Literary analysis of Psalm 31

rock heart photoThematically Song 31 divides into 7 parts –verses 2 to 5; 6 to 9; 10 to 14; 15 to 19; 20 and 21; 22 and 23; 24 and 25. Two seemingly disparate image patterns intersect these divisions; coming together, effortlessly, in the lines of resolve and stalwartness.

Verses 2 to 5 are dominated by imagery that describes God as a place of strength; as, that is, a physical structure:
                                                 “In You, Adonai, I shelter” (v. 2);
                                                 “Be my stronghold of rock,
                                                                      a fort-house to rescue me” (v. 3);
                                                  “For You are my crag and my bastion” (v. 4);
                                                  “For You are my stronghold” (v. 5)
Indeed, with the very opening phrase, “in You”, the singer describes a comforting solidity that he hopes will encompass him. That stronghold is opposed, in imagery and in intent, by the “net” that the singer’s enemies have laid out for him (v. 5). Though the net, should it confine him, will prevent his mobility, still its composition –openwork– contrasts with the impenetrable rock of the shelter that the singer seeks in God. Moreover, the image of the shelter connotes no entrapment; rather, it is a protection that the singer can enter and, accordingly, depart. Its quality of solidity, then, unlike the net’s openwork, presents the singer no danger.
The second image pattern is introduced in verse 3 –that of another kind of physicality but one completely different in its nature from that of solid form: the phrase that opens verse 3, “Incline Your ear to me” (v. 3), attributes to God a bodily organ impossible to the image of inert rock. The six parts of the song that follow employ both of these seemingly incompatible image patterns –one, the metaphor of place or of a structure; the other, the metaphorical rendering of sensory abilities. But to the singer, no disparity exists. The two patterns are paired throughout the song; the singer creating harmony out of dissonance.
The second part of the song, verses 6 to 9, declares the singer’s gratitude to Adonai Whom, in verse 6, he names “God of truth”. A truth that is juxtaposed in verse 7 by the “lies” of the singer’s enemies. That the name,”God of truth”, precedes the enemies’ “vaporous lies”, effectively makes truth their reprimand. That same kind of juxtaposition occurs as well in the image of “hand”: in verse 6 the singer avows, “In Your hand I commend my spirit”; a trust he affirms in his declaration, “And You did not yield me to my enemy’s hand”, in verse 9.  The implication is that the hand of God extends its justice to deflect the hand of the enemy, a meaning both the composition –the order or placement of the verses–  and the imagery make clear. That the “ear” of God is imaged in the song’s first part, God’s “hand” in its second. gives a poignancy to the singer’s pleas for protection: the ear, the organ of hearing; the hand, of helping. The singer asserts that his trust in God has freed him, but not only from the enemies’ nets of entrapment –God’s “kindness”, knowing “the straits of [his] life” (v. 8), has “set [his] feet in a wide-open place” (v. 9). Thus the two image patterns, place and organic physicality, reconcile. “Straits” recalls the confinement of “net” that has gives way to “a wide-open place”; the singer’s “feet” stand on firmness but not within the solidity of the fort. Rather, his vision opens so that it sees only expanse.
The verbs, however, of the singer’s exultation are in the past tense — “set”, not “sit”. His expansive vision narrows in the song’s third section, verses 11 to 14, turning inward, seeing only its own dejected state. The change is jarring but unexplained. Between verse 9 and verse 10 is silence. The imagery of these verses describes the singer’s dejection; his actual physical organs become metaphors for his despair and sorrow. The verse opening this section of the song is
                                            Grant me grace, Adonai, for I am distressed.
                                                                     My eye is worn out in vexation,
                                                                                   my throat* and my belly. (v. 10)
The lines that follow his plea for grace, ending not until the close of verse 14, perceive only God’s apparent absence: the singer belies his freedom from “the straits of [his] life” that he proclaimed in verse 8; indeed his voice, in the song’s third part, issues from confinement itself.
The roots of the Hebrew words give the lines a complexity the English cannot: the word for “distress” has, in Hebrew, the connotation of “in a narrow place” (Heb: צ.ר.), thus making explicit the contrast to the “wide-open space” of the previous verse. And the Hebrew word for “worn-out” (עששה – עששית) suggests the darkening of an oil lamp; the sense of light dimming making more compelling his need for grace, Even the root of the Hebrew word for “grace” is similar to that of “to give a place to” (חנני – חניה).
The singer’s body itself exposes his despair –“my limbs are worn out”– as the vexation of verse 10 deepens to a profound debility:
                                           For my life is exhausted in sorrow
                                                                   and my years in sighing. (v. 11)
He gives no account of the nature or cause of his despair, although he does allude to his “crime”: “Through my crime my strength stumbles” (v. 11). Certainly verses 12 to 14 depict the “disgrace” his moral weakness has cost him in the regard of not only his enemies but neighbours and friends (v. 12). And while it is his enemies who have slandered him, who have plotted to take his life (v. 14), it is his own ebbing strength that he likens to a state of death:
                                           Forgotten from the heart like the dead,
                                                                   I become like a vessel lost. (v. 13)
The image of physicality –the heart– combined with that of place –a vessel– gives an emotional power to the verse that acts, in itself, as a shock of contrast to the singer’s weariness. Without sentimentality, that impact denies the singer’s contention that he is forgotten; the physicality of the imagery now encompassing the listener, the reader of the song, whose heart is touched.
In these verses of despair, but for the opening plea for grace, the singer makes no mention of God’s name. Though his cry to God reverberates, at least in the listener’s ear, the reader’s eye, nonetheless God is absent. