For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 71. I have three items.
1. The Psalmist in this Psalm is asking God to deliver him from enemies, as he draws upon what other Psalms have said. (Psalm 71:1-3 echoes Psalm 31:1-3a; Psalm 71:5-6 is like Psalm 22:9-10; Psalm 71:12a is like Psalm 22:1, 11, 19; Psalm 71:12b is like Psalm 38:22:22 and 40:13; Psalm 71:13 is like Psalm 35:4, 26; Psalm 71:18 is like Psalm 22:30-31; and Psalm 31:19 is like Psalm 36:6.) But the Psalmist is old in Psalm 71. Does that influence how the Psalmist interacts with other Psalms, or does the Psalmist merely quote other Psalms verbatim?
According to John MacArthur, there is one incident in which the Psalmist in Psalm 71 modifies a saying in another Psalm in consideration of his own situation in life, his old age. In his comment on Psalm 71:3, MacArthur states:
“Psalm 71:1-3 is almost the same as Ps. 31:1-3a. One difference, however, is the word ‘continually,’ which the elderly person writing this psalm wants to emphasize. God has ‘continually’ been faithful (cf. vv. 6, 14).”
MacArthur probably means that the Psalmist in Psalm 71 looks back at his long life and concludes that God has been faithful to him all of that time, and so he has faith that God will be with him in his newest predicament. The Psalmist not only quotes Psalmic passages, but he has found the passages to be true in his own life. Another reason that the Psalmist in Psalm 71 uses “continually” could be that he needs a special assurance that God is with him, even when he is weak in his old age, and so he assures himself that he can continually go to God for help. That brings me to my next point.
2. Psalm 71:9 states (in the KJV): “Cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength faileth.” According to Adele Berlin and Marc Brettler in The Jewish Study Bible, the Psalmist here is hoping that God will not abandon him even though he is old and thus lacks the strength to serve God. The idea appears to be that, somewhere in the old Psalmist’s mind, there is the notion that God needs to be paid for God’s presence and services, and the Psalmist is no longer able to pay because he is old, and so he fears that God will leave him. Could a lesson of Psalm 71 be that God loves us, even when we cannot work for God?
Yet, Psalm 71 does indicate that the Psalmist can do something for God. He can praise God. He can testify to others about God’s strength and goodness. He can play an instrument. Moreover, the Psalmist tells God that his enemies believe that God has forsaken him, and the implication may be that God would be inviting doubt about God’s own faithfulness were God to refrain from helping the Psalmist.
Not surprisingly, there are Christian preachers who think that a lesson of Psalm 71 is that we should keep on serving God, even when we are old. I listened to one preacher who praised John Wesley for getting up at 5 a.m. and for continuing to preach, even in his old age.
I believe that God loves us, even when we cannot serve him as we used to. Psalm 71, after all, is about God’s faithfulness. At the same time, I think that we can do something to serve God, even (or especially) in old age.
3. Psalm 71:15 states: “My mouth shall shew forth thy righteousness and thy salvation all the day; for I know not the numbers thereof.” The word that the KJV translates as “numbers” is sephorot. That is similar to the Hebrew word for “book”, sepher. To translate sephorot, one version of the Septuagint uses the word grammateias, which means “writings”. Marvin Tate believes that the Psalmist in Psalm 71:15 is affirming that he will talk about God’s righteousness, even though he does not know the scribal art.
The KJV is probably correct, however, to translate sephorot as “numbers”, which would mean that the Psalmist will praise God, even though the praise will be inadequate because God’s good deeds are too many to count. For one, the root s-ph-r does appear in reference to counting, in such passages as Genesis 15:5 and 16:10. Second, fourth century Christian exegete Theodore of Mopsuestia, who was using the Septuagint, held both to the scribal interpretation and also the view that Psalm 71:15 relates to counting. Theodore says that the scribes were responsible for counting things. For Theodore, the Psalmist is saying that he will praise and testify about God, even though he is unlike a scribe in that he is unable to count the deeds of the one he is discussing. The Psalmist will be so full of gratitude to God and love for God that he will honor God, notwithstanding his own limitations and the limitations of the task itself.