In the preface to his commentary on the book of Psalms, John Calvin noted that he liked to think of the psalter as “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul.” He stated further, “there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.”1 Loosely paraphrased, this means that psalms speak to us and for us. We can imagine ourselves in their words. While aspects of the psalms are sometimes foreign, at the same time, they may reach across time and distance and take root in our souls. We are drawn in by the way the psalms open the human soul before God. Making the psalms an anatomy of my soul gives me a way to express my faith and my fears to God.
Today, Psalm 31 gives us the opportunity to explore and express our lives of faith. In the psalm, the psalmist twice says that his life is in God’s hands. In verse 5, he says, “Into your hand I entrust my life.”2 In verse 15, he says, “In your hand are my times.” In both verses, the Hebrew phrase is identical and is placed first in the clause for emphasis. What does it mean to be in God’s hands?
Notice that there is a contrast between God’s hand and other hands. Patrick Miller notes that there is another hand active in Psalm 31: the hand of the enemy that threatens in verses 8 and 15.3 The contrast highlights what we believe about being in God’s hand. By contrast to the enemy who seeks to harm the psalmist, the psalmist is safe in God’s hand. As with Allstate, you are in good hands with God.
…Except for one thing. Both of these statements of trust are surrounded by cries for deliverance. That is, the confession that one is in God’s hand does not seem to mean that everything is good. Why are there enemies out there? Why does the psalmist lament his failing health? What is the relationship between trust and need, or faith and fear?
The relationship between trust and need is direct in Psalm 31. It is trust that enables the petition. The relationship between “Into your hand I entrust my life” and the following clause is interpreted in various ways. Some translations read the next verb as an imperative: ransom me! Others take the verb as speaking of the future: I know you will ransom me. Still others, with the strongest grammatical warrant, translate it as speaking of the past: you have ransomed me. Each translation fits with the life of faith. Our trust in God can be the basis for our future hope. Our trust in God can be based on his faithfulness in the past. Or our trust in God might be the reason we cry out to him in our present crises. But if verse 5 is ambiguous, verse 15 is not. It pairs “In your hand are my times,” with an imperative: “Rescue me!” Verse 15, and the psalm as a whole, insists that there is a way that God should act with respect to his people. God must rescue them from their immediate danger.
Is there room for Psalm 31 in the anatomy of our souls? Faith is a complicated thing in this passage because it assumes that God can and must act on behalf of those who trust in him. Providence is not a distant theological concept in the logic of the psalm; rather, providence is how God should intervene in my crises. In Psalm 31, faith is both desperately needy and tenaciously hopeful. Both are commended as necessary to the anatomy of the soul.
John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Psalms (trans. James Anderson; Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), I:xxxvii. ↩
While the phrase is typically rendered “Into your hands I commit my spirit,” the Hebrew term describes one’s breath. ↩
Patrick Miller, Interpreting the Psalms (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 43. ↩