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Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

I’m guessing I’m not alone in being drawn directly to verse 5 in this Psalm, remembering that Jesus speaks these words right before breathing his last in the Gospel of Luke, and Stephen speaks them while being stoned to death in Acts (found in this week’s lection). Reading this week’s selection of Psalm 31 sets up an interesting juxtaposition between these dark and heavy moments and a fairly optimistic Psalm. Declarations of hope and confidence in God as a “rock” and a “refuge”, as one who will “take me out of the net that is hidden for me,” and will, “deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors,” sit in sharp contrast to the reality that the two who most famously pray it are brutally and violently killed at the hands of their enemies and persecutors. It almost seems ironic to allude to words like these as your body is being mutilated and your life taken.

That same sort of contrast is present in Psalm 31 itself, if you read what is left out as we cut from verse 5 to 15. In verse 8, the Psalmist declares, “[You] have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy; you have set my feet in a broad place.” But in the very next line, the Psalmist describes dismal circumstances. “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also” (verse 9). The reflection goes downhill from there, “Those who see me in the street flee from me. I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel” (verses 11b-12). It’s clear that all is not well in the life of this Psalmist.

Of course, there are many, many Psalms that cry out to God from similarly dismal circumstances. One of the characteristics of this one, though, is that despite the desperation that seems present, Psalm 31 is abundantly hopeful, as this week’s selection would lead you to believe. It’s clear even in those first few verses that the Psalmist needs rescuing, but that reality seems secondary to the Psalmist’s declaration of trust and faith in the God who will indeed come and rescue. From a desperate place, this is a Psalm that declares faith in the one who promises to deliver.

Maybe this is why Jesus and then Stephen invoke this Psalm as they go to their deaths. They are clearly in distress; their adversaries are literally in the process of violently killing them. But from that place of desperation, this Psalm is an assertion of faith. It is a proclamation of hope, and a witness to where that hope lies – in the Lord who is a rock and a refuge. As we read about these acts of violence in horror, both Jesus and Stephen pronounce to us that there is hope in the God who has the ability to respond to our cry to “save me in your steadfast love” even when that cry comes from Sheol.

As it ends, Psalm 31 actually turns from addressing the Lord to addressing the us:

Love the Lord, all you his saints.

The Lord preserves the faithful,

but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.

Be strong, and let your heart take courage,

all you who wait for the Lord.

(verses 23-24)

Perhaps this, too, is why Jesus and Stephen invoke this Psalm. Their deaths are meant to invite others into that same love, strength, and courage. These public deaths provide opportunity for public testimony. They are speaking to God, but they are also speaking to the people of God.

With this in mind, we might be careful not to demand from ourselves or our congregants the kind of unfettered hope in the face of despair and death presented in Psalm 31. There are times when we are simply incapable of proclaiming hope as we suffer, and setting those expectations can do damage to those in our congregations who do not feel quite so hopeful. The Psalter is full of laments that give us permission to be weak. So rather than challenging our congregations to live up to this example, perhaps it would be better to invite them to hear it as testimony. As Jesus and Stephen go to their deaths, they invoke this Psalm to tell us that death can’t take their hope away. This is a Psalm that is wonderful to pray, but when we are incapable of that, maybe what we need most is to hear it.

Let us hear that testimony this week. May we be strong and may our hearts take courage as we wait for the Lord.