Psalm 71

Psalm 71 which is appointed for this day dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, or just St Peter (traditions vary) is a prayer in old age - an old man looking back on his life.  It could be that of a battle-hardened king who knows his strength is waning and fears that his weakness will be exploited.  He was taught from the moment of birth that God was with him, and he with God:

“Upon you have I leaned from my birth, when you drew me from my mother’s womb; my praise shall be always of you.” 

The psalm has an interesting oscillating structure: the first four verses are full of anxiety and fear; then verses five to eight, including verse six which I have just quoted, bring the man to consider the beginnings of his life, as hope and reassurance predominate; then he goes backwards again into his feelings of deep concern and anxiety; but, the final section, which is the longest, from verse fourteen to the end is full of confident hope - though peeping through these strong reassuring words are little indications, here and there, showing that there is a fragile person here, just below the surface of his self-assurance:

“What troubles and adversities you have shown me, and yet you will turn and refresh me and bring me from the deep of the earth again.”

Those words which form verse twenty are woven into the high and majestic declarations of the wonders of God’s power; a righteousness that reaches from the heavens.  They reveal a soul whose life is entirely dedicated to God, who has been his daily companion and delight, yet within he is suffering from self-doubt and feeling his weakness in a way that he had not in former years.

This is an old text, as are all the psalms, yet perhaps it is not so ancient in its articulation of anxiety, especially that which may descend upon us as we get older.  Most of us accept that we cannot do what we once could, but it is the erosion of hope that may accompany this acknowledgement that this psalm particularly addresses.  

So, what is the secret of this psalm? What great truth does it hold that we may learn from it?  It surely is that in youth much of our optimism resides in youthful strength, including, and here we must be careful, even the optimism that comes from our faith.  Why I am urging care in my weighing of this point, is, that I do not what this to read as though a young person’s faith is simply bolstered by fitness and boundless energy and good health, but, I think most of us would agree, that  it is certainly easier to be spiritually optimistic, when also every other aspect of life is opening in opportunity before us.

What this psalm is saying, very positively and comfortingly, is to listen to the voice of God ever more closely as we age.  The Lord is teaching us, slowly and gently, to do without the confidence that comes from physical strength.  He is teaching us that our trust, having been tested and tried throughout long lives and many experiences both joyful and positive, and also bitterly sad or sinful, that if we wish it, from the very fact that we become more reliant, we grow closer to God than ever.

The oscillating emotions of the psalmist may confuse us, as he works this through, and we may or may not feel his fragility, but the mere fact that this psalm is with us today, nearly three thousand years after it was written, shows that his journey of faith was strengthened by the writing and living of its verses in prayer and a settled mind.  

Let me finish by taking us back to the verse I quoted at the start:

“Upon you have I leaned from my birth, when you drew me from my mother’s womb; my praise shall be always of you.” 

This is such a beautiful image of God.  How many times have I read it, I wonder?  God as a midwife, bringing me forth to life.  It is only today it has really struck me, just what a wonderful image that is.  It takes me back to the beginning of the psalm, to read it again; and through its complexities to understand a little further what it means, as we grow older, to embrace the consummation of life as a child of God - and we start to learn of this as we are drawn from the womb.  This really is a great psalm, bringing joy and reassurance, through its ups and downs - knowing our ups and downs - and the trust and hope that is purified and strengthened through time.

John Mann