faith in God, by reciting Psalm 31:5.

Psalm 31 is a song of praise mixed with supplication. It can be divided into five parts: 1) a confident petition for help, 2) a prayer of supplication, 3) a petition for deliverance, 4) a short praise and 5) a liturgical doxology. Except for the final doxology, the psalm is intensely personal.

1 In you, YHWH, I take refuge.
Let me never be disappointed.
Deliver me in your righteousness.
2 Bow down your ear to me.
Deliver me speedily.
Be to me a strong rock,
a house of defense to save me.
3 For you are my rock and my fortress,
therefore for your name's sake lead me and guide me.
4 Pluck me out of the net that they have laid secretly for me,
for you are my stronghold.
5 Into your hand I commend my spirit.
You redeem me, YHWH, God of truth.
6 I hate those who regard lying vanities,
but I trust in YHWH.
7 I will be glad and rejoice in your loving kindness,
for you have seen my affliction.
You have known my soul in adversities.
8 You have not shut me up into the hand of the enemy.
You have set my feet in a large place.

In this first section, the psalmist asked YHWH for help. The tone was confident. The singer asked for refuge from his enemies, and there was a certain air of expectation that God would hear his plea. Notice the term "rock" in 31:2-3; the petition "Be my rock" became the statement "you are my rock and my fortress." This evoked a mountainous terrain where the rock and fortress lie in the heights, the place of divine encounter (from which "Bow down your ear to me" in 31:2a). This high ground could also be seen as the "large place" where God "set the feet" of the petitioner (31:8). The heights provided water from the snow cap of high mountains in Palestine, as well as a strong defensive position (31:2b).

The most famous line of the psalm can be found in 31:5. "Into your hands I commend my spirit." This was the last statement of Jesus and St. Stephen before their deaths (Luke 23:46; Acts 7:49). The tone of the statement was surrender, but not despair. In the context of the psalm, the verse was confident. Why? The answer can be found two verses later; the singer rejoiced in the covenant YHWH made with his people ("loving kindess" in 31:7). The psalmist had good reason to place his trust in the Lord.

9 Have mercy on me, YHWH, for I am in distress.
My eye, my soul, and my body waste away with grief.
10 For my life is spent with sorrow,
my years with sighing.
My strength fails because of my iniquity.
My bones are wasted away.
11 Because of all my adversaries I have become utterly contemptible to my neighbors,
A fear to my acquaintances.
Those who saw me on the street fled from me.
12 I am forgotten from their hearts like a dead man.
I am like broken pottery.
13 For I have heard the slander of many, terror on every side,
while they conspire together against me,
they plot to take away my life.

The confident tone turned towards despair, because the psalmist became self-focused. Beyond the plea to YHWH for mercy in 31:9, these verses are remarkable for their lack of reference to the Lord. The psalm listed two reasons for the despair: 1) the troubles with advancing age (31:9b-10) and 2) the increase in enemies and the lack of true friends (31:11, 13). Failing health and the siege of adversaries resulted in the cry of 31:12; the singer felt alone, dead in the eyes of others, and broken, hence, useless.

14 But I trust in you, YHWH.
I said, "You are my God."
15 My times are in your hand.
Deliver me from the hand of my enemies, and from those who persecute me.
16 Make your face to shine on your servant.
Save me in your loving kindness.
17 Let me not be disappointed, YHWH, for I have called on you.
Let the wicked be disappointed.
Let them be silent in Sheol.
18 Let the lying lips be mute,
which speak against the righteous insolently, with pride and contempt.
19 Oh how great is your goodness,
which you have laid up for those who fear you,
which you have worked for those who take refuge in you,
before the sons of men!
20 In the shelter of your presence you will hide them from the plotting of man.
You will keep them secretly in a dwelling away from the strife of tongues.

The desperation of 31:9-13, however, set up the hope found in 31:14-19. Without friends and health, the psalmist has only one option: turn to God. Only YHWH could restore health and defend the enemy (31:15). Why should God answer the singer's plea? The theme of the covenant returned. God promised his loving kindness in the past to the nation; now, the psalmist expected the Almighty to again work wonders (31:16). Not the singer's heart, but the hearts of his adversaries should be crushed; they should despair and die in their lies and arrogance (31:17-18). The section ended with praise mixed with expectation; the Lord would deliver the righteous from enemies, both human and natural.

21 Praise be to YHWH,
for he has shown me his marvelous loving kindness in a strong city.
22 As for me, I said in my haste, "I am cut off from before your eyes."
Nevertheless you heard the voice of my petitions when I cried to you.

23 Oh love YHWH, all you his saints!
YHWH preserves the faithful,
and fully recompenses him who behaves arrogantly.
24 Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
all you who hope in YHWH.

The last two sections form a doxology, one part personal (31:21-22) and the other an imperative for the assembly (31:23-24). The praise of the psalmist almost excused his desperation, but confirmed his faith in his salvation. The command to the assembly to love YHWH echoed the reasons for the personal adulation. Many others faced the same situation; they should praise God for their deliverance; they should gather strength in the face of trouble.

Psalm 31 is a statement of desperation AND confident praise. The hymn reminds us that, as dark as life might seem, as bad as we might feel, we can always depend upon God. He will give us the strength to endure, and he will give us the way out of our misery, by giving us the way to him. With God, we might be down, but we will never, never be out.

How has God answered your "tough time" prayers? How did his answer strengthen your faith?