Psalm 71, appointed for today, speaks to a calamity. Psalm 71 is both a diagnosis and a prescription for those who suffer. The issue the psalmist confronts, specifically, is about the insecurity and vulnerability of old age and the fear of abandonment. But this psalm applies just as well if you are young and sick, or if you worried sick because of your own health and wellbeing, or because of someone else’s.
On the one hand, the psalmist has known the presence of God, stretching back to childhood, “my confidence since I was young.”[i] Because of this, the psalmist has reason to be hopeful about the future, “For you are my hope, O LORD God.”[ii] But this is not cheap hope. In such transparent candor, the psalmist says, “I have become a portent to many.”[iii]A portent is a sign or a warning that something bad, especially something momentous or calamitous, is likely to happen.” Old people are portents. Old people are like the canary in the coal mine. We all become old. I am old. Unless we die young or from some other tragedy, we all become old. It’s not your fault for becoming old. However, old people are often forgotten and dismissed. Old people often lose their voice – that is, the power to be heard by others – and then they lose their control to manage their own life and to choose where to go or how to be. At the very end of the Gospel according to John, we hear Jesus, at the very end of his own life, say, “When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”[iv] Old people can be terribly needy, inconvenient, even embarrassing. The psalmist knows about this firsthand. So do we.
But then we hear the psalmist find some equilibrium. With courage and confidence, the psalmist draws from life’s experience knowing God’s presence: “For you are my crag and my stronghold.”[v] A crag is not a sheltered cave. It’s quite the opposite. A crag is a steep, rugged mass of rock that projects upward and outward. A crag is a stronghold. If you were a rock climber, you would reach up to a crag to take hold, to keep you secure, to enable you to ascend. In a desert culture, where the land is endlessly flat leaving you exposed and vulnerable, you will find safety and perspective in height, in being able to ascend, lest you be laid low, powerless, and vulnerable… like you often are when you are old or when you are sick. A crag is a miniature Masada, the hilltop fortress in the Judean desert. In medieval times, castles were oftentimes built upon crags. So we hear the psalmist recite from memory, and with strength and comfort: “Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe; you are my crag and my stronghold.”[vi]
And then, it’s like the psalmist “loses it.” The psalmist falls into despair. You know how it is when you feel vulnerable and needy. When you have thin skin. Oftentimes a little help and encouragement feels like a great help and encouragement. It’s transformative. For the moment, all is well! But then your mood can easily swing from cheer and confidence to despair and hopelessness, and then back and forth. Having just claimed God as a “crag and stronghold,” the psalmist becomes disconsolate and implores God, “Do not cast me off in my old age; do not forsake me when my strength fails.”[vii] In such transparent need, the psalmist cries out to God, “O God, be not far from me; come quickly to help me, O my God.”[viii]
The psalmist then expresses one last plea to God: “Now that I am old and gray headed, O God, do not forsake me…”[ix] Feeling very vulnerable – either because you are old, or sick, or afraid you will be – is very difficult, don’t we know. And then something amazing happens for the psalmist, true to life. It’s like an answer to prayer. The psalmist is reminded of God’s presence and God’s provision in the past: “You will restore my life and bring me up again from the deep places of the earth.”[x] It’s a kind of resurrection-like experience, when the sun bursts through the clouds and health or hope returns. The psalmist’s concluding words are triumphal:
“You strengthen me more and more; you enfold and comfort me,
therefore I will praise you upon the lyre for your faithfulness, O my God…
My lips will sing with joy when I play to you,
and so will my soul, which you have redeemed…
My tongue will proclaim your righteousness all day long,”[xi]
“All the day long…,” “all day long…,” until the cycle of fear and impending death returns. Death and resurrection, death and resurrection, death and resurrection.
1. In you, O LORD, have I taken refuge;
let me never be ashamed.
2. In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free;
incline your ear to me and save me.
3. Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe;
you are my crag and my stronghold.
4. Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked,
from the clutches of the evildoer and the oppressor.
5. For you are my hope, O LORD God,
my confidence since I was young.
6. I have been sustained by you ever since I was born;
from my mother’s womb you have been my strength; my praise shall be always of you.
7. I have become a portent to many;
but you are my refuge and my strength.
8. Let my mouth be full of your praise
and your glory all the day long.
9. Do not cast me off in my old age;
forsake me not when my strength fails.
10. For my enemies are talking against me,
and those who lie in wait for my life take counsel together.
11. They say, “God has forsaken him;
go after him and seize him;
because there is none who will save.”
12. O God, be not far from me;
come quickly to help me, O my God.
13. Let those who set themselves against me be put to shame and be disgraced;
let those who seek to do me evil be covered with scorn and reproach.
14. But I shall always wait in patience,
and shall praise you more and more.
15. My mouth shall recount your mighty acts and saving deeds all day long;
though I cannot know the number of them.
16. I will begin with the mighty works of the Lord GOD;
I will recall your righteousness, yours alone.
17. O God, you have taught me since I was young,
and to this day I tell of your wonderful works.
18. And now that I am old and gray headed, O God, do not forsake me,
till I make known your strength to this generation and your power to all who are to come.
19. Your righteousness, O God, reaches to the heavens;
you have done great things; who is like you, O God?
20. You have showed me great troubles and adversities,
but you will restore my life and bring me up again from the deep places of the earth.
21. You strengthen me more and more;
you enfold and comfort me,
22. Therefore I will praise you upon the lyre for your faithfulness, O my God;
I will sing to you with the harp, O Holy One of Israel.
23. My lips will sing with joy when I play to you,
and so will my soul, which you have redeemed.
24. My tongue will proclaim your righteousness all day long,
for they are ashamed and disgraced who sought to do me harm.
[i] I take inspiration from Herbert O’Driscoll’s Finer than Gold; Sweeter than Honey (Path Books), pp. 150-151.
[ii] Psalm 17:5.
[iii] Psalm 17:7.
[iv] John 21:18.
[v] Psalm 17:3.
[vi] Psalm 17:3.
[vii] Psalm 17:9.
[viii] Psalm 17:12.
[ix] Psalm 71:18.
[x] Psalm 17:20.
[xi] Psalm 17:20-24.