by John Ellis
This is the slightly edited manuscript for an Equipping Hour (Sunday school) class I taught a few weeks ago. I edited it to make it a little easier to read.
For those who attended the Church History class this past fall, you’ll remember that at the beginning of each class, we went through different sections of Psalm 119. You may also remember that one of the things we found in the text is the concept of pilgrim theology. And I want to begin by piggybacking on that.
We’re sojourners here, pilgrims, who through the power of the Holy Spirit are moving to God’s final rest – our full and final salvation. How we move through this life is important; it matters. Among other things, it often reveals our priorities – where our hope lies and where we place our identity, and those two things are directly connected.
How we conduct ourselves, our choices, communicate to a watching world what we believe about God. Are we testifying truthfully about God? Or are we testifying to how we wish God were?
And The Psalms provide a model for how we are to live – for how to truthfully testify about who God is no matter our circumstances.
First, though, I want to provide some scaffolding for today’s class.
About two weeks ago, I met with Robert so I could hear some of his specific goals, objectives, and desires for this concluding class in our series on The Psalms. For the record, Robert doesn’t dictate to the teachers how to teach. He gives us a general overview of the class’s objective and then trusts us. For this final class in this series, though, and a for a variety of reasons, I wanted to make sure I understood, as best I can, Robert’s objectives for this final class and the overall series.
We talked through several themes and points: how the narrative runs through the different genres (and The Psalms as a whole), how different genres cross each other (some of the Psalms aren’t as easy to classify as others), the prevalence of theology in The Psalms (we often fail to understand the theological richness of The Psalms – Martin Luther called The Psalms a Bible in miniature), and overall application (how should we then live? or, as I’ve stated it, the script for our journey of faith).
Now, a good Baptist teacher would structure and teach today’s class with four distinct points. Well, maybe just three points. A good Baptist teacher would likely fold that final point – how should we then live? – into the application portion of the other three points.
But I’m not a good Baptist teacher because I do not like outlines. So, my goal is to try and weave together all of the objectives Robert and I discussed into my discussion of Psalm 31. And Psalm 31 will be our primary text.
I offer this scaffolding – the four main points – for those of you who do like outlines. Hopefully it will help you track with me as we move forward because I’m going to be moving in and out of those points without warning.
So, with that, let’s jump in.
I love cars, especially fast cars. I have ever since I was a kid. When I was in fourth grade, I won a poster at the annual Pensacola Interstate Fair – it was a game throwing darts at balloons. No doubt, the poster would’ve cost less than the $1, which was a huge amount for me in 1985, I paid to play the game. Anyway, I chose a poster adorned with a red Ferrari Testarossa. And as soon as I got home, it went up on my bedroom wall.
A couple of months ago, while adding our daughter’s car to our insurance, the agent told me about the safe driver app. It tracks your speed and braking in order to determine if you get a discount or not. I added to it my daughter’s car and my wife’s car. The agent then asked if I wanted it for my car. I replied, “Yeah, I don’t think that would be a good idea.”
However, over the last month, my driving has changed – some would say improved – considerably.
So, pop quiz. It’s just one multiple choice question.
Why has John Ellis’ driving changed over the last month?
Is it, A) He read the actuary reports and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s reports. Or B) He has a new baby daughter strapped into a car seat behind him.
Who thinks A? Who thinks B?
It’s B, with a qualifier.
My circumstances have changed. Another way to put it, the narrative content of my life has changed. My understanding of the facts hasn’t changed. How those facts are situated in my story is what’s changed. My story has changed.
But how did I know how to alter my driving? To become a better/safer driver? Answer B couldn’t have changed me for the better without having some knowledge of answer A, right? I mean, I have read actuary reports and the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin’s reports – this is why I’m extra cautious when turning left at an intersection. Turning left is the largest cause of accidents – 22.2% of all accidents involve turning left. Vehicles driving off the road is the second leading cause, in case you were curious. And running red lights and stop signs is the third leading cause.
Remember in the introductory class, I challenged the concept of facts over feelings. But it’s also not feelings over facts, as I also pointed out. In relation to my driving habits, my “feelings” (my desires and priorities) changed because my narrative (my STORY) changed. The changing narrative has altered my relationship with the facts.
As Christians, our position in Christ changes our narrative and, hence, alters our relationship with the facts and our experiences. Being in Christ means we’re a new person – we have a new role to play.
We see this in The Psalms. The covenantal relationship with God alters God’s peoples’ relationship with the facts and their experiences. Being in covenant with God marks them as different from the peoples around them.
The Psalms are the integration of theology and response.
