By James Boice
Theme: Prayer for Help in Trouble
In this week’s lessons, we learn from this psalm how to deal with difficulties that come into our lives, knowing that God is our mighty refuge in whom alone we can trust.
Scripture: Psalm 31:1-24
Psalm 31 is longer than most of those immediately preceding it. Only Psalms 18 and 22 are longer. But Psalm 31 has this interesting distinction. As a psalm of trust growing out of an individual lament, “a magnificent psalm of confidence,” it has appealed to many biblical characters.
The phrase “terror on every side,” from verse 13, seems to have appealed to Jeremiah as a description of the dangers of his day, since he borrowed it no less than six times in his writings, sometimes picking up other echoes of the psalm along with it (Jer. 6:25; 20:3, 10; 46:5; 49:29; Lam. 2:22). In his prayer of repentance from inside the great fish, Jonah, the minor prophet, quoted the words “those who cling to worthless idols,” from verse 13 (Jonah 2:8). The author of Psalm 71, possibly David himself, quotes the opening verses of Psalm 31 as his opening. And, most striking of all, verse 5 of our psalm gave Jesus words for his last utterance from the cross: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
In spite of the apparent popularity of this psalm, it is a hard psalm to outline. In fact, no two writers agree on an outline. Some divide the psalm into three parts, some into two. But even among those who agree on the number of parts, there is no agreement about where the divisions come, and most even disagree about the flow of thought within the sections. In this study I want to follow the stanza divisions of the New International Version and outline them as follows.
I see two main parts to the psalm: 1) the body of the psalm (vv. 1-20); and 2) a brief concluding application (vv. 21-24). The body of the psalm is in five parts: 1) a prayer for help in trouble (vv. 1-5); 2) an expression of trust in God (vv. 6-8); 3) a lament (vv. 9-13); 4) a further expression of trust (vv. 14-18); and 5) praise to God for his help in the trouble (vv. 19, 20). As we will see in our study, these five parts move from an emotional peak to an emotional valley and then back to an emotional peak again. It is as if David is riding a wave from a crest to a trough and then back to a crest in closing.
The first five verses of this psalm are a prayer for help in trouble. But they are a confident prayer since they, like the other sections of the psalm, express a very strong trust in God.
These verses have a theme. It is that God is the psalmist’s “rock of refuge.” The phrase itself occurs in verse 2, but the two nouns are also repeated separately. “Refuge” is found in verses 1 and 4. “Rock” is used again in verse 3. In addition, the nearly synonymous term “fortress” is used twice (in vv. 2 and 3). This was a popular metaphor with David, being found in Psalms 18, 19, 28, 61, 62 and 71, for example. It unquestionably comes from the years when he was fleeing from King Saul and so often found safety in the high rocks of the Judean wilderness. On the plain, David’s warrior band was no match for the numerically superior and better equipped troops of his enemy. But he was safe if he fled to the mountains. In the same way, David saw God as his true “rock of refuge” when his later enemies encircled him and set traps for his soul.
- How else has this psalm been used by others in the Bible?
- How does Dr. Boice outline this psalm?
- What is the image in David’s mind when he calls God his rock and refuge?
For Further Study: The book of Psalms has been a source of comfort and strength for the church throughout the centuries, aiding us in our prayers and praise, and teaching us what it means to really know God and how to please him. Dr. Boice’s clear and practical treatment of this great section of the Bible is available in paperback. Order your copy of this three-volume set, and take 25% off the regular price.
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