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

Last week we looked at Psalm 31.5, where the Psalmist prayed, “Into your hand I commit my spirit” and saw how it is a prayer for the living. Today in Holy Week we look at Luke23.46, where Jesus on the Cross quoted the Psalm: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (NRSV). As Arndt & Gingrich in their Greek-English Lexicon to the New Testament make clear, for Jesus to “commend” his spirit was to ‘commit’ (NIV/REB/RNJB) himself into ‘the safe-keeping’ or ‘the protection’ of God. In the words of the Swiss commentator Francois Bovon, “Like the Psalmist, the Jesus of Luke places his spirit into God’s hands, because he knows that God is stronger than the enemies and than death itself.” The American preacher Fred Craddock noted that “There is nothing here of anger or doubt or thrashing about in the throes of death. Rather, Luke writes of serenity, acceptance and trust.” In the mouth of Jesus this prayer for the living becomes a model prayer for the dying.

These words of Jesus, however, were more than a quotation from Ps 31.5. For Jesus does what the psalmist does not: he prefaces the words “into your hands I commend my spirit” with the word, “Father”. Throughout his life Jesus was deeply conscious of the Fatherhood of God. In Luke’s Gospel the very first words of Jesus are: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2.49). Now, here, his very last words on the cross are a call to God his Father.

Significantly, when Jesus addressed God as Father, he used that most intimate of Aramaic words, Abba. This word is extraordinarily difficult to translate into English. ‘Daddy’ gets the familiarity right, but it is a term normally used of young children of their father. Maybe ‘Father, dear Father’ gets nearer to the thrust of a word.  Until Jesus came, no Jew had ever dared to use this word of God. Now, as Jesus was dying, he knew that he could entrust himself with confidence to his Father.

Jesus was the first of many to use Psalm 31.5 with death in view. Luke, for instance, tells us that as Stephen was being stoned to death, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7.59). Stephen was followed by many believers who used this prayer of Jesus to take leave of this life. The fact is that with Jesus we can face death with confidence. For Jesus has “broken the power of death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim 1.10 GNB). Death need no longer be feared. It is true that those things which accompany death can be less than welcome – the weakness, the helplessness, the dependency upon others. Nor is the separation from loved ones welcome either. However, death itself can be faced, because it leads us into the presence of God.

At some stage the Jews developed the custom of using Psalm 31.5 in their evening prayers. It is uncertain whether this was already the custom in Jesus’ day. If it was, then its quotation by Jesus on the Cross could have special significance. In this regard Herman Hendrickx, a Belgian New Testament scholar wrote:

Jesus who died at the ninth hour (three o’clock in the afternoon) recited this prayer at the moment the trumpets were sounded for the evening prayer, the end of which was precisely ‘Into your hands I commit my spirit’. Joining the people in their evening prayer, Jesus expressed his confidence and certainty that his death was only a ‘going to sleep’, and therefore the beginning of life with the Father.

Sleep is a well-known metaphor for death. Beyond the metaphor there is the reality that those who have entrusted themselves to God’s safekeeping will wake up to enjoy the presence of God for ever.

People die in different ways. For some death comes very unexpectedly; for others death can be a lengthy process. In this latter respect. The Anglican hospital chaplain Norman Autton wrote in Peace at the Last. Talks with the Dying:

Death is not so much something that happens to us as rather something we do. It is a sort of self-abandonment, a total giving up of ourselves, a complete emptying of ourselves. In dying we give back all that we are and all that we have. I wonder if you’ve read The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien. If so, you’ll probably remember Aragorn, the noble king approaching old age and realising that the span of his lifedays is drawing to an end. He says to Arwen, his wife, ‘At last, Lady Evenstar, fairest in this world and most beloved, my world is fading. Lo! We have gathered and we have spent, and now the time of payment draws near.’ And he then adds this beautiful phrase: ‘To me has been given, not only many years but also the grace to go at my will and give back the gift.

How these words contrast with Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at the close of day;
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.

There is no need to rage. Death is not the end of life, but simply the beginning of life.  We can with confidence pray:  “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit!”.

At every stage of life God is a God to be trusted. We can entrust ourselves with full confidence to him. For he is a God who loves us – and there is nothing in this world or the next which can ever separate us from his great love in Jesus.

One comment

  1. Some lovely, encouraging thoughts on death. I hope I will be able to face death with serenity when the time comes, and in such a way that my loved ones feel encouraged, too.

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