A sermon on Psalm 31 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 22 August 2021
On Christmas Eve, 1968 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders went where no human being had gone before. In the Apollo 8 space craft they were the first people to go to the moon. They didn’t land on the moon, but they orbited the moon 20 times and were the first people to see the side of the moon that always faces away from the Earth.
Each time they passed behind the moon they lost radio contact with the Earth for 40 minutes. At 380 000 km from home, eclipsed completely by the moon without any means to communicate with any other people, they became the most isolated of all human beings up to that time.
As they emerged from their fourth pass from behind the moon they witnessed for the first time the rising of the Earth above the horizon of the moon. And between the three of them they gave this message to the people on Earth.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
It was a message from the limits of human experience.
This is what we find in Psalm 31. A message from the limits of human experience. It reveals a man pushed to his limits in physical, emotional, social and spiritual suffering. But as he emerged, he delivered a message for the rest of us to give us strength and courage for the trials that await us. And it is no coincidence that when the Lord Jesus reached his limit, when the judgment of his Father had been extinguished upon him, he quoted verse 5 of this Psalm.
Into your hands I commit my spirit.
And bowed his head and died.
Psalm 31 is a psalm of David. Notice, firstly, that it describes a time of crisis. A period of intense pain. In a couple of places he describes his suffering in physical terms.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and my body with grief. My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning. My strength fails because of my affliction and my bones grow weak.
But it is clear that both this physical pain and the emotional suffering that was causing it were the result of his social distress. His enemies had plotted against him. They had set a trap to destroy him. They had surrounded him with their lies and their slander in order to ruin his reputation. Their lies had taken root in his community. His neighbours couldn’t trust him. His friends were afraid to associate with him and they avoided him. They ran away from him when he came near. He felt like he’d been forgotten, like someone long dead, like he’d been thrown away, left on the garbage heap like a piece of broken pottery. He felt alone and under siege and this emotional pain was destroying his health. He felt sick and weak like he was wasting away. His distress was so great, he felt like he had used up all his resources of body and soul and mind. He had been pushed so far to the limits of endurance that he even cried out to the Lord in his panic and alarm,
I am cut off from your sight,
as if the Lord could no longer see him. As if even God had forsaken him.
Notice secondly, however, that in his distress David turned to the Lord. Despite his fear that he’d been abandoned by God, he did not let his feelings lead his faith away from the Lord. Instead he let his faith in God calm his feelings. A person threatened by a flood looks for high ground. A person being chased by an army looks for a fortress. A person who feels confined and restricted looks for open spaces. And in his distress David looked to the Lord.
In you, O Lord –
Notice the first four words of the whole psalm. In you, O Lord. This whole psalm is a prayer to God.
In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge. Turn your ear to me. Come quickly to my rescue. Be my rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me. Free me from the trap that is set for me. Redeem me, O Lord, the God of truth.
Surrounded by enemies who had assaulted his reputation with their lies, who had laid a trap for him with their words, he appealed to the God of truth. The true and living God against whom all other powers are helpless. And because he is true and faithful and righteous and holy, the Lord sets the standard of truth and defends the innocent against lies. Twice in Psalm 31 David cries out,
Let me not be put to shame.
He doesn’t mean that he feels ashamed of something he has done. He means that if his enemies’ lies bring him down, he will be disgraced in his community. To not be put to shame is to be vindicated before his family and friends and neighbours. They will see him as he truly is. And so David appeals to the Lord, to vindicate him against his enemies’ slander. To silence them with the truth. To expose their lies and to prove his innocence.
Notice thirdly, how he appealed to the Lord not on the basis of his own goodness, but on the basis of the Lord’s goodness.
In your righteousness deliver me. I will be glad and rejoice in your love. You saw my affliction. You knew the anguish of my soul. You have not handed me over to my enemy. Be merciful to me. How great is your goodness.
Although David is innocent in this case where his enemies have attacked him, he doesn’t dwell on his own worthiness. For before the Lord he is unworthy. No human being can exalt himself in the presence of the holy God. No human can justify himself before the Lord. But because the Lord is worthy, worthy of praise, the great saviour and deliverer, David is confident to appeal to him directly. Again we see the way to speak to the Lord. He doesn’t have to bribe him with flattery. He asks save me. Deliver me. Rescue me. Redeem me. Free me from the trap. Be for me who I believe you to be. My rock. My strength. My God.
