Today marks the beginning of Holy Week, a time in the Christian calendar when we metaphorically journey with Christ to the cross, remembering Christ’s suffering.
Holy week is a good time to realign ourselves to the kingdom of God we remember that Jesus’ suffering brings freedom and life, where the humbled are exalted, where the last become first.
As I have said to you before when considering lamentation, psalms can be valuable for reflecting on the significance of Christ’s passion. Through the psalms, we join Christ in raging against the darkness of this world, stating the unwelcome truth that things are not all sweetness and light as we think they are supposed to be, while clinging to the hope that in Christ, God is making all things new. Through the psalms, we voice our conviction that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).
Psalm 31 is a psalm of lament at the heart of the passion, of Easter. David, the writer is in a trap troubled and depressed, he feels surrounded and oppressed. We have all been there perhaps feeling alone, abandoned, abused, slandered and misunderstood.
So, put yourself in David’s situation: A group of enemies have conspired together to kill you. They have instigated a widespread campaign of slander and lies. When friends see you coming, they turn and run the other way. They fear being identified in any way with you, because they don’t want to be implicated by association.
As a result, you are struggling with depression. You also know that many of your troubles stem from your own actions, your sin, so you are wrestling with guilt. It has made you weak and ill. You don’t have strength to do your daily tasks. Your body is wasting away. Wherever you look, terror is staring back at you.
That is how David describes his situation in Psalm 31. We can easily see that this psalm is not written by someone insulated from life’s pressures. It comes from a man in total despair.
David expresses his pain using images of physical illness, isolation, mental anguish, and persecution. The structure of the psalm is that in verses 1-8 it moves from lament to trust in verses 9-13 back to lament and then trust again. This structure layers sorrow on sorrow. The layers of sorrow have left David at the end of his limits. His dignity and spirit, even his very humanity, are threatened. “I have passed out of my mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel,” he moans (v.12).
This psalm is very true to what most of us feel at some point in our lives. David gains victory against the darkness, but then waves of distress sweep over him and he plunges again into despair. Then he gains the victory again. It is normal, even for the most saintly person, to feel bad in the midst of severe trials. David was far from the most saintly by the way.
However, he knows that God, perhaps he is anticipating Jesus, has the power to save him from his suffering. He cries, “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress.” It is an act of faith and trust in God, even when it seems like God has abandoned him. “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God (v. 14).” He prays, “let your face shine upon your servant (v. 16),” appealing to the God who promised to bless and keep his people, Israel safe. He asks that God would make good on this promise — that God would shine his face upon him. The psalm closes with shouts of praise that God has indeed responded to his cries and has again shown him steadfast love.
In the context of the passion of Christ, we can read this psalm as a reflection of Christ’s suffering.
Jesus trust is mocked: In Luke 23 the soldiers shout “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” The criminals “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”; and Matthew 27:43 ‘He trusts in God; let Him deliver Him now’.
In Luke, just before his death, an exhausted, pain racked Jesus prays, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit (Luke 23:46),” reflecting the sorrow presented in this psalm.
In praying these words, Christ takes on the suffering and hardship in the same way as David and by extension, all of us who say/pray this lament. The association of Jesus’ suffering with the psalmist’s suggests that where there are cries of lament, where there is pain, where there is hardship, that is where Jesus is.
Christ joins us in our suffering, taking our pain upon himself, but his suffering is very different from ours. In this psalm (Psalm 31:9-16) David, in pain and distress, prays in v. 17 for shame and death to come upon his enemies. That is not Jesus’ way.
In Luke 23:34 Jesus, says “Forgive them,” “for they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus returned the evil and ill will of his enemies with love. Christ’s suffering and death on the cross is unique because it puts an end to sin and evil, making possible a world in which there will be no suffering or pain.
For us, Jesus’ death on the cross is God’s answer to our personal laments.
We live in a troubled world full of fear and insecurity (Brexit), violence, racism, homelessness, disease, and senseless deaths. But it is also a world in which Christ died on a cross to save us from sin.
That is why I find this psalm helpful. David is often in despair, but he takes us through a process of fighting to be at peace with the Lord, even if his circumstances have not changed.
As we wait for the arrival of the kingdom of God this psalm invites us to join in saying, “I am cut off from your sight!” Yet you hear my cry for mercy when I call to you for help.”