A Lesson on How to Die (and Live), Psalm 31:9-16 (4/1/12)

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Apr 012012
 

Rev. Jeff Chapman

The scripture we are about to read together is a prayer.  Psalm 31 comes from the book of Psalms, which is a collection of prayers in the Old Testament.  Some Psalms are prayers of joy and praise, others are prayers of sorrow and desperation.  All of them were written by real people facing real life circumstances.  And they are there for us.  Not only to read, but to pray ourselves.  That’s how God intends the Psalms to be used.

In Psalm 31, some of us, perhaps all of us, are going to find a prayer we can pray ourselves.  Some of us are going to end up making this prayer our prayer.

9 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye wastes away from grief,
my soul and body also.
10 For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
and my bones waste away.

1I am the scorn of all my adversaries,

a horror to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances;
those who see me in the street flee from me.
12 I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.
13 For I hear the whispering of many—
terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life.

14 I trust in you, O Lord;

I say, ‘You are my God.’
15 My times are in your hand;
deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16 Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love. (Psalm 31:9-16, NRSV)

The writer of Psalm 31 is facing something in his life that has left him feeling helpless.  He’s desperate as he writes, “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.”

We get the sense of somebody here who is under attack.  Some adversary, someone or something, is seeking to destroy this man, and it has left him in great distress, both in his body and his soul.  Unless God provides him refuge, he’s done for.

So who is this enemy, or enemies, about to overwhelm him?  In verse 10 he tells us.  “My life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of misery, and my bones waste away.”  Why the distress, the sorrow, the sighing?  Why are his bones about to waste away?  Because of his misery.

Now, that word misery in the original Hebrew is the word ‘avon.  It’s a word that sometimes is translated “iniquity”, and that gets at its root.  Literally, it means to go wrong, to make crooked, to pervert, to do wickedly.[1]  Put simply, the Psalmist here is a person who is overwhelmed by his own sin.  It is his own moral failure which has filled his life with sorrow and misery.  He’s not living his life the way he knows he is meant to live his life and this fact has led him to great distress.

The moment that I learned this, that was the moment I began to think that perhaps this prayer could become my prayer.

John Ortberg is a pastor and writer who has been an important influence in my life.  Part of what has drawn me to him is his willingness, in his writings, to be honest about his own struggle in life and in faith.  From what I know of him, I suspect Psalm 31 is also a prayer he has made his own.

He begins one his books with these opening words.

I am disappointed with myself.  I am disappointed not so much with particular things I have done as with aspects of who I have become.  I have a nagging sense that all is not as it should be.

He goes on to elaborate.

I am disappointed with my life as a father, husband, friend, neighbor and human being in general.  I think of the day I was born, when I carried the gift of promise, the gift given to all babies.  I think of that little baby and what might have been: the ways I might have developed mind and body and spirit, the thoughts I might have had, the joy I might have created.

I am disappointed that I still love God so little and sin so much.  I always had the idea as a child that adults were pretty much the people they wanted to be.  Yet the truth is, I am embarrassingly sinful.  I am capable of dismaying amounts of jealousy if someone succeeds more visibly than I do.  I am disappointed at my capacity to be small and petty.  I cannot pray for very long without my mind drifting into a fantasy of angry revenge over some past slight I thought I had long since forgiven or some grandiose fantasy of achievement.  I can convince people I’m busy and productive and yet waste large amounts of time watching television.

These are just some of my disappointments.  I have other ones, darker ones, that I’m not ready to commit to paper.[2]

If we are honest, we all know this sort of disappointment in life.  Like me, I’m sure you have a very clear picture of what sort of person you were created to be.  Like me, you have a very clear picture in your mind of what sort of parent, spouse, friend, neighbor, Christian you are supposed to be.  And yet also like me, I suspect that the gap between what you know your life is supposed to look like, and what it actually looks like, is significantly larger than you’d like it to be.

I think we all know what the Psalmist means here when he talks about his bones wasting to nothing and his life draining away with sorrow.  When you confront the reality that even after all these years you keep finding yourself facing the same struggles, the same sins, the same moral failures, doesn’t it almost suck the life out of you?  This is why a lot of people ignore their sin or deny their sin.  It’s just too much to face.

It is in light of all this that the following verses make sense.  In verse 11 the Psalmist confesses that he is a scorn to his neighbors, a dread to his acquaintances.  People flee from him when he goes out in public.

But that doesn’t happen to you, does it?  Your neighbors don’t scream obscenities at you, do they?  When you’re walking down the street, people don’t cross over to the other side when they see you coming, do they?  Probably not.  But you’re afraid that they might.  If everybody knew everything there was to know about you, aren’t you afraid that this is how people might treat you?

