A prayer for the living – into your hands I commit my spirit

In this run-up to Holy Week I want to look at the prayer of the Psalmist which Jesus used on the Cross: “Into your hand I commit my spirit” (Psalm 31.5 NRSV; similarly NIV). Psalm 31 is headed in the GNB as ‘A prayer of trust in God. In its original context, this psalm is a prayer for the living – and not a prayer for the dying.

As can be seen from the opening verse, the Psalmist is in a ‘tight corner’ “In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not ever let me be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me” (31.1). There were people out to get him: “Take me out of the net that it is hidden before me” (31.4). He is surrounded by enemies galore. “I hear the whispering of many – terror all around! – as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life” (31.13). So he turns to God, and commits his ‘spirit’ to God, His ‘spirit’, said the British Latvian scholar Arnold Anderson, is best translated as ‘my life’ or simply ‘me’. He places himself in the hands of God, and discovers with a great sense of relief that God is there.

But it is more than simply God is there – God is there to care. Hence the Good News Bible translates. “I place myself in your care. You will save me, Lord, you are a faithful God” (31.5). Literally, the Psalmist says: “I place my life into your hands”. To speak of the hands of God is to engage in what the theologians call anthropomorphic language. God, of course, is ‘spirit’; he has no hands. However, because we are human and our minds are limited by human concepts, we find it easier to speak of God in human terms. When we speak of the hands of God, we think of God’s care.

The late James Mays, a distinguished American scholar, commented, “In Hebrew and the context of the Psalm, the sentence means something like: ‘I entrust my life to your sovereign disposition’”. The Psalmist says, in effect, “It is up to you, O God, what becomes of me, and I am willing to have it so”. He is not being fatalistic – rather he is affirming his faith and trust in God. This is well brought out by Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase: “I’ve put my life in your hands. You won’t drop me, you will never let me down” (The Message)

Gradually, the Psalmist gains confidence, not because his circumstances have changed, but because he realises that God can be trusted. As a result he reaffirms his faith and trust in God: “I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God’. My times are in your hands” (NRSV/NIV 31.14,15a); or “my fate” (Revised English Bible” or “my fortunes” (Revised New Jerusalem Bible) are in God’s hands. So the GNB translates, “My trust is in you, O Lord, you are my God. I am always in your care”. Or in Peterson’s paraphrase: “Hour by hour I place my days in your hand, safe from the hands out to get me” (The Message).

This is a wonderful picture of faith and trust, which we too need to emulate. Indeed,. John Calvin said that unless a person practices such a reliance on the providence of God in the living of life “he has not yet learned aright what it is to live”.

The fact is that like the Psalmist, we can use this prayer when everything in life seems to be against us. In those times we can confidently commit ourselves into the good hands of God. His hands are strong enough to hold on to us, whatever life may throw at us. He will save us – he is a faithful God! We can also use this prayer when everything seems to be on top of us – entrusting to God the burdens we carry, the concerns we have, the plans we are making, the challenges we face.

We can make this a prayer for every day. At the beginning of the day, even perhaps before we get out of bed, we can pray, “Into your hands we commit the day that lies ahead”. At the end of the day, as we pull the duvet over us, we can allow all the worries of the day to recede as we pray “Into your hands we commit the day that is past with all its concerns”,

Daily we can look to the future with confidence, for God is with us. In the words of Psalm 31.15: “I am always in your care” (GNB) or as the NRSV more familiarly translates “My times are in your hand”. The older form of words reminds me of some lines of Robert Browning, which Caroline’s grandmother often used to quote:

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His Hand
Who saith, ‘A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God:  see all, nor be afraid!

It does not matter at what stage we are at in life, we can look forward with confidence. If we are young, and have many years of life stretching ahead before us, years full of opportunity to serve Christ in his world, we can be confident “the best is yet to be”. But so too is “the best yet to be” when we are in middle life, with all the responsibilities which those years bring to most of us. And so too is the best yet to be when we are old – for when we are old there should be a depth of living not known in younger days, and there should be a maturity of relationships far richer than those enjoyed in youth or in middle age.

Psalm 31.5 is a prayer for the living.

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