This post is part of a series called CANTICLES, in which I reflect upon a poetic biblical text chosen for the upcoming Sunday’s worship. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.
It seems to me that most of life can be experienced in at least two ways. The first way encounters every moment as a potential threat. The second sees every moment as a potential gift. This is an oversimplification, of course. But I think most of us encounter life primarily in one of these two ways.
For most of my life, I have walked the first way. I am a fearful person. I rarely trust myself, my body, or my life. I do not take risks easily. I often have hope for other people. I am, perhaps, too trusting. But everything that happens to me seems tainted with the possibility of failure, or sickness, or death. This is why I resonate so strongly with the speaker in Psalm 88: “Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.”
I know quite a few young people who live the same way. Years ago, in a youth ministry in which I used to participate, several young people spoke of mysterious stomach pains, constant anxiety, headaches, and insomnia. All of these are symptoms of stress and fear.
I could say that God has brought me to the brink of death dozens of times. Or I could say that God has snatched me from the brink of death dozens of times. And when I look to the future, I could live worried about all of the things that might come to pass; or I could live confident of the ways that God will see me through even those things that do come to pass.
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre writes about our modern state of fear: “We live not only with new kinds of threats to human safety but with unprecedented awareness of those threats. We’re not wired to take in as much information as we now have to process. If we read or listen to the news, our imaginations are stretched sometimes to the breaking point by disasters real and pending around the world.”1
But the speaker of Psalm 71 has a different perspective. Later in the psalm we discover that she is advanced in years. She has lived a long life and prays with confidence that God will save her even in her old age. She can pray this way not because she has avoided trouble all of her life, but because she has survived that same trouble. “You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again” (71:20).
These words are both a trouble and a comfort. The idea that God could be the cause of troubles disturbs me. But in the psalmist’s straightforward statements, I comprehend a depth of confidence and trust, from a life long lived. The psalmist does not plead for God’s revival, she proclaims it. “You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again.”
The old saying goes: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” I say, “Those who cannot listen to the past are doomed to fear the future.” This is why it is so important for our ministries to be intergenerational. I cannot count how many times I have come away stronger in my faith after a conversation with someone who has lived through much more than I have. People who have seen many troubles and calamities remind us that those troubles and calamities can be survived and that God is present in and through them.
In the paradox of Psalm 71 lies the possibility of hope. I could say that God has brought me to the brink of death dozens of times. Or I could say that God has snatched me from the brink of death dozens of times. And when I look to the future, I could live worried about all of the things that might come to pass; or I could live confident of the ways that God will see me through even those things that do come to pass.
Perhaps, with the psalmist, we might all turn to God and say:
I will hope continually,
and will praise you yet more and more.
My mouth will tell of your righteous acts,
of your deeds of salvation all day long,
though their number is past my knowledge.
I will come praising the mighty deeds of the Lord God,
I will praise your righteousness, yours alone…
I will also praise you with the harp
for your faithfulness, O my God;
I will sing praises to you with the lyre,
O Holy One of Israel.
My lips will shout for joy
when I sing praises to you;
my soul also, which you have rescued. (71:14-16, 22-23)
We’ve Come This Far by Faith – There’s something so powerful about this song. The chorus lyrics resonate deeply with Psalm 71:
We’ve come this far by faith
Leaning on the LORD
Trusting in His Holy Word
He never failed me yet
Oh’ can’t turn around
We’ve come this far by faith
Isaac Watts, arr. Richard Smallwood, I Love the Lord – Again, not a direct paraphrase of this psalm, (actually a paraphrase of Psalm 116), but of the same spirit. Such a great hymn that could be sung over and over again, almost meditatively.
Rich Mullins, Sometimes by Step – Most people know this song for its chorus, sung endlessly in praise and worship services in the late nineties and early aughts. But the wistfulness of the beginning lyrics, about being so close and yet so far away from God captures the paradoxical possibility of hope in Psalm 71. There’s a confidence to the prayer in this song: “step by step you’ll lead me…” Also, the linked version of this song contains a great freebie reflection from Rich Mullins.
1. Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, What’s in a Phrase? Pausing Where Scripture Gives You Pause (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 7.
Marcus A. Hong is a child of God, the Director of Field Education and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a PhD Candidate in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a cultivator of worship who has served in congregations, college chapels, and youth groups for over fifteen years. A lover of movies, fantasy literature, poetry and songwriting, Marcus and his wife Sarah have their hands blessedly full raising two precocious children.