May 6, 2020 by Tim O’Connor
“Into your hand I commit my spirit…” (Psalm 31:5)
The Psalms are the prayer book for the people of God. Being so familiar to ancient Israelites, the language of the Psalms frequently gets quoted by other biblical writers. David’s Psalm 31 is a favorite. Phrases from this psalm appear in Jonah and Jeremiah, and the opening three verses of Psalm 71 (possibly written by David himself, as an old man) closely follow David’s opening prayer here. The Church takes this process of re-embedding Scripture to a new level, as we see the deepest meaning of the entire Old Testament, the fulfillment of what it (sometimes dimly) points to, in the incarnation and life-giving ministry of Jesus Christ. The Church has especially taught Christians to see Christ throughout the Psalms, and to pray its prayers with an understanding that he inhabits them. That is easy to do in this case, as we read in it Christ’s final words on the cross, “into your hand I commit my spirit.”
If you are going to face a threatening and difficult challenge, you want to be prepared. Psalm 31 can be a way to prepare for serious trials of the spirit, whether or not they are compounded by distresses involving money, health, or physical safety. David cries to God for rescue from a place of distress, but for the sake of God’s own righteousness, repudiates the idolatrous ways of those who oppose him, commits himself to the providential hand of God, and gratefully declares from a later vantage point that God was indeed faithful. Are your life and mine reasonably steady right now? If so, now is the time to prepare for trials to come. We should start by reflecting on our own deliverances from past troubles, large or small. Beyond those, we should look repeatedly to the extreme duress that Christ faced, see the perspective he came to have on it (after some struggle), and pray that God steadily build in us that perspective and Spirit-bestowed strength.
David describes himself as physically and spiritually spent. Not only do his avowed enemies oppose him, his neighbors and acquaintances look on him with dread, flee from him, forget him. He forthrightly acknowledges that his own sin lies at the root of the trouble he finds himself in, but it is compounded by the sin of his accusers, who, with ‘lying lips’, ‘speak insolently against the righteous in pride and contempt.’ Jesus knew no sin, but he was made sin for us – in some mysterious way he psychologically bore its weight, becoming a man of sorrows – and of course he was subject to abuse by sinful people he came to save and abandoned by many of his friends.
Being treated contemptuously and being abandoned are among the most difficult experiences any of us can bear. We need the companionship and esteem of others to thrive. David knew the sorrow and ‘wasting’ that results when these are taken away. Christ, whom David prefigures, knew them more profoundly. David and his Lord together direct us to understand that all of our ‘times’, even such as these, are in God’s hand. As profound as that pain is, it will pass, and God will deliver us into a deeper joy. He knows our sin and opposes it far more thoroughly than our critics do, but his response, unlike theirs, is only to show us his steadfast love.
Strengthen me, O Lord, in your strength, that my heart might take courage in times of trial. (v.24)