Imagine that a transcript of your life was publically made available for everybody else to see – every thing you’ve ever done, every motivation of your heart, every thought that has ever crossed your mind.  Everybody else knew exactly what you thought of them.  If everybody really knew everything about you, don’t you fear that this the sort of rejection and scorn you would face?

Again, lots of people want to avoid this stark reality of human sin and moral failure.  And can you blame them?  To face this reality head on in your own life is almost too much to bear.  It really does fill your soul with sorrow.  It makes you cry your eyes out.  It makes your bones ache.  At least it does mine.

In complete honestly, the Psalmist declares in verse 12, “I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.”  He feels like his life is a broken dish which has been discarded on the trash heap and quickly forgotten.  At the end of life, what will he have to show for it?  His great fear is that death will come and go and nothing about his life will have mattered.

How many of you read the obituaries?  It’s not my favorite part of the newspaper, but every once in a while I’ll glance through.

Well, recently somebody pointed out to me that there are really two kinds of obituaries.  Have you noticed this?  First, there is the main page where loved ones can purchase some space to display a photograph and a few words of remembrance.  Most deaths are recorded here.

But then there is another section of obituaries for people who have, in some way, distinguished themselves during their lifetimes.  In this section, the obituaries look more like regular newspaper articles.  The people noted here are often famous, but not always.  They are, however, always people who have, in the estimation of the editorial staff, made some notable contribution in this world.  One day it’s a politician who governed well.  The next day it’s a doctor who contributed to some important medical advances.  Then it’s a musician who made lots of music that lots of people enjoyed.

These special obituaries are also unique in that they don’t have to be paid for.  In other words, the loved ones of these individuals don’t have to buy space in the newspaper.  In a way, the accomplishments of these distinguished people have earned them a place in this special section.

You know what occurred to me when I realized all this?   It suddenly struck me that if the newspaper is going to remember most of us when we die, somebody is going to have to pay the newspaper to remember us!  Are the editors of the local newspaper really going to think my life was distinguished enough to remember me in the special section at no charge?  Somehow I doubt it.

John Calvin once wrote, “The memory of some men after their death flourishes for a time among survivors, but it more frequently vanishes.”[3]  Death is coming to claim us all and when it does, will it be the end of us?  Knowing what I know about my life, knowing how far short of my potential I have fallen, will death come and discard me like a broken plate on the trash heap?

This is the desperate and honest prayer of the Psalmist.  If we’re also honest, it might start to become our desperate prayer as well.  The enemies that we face are overpowering.  Our sin and our death assault us and are ready to consume us.  And what can we do to defend ourselves?  What chance do we have against such dominant adversaries?  No chance.  Right?  Against these enemies we are, on our own, powerless.  And what’s worse, our enemies know it.  And in that knowledge, our enemies taunt us.

In verse 13 the Psalmist prays, “I hear the whispering of many – terror all around – as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.”  These enemies sin and death, they taunt us in whispers.  Just like me, you’ve heard their voices.  “You will never become the person you were meant to become.  Look at how you’ve blown it again today.  There you go again, just like yesterday.  And tomorrow will be the same.  Your life is amounting to nothing.  All these years and what have you really done?  What have you accomplished that will really last?  What a disappointment you are.”

They taunt us and we have no good defense.  Their accusations are overwhelming.  We cannot stand against them on our own.  Our only hope is to seek refuge.  Our only hope is beyond ourselves.  This is where the Psalmist’s prayer truly becomes our prayer.  “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress.”  His plea continues in verse 14, “I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’  My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and my persecutors.”

You see, like the Psalmist, if you can come to a place where you realize that sin and death are enemies against which you cannot stand, then you will find you are ready to throw yourself on the mercy of God.   From that desperate place, all you can do is commit your life into the hands of the only One who might possibly be able to save you.

When you do, if you do, you will discover, to your astonishment, that he already has.

Today we gather to remember and celebrate the most crucial event in human history.  The eternal Son of God, God in human flesh, come to earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, one day climbed on a donkey just outside ofJerusalemand rode into town as people waved palm branches and shouted, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!”  Without really knowing what it was they were saying, they spoke the truth.  This really was the King, the King above all kings.

Just days later, however, the people took this king and beat him, and whipped him, and spat upon him, and cursed him, and nailed him to a cross, and hung him up to die.  This man, in whom there was no sin, was condemned as the worst kind of criminal.  The very author of life was handed over to death.

As Jesus died on the cross that afternoon, those nearby heard him as he cried out a prayer to his Father.  His dying words, in fact, were a prayer.  A prayer of desperation.  A prayer of refuge.  A prayer of one who was about to be overwhelmed by the two greatest enemies in life, sin and death.  Just before he died and surrendered to these enemies, Jesus prayed this prayer: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”[4]

Do you know where Jesus’ prayer is from?  Jesus didn’t just make it up, you know.  His prayer is from the Psalms.  Specifically, it’s from this very Psalm, Psalm 31.  We didn’t read it today, but verse 5 of this Psalm reads, “Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.”  On the cross, Jesus took this prayer in Psalm 31 and made it his prayer.  On the cross, Jesus took our prayer desperation because he took our place of desperation.

