Psalm 31
Expositor's Bible Commentary
To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David. In thee, O LORD, do I put my trust; let me never be ashamed: deliver me in thy righteousness.
Psalm 31:1-24THE swift transitions of feeling in this psalm may seem strange to colder natures whose lives run smoothly, but reveal a brother-soul to those who have known what it is to ride on the top of the wave and then to go down into its trough. What is peculiar to the psalm is not only the inclusion of the whole gamut of feeling, but the force with which each key is struck and the persistence through all of the one ground tone of cleaving to Jehovah. The poetic temperament passes quickly from hope to fear. The devout man in sorrow can sometimes look away from a darkened earth to a bright sky, but the stern realities of pain and loss again force themselves in upon him. The psalm is like an April day, in which sunshine and rain chase, each other across the plain.

"The beautiful uncertain weather,

Where gloom and glory meet together"

makes the landscape live, and is the precursor of fruitfulness."

The stream of the psalmist’s thoughts now runs in shadow of grim cliffs and vexed by opposing rocks, and now opens out in sunny stretches of smoothness; but its source is "In Thee, Jehovah, do I take refuge" (Psalm 31:1): and its end is "Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all ye that wait for Jehovah" (Psalm 31:24).

The first turn of the stream is in Psalm 31:1-4, which consist of petitions and their grounds. The prayers reveal the suppliant’s state. They are the familiar cries of an afflicted soul common to many psalms, and presenting no special features. The needs of the human heart are uniform, and the cry of distress is much alike on all lips. This sufferer asks, as his fellows have done and will do, for deliverance, a swift answer, shelter and defence, guidance and leading, escape from the net spread for him. These are the commonplaces of prayer, which God is not wearied of hearing, and which fit us all. The last place to look for originality is in the "sighing of such as be sorrowful." The pleas on which the petitions rest are also familiar. The man who trusts in Jehovah has a right to expect that his trust will not be put to shame, since God is faithful. Therefore the first plea is the psalmist’s faith, expressed in Psalm 31:1 by the word which literally means to flee to a refuge. The fact that he has done so makes his deliverance a work of God’s "righteousness." The metaphor latent in "flee for refuge" comes into full sight in that beautiful plea in Psalm 31:3, which unsympathetic critics would call illogical, "Be for me a refuge rock, for Thou art my rock." Be what Thou art; manifest Thyself in act to be what Thou art in nature: be what I, Thy poor servant, have taken Thee to be. My heart has clasped Thy revelation of Thyself and fled to this strong tower. Let me not be deceived and find it incapable of sheltering me from my foes. "Therefore for Thy name’s sake," or because of that revelation and for its glory as true in men’s sight, deliver me. God’s nature as revealed is the strongest plea with Him, and surely that cannot but be potent and acceptable prayer which says; Be what Thou art, and what Thou hast taught me to believe Thee.