Old Testament scholar W.H. Bellinger points out, “In [The Psalms] the faith community, ancient Israel, recalled its life experiences in relation to its faith tradition and sought to integrate the two, thereby making theological sense out of the two.”
Word of caution: our interpretations of our experiences, even in light of theology, don’t carry the authority that the divinely inspired Psalms possess. Those ancient Israelite experiences recorded in the Psalms have been integrated with theology through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
We need to be careful and resist the temptation to codify at the level of God’s law (or even close to it) our experiences and our interpretations of those experiences. For example, the Holy Spirit used a visit to a fortune teller in New Orleans to help break my atheism. While that’s true and I’m thankful for that experience and the role it played in me eventually placing my faith in Jesus, I would never encourage us to include taking our unsaved friends and family members to a fortune teller as part of our gospel witness. In fact, I would strongly discourage it.
We need to keep that in mind.
So, Bellinger helpfully adds, “The Psalms give guidance by example in how to converse with God in the midst of life, and this instruction in dialogue relates to every human condition. It portrays praise in the midst of joy and complaint in the midst of pain. Thus the Psalter offers instructions for the journey of faith and recounts the dialogue with God that is at the heart of the journey.”
I’ve chosen Psalm 31 for this morning because David expresses both joy and pain in it. He interacts with God (and his experiences) in ways that cross the various types of poetry we’ve looked at the last few weeks.
So, right now, I want us to take a few minutes to scan Psalm 31 and see if you can spot any of the various genres (types of poetry) in it. I’ve listed all the genres we’ve looked at on the white board – I’m not saying they’re all in Psalm 31, but I’m not saying they’re not either. So, scan the Psalm – and feel free to discuss it at your table – and see how many genres you can find.
Just so you know, I’ve found 5, possibly 6, but am open to there being more.
Alright, what are some of the genres – types of poetry – in Psalm 31?
Petition: verses 1 and 2.
Thanksgiving – verses 3-5
Lament (and petition) – verses 8-13
Imprecatory – verses 17-18
Wisdom – verse 24
Depending on how tightly you want to define thanksgiving versus praise, we could throw praise in there, too. Do y’all remember the distinction between thanksgiving and praise? Thanksgiving is what God has done for us (and is doing). We praise God for who He is.
And while Psalm 31 isn’t considered a Messianic Psalm, I could teach a whole class about how this psalm is connected to Genesis 3:15 as well as to Revelation 22:12-13, and all points in the Bible in-between.
So, I think it’s clear that this one Psalm would be hard to classify as a single genre. As has been pointed out over the course of this class, the genres, as we’ve tagged them, don’t hold hard and fast in really any of the psalms. What’s important for this class today, though, is for us to see how the use of multiple genres communicate truth.
One of the interesting things about Psalm 31 that we can easily miss is how dramatically it challenged a dominant theological paradigm in ancient Israel. Frankly, it’s a dominant theological paradigm today as well.
Often, our faith in God’s goodness is dependent on our circumstances and not on who God is – on His character. I often put it this way speaking for myself: I don’t doubt that God is sovereign, but in my flesh, I doubt that I agree with it or like it (am thankful for it). So, in my flesh, when going through hard providences, I acknowledge in my mind that God is sovereign over the situation, I just think I could do a better job if I were the sovereign over that situation.
Challenging that, as pointed out by Gerald Wilson in his commentary on this Psalm, “[Psalm 31] teaches the reader an important but difficult lesson. It is necessary to align oneself with the essential righteousness that characterized Yahweh even if it does not pay off in benefit. That is another way of saying that commitment to the way of Yahweh is costly.”
And I would add the qualifier perceived to the word benefit, slightly changing the quote to, “It is necessary to align oneself with the essential righteousness that characterized Yahweh even if it does not pay off in perceived benefit.” … finishing the quote … “That is another way of saying that commitment to the way of Yahweh is costly.”
We need to be honest and admit that our definition of benefit is often actually detrimental to us. We frequently fail to respond in faith because we believe we know better.
When Infinity, our oldest, was two years old, we lived in an apartment complex that had a playground beside where we parked our car. It was an okay playground. Had a slide, some swings, and a few other things. Nothing special.
One day, I decided to take Infinity to the zoo. Part of going to the zoo also included time at a brand new, massive playground right outside the zoo’s entrance. Well, while walking her to the car, Infinity saw the apartment’s playground and decided she wanted to go play there.
I told her, no, that we were going to the zoo and a better playground, and bundled her into her car seat. She, as two-year-olds are prone to do, threw a fit.
