For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 31 and its interpreters.
Jesus in Luke 23:46 quotes Psalm 31:5 on the cross: “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” The fourth century Antiochian Christian exegete, Theodore of Mopsuestia, holds that this verse was not a direct prophecy about Jesus, but was still suitable for Jesus’ passion. Indeed, even conservative Christian exegetes whom I read or heard maintain that the Psalm was originally about David’s flight from King Saul. The Jewish exegete Rashi does so as well. Psalm 31: 13, 18 talks about slander against the Psalmist, and Rashi interprets those verses in light of I Samuel 24:9, which refers to people who were telling Saul that David was seeking to harm him. Psalm 31:32 affirms that God showed the Psalmist kindness in a strong city. Rashi interprets that city as Keilah, where David receives a temporary reprieve from Saul (I Samuel 23), whereas conservative scholars Keil-Delitzsch say that the city was Ziklag.
In this scenario, when the Psalmist commits his spirit to God in Psalm 31:5, he may not be asking God to resurrect him after his enemies kill him, as Jesus was. Rather, he is entrusting his life to God, in hope that God will preserve it. In Psalm 31:15-17, the Psalmist asks God for deliverance, and he requests that his enemies be put to shame and become silent in Sheol, a place of silence (Psalm 94:17; 115:17). Slander has hurt the Psalmist, and the Psalmist wants those who slander him to go to a place where their words can do no damage: Sheol, the realm of the dead. The Psalmist desires life for himself, but death for his enemies.
The Psalmist feels as if he is in a situation in which his enemies are trying to trap him in a net (and nets were used in the ancient Near East to capture prisoners-of-war). Rather than being in his position of stress, in which he feels cut off from God, the Psalmist wants God to place him in a broad place—a place that has lots of room.
The Psalmist vacillates between hope and despair. He trusts that God has heard his supplication, and that God will lead him and guide him for the sake of God’s name. There are times in this Psalm when he even speaks of God’s deliverance of him as a past event. But there are also times in this Psalm when he describes his suffering in detail and requests salvation from his troubles, as if they are still present to him. The Psalmist desires God’s salvation and favor in this life, and that would encourage those who are faithful to God to maintain their hope. Even as he suffers, however, the Psalmist thinks that God hides those who trust in God in a secret place—safe from the pride of human beings and damaging tongues. The Psalmist believes that there is safety in his relationship with God. The Psalmist may also trust in God’s sovereignty, for, in v 15, he affirms that his times are in God’s hand.
Applying this Psalm to David’s flight from Saul may run into a hurdle, however. In Psalm 31:10, the Psalmist says he is suffering on account of his iniquity. This is odd, for homileticists and interpreters have argued that the Psalms that concern David’s flight from Saul do not talk about a sin on David’s part, whereas the Psalms about David’s flight from Absalom do mention the Psalmist’s sin, for David realized that he was being punished for his sins regarding Bathsheba and Uriah. When David was fleeing from Saul, he could appeal to his own righteousness before God; when fleeing from Absalom, by contrast, he recognized his need for God’s mercy—and he appealed to that in requesting deliverance. In the MT of Psalm 31:10, the Psalmist attributes his suffering to his iniquity, but the Septuagint renders the passage to mean that his strength has withered in his poverty. Christians who have viewed this Psalm as a prophecy about Jesus may prefer the Septuagint’s reading, for they do not believe that Jesus suffered on account of his own sin. Jimmy Swaggart, however, goes with the MT and says that Jesus assumed our iniquity as his own—so it technically had become his iniquity.
Another significant issue may appear in Psalm 31:6, where the Psalmist says that he hates those who pay regard to vapors of emptiness, an expression that often refers to idols (Deuteronomy 32:21; I Kings 16:13; Jeremiah 8:19; 10:8; etc.). Why would David blast idolaters, when his main enemy was Saul, who (with all of his faults) was not an idolater? Perhaps David is saying that his goal is to defeat Israel’s idolatrous foreign enemies—meaning that David is affirming that he is on the same page as God. But suppose the Psalm is about Jesus. Would Jesus hate idolaters, or any sinner, for that manner? Jesus died for idolaters!
Not surprisingly, biblical scholars have shied away from applying this Psalm to David, or to Jesus. Sigmund Mowinckel’s approach to certain Psalms is often to relate them to Israel as a nation, which had oppressive foreign enemies that worshiped idols. Erhard Gerstenberger often prefers an exilic or post-exilic setting for Psalms, as Jews desire for God to deliver them from their idolatrous enemies. Earlier scholarship on the Psalms tended to read certain Psalms in light of the Hellenistic Period, when some pious Jews viewed Jews who were more open to Hellenism as idolaters.
I tend to believe that the Psalm is relevant to all sorts of situations, whatever its original Sitz im Leben may have been. Part of me, however, views this Psalm as rather naive, in its assumption that God always delivers the righteous from death in this life. God’s apparent failure to do so may have been one reason that Psalms like Psalm 31 became applied to the afterlife—as that was upheld as the place where God would do justice, and where the righteous would finally have their broad place. St. Augustine even interprets the secret place of v 20 as the everlasting hidden place of the knowledge of God. Faithful people have trusted (or have tried to trust) that God is in control, notwithstanding death. And yet, Psalm 31 may be testimony to God’s deliverance of people from death in this life, for why would such a Psalm exist if it had absolutely no grounding in reality?