“Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.”
When Jesus quotes this psalm from the cross (Luke 24:46) the verse doesn’t stand alone. Those who hear the story hear the whole psalm, in the same way that someone might say, “A bird in the hand” without needing to complete the proverb, or the way “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” evokes the entire Declaration of Independence and the vision at the heart of the American experiment.
Psalm 31 is a lament. The author cries out in anguish,
11 I am the scorn of all my adversaries,
a horror to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances;
those who see me in the street flee from me.
12 I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.
13 For I hear the whispering of many–
terror all around!–
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life.
14 But I trust in you, O Lord;
I say, “You are my God.”
“Into your hands I commend my spirit” is not an expression of pious faith; it is a confession wrought in struggle and agony.
It is not a simple thing to trust God. We confess that “God is love.” We see that Jesus is a healing presence in the world: opening blind eyes, driving out demons, feeding the hungry, giving life to the perishing. We know the Biblical story of slaves set free, of the Red Sea opened, of manna from heaven, of angels entertained unawares.
But this is a faith hard won. Joseph was betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, unjustly sentenced to rot in the dungeon, forgotten by those he helped. Israel was 430 years in Egypt. Abraham was 100 when the promise of a son was fulfilled.
The path God bids us walk often trails across stony ground. Our journey travels the wilderness. Jesus is 40 days in the barrens of Judah assaulted by the evil one. There are days of precious sweetness in life, for some even years of goodness – though too often they go untreasured, envied by those whose path is more challenging.
When Jesus expresses this profound trust in God from the cross, it is with the words of one who has been broken by life. There is no minimizing the physical torment of the cross – or the spiritual torment of his apparent abandonment.
But Jesus remains faithful.
This psalm that cries out in despair begins and ends in deep and enduring trust. Whatever that middle path may be, it begins and ends in the faithfulness of God.
And so the psalmist concludes with an exhortation to others:
23 Love the Lord, all you his saints…
24 Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
all you who wait for the Lord.
This is the abiding exhortation of the crucified one, the faithful son, who bids us – even from the cross – take courage and trust in God. In that strange and wonderful duality of scripture, Jesus declares that though some of us are martyred, “not a hair of your head will perish.” Our destiny is life. God’s work is resurrection. God shall reign. Easter is God’s ultimate word.
And so Stephen, as the stones rain down, sees the living, reigning Christ and – like Jesus before him – declares his trust: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Stephen is not quoting the psalm; he is following Jesus. Christ is living in him. He is living the faithfulness of Jesus. This is the witness of the martyrs. This is why we hold them ever in memory. They did not lose faith. They were Christ to the world. They are Christ for us. And they become our encouragement.
The psalmist may say, “my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.” But these are not his last words. Nor will they be ours.