I found myself trying to explain to her that the thing she thought she wanted paled in comparison to what I was trying to give her. In the moment, I was also struck with how I am often like her in relation to my Heavenly Father.
The commitment to Yahweh may be costly in the here and now, but our Heavenly Father is taking us through that cost to something far better than we can imagine.
This should cause us to think of Jesus’ words that we are take up our cross and follow him, as well as his promise that the world will hate those who are his. Paul wrote to Timothy that, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Tim. 3:12)”
However, going back to the ancient Israelites – and us if we’re being honest – a prevailing belief akin to what we call the prosperity gospel existed throughout Israel’s history, extending all the way to Second Temple Judaism and the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. As Wilson puts it, “there was a tendency in Israel to assume that commitment to relationship with Yahweh meant immediate reward and benefit in this temporal world.”
We may scorn and denounce the Kenneth Copelands and Joel Osteens of the world, but if we allowed ourselves to really dig into our heart and be honest about our expectations and our definition of flourishing, we’d find that we tend to damage the eschatological already/not yet in self-serving ways. Our culture tempts us – greatly tempts us – to believe that the blessings to come in the not yet are ours to expect already.
I think I’ve said it in a previous class, but our society contains very real parallels with Vanity Fair from John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress. Y’all know the story, right?
Christian is traveling – pilgrim theology – from his hometown called the City of Destruction to the Celestial City (heaven). Along the way, he encounters dangers, traps, and distractions. One of the more dangerous ones is the city Vanity Fair. Now, Christian and his traveling companion Faithful are arrested because they resist the allure of Vanity Fair and remain, well, faithful (it’s not a very subtle allegory), but the place is filled with waylaid pilgrims who bought the lie that the pleasures offered by Vanity Fair are the endgame.
Like I said, there are very real parallels between Vanity Fair and our society. And if we’re being honest about what’s in our heart, there’s a chance we’ll recognize that some level of the prosperity gospel has a hold on us.
But God’s grace is sufficient, and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is effectual. And Psalm 31 is part of God’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work. We’re given a divinely inspired model – or script – for God’s people’s expectations and responses during our journey to the Celestial City.
David, in Psalm 31 is confessing his belief in God’s goodness even in the face of suffering. I know that some in here can give testimony to God’s goodness and faithfulness in the face of intense suffering. And no doubt, even if it wasn’t this specific Psalm, there were (or are) Psalms that the Holy Spirit used (or is using) to sustain your faith and keep your eyes on Jesus and your feet on God’s path that leads through your suffering to the Celestial City.
We see this modeled in Psalm 31. David, after recounting some of what he’s enduring, prays in verses 14-15, “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hand; rescue me from the hand of my enemies and from my persecutors!”
He transitions from his lament to thanksgiving/praise and then to supplication.
His circumstances don’t determine his response much less his theology. His theology – David’s understanding of who God is – shapes his response to his circumstances. And by “his theology,” I don’t just mean the propositional statements of systematic theology. Included in “his theology” is David’s covenantal relationship with his LORD. The crossing genres show us this. Psalm 31 doesn’t just lean towards one side or the other. David’s story has been changed. As has the story of all those who are following Jesus.
David knows that he is the LORD’s. That’s a comforting reality; a comforting and very real existential position because the LORD preserves and protects His own, even during times of distress.
This Psalm ends with the expectation that “the LORD preserves the faithful” and so, the admonition, “Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD!”
A few verses earlier, David tells of a time that he waited on the LORD. Verses 21-22, “Blessed be the LORD, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was in a besieged city. I had said in my alarm, ‘I am cut off from your sight.’ But you heard the voice of my pleas for mercy when I cried to you for help.”
I want us to notice something important here: Look at verse 22, “I am cut off from your sight.”
Was David cut off from the sight of God?
No. Emphatically, No!
So, God rebukes him, right? For his incorrect theology.
Again, no. God heard David’s pleas. This lament turns to thanksgiving.
This is what we mean by saying that it’s important to include honest laments in our worship – both private and corporate (although there’s technically no so such thing as private worship for the Bride of Christ … but that’s a lesson for another day).
Honestly acknowledging our feelings of despair or loneliness or pain or whatever helps reveal to us how much we need and do long for our Heavenly Father. Note that David said, “I had said in my alarm, I am cut off from your sight.”
It was an honest emotional response that caused him to turn to his LORD who had never left him.
Charles Spurgeon tells us that, “The Psalmist in dire affliction appeals to his God for help with much confidence and holy importunity, and ere long finds his mind so strengthened that he magnifies the Lord for his great goodness.”
