On Psalm 31
1In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me. 2Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.
3You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, 4take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge. 5Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God. [NRSV]
Our responsive reading from Psalm 31 cries to God for refuge and protection. But the psalm is much more. Psalm 31 is a prayer and lament in which the poet cries out to God for relief from shame and oppression. But it is also a poem of anger and hope. To understand the Psalm and how it may serve us, we need to try to understand the cultural and personal situation of the poet.
First, we recited only a small portion of the psalm this morning. We read the opening prayer in which the poet asks for God’s help and in return the poet commits his or her spirit to God … just as Jesus did on the cross and Stephen did as he died a martyr. And the last two verses we recited are in the middle of poet’s lament. It is this lament that tells us much about the poet … and ourselves.
9Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. 10For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away. 11I 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. 12I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel. 13For I hear the whispering of many— terror all around!— as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.
14But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.” 15My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors. 16Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love. 17Do 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. 18Let the lying lips be stilled that speak insolently against the righteous with pride and contempt. [NRSV]
Who might have been the poet? What does the lament tell us about the poet? Well, it is surely someone who is grieving and possibly, grieving deeply to the point where the poet has lost interest in basic living such as eating causing his strength to fail and his bones to waste. But grieving what?
We are told that the poet is scorned by his enemies and a horror to his neighbors to the point where everyone is avoiding the poet. The people want to get rid of the poet – he hears of a plot to kill him.
He is persecuted and put to shame. He is unjustly accused by fraudulent claims. Yet he considers himself a righteous person.
So who might the poet be? I can imagine two possibilities … though I’m sure there are many others. One is possibly the poet was a leper. Leprosy was feared among the ancients and those who were plagued by it were often cast out and ostracized by no fault of their own. Indeed, we can imagine that a leper would grieve deeply at the loss of health and the subsequent consequences. He would be frightening to his neighbors and certainly some would claim that he was being punished by God. He would be unclean, so no one would want to touch him or associate with him. He would be ejected from the temple and from all social interaction. Easily, he would feel persecuted.
If indeed, the poet was a leper, he must be given credit for not being angry at God and rejecting God, but rather seeking God out for help and redemption.
Another possibility I thought of was that the poet may be a woman who had crossed some social barrier. Women were very restricted in ancient times … they were all but forbidden to have a public life. A woman had to be attached to some man, either her husband, or if she did not have a husband, then a brother or father and if neither of them were have her, then a cousin. Indeed if she were bereft of a man in her life she could be reduced to homelessness and prostitution. Maybe this woman decided to buck the system and claim her independence from the male-dominated environment. Maybe she decided to enter some legitimate means of living. For example, if she had been married and her husband had died, she decided to tend their farm herself. Now she struggles not to have the farm taken from her by her nearest male relative and she’s made a public claim on it.
Both men and women would have been scandalized that she would break this age-old tradition that everyone thought protected women from hard labor, bankruptcy, assault and so forth. Now she was calling upon God to help her find refuge from her family and neighbors who are horrified at what she did. She’s probably homeless now, hungry and rejected.
And there are probably many other possibilities. If the psalm were written today who might the poet be today?
One possibility is that the poet is gay and has come out to his family and neighbors. They are scandalized and horrified. He now turns to God for refuge from the ostracizing and rejection and criticism.
I suspect that you could also find other cases of someone who fits the poet’s description.
In these many possibilities, Psalm 31 provides comfort and lessons:
19O 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! 20In the shelter of your presence you hide them from human plots; you hold them safe under your shelter from contentious tongues. 21Blessed be the Lord, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was beset as a city under siege. 22I 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. [NRSV]
The poet cries out to God for refuge. He (or she) wants God to be a strong fortress. The poet praises God for divine protection from human plots, gossip and lies. He praises God for always loving him even when he is assaulted. He cries to God to save him from his enemies. Indeed, the Poet praises and hopes that God is on his side and not on the side of his enemies [vv19-22].
When we are distressed and upset, we often want to be closed away from what distresses us. Our Poet wants to be hidden away in a fortress safe and sound. We may want to go home, lock all of our doors and be left alone. We want to be in a safe place away from danger.
So the Poet turns to God for this safe haven. He wants God to defend him and defeat his enemies. You can almost picture the Poet being in some medieval castle with God in golden armor fending off his – and your – enemies. We lean on God and God conquers.
