Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 - link to the NRSV text
A shorter entry this week than normal. Hope you find it helpful! [NOTE: I’d love to hear your thoughts also, so please comment!]
Psalm 31 is a psalm of lament, opening with a petition for protection and help: “In you, O LORD, I seek refuge” (v. 1). Protection imagery abounds in the opening verses of the psalm: “refuge” (v. 1), “rock of refuge” and “strong fortress” (v. 2), “my rock and my fortress” (v. 3). Shepherd imagery potentially comes forth in the second half of verse 3, echoing the language of Psalm 23:
name’s sake lead [Hebrew root: nchh] me and guide [Hebrew root: nhl] me.” (31:3b)
“He leads [Hebrew root: nhl] me beside still waters…He leads [Hebrew root: nchh] me in right paths for his name’s sake…” (23:2-3)
The image of “hand” (Hebrew: yad) is important in Psalm 31; the term appears four times. The first time it appears, it is in the verse famously quoted in Luke’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion: “Into your [God’s] hand I commit my spirit” (v. 5). In verse 8, which is not part of our lection for this Sunday, the psalmist notes that God has not “delivered me into the hand of the enemy [Hebrew: ‘oyev].” This hand imagery is repeated in verse 15, putting God’s hand in parallel opposition to the hand of “my enemies [Hebrew: ‘oyevai] and persecutors.”
This imagery of refuge and God’s hand; these are signs of protection and providence, in which the psalmist is laying their hope and trust. It is into this refuge, into God’s hand that the psalmist is entrusting their very breath [Hebrew: ruach] (v. 5). This movement from complaint to confession of trust is characteristic of most lament psalms (see Hopkins, Journey Through the Psalms, 105-06).
In this case, the shift takes places at verse 14 with the “But I trust…” The psalmist moves from complaint and petition for refuge and help to confidence in God’s ability to fulfill the request. Thus the psalmist can confidently declare that their “time,” that is their destiny and outcome is ultimately in God’s hand and control, and thus God can deliver the psalmist from the hand and control of their enemies.
Verse 16 concludes the lection for the Fifth Sunday of Easter with a request for divine favor, summed up in the phrase “Let your face shine upon your servant” (cf. Num 6:25), and this favor is expressed in the hope of salvation or deliverance from the trouble or affliction: “save me in your steadfast love” (v. 16).
Like most psalms of lament, the place of lament is not the end of the story. Lament in the psalms usually makes a shift towards confidence and hope, looking towards the future that the psalmist anticipates that God will provide. But this hope is deeper, richer than some of the trite theology we see around suffering in our own cultures. These aren’t cliché statements thrown about, like “It’ll all be okay” or “Everything happens for a reason.”
Lament does two things simultaneously, two things that in many ways we have regulated as unable to coexist: anguish and hope. Too often we feel we can only exist in the dark places of life as one or the other; if we have hope, then we shouldn’t feel anguish. Or if we are in anguish, we don’t allow ourselves to see any hope. But the psalms of lament push us beyond this compartmentalization of grief and pain to a place where they can maybe coexist together.
I really think that lament is about more than just moving from “plea to praise” as Claus Westermann observed (see Hopkins, 105), though it does do that. But I think that movement is not a linear pattern of going from step A to B to C and out the other side, but the movement of the lament is one that recognizes that places A, B, and C exist together in our times of struggle and heartache. It’s not that you must go from complain to praise, but that maybe it is possible (though difficult!) to be in both places together.