Notice fourthly that because his confidence is in the Lord’s goodness and not his own, he can make the ultimate surrender.
Into your hands I commit my spirit …
You are my God …
My times are in your hands …
He acknowledges that life and death are in the Lord’s power and that the Lord can do whatever he wants. And so David holds nothing back. His health, his strength and his reputation are in the Lord’s power to give or to take away. And so because he trusts in the Lord’s goodness with every fibre of his being, he entrusts to him all that he has left. Even his own life. Everything happens for a reason. Every stumble. Every fall. But David does not need to know the reason. Because he knows the Lord in whom he trusts. All he wanted was to know that the God he trusted in was still with him. His deepest wish, his most fervent prayer was,
Let your face shine on your servant.
In verses 19 to 24 we see that the time of crisis has passed. David had been pushed to the limit of human experience. And he survived. He had returned alive with a message for us. Firstly a message of praise to God.
How great is your goodness which you have stored up for those who fear you. Praise be to the Lord for he showed his wonderful love to me when I was in a besieged city.
Although it is written in words of praise to God, it is a message for us. He says, “I trusted God and it worked. Put your faith in him, hand over to him every worry, every concern, every fear, put into his hands your own life, because he can be trusted.”
Secondly, a message of encouragement to his readers.
Love the Lord, all his saints. The Lord preserves the faithful, but the proud he pays back in full.
He means, “Don’t be like those who trust in false idols. Don’t be like those who trust in themselves. Love the Lord.”
Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.
It is a message that even at our limits, when we feel like giving up, when we feel like God has given up on us, he hasn’t. All we need is the courage to trust him and he will carry us through our limits and all the way back.
It is no coincidence that when all had been completed upon the cross, the Lord Jesus quoted this psalm.
Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.
It reminds us that for Jesus the pain of the cross wasn’t physical or emotional. It was social and spiritual. There he was surrounded by his enemies and their taunts and mockery. “Hail, King of the Jews!” “We have no king but Caesar.” “Let him come down from his cross so we may believe him.” “He saved others, but he cannot save himself.” “Let God rescue him, if he delights in him.” Just like in Psalm 31, the psalm of David, Israel’s leaders had rejected Jesus, the son of David, as their king, their Messiah.
It reminds us that the cross was not just a painful form of execution, but it was public. Jesus was being put to shame, to public disgrace. Even the law of God said that anyone who hangs on a tree is under a curse. So that even his friends abandoned him. Judas betrayed him. Peter denied him. And the rest had run away. Only the women had the courage to watch from a distance. The point of the cross from his enemies’ point of view was not just to kill Jesus, but to discredit him once and for all.
It reminds us that Jesus was being executed for telling the truth. “Are you the Christ, the Son of God?” the high priest asked him. “I am,” he answered. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked him. “It is as you have said,” he answered. He offered no explanations. He made no excuses. But he did not avoid the truth, and for that they destroyed him.
It reminds us of Jesus’ complete trust in his Father. “Father,” he had prayed in the garden. “If it is possible, take this cup from me. Yet not my will, but yours be done.” And although he felt forsaken and abandoned, Jesus never abandoned his faith or his trust or his obedience to his Father’s will. So that at the end, at the limit of his endurance, no one took the life of Jesus. But he gave it freely. And with a loud cry he gave up his life. Not with a whimper, but with a shout, to show that he had strength for more.
Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.
Lastly, it reminds us that the message of Easter is that the Father has vindicated his Son. His enemies spread their slander. They told their lies against him. But God revealed the truth about him by raising him from the dead. His Son was innocent, he told the truth, he is who he said he was, the Christ, the Son of God, the king of Israel. The verdict of guilty had been dismissed. The sentence of death had been overturned. His case had gone to a higher court, the highest court, and the Father, the judge of the living and the dead, had pronounced his Son innocent and restored him to life. His shame had been transformed into glory. And the curse of the cross had become a blessing. Jesus had been sent to the very limit of human experience. He faced everything that you fear. Pain. Loneliness. Disgrace and death. But he had returned with a message. It is a message for you who will follow him to the limit of human experience. And that message is the same as Psalm 31.
Love the Lord. The Lord preserves the faithful, but the proud he will pay back in full. Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.
“Trust him,” says the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. “Because I did and he can be trusted.”