Indeed there are churches that take this almost literally, teaching that they are the chosen people and God is defending them from the fallen world. Their church is God’s castle – a safe and mighty refuge. They isolate themselves from the world around them and close themselves off from the godless world constantly in fear of being corrupted by the world and all of its constant changes.
But this is not what God’s fortress is. It is not a place to which to run to escape your enemies or your problems. Rather it is a fortress that we carry in our souls in our on-going journeys through life. It is the strength of God’s love and vision and hope.
God’s fortress and refuge is not a castle with walls and towers and moats and gates enclosing a frightened people. God’s fortress is an open garden inviting one and all to share in it as long as they respect the garden. It is a garden of love and inclusiveness of diversity.
Have you ever been to the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx? They are the most beautiful and diverse gardens: Azaleas, Peonies, Tulips, Lilacs, Magnolias, Cherries, Crabapples and much more. But you must follow the rules about exploring the gardens. And of course you need to want to be there and be appreciative of what you see.
So it is with God’s garden “fortress”. It is a beautiful garden of people, and of ideas and of love and compassion and understanding and respect. God invites us in. And if we go in with honest intent, God indeed will cover us with the divine and steadfast love.
And in that garden we receive perspective on our troubles and distresses. We discover that we are not alone. We discover that there is a larger creation and vision beyond us and that here in the Garden of God we discover we have a role in that vision. Sometimes in that Garden we will find ourselves or find a truer, more fulfilling calling.
But we must accept our boundaries and our limits, and accept that it is God alone who finally brings righteousness and goodness – albeit through our faith and righteous living.
Yet we are imperfect – but that’s a good thing. Only God is perfect. And if we were perfect we would be God. And do you really want that responsibility? God embraces our imperfection and works with it as we kneel side by side with God to cultivate the Garden of God.
Earlier in the psalm the Poet in v6 claims that God hates those who do not worship God:
6You hate those who pay regard to worthless idols, but I trust in the Lord. 7I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have taken heed of my adversities, 8and have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy; you have set my feet in a broad place. [NRSV]
Interestingly the very first verse is also translated [in the Jewish Study Bible] as “I detest those who rely on empty folly, but I trust in the Lord.”
This ambiguity actually allows us some deep understanding of how the poet is coming closer to God. Who hates? Does God hate? Or does the Poet hate? Is the Poet projecting his anger onto God? I suggest that whatever trauma has been afflicted on the Poet, it would be enormously unusual if he were not angry: angry at God, angry at the people who shun him, angry at the people who persecute him and maybe anger at himself. I suggest that believing God shared that anger has a measure of perverted comfort. Yet the Poet falls back on God’s steadfast love. He is relying on God to make right his life – even though he sees that righteous act through the lens of his anger and praises God that he has not succumbed to his enemies. Instead of lashing out and striking at those he calls enemies the Poet is relying on God to deal with his so-called enemies.
I suggest that we all at times project our angers on God. I was reading an article the other day of how some in the Congress is promoting cutting services to seniors such as Medicare and to the poor, such as Medicaid to overcome the national deficit that, the article reminds us, was caused by tax breaks for the wealthy, two wars and a recession brought on by greed.
Now I became angry. Why should the elderly and the poor be paying for what was done by greed and misappropriated wealth? How could God not be angry at this given all of the biblical passages crying out for the helpless, the poor, the homeless and honoring parents?
But like the Poet it is important to rely on God. It is not our job to try to fix the world all by ourselves. That is God’s job to fix the world but God needs us to help. It is our job to be agents of God and to do what God gives us to do – as little as that may seem at times – to help “fix” the world. Anger my motivate us, but it is important to follow what Jesus taught us in order to respond to whatever angered us. We are called to speak truth to power in love and have faith that God will sort it all out. Even in anger, we are to respond with respect, care, and boldness, and never stoop to incivility and violence. We must remember that only God finally can turn the world – and our lives – around. But God will – can – only do this if we are ready to let go of our need to play God, and let go and let God.
And so the Poet understood. Without God, his life would never turn around. No fighting of his enemies by him would do that. Only if we have faith in God, can God transform us for the better.
The poet ends with an admonition:
23Love the Lord, all you his saints. The Lord preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily. 24Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.
– Psalm 31, NRSV; from Oremus Bible Browser (http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Psalm+31&vnum=yes&version=nrsv)
Have faith. Faith is the route to God and God can carry us through the traumas, upsets, uncertainties and the chaos of our times. We need to find our way to the Garden of God and carry that in our souls each day of our lives.
Think about it …
God’s grace and love be with you …