He became the one in distress.  His eyes wasted away from grief, his soul and his body also.  His life was spent with sorrow, his years with sighing.  His strength failed because of sin, not his sin but ours which he took upon himself.  His bones wasted away.  He endured the scorn of adversaries.  He became a horror to his neighbors, an object of dread to his acquaintances.  He passed out of mind like one who is dead.  He became like a broken vessel, like a broken plate discarded on the trash heap.  He endured the whisperings of many – terror all around – as they schemed together against him, as they plotted to take his life?

And when we did not have it within us to do so, he trusted in the Lord.  He committed his life into the Lord’s hands.  In our place he faced our great enemies of sin and death.  And in the end, he defeated them both.

Colossians 2:13-15 captures all this more beautifully than I ever could.  Paul writes,

When you were dead in sin…God* made you* alive together with him, when he forgave us all our sin, 14erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15He disarmed* [our enemies] the rulers and authorities and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.

Do you want to know why the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ transforms people’s lives?  Because the Gospel includes as its central claim the reality that the two greatest enemies we will ever face, sin and death, have already been overcome by Christ on the cross.

The message of the Gospel is that in spite of our tremendous moral failure, Christ has made it possible for us to become, in the eyes of God, pure and righteous.

The message of the Gospel is that even though your family might one day have to pay the newspaper to remember you after you die, your Father in Heaven will never forget you in death.  In Christ, he cannot forget you.

The message of the Gospel is when your enemies in this world taunt you with whispers of condemnation, you do not have to listen to them any longer.  They speak lies.  All they speak is lies.

This is the message of the Gospel that has, over time, transformed the lives of countless men and women and children who have believed that it is true.  And as always, the crucial question today is whether or not you believe that it is true.  If you do, if you trust Christ enough to commit your life into his hands, the promise is that through Christ your life will be transformed as well.

History records that the prayer from Psalm 31 that Jesus uttered with his last breath later became a dying prayer for many of his followers.  You may remember that just before Stephen was stoned to death for his faith in Acts 7, he prays, “Lord Jesus, into your hands I commit my spirit.”[5]  Polycarp, St. Bernard, Martin Luther, John Knox,St. Jerome, all of these saints and many others are said to have died with this very same prayer on their lips.

This prayer teaches us how to die.  Because of Christ we can face the enemy of death knowing that our life, our very soul, is secure in the hands of God.  You, too, can die in peace one day with these words as your dying prayer.

Not only does this prayer teach us how to die, however, it can also teach us how to live.  You can pray these words at the end of your life, but you can also pray these words at the end of your day.  For while it’s true that our enemies have been defeated, it’s also true that they are still hanging around.  And though their whispers are now full of empty lies, those lies can still sound to our ears so seductively believable.

This means that at the end of a day when you have had your nose rubbed in the reality of your sin and your death, in Christ you can choose to end the day in peace with this prayer, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.  Be gracious to me, O Lord.  Be my refuge from sin and death.  Let your face, Lord, shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.”

Amen

 

The Next Step – A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application

Read Psalm 31:9-16.  If you can, read the whole Psalm.  What can we say about the person who first wrote this Psalm?  What do we learn about him from his prayer?

What parts of this prayer could you make your prayer today?  What parts seem to fit?

Has the sin, moral failure and disappointment in your life ever left you in this sort of distress?  Have your bones ever ached (see verse 10) as a result?

Do you ever fear that your death will come and, when all is said and done, your life will count for nothing?

What does it mean to you that Christ himself prayed this very prayer from the cross?  (You can read it in Luke 23:46.)

Do you believe that in Christ your enemies of sin and death have no power over you any longer?  Why or why not?

II Timothy 1:12 gives us this promise: “I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.”  What does this promise mean to you?  Do you believe it?  Do you believe it today?

Make this Psalm your prayer.  Simply take the words and pray them as if they were your own.  That is, after all, how they are intended to be used.

Further Scripture Readings for the Week:  This Lenten season, in preparation for Easter, join others in the church setting aside at least 1% of their day each day to read through the Gospel of Luke.

Monday:               Luke 20:27-47

Tuesday                Luke 21:1-38

Wednesday:         Luke 22:1-38

Thursday:             Luke 22:39-65

Friday:                   Luke 22:66-23:43

Saturday :             Luke 23:44-56

 


[2] John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), p. 11-13.

[3] John Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), p. 509.

[4] Recorded in Luke 23:46.

[5] Acts 7:59.