Psalm 31:5-8 prolong the tone of the preceding, with some difference, inasmuch as God’s past acts are more specifically dwelt on as the ground of confidence. In this turn of the stream, faith does not so much supplicate as meditate, plucking the flower of confidence from the nettle of past dangers and deliverances, and renewing its acts of surrender. The sacred words which Jesus made His own on the cross, and which have been the last utterance of so many saints, were meant by the psalmist to apply to life, not to death. He laid his spirit as a precious deposit in God’s hand, assured that He was able to keep that which was committed to Him. Often had he done this before, and now he does it once more. Petitions pass into surrender. Resignation as well as confidence speaks. To lay one’s life in God’s hand is to leave the disposal of it to Him, and such absolute submission must come as the calm close and incipient reward of every cry for deliverance. Trust should not be hard to those who can remember. So Jehovah’s past redemptions-i.e., deliverances from temporal dangers-are its ground here; and these avail as pledges for the future, since He is "the God of truth," who can never falsify His past. The more nestlingly a soul clings to God, the more vehemently will it recoil from other trust. Attraction and repulsion are equal and contrary: The more clearly it sees God’s faithfulness and living power as a reality operating in its life, the more penetrating will be its detection of the falseness of other helpers. "Nothingnesses of emptiness" are they all to one who has felt the clasp of that great, tender hand; and unless the soul feels them to be such, it will never strongly clutch or firmly hold its true stay. Such trust has its crown in joyful experience of God’s mercy even before the actual deliverance comes to pass, as wind-borne fragrance meets the traveller before he sees the spice gardens from which it comes. The cohortative verbs in Psalm 31:7 may be petition ("Let me exult"), or they may be anticipation of future gladness, but in either case some waft of joy has already reached the singer, as how could it fail to do, when his faith was thus renewing itself, and his eyes gazing on God’s deeds of old? The past tenses in Psalm 31:7-8 refer to former experiences. God’s sight of the psalmist’s affliction was not idle contemplation, but implied active intervention. To "take note of the distresses of my soul" (or possibly, "of my soul in distresses") is the same as to care for it. It is enough to know that God sees the secret sorrows, the obscure trials which can be told to none. He loves as well as knows, and looks on no griefs which He will not comfort nor on any wounds which He is not ready to bind up. The psalmist was sure that God had seen, because he had experienced His delivering power, as he goes on joyfully to tell. The figure in Psalm 31:8 a points back to the act of trust in Psalm 31:5. How should God let the hand of the enemy close round and crush the spirit which had been entrusted to His own hand? One sees the greedy fingers of the foe drawing themselves together on their prey as on a fly, but they close on nothing. Instead of suffering constraint the delivered spirit walks at liberty. They who are enclosed in God’s hand have ample room there; and unhindered activity, with the ennobling consciousness of freedom, is the reward of trust.

Is it inconceivable that such sunny confidence should be suddenly clouded and followed, as in the third turn of thought (Psalm 31:9-13), by plaintive absorption in the sad realities of present distress? The very remembrance of a brighter past may have sharpened the sense of present trouble. But it is to be noted that these complaints are prayer, not aimless, self-pitying wailing. The enumeration of miseries which begins with "Have mercy upon me, for-," has a hidden hope tinging its darkness, like the faint flush of sunrise on clouds. There is no such violent change of tone as is sometimes conceived; but the pleas of the former parts are continued in this section, which adds the psalmist’s sore need to God’s past and the suppliant’s faith, as another reason for Jehovah’s help. He begins with the effects of his trouble on himself in body and soul; thence he passes to its consequences on those around him, and finally he spreads before God its cause: plots against his life. The resemblances to Psalm 6:1-10 and to several parts of Jeremiah are unmistakable. In Psalm 31:9-10 the physical and mental effects of anxiety are graphically described. Sunken eyes, enfeebled soul, wasted body, are gaunt witnesses of his distress. Cares seem to him to have gnawed his very bones, so weak is he. All that he can do is to sigh. And worse than all, conscience tells him that his own sin underlies his trouble, and so he is without inward stay. The picture seems exaggerated to easy-going, prosperous people; but many a sufferer has since recognised himself in it as in a mirror, and been thankful for words which gave voice to his pained heart and cheered him with the sense of companionship in the gloom.

Psalm 31:11-12 are mainly the description of the often-repeated experience of friends forsaking the troubled. "Because of all my adversaries" somewhat anticipates Psalm 31:13 in assigning the reason for the cowardly desertion. The three phrases "neighbours," "acquaintance," and "those who see me without" indicate concentric circles of increasing diameter. The psalmist is in the middle; and round him are, first, neighbours, who pour reproach on him, because of his enemies, then the wider range of "acquaintances," afraid to have anything to do with one who has such strong and numerous foes, and remotest of all, the chance people met on the way who fly from Him, as infected and dangerous. "They all forsook Him and fled." That bitter ingredient mingles in every cup of sorrow. The meanness of human nature and the selfishness of much apparent friendship are commonplaces, but the experience of them is always as painful and astonishing, as if nobody besides had ever suffered therefrom. The roughness of structure in Psalm 31:11 b, "and unto my neighbours exceedingly," seems to fit the psalmist’s emotion, and does not need the emendation of "exceedingly" into "burden" (Delitzsch) or "shaking of the head" (Cheyne).

