Opening The Old Testament
Shelter in the Storm: The Promise of Psalm 31
Third, "in your righteousness deliver me." This can be heard in more than one way. The preposition "in" could also be read "with"; thus the psalmist asks YHWH to employ one of God's basic characteristics—God's righteousness—on his/her behalf. One helpful way to understand just what the psalmist is asking is to remember one of the Bible's great stories from Genesis 18:22-33. In that tale, YHWH has decided to destroy the terrible city of Sodom, having seen with the divine eyes just how every person in that city—men, women, and children (Gen. 19:4 makes it very clear that not only the males of the city were involved in this attempted rape)—foully treated the visiting strangers in their midst. But before YHWH carries out the sentence against the city, YHWH decides to tell Abraham, YHWH's chosen prophet, what is about to happen.
Instead of answering YHWH in an expected way, saying something like, "Okay, boss; anything you want to do," Abraham instead argues with YHWH about the divine decision. "Will you really sweep away righteous with wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous in the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous are treated like the wicked. Far be that from you! Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?" (Gen. 18:23-25) YHWH, says Abraham, simply must respond to righteous human actions with even grander divine righteousness. If fifty righteous ones (why, even ten—or even one—will do see Gen. 18:32!) are found, their righteousness should be adequate to offset the vast wickedness of all the rest. If it is so with humanity, how much the more is it so with YHWH!
The poet of Psalm 31 thus entreats this astonishingly righteous God to put that righteousness in play on the poet's behalf, and "deliver me." Just like Sodom, that notoriously wicked place, could have been saved by the existence of only one righteous man—Lot, presumably—so this psalmist asks YHWH for the same possibility. Deliver me, the poet cries, because you, O YHWH, are above all things righteous, much more than fair in your dealings with your people. Why, if YHWH is not righteous, what hope can there be for any human righteousness?
And now we can see why the poet sought YHWH's divine shelter in the first place. In YHWH shame will never attach itself to me; in YHWH's righteousness I will always be delivered, not always protected from harm, but always delivered.
And perhaps now you may catch a glimpse of the raw power and great comfort of these old poems. Psalm 31:1 clings to me still, just as I cling to my God who is my shelter and fortress.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.