David’s response to his LORD during suffering reflects the theology taught in Romans 8:28 that was penned around a thousand years later, giving us a demonstration that “All scripture is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”
David’s theology – his knowledge, both head and relational knowledge – led him to an understanding that even while suffering in a besieged city, the LORD shows his steadfast love to his saints. Even those times of suffering were being used by God to preserve David. We see this from the very first verse of the Psalm – “In you, O LORD, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me!”
And quickly, by way of anticipating some possible pushback, it’s true that David asks God to rescue him speedily – verse 2. That word “speedily” is there in the request. Likewise, it’s true that in verse 8 David acknowledges that God has not delivered him into the hand of the enemy but has set his feet in a broad place. But it’s also true that in the very next verse, verse 9, David cries out, “Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief.’ My soul and body also.”
Is he no longer on the broad place from verse 8? Is he now delivered into the hand of his enemy?
No, of course not.
Remember, this is poetry. Poetry not only communicates truth, but it does so in ways that reveal emotional honesty in the moment. Using stylized and figurative language, poetry not only reveals the poet’s emotional truth but also intends to evoke a similar response from the reader or listener.
With that in mind, look again at verses 2 and 3 – “Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily! Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.”
After that petition, pay attention to what David confesses in verse 3 – “For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me.”
David has a great longing for his LORD. And that longing is birthed by who his LORD is. His desire for God to be his rock of refuge can’t be reduced to mere facts. Yes, it’s true that God protects His children. But that truth does something to God’s children – it changes their story – and in doing so creates a relational (an existential) desire for what’s already true.
It’s like when a young child implores his mom, “love me mommy.” In that moment, that child isn’t confessing a belief that his mom doesn’t love him. He’s simply asking for what he already has.
David’s poetry expresses this.
There are textual reasons why every commentary I consulted points out that this is a Psalm about current suffering and not a Psalm of immediate, material victory – pushing back on the prosperity gospel that has pervaded all of history. But it’s also a Psalm about the unshakeable truth that God is faithful, and His people’s salvation is secure. What’s more, within the already/not yet eschatological reality, the already part is true, too. We are being saved and we are saved.
This is what Paul is getting at with Ephesians 1:11-14: “In [Christ] we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”
Do you grasp how incredibly dramatic and awesome Paul’s claim is?
Look, in the eschaton, after King Jesus returns, our Father’s cattle upon a thousand hills will be ours to enjoy. The New Jerusalem and the New Earth will be filled with wonderful material blessings that we can’t comprehend right now.
But you know what we get while we wait?
We get God himself. We get the Holy Spirit. “We are sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it. (Ephesians 1:14)”
“Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me! For you are my rock and my fortress.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, our Father withholds no good thing from us. We have the Holy Spirit, which is much greater and carries far more eternal weight than my beautiful baby daughter who sits in her car seat behind me now does. How much more should we be changed than my driving habits?
Our story has been changed, meaning our response to the facts of our experience should change to.
Alright, we’re going to make somewhat of a transition for the remainder of the class to some helpful – what I believe are helpful – ways to interact with the question of “how should we then live” as we conclude our ten-week look at The Psalms.
While Robert and I were discussing today’s class, I kept referring back to my theatre training and experience. At one point, I stopped myself and promised him that I wouldn’t turn this into a theatre class. He responded that he was expecting me to. So, this next little bit is his fault if you find it unhelpful.
Actors are taught to trust their instincts. I can’t count the number of times I heard from a professor or director, “Trust your instincts, John.”
That direction puzzled me, though. I wondered, how do I know my instincts are trustworthy?
What I eventually realized is that my professors and directors were assuming that I was doing my work on the front end – that I was studying the play and my character. As an actor, the story of the play and my character’s place in that story are what shapes my instincts and makes them trustworthy.
It’s a little more complicated than this, for the record, but for the sake of illustration, knowing what Hamlet wants, why he wants it, his relationship with the other characters, etc. informs my instincts so that in the moment, on stage, I respond as Hamlet would respond and not as how John Ellis would. Hamlet’s given circumstances dictate how he responds to the Ghost, for example. My given circumstances would cause me to respond to a ghost quite differently.
And I’m assuming that y’all know enough about the greatest play ever written to track with me during that illustration.
That’s all well and good on stage, but how does that relate to us – specifically those of us who are followers of Jesus?
Look back at Psalm 31:1.
“In you, O LORD, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me!”
I think we gloss over the faith of the Old Testament saints. We tend to reduce them to their empirical experiences.
“Sure, David trusted God. He delivered him from Goliath.”
“Sure, Moses trusted God. Moses walked through the Red Sea on dry ground.”