In Psalm 31:12 the desertion is bitterly summed up, as like the oblivion that waits for the dead. The unsympathising world goes on its way, and friends find new interests and forget the broken man, who used to be so much to them, as completely as if he were in his grave, or as they do the damaged cup, flung on the rubbish heap. Psalm 31:13 discloses the nature of the calamity which has had these effects. Whispering slanders buzz round him; he is ringed about with causes for fear, since enemies are plotting his death. The use of the first part of the verse by Jeremiah does not require the hypothesis of his authorship of the psalm, nor of the prophet’s priority to the psalmist. It is always a difficult problem to settle which of two cases of the employment of the same phrase is original and which quotation. The criteria are elastic, and the conclusion is very often arrived at in deference to preconceived ideas. But Jeremiah uses the phrase as if it were a proverb or familiar expression, and the psalmist as if it were the freshly struck coinage of his own experience.

Again the key changes, and the minor is modulated into confident petition. It is the test of true trust that it is deepened by the fullest recognition of dangers and enemies. The same facts may feed despair and be the fuel of faith. This man’s eyes took in all surrounding evils, and these drove him to avert his gaze from them and fix it on Jehovah. That is the best thing that troubles can do for us. If they, on the contrary, monopolise our sight, they turn our hearts to stone; but if we can wrench our stare from them, they clear our vision to see our Helper. In Psalm 31:14-18 we have the recoil of the devout soul to God, occasioned by its recognition of need and helplessness. This turn of the psalm begins with a strong emphatic adversative: "But I-I trust in Jehovah." We see the man flinging himself into the arms of God. The word for "trust" is the same as in Psalm 31:6, and means to hang or lean upon, or, as we say, to depend on. He utters his trust in his prayer, which occupies the rest of this part of the psalm. A prayer, which is the voice of trust, does not begin with petition, but with renewed adherence to God and happy consciousness of the soul’s relation to Him, and thence melts into supplication for the blessings which are consequences of that relation. To feel, on occasion of the very dreariness of circumstances, that God is mine, makes miraculous sunrise at midnight. Built on that act of trust claiming its portion in God, is the recognition of God’s all-regulating hand, as shaping the psalmist’s "times," the changing periods, each of which has its definite character, responsibilities, and opportunities. Every man’s life is a series of crises, in each of which there is some special work to be done or lesson to be learned, some particular virtue to be cultivated or sacrifice made. The opportunity does not return. "It might have been once; and we missed it, lost it forever."

But the psalmist is thinking rather of the varying complexion of his days as bright or dark; and looking beyond circumstances, he sees God. The "hand of mine enemies" seems shrivelled into impotence when contrasted with that great hand, to which he has committed his spirit, and in which are his "times"; and the psalmist’s recognition that it holds his destiny is the ground of his prayer for deliverance from the foes’ paralysed grasp. They who feel the tender clasp of an almighty hand need not doubt their security from hostile assaults. The petitions proper are three in number: for deliverance, for the light of God’s face, and for "salvation." The central petition recalls the priestly blessing. {Numbers 6:25} It asks for consciousness of God’s friendship and for the manifestation thereof in safety from present dangers. That face, turned in love to a man, can "make a sunshine in a shady place," and brings healing on its beams. It seems best to take the verbs in Psalm 31:17-18, as futures and not optatives. The prayer passes into assurance of its answer, and what was petition in Psalm 31:1 is now trustful prediction: "I shall not be ashamed, for I cry to Thee." With like elevation of faith, the psalmist foresees the end of the whispering defamers round him: shame for their vain plots and their silent descent to the silent land. The loudest outcry against God’s lovers will be hushed some day, and the hands that threatened them will be laid motionless and stiff across motionless breasts. He who stands by God and looks forward, can, by the light of that face, see the end of much transient bluster, "with pride and contempt," against the righteous. Lying lips fall dumb; praying lips, like the psalmist’s, are opened to show forth God’s praise. His prayer is audible still across the centuries; the mutterings of his enemies only live in his mention of them.

