Monday, January 9, 2012

Psalm 31; When hope and history don't rhyme

Psalm 31 is a lament… the Jewish blues… a song that wrestles with the times when our beliefs and hopes seem to be totally different to our reality. A song that searches for hope in the midst of suffering or in what  Walter Breuggermann calls times of  disorientation.

… It’s like you’ve gone out to the beach on a calm beautiful  day and you’ve gone out into the calm water and suddenly  a set of huge waves have come crashing through and they pick you up and spin you round and round and round and up and down and over and over and it leaves you wondering which way is up as you gasp for air. And just as you struggle to the surface another wave comes through and it’s down into that tumbling darkness again. Your lungs burning your mind screaming. Wave after wave leaves you wondering if you will see the blue sky again. That’s a picture of the life situation a lament wrestles with. Can you identify with such times?

 In response to the Omagh bombing, that was a blatant attempt to halt the peace process in Northern Ireland, the band U2 wrote a song called peace on earth and in it is the line “but hope and history won’t rhyme’ and that sums up the situation the writer of Psalm 31 finds themselves. How does a person of faith live with this gap between what they are experiencing when as the psalmist says they feel like broken pottery thrown out on some rubbish dump like refuse and the belief in a God who is a refuge and whose unbreakable promises are for our good.

One of  the reasons I love the psalms is that they are not some collection of plastic praise songs expounding like a flash ad campaign that it’s all beer and lamingtons, Mercedes and Versace   for those who follow Jesus. They are real, They are written by real people, who are struggling with the realities of the ebbs and flows and ups and downs of life, real life with all its hardships and joys. They have real questions, but they also show us a real faith in the reality of a good and gracious God. Because of that they have been a source of great comfort for believers for well over two thousand years. That’s why when I read them I find hope and help. That’s why I love Psalm 31 so much, it gives us hope and helps us as we face suffering and sorrow in life, it is an example of faith and putting ones trust in God.

The Psalm starts out as a plea to God for help in the midst of suffering. The reoccurring theme and motif is of God as a refuge. It is mentioned four times in the opening part of this psalm along with the metaphors of God as fortress and rock. God is my refuge,  A place of shelter in the storm: A place of security amidst the swirl of battle. If you’ve familiar with ‘The second movie, and book in the Lord of the Ring’s Trilogy’ for the horse men of Rohan that place was Helm’s deep a keep that had never been breached where they retreat in times of trouble to make their stand. But as the forces of Saraman come even these walls fall. For the Psalmist his  hope is not placed in brick and mortar but in God.

The Psalmist does not look to God for a quick fix or as an escape from the reality he finds himself in. It’s not like God is some sort of drug that a person uses to try and escape from  pain and worry. Its not a place to hunker in the bunker till it all blows over. In the Lord of the Rings its only as the defenders of Helms deep ride out to face the enemy that they find help as Gandolf leading reinforcements comes to their aid just  like he promised.   The psalmist hope is that God’s righteousness will prevail that God is with him and will lead and guide him.

 In the surfing movie film “in God’s Hand’s”  one of the pioneers of big wave surfing talks about being trapped under a massive set of waves at a big break in Hawaii, he talks of being under for over a minute and then suddenly seeing a patch of blue and being able to follow it to the surface. He still had to do his part swim and hold his breath, he had trained for such possibilities but he was shown a way through back to the surface. The Psalmists plea is  lead and guide me O Lord.

The plea for help in God finishes with a declaration of faith and trust, which for us who look back from beyond the cross and the resurrection sound familiar “into your hands I commit my Spirit”.  He hands over his life, his circumstances his future. This declaration of trust  is backed up by what the Psalmist knows of God’s character, revealed in his saving acts in history,. Just like in psalm 136, that God’s steadfast love endures forever.

We too can call out to God in the midst of suffering and hardship, knowing God’s character and goodness. That God hears us and is present with us and able to lead and to guide and help us to stand.

The psalm moves on and becomes a tale of woe, the psalmist pours out his sorrow with vivid metaphors. I feel like broken pottery cast away. We do not know what his affliction is but his key issue is that it has caused him to shunned and abandoned by his neighbours. There is an element that they have wrongly accused him. Yes there is an illness or maybe financial hardship, tragedy has befallen him . If it from David’s life we don’t know have the circumstance, but we know that David had suffered from times when he was  conspired against even by his own son, Absalom. That he had to flee his royal city and throne and go once again wondering in the wilderness.

The thing that really hurt however is the assumption of everyone that the psalmist has obviously done something to deserve this. We in our western culture do not get the full strength of the idea of shaming. It is not just a being made to feel we are unworthy, rather it is an ostracising and a cutting off.  We see it in the gospels in the way in which tax collectors were treated by the Pharisees and religious people of Jesus day. Even the paralysed man let down through the ceiling, whom the Pharisees were probably thinking had done something wrong to deserve this. Jesus made these people whole and welcomed them back into being God’s people. Sadly even today there are those  who would say that misfortune was a sign of God’s punishment and prosperity a sign of doing the right thing so that God would bless us. But The psalmist and the scriptures do not hold to that. The book of Job and much of the wisdom literature in the Old Testament, reject that as they wrestle with ‘Why bad things happen to good people?”

 We could go on and wrestle with that, but the psalmist does not do that, rather the writer expresses how in the midst of this he reacts and finds refuge in God. The accusations are false and in the face of them and suffering the psalmist puts his trust in the God of truth.