Right? We often think that because the Old Testament saints experienced – saw, heard, and felt with their physical senses – mighty works of God, they were better able to respond in faith to God than we do.
And we do the same things in our lives. I’ve frequently heard some variation of this: “I know God is good and faithful because He did fill-in-the blank.” God provide my rent money. God healed me. God protected me from the driver turning left in an intersection without properly yielding the right of way.
Don’t hear what I’m not saying. Those things do display God’s goodness. And we should be thankful for them and give testimony to them. But even if God doesn’t provide our rent money, nor heal us, nor protect us from a traffic accident, He’s still good.
We all know that in our head, but do we really know that in our heart? And you may. I’m not casting us all as immature Christians. But I want us to examine our own heart and be honest about what is the main driver in our belief that God is good.
What has shaped our instincts? Those instincts that play a determinative role in how we respond to life’s circumstances (good or bad).
Commentaries point out that at times in Psalm 31, David is thanking God for what God is going to do. How was he able to do that? Where did that faith come from? What shaped his instincts?
The answer is throughout the Psalms (and the Bible) but Psalm 119 offers the quickest access to the answer. Those who delight in God’s law – who delight in God – walk in His path, walk in ways that serve as testimony to God’s goodness and faithfulness.
To sojourn faithfully requires delighting in God. Boots on the ground, first and foremost, it requires being in a covenant relationship of blessing with God.
Psalms 1 and 2 (and the entire book) detail that there are only two types of people in the world: those who are in a relationship of blessing with God, and those who are in a relationship with His wrath.
For those of us in a relationship of blessing with God, the final verse of Psalm 119 is fascinating. Verse 176 opens with the confession, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep” and then immediately transitions to the petition, “seek your servant.”
“For I do not forget your commandments.”
In those moments of trial, and even those moments when you sin, do not forget who God is. In 119, the psalmist confesses that he’s gone astray but that he still remembers God’s commandments. He still remembers God and longs for God – and that comes from the text.
All the way back at the beginning of the chapter, in verse 10, the psalmist reveals, “With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments.”
Think of how parallelism works in Hebrew poetry. The second phrase – “let me not wander from your commandments” in verse 10 – is often a type of restatement that reinforces the first statement – “With my whole heart I seek you” in verse 10.
We don’t have time to do it, but we could go through Psalm 119 and draw out the many instances that poetically weave together God’s law (His word) with God’s salvation and God Himself.
I’ll point out just one verse, and while I do so keep in mind that parallelism of Hebrew poetry.
Verse 81 says, “My soul longs for your salvation; I hope in your word.”
Does that find a parallel in our reality? In our heart? Does our soul long for Jesus, or are we distracted by the pleasures and comforts of Vanity Fair?
Do we understand that our true identity is in Christ? Do we understand what that means, how that dramatically reorients our relationship with everything, including our experiences?
Being in Christ – knowing Jesus – changes our story. It changes our story from one of God’s wrath to one of God’s blessings. And it changes the story of how we journey to the Celestial City. Knowing Jesus changes everything.
Throughout the Bible, knowing is relational. Knowing someone requires more than head knowledge of facts. Knowing Jesus – growing in grace and the knowledge of Jesus – requires more than knowing facts about Jesus. It requires having a relationship with him. A real relationship, not just a pat-Sunday school answer one.
And growing in that relationship requires communication. He speaks to us through his word. We speak to him through prayer – we should be in constant prayer, not just those times we blocked off in our schedule (and those times are good and right, for the record).
The deeper we know and long for Jesus, the better able we are to see the story of grace and salvation God has placed us in. Our instincts change, to use theatre terminology. So, when hard times and suffering comes, we lament in full faith and in ways that glorify God.
The Psalms not only give us a model for how we should respond to life’s circumstances, they’re a living script that breathes life into us – like all of Scripture. Immersing ourselves in God’s Word – delighting in His law; delighting in Him – will change us.
And The Psalms are in incredible gift from our Heavenly Father because they reveal to us that we don’t need to leave behind our humanity when we approach the throne of grace nor when we walk through this world testifying to who God is and what He’s done for us. They reveal how the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit allows us to glorify God and point others to Him while being honest with what we’re experiencing.
Soli Deo Gloria
 H.W. Bellinger Jr., Psalms: A Guide to Studying the Psalter (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 141.
 Bellinger, Psalms, 142.
 Gerald H.Wilson, The NIV Application Commentary: Psalms, Vol. 1 gen. ed. Terry Muck (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 537.
 Wilson, Psalms, Vol. 1, 537.
 Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Vol. 1 Psalms 1-57 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2011), part 2, p. 57.