Psalm 71 A Prayer for Help Shaped by a Life of Worship

An Old Woman Reading, Probably the Prophetess Hannah by Rembrandt (1631)

Psalm 71

1 In you, O LORD, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame.
2 In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me and save me.
3 Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.
4 Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel.
5 For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O LORD, from my youth.
6 Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you.
7 I have been like a portent to many, but you are my strong refuge.
8 My mouth is filled with your praise, and with your glory all day long.
9 Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent.
10 For my enemies speak concerning me, and those who watch for my life consult together.
11 They say, “Pursue and seize that person whom God has forsaken, for there is no one to deliver.”
12 O God, do not be far from me; O my God, make haste to help me!
13 Let my accusers be put to shame and consumed; let those who seek to hurt me be covered with scorn and disgrace.
14 But I will hope continually, and will praise you yet more and more.
15 My mouth will tell of your righteous acts, of your deeds of salvation all day long, though their number is past my knowledge.
16 I will come praising the mighty deeds of the Lord GOD, I will praise your righteousness, yours alone.
17 O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.
18 So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come. Your power
19 and your righteousness, O God, reach the high heavens. You who have done great things, O God, who is like you?
20 You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again.
21 You will increase my honor, and comfort me once again.
22 I will also praise you with the harp for your faithfulness, O my God; I will sing praises to you with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel.
23 My lips will shout for joy when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have rescued.
24 All day long my tongue will talk of your righteous help, for those who tried to do me harm have been put to shame, and disgraced.

The practice of worship shapes the language of our prayers and informs how we talk about God’s action in the world. Psalm 71 bears witness to this process by bringing together language from several psalms to address the situation of a faithful elderly worshiper crying once again for God’s deliverance. These psalms which have been a part of the regular recitations of those seeking to live a righteous life now shape a new prayer lifted up to God. Even as this psalm reflects on what has gone before, it becomes a pattern for others to build their own prayers and songs upon. The psalm becomes a medium where the psalmist proclaims God’s might to generations to come.

A consistent theme throughout the psalms is that God is the source of refuge and deliverance from one’s enemies. God is the refuge, the strong fortress, and the rock, all familiar images for God’s protection. The lifelong faith of the psalmist begins metaphorically from birth where God serves as the midwife delivering the psalmist from the mother’s womb. The trust of the psalmist is formed by a lifetime of worship, prayer, song, and the experience of God’s protection and rescue.

This praying one has been a portent to many. Many assume that they are a portent because they were judged by God for some past action, but it is equally likely that they are a portent of what a life lived under God’s favor is like. Although this is a psalm petitioning for God’s deliverance from enemies there is no indication that the psalmist feels distant from God or judged by God. Even though this is a psalm asking for God’s deliverance and protection it maintains a confident note of praise throughout. The current struggle that the psalmist endures does not erase a lifetime of God’s provision or the language of praise formed in worship.

In a hostile world the vulnerability that comes with old age can be a cause of great anxiety and danger. The enemies in the psalms are often looking for weaknesses that they can exploit for their own benefit, and their action here goes against the intent of the law that God provided Israel. The commandment on honoring father and mother in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 is primarily about caring for parents in their old age and the Hebrew culture was to be a culture that honored the elderly rather than preying on them. Unfortunately, in any conflict it is often the weak: the sick, the elderly, the disabled, women, children, and the poor who often are viewed as expendable. The enemies are portrayed like vultures who are waiting to pick at the psalmist’s carcass and their actions are viewed as shameful. Perhaps they are waiting to seize power from this psalmist and the psalmist, on their own, is unable to resist them as vigorously as they would have been able to when they were younger. Their vulnerability forces them to rely upon God as their refuge and strength and to bring these dishonorable ones to justice.

The life of faith is a life shaped by the praising of God for God’s faithfulness and steadfast love, and even in times of trouble this praise comes naturally to the psalmist’s lips. Even psalms of lamentations will normally turn to praise and this unnamed psalm writer[1] uses rhythms and patterns that mirror several other psalms to give voice to this praise in the midst of their crisis. J. Clinton McCann points to several places in the psalm where it mirrors Psalms 22, 31, 35, 36, 38, and 40 in addition to the verbal links with Psalm 70. (NIB IV: 958) In the midst of their personal crisis the psalmist leans into the hymnbook looking for words to express their concern and confidence in God. It is likely that we see in this psalm the process of building upon the language of faith learned in worship to express the needs to God in a new time.

The psalmist asks that they be allowed to “proclaim your might to all the generations to come.” (18) In this psalm becoming a part of the scriptures this prayer is granted. The actions of this unnamed psalmist weaving together the language they learned from a lifetime of faithfulness to respond to the struggles brought by the vulnerability of growing older becomes one of the many patterns of faithful praising and crying out to God in the midst of their life recorded in the scriptures. God was there as a midwife to begin the faithful one’s life and God will accompany the psalmist and those who read these psalms throughout their life. The writer of this psalm trusts that God is active in the world and can use troubles and calamities and the deliverance from these troubles to shape the life of the faithful one and to witness to God’s providence in the world. Instruments and voices are lifted up to praise God who has been faithful in the past. The psalmist sings in confidence that God will deliver in the present. The lessons of a life shaped by worship are not quickly forgotten.

[1] Psalm 71 is one of the psalms with no attribution.

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