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To the leader. A Psalm of David.
1 In you, O LORD, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.
2 Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.
3 You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
4 take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge.
5 Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.
6 You hate those who pay regard to worthless idols, but I trust in the LORD.
7 I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have taken heed of my adversities,
8 and have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy; you have set my feet in a broad place.
9 Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.
10 For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.
11 I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.
12 I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.
13 For I hear the whispering of many — terror all around! — as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.
14 But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, “You are my God.”
15 My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16 Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.
17 Do not let me be put to shame, O LORD, for I call on you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go dumbfounded to Sheol.
18 Let the lying lips be stilled that speak insolently against the righteous with pride and contempt.
19 O how abundant is your goodness that you have laid up for those who fear you, and accomplished for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of everyone!
20 In the shelter of your presence you hide them from human plots; you hold them safe under your shelter from contentious tongues.
21 Blessed be the LORD, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was beset as a city under siege.
22 I had said in my alarm, “I am driven far from your sight.” But you heard my supplications when I cried out to you for help.
23 Love the LORD, all you his saints. The LORD preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.
24 Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD.
If you are looking for a strong linear progression in the poetry of a Psalm, then this will not be the Psalm for you. Yet if you are willing to acknowledge that life and faith are rarely linear and that doubt and faith are often places which people in crisis oscillate between. If you can understand that a life of faith is a place where one calls upon the LORD and trusts in the LORD but then must inhabit the space of waiting on the LORD’s actions in the presence of enemies and persecutors who are seen and felt. Then Psalm 31 with its movement from crisis to trust to crisis to trust may be a Psalm that feels complete, honest and genuine to your experience.
Some people have wanted to break the Psalm into two separate Psalms based on the division between verse eight and nine where verses six through eight demonstrate a resolution and a trust in God and verse nine begins again in crisis which seems an even more intense. While the Psalm does have two progressions from crisis to trust and it makes sense to look at the two progressions within it, as I mentioned above life is rarely a nice linear progression from crisis to resolution. Faith and trust may be quickly followed by doubt and despair in the poet’s life. We do not know what type of crisis they are dealing with but there is this continual movement in the Psalmist’s words from the cry to the LORD in the midst of crisis where one asks for God to be the refuge or strength in their life back to the assurance of faith in who the LORD is to the petitioner.
The first four verses of the Psalm call upon God to be their refuge, the one who protects them from shame, their deliverer, their strong fortress and the open who delivers them from a trap. These are all familiar images for God. The Psalmist doesn’t ask for God’s action because of their own righteousness and honor but rather on the LORD’s righteousness and honor. The Psalmist is one who has trusted in the LORD and believes that God will deliver them from this crisis and those who seek to destroy their life and their reputation. Being put to shame, which the Psalmist asks the LORD to prevent, is not merely being embarrassed or humiliated but rather in an honor-shame based society it was to lose one’s standing in society. Dishonor in the ancient world would ruin a person’s name and often could lead to death or ‘a broken life of no hope.’ (Brueggeman, 2014, p. 157)
Verse 5 may sound familiar to many Christians because in Luke’s gospel these words are spoken by Jesus during the crucifixion (Luke 23:46). The Hebrew word for spirit (ruach) means wind, breath, or spirit (in the connotation of one’s life). In the Psalm itself the poet commits their life into God’s hands so that God may deliver them amid their crisis. In Luke’s gospel these words take on a slightly different tone because now Jesus is commending his life into the Father’s hands even as he lets go of life on the cross. The hope of the Psalmist is a hope of God’s deliverance within the span of their days, Christ calls upon God’s deliverance beyond the bounds of death.
For the Jewish people the LORD is one who sees and acts. From the foundational story of the Exodus on the LORD is trusted in to hear, see and act for the one who is in oppression. The corporate trust of the people becomes the individual trust of the Psalmist. In this brief window into the faith of the poet in verses 6-8 we see the how the covenantal faith that they are a part of shapes their trust and expectations of their life with the LORD. Much like the green pastures and still waters of Psalm 23, the broad place of Psalm 31 is a place where the petitioner finds rest and renewal. Yet, this space of rest and renewal do not guarantee a future life free from persecution and trials.
By verse nine the language of distress returns, and it is expressed in language far more intense than originally present in the Psalm. One of the gifts of spending time with the Bible is the deep and sometimes raw honesty that can exist between God and God’s people. Jeremiah, for example, would bear God’s painful emotions to the people but would also use honesty to speak to God on behalf of the people and on behalf of his own experience. The Psalms are emotionally honest poetry, songs and prayers which don’t sanitize the experience of grief, joy, pain, disappointment, fear, distress, jubilation or regret when speaking to God. The Psalms, like all good poetry seeks to move beyond the rational part of our life and moves into the emotions that we must deal with. As Beth Tanner says
Poetry is meant to engage our memories and our imagination and in that transform our relationship with God, so the meaning of this psalm is to examine the thin line between faith and doubt that we all share as we strive to better understand and embrace our relationship with God. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 305)
The Psalmist prays for God to be the God who hears and sees and acts, like the God of the Exodus. The poet remembers the covenant and calls upon the LORD of Israel to intervene in their own struggles. The corporate faith becomes embodied in the individual struggles of faith and life. The life of the faithful one is not free of struggle and oppression, yet even in times of struggle the LORD the God of Israel is the one who the Psalmist places their trust in. The faithful one may question why God appears to not act on their behalf when they are being dishonored and threatened but they trust that their God do see, hear and act faithfully.