That assurance prepares the way for the noble burst of thanksgiving, as for accomplished deliverance, which ends the psalm, springing up in a joyous outpouring of melody, like a lark from a bare furrow. But there is no such change of tone as to warrant the supposition that these last verses (Psalm 31:19-24) are either the psalmist’s later addition or the work of another, nor do they oblige us to suppose that the whole psalm was written after the Peril which it commemorates had passed. Rather the same voice which triumphantly rings out in these last verses has been sounding in the preceding, even in their saddest strains. The ear catches a twitter hushed again and renewed more than once before the full song breaks out. The psalmist has been absorbed with his own troubles till now. but thankfulness expands his vision, and suddenly there is with him a multitude of fellow dependants on God’s goodness. He hungers alone, but he feasts in company. The abundance of God’s "goodness" is conceived of as a treasure stored, and in part openly displayed, before the sons of men. The antithesis suggests manifold applications of the contrast, such as the inexhaustibleness of the mercy which, after all revelation, remains unrevealed, and after all expenditure, has not perceptibly diminished in its shining mass, as of bullion in some vault; or the varying dealings of God, who sometimes, while sorrow is allowed to have its scope, seems to keep his riches of help under lock and key, and then again flashes them forth in deeds of deliverance; or the difference between the partial unfolding of these on earth and the full endowment of His servants with "riches in glory" hereafter. All these carry the one lesson that there is more in God than any creature or all creatures have ever drawn from Him or can ever draw. The repetition of the idea of hiding in Psalm 31:20 is a true touch of devout poetry. The same word is used for laying up the treasure and for sheltering in a pavilion from the jangle of tongues. The wealth and the poor men who need it are stored together, as it were; and the place where they both lie safe is God Himself. How can they be poor who are dwelling close beside infinite riches? The psalmist has just prayed that God would make His face to shine upon him; and now he rejoices in the assurance of the answer, and knows himself and all like-minded men to be hidden in that "glorious privacy of light," where evil things cannot live. As if caught up to and "clothed with the sun," he and they are beyond the reach of hostile conspiracies, and have "outsoared the shadow of" earth’s antagonisms. The great thought of security in God has never been more nobly expressed than by that magnificent metaphor of the light inaccessible streaming from God’s face to be the bulwark of a poor man.

The personal tone recurs for a moment in Psalm 31:21-22, in which it is doubtful whether we hear thankfulness for deliverance anticipated as certain and so spoken of as past, since it is as good as done, or for some recently experienced marvel of lovingkindness, which heartens the psalmist in present trouble. If this psalm is David’s, the reference may be to his finding a city of refuge, at the time when his fortunes were very low, in Ziklag, a strange place for a Jewish fugitive to be sheltered. One can scarcely help feeling that the allusion is so specific as to suggest historical fact as its basis. At the same time it must be admitted that the expression may be the carrying on of the metaphor of the hiding in a pavilion. The "strong city" is worthily interpreted as being God Himself, though the historical explanation is tempting. God’s mercy makes a true man ashamed of his doubts, and therefore the thanksgiving of Psalm 31:21 leads to the confession of Psalm 31:22. Agitated into despair, the psalmist had thought that he was "cut off from God’s eyes"-i.e., hidden so as not to be helped-but the event has showed that God both heard and saw him. If alarm does not so make us think that God is blind to our need and deaf to our cry as to make us dumb, we shall be taught the folly of our fears by His answers to our prayers. These will have a voice of gentle rebuke, and ask us, "O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?" He delivers first, and lets the deliverance stand in place of chiding.

The whole closes with a summons to all whom Jehovah loves to love Him for His mercy’s sake. The joyful singer longs for a chorus to join his single voice, as all devout hearts do. He generalises his own experience, as all who have for themselves experienced deliverance are entitled and bound to do, and discerns that in his single case the broad law is attested that the faithful are guarded whatever dangers assail, and "the proud doer" abundantly repaid for all his contempt and hatred of the just. Therefore the last result of contemplating God’s ways with His servants is an incentive to courage, strength, and patient waiting for the Lord.

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