Psalm 61 A Life Dependent on God

Wartburg Castle, Eisenach, Germany. Photo by Robert Scarth shared under creative commons 2.0

Psalm 61

<To the leader: with stringed instruments. Of David.>
1 Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer.
2 From the end of the earth I call to you, when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I;
3 for you are my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.
4 Let me abide in your tent forever, find refuge under the shelter of your wings. Selah
5 For you, O God, have heard my vows; you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name.
6 Prolong the life of the king; may his years endure to all generations!
7 May he be enthroned forever before God; appoint steadfast love and faithfulness to watch over him!
8 So I will always sing praises to your name, as I pay my vows day after day.

In C. S. Lewis’ classic parable, The Great Divorce, the experience of hell is a grey city where the inhabitants choose to live a life that is increasingly joyless and friendless as they move further and further away from their neighbors. An escape from this grey city is readily available if the people of the place let go of their own security and accept their reliance on God’s grace (which is both a painful and healing process in the dream that forms the book) but most sullenly either remain or return to this increasingly private hell which they choose instead of heaven. One of the paradoxes of our current time is that we live in a time in society where we have resources and comforts unavailable to people at any other time in history and yet as our affluence has increased our depression and anxiety have also increased. Perhaps this poem that the psalmist lifts up from the end of the earth has something to speak to a people who have lived in the anxiety of attempting to make meaning for oneself and finding, in the words of Ecclesiastes, that it is all vanity. That perhaps Augustine’s confession that ‘our heart is restless until it rests in you” may be the gospel we need to lead us back home.

This psalm is the appeal of an individual for God’s help in the midst their trouble. The psalmist cries to God from ‘the end of the earth’ which could be a geographical location, being far away from the temple, but more likely is a perception of the psalmist’s distance from God. In the midst of the trouble, they are experiencing they have found their own resources insufficient. They are in need of a place they can escape from the rising floodwaters. They are faint of heart and fading fast.[1] The appropriate place to turn in their distress is to their God who in a flourish of images of strength is the psalmist’s refuge, strong tower, tent to abide within, and wings to be sheltered under. The crisis of the psalmist has shaken them out of their self-reliance, demonstrated their distance from their God, and caused them to cry out to return to their God’s presence.

The psalm moves from trouble to trust. The God of the psalmist is one who hears their petitions and vows. The heritage, or inheritance, mentioned in verse five is often associated with the land that God has promised. In an agricultural society one’s security is intimately linked to the land and the provision of weather at the appropriate time. Yet, one’s security is also determined by the actions of the leaders of that land. The king, and here it would refer to a Davidic king, would provide the physical security for the land. But theologically the king is merely a means by which God provides for the covenant people and the military security of Israel is ultimately provided not by swords and spears but by God’s protection. Martin Luther captures this idea when expounding on the petition asking God for our daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer noting that it not only includes food and drink but also, “upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.” (Luther 1978, 36) The psalmist realizes that the way of self-sufficiency is vanity and that their life is dependent upon God’s gracious provision which comes in many forms.

The psalm promises a grateful response to God’s act of provision. A skeptical reader may view this as an attempt to bribe God to get one’s way, but the psalms have stated in other places that God needs nothing that the psalmist can give.[2] As Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger can state, “Israel, however, was not aware that the transaction could be reduced to a quid pro quo, an attempt to bribe YHWH.” (Brueggemann 2014, 272) The appropriate response to God’s provision is praise, thanksgiving, promising to serve one’s God with whatever one has to offer. Self-reliance has led to isolation from God and trouble. Repentance has allowed one to return to reliance upon God’s provision and a response of gratitude for God’s gracious protection, provision, and shelter.

[1] As Beth Tanner notes, the root Hebrew word translated faint demonstrates a serious distress and proximity to death. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 511)

[2] For example Psalm 50: 8-13.

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