The psalm know becomes a psalm of trust. The psalmist moves on in verse 14 to  a declaration of trust in God.  Too small words change the tone of the psalm and change everything… “ But I”… But I trust in you, O Lord”. There is a saying about how we see life that goes, ‘there were two people in prison one looks out the window and sees bars and the other looks out and see stars”. The reality that this psalm says there is both, both are a reality. But here the Psalmist realises that to find refuge in God we must be prepared to put our trust in the God we know. Beyond the bars and even the stars to fix our eyes on God:  The God revealed in history and in his saving acts, God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.

The psalmist  places his times all his circumstances in God’s hands because he knows that God’s steadfast love endures forever. Echoing the Aaronic blessing he prays that God might make the light of God’s face shine into the darkness.  The refuge he seeks is the presence of God.  

It kind of sounds in verse 17 and 18 that the Psalmist gets angry and wants to seek revenge on those who have lied and shunned him, and we know that anger is a natural emotion in the face of suffering,  grief and tragedy and being wronged by others.

 But this psalm is about  trusting God righteousness.That the God of truth will not allow falsehood and deception and in justice to last forever. In Luke’s sermon on the plain we see this in the beatitudes’ of Jesus where those who would have been seen as being cursed and cut off from God’s blessing are called blessed by Jesus, the poor, the grief stricken, the Hungry, the hated and excluded because of Christ’s name, where as those who may see themselves as blessed now are called to be careful. Woe to the rich, those who are full, those whose lives are full of laughter, constantly amused and who are idolised by this world.  This psalm challenges us to look and see where is God in the midst of suffering?… God is with and for the suffering, the poor, the grieving, the outcast and ostracised, those who ignore them or who write them off or who participate in increasing their suffering will find that their plans come to naught. The Psalmist asserts this hope.  

Ultimately this is a psalm of praise: the Psalmist  turns from lament to praise. It’s as if in the midst of the churning waves he has spotted that patch of blue and it stills the Psalmist’s mind. As he has made that affirmation of trust and surrender into God’s hands there is the realisation that God is with and for him. In the face of his own suffering he is able to call God’s people to give God praise.

He says he had felt like a besieged city and there was no hope in sight, he had felt like God was not looking, Could it be that God turned his back, was out to lunch, had packed up and taken a holiday. NO!  The Psalmist has again become orientated properly. He has found a solid place to stand.  As he had surrendered his life into God’s hands he became aware again that God answers prayer that God is with us. We don’t know if everything comes up roses, we are not told, we are simply told that God has drawn near God has heard, God has answered and shown his steadfast love.. Therefore we should give God praise. All the saints us included are encouraged to love the LORD. To keep following him, not to be turned away and discouraged by even the darkest of circumstance  but to  take courage because as the psalmist discovered God is with the humble who seek him.

How does this connect with us today?

Firstly, and possibly most importantly, this psalm is placed in the mouth of Jesus on the cross in Luke’s gospel. I said before that some of its words are familiar. In Luke 23:46 Jesus last words are recorded as “Father, into your hands do I commit my Spirit”. With those words Jesus identifies with the suffering and faith of psalm 31, Physical suffering, but also the unrighteous rejection of the people he came to save. They write him off. It allows us to see that God identifies with our sorrow our suffering, just as the psalm says he does. But also it shows us the faith that Jesus has and the faith that you and I are called to have. Jesus puts his trust and faith in his Father, even at the point of death… Father I trust you, I have faith that even though I am going to die that you are here that you are sovereign that you will work your purposes and salvation out in this situation. Not hey Dad get me out of here, not unleash those legions of angels, more by the way that the roman army had. But I trust you I know your steadfast faithful love. It’s a faith that faces suffering even death knowing that God is sovereign and good. After the cross came the resurrection, the joy set before Christ of new life for all who would believe.

  The same words are echoed in the mouth of the first Christian martyr Stephen in Acts 7:59 “Lord receive my Spirit”.  When hope and history don’t rhyme we don’t throw the hope out we cling to it even more strongly. In the word’s of another U2 song ‘walk on’ dedicated to Burmese freedom activist Aung San Suu Kyi,  ‘You’re packing your suit case for a place you’ve never been a place that has to be believed to be seen’.

Secondly, it calls us whatever the circumstances to trust in God. Yes in the midst of suffering and hardship it is right to cry out to God, with the same confidence that the psalmist found. God hears and God knows our suffering and sorrow, God is able to be a refuge a steady place to stand in the face of the storms of life. Yes it is OK to pour out our tale of woe to the LORD, God understands, Jesus has been there and knows our pain, it’s not wrong to  groan, God can be trusted with even the most heartfelt and deepest sorrow. But the way forward is in the face of every reason why not to to say “But I”… “But I will trust the Lord” to hand ourselves over to God’s care and God’s keeping, trusting in a sovereign and compassionate God. Then to give him praise, to acknowledge in the darkness or even in the smallest hint of dawn, the smallest patch of blue sky, God’s sovereignty, goodness and mercy.

 Let me finish by quoting bible scholar Gerald Wilson in concluding his comments on this Psalm he says

“Like Jesus we cannot assume that committing our spirits into the hand of the God of truth will result in deliverance from suffering and death. (although I do believe people that God heals and saves and comes to our aid) Indeed, to commit one’s spirit in this way is to give up control or expectation over the outcome of life and so trust in the redemptive love of God, come what may. It is giving up that makes it possible in the final analysis to enter the refuge of God. The taunts and ridicule do not disappear. They simply pass without harm because we have passed beyond caring. The one who gives up life finds it. And in surrendering our claim to what we had thought to be life, we discover the true nature of living in the power of God alone and in his presence.”

“Be strong and let your heart take courage all you who wait on the Lord.”  


  1. Thanks for this post Howard. We should connect soon. Jason

  2. Love to catch up some time Jason. Valued the time we spent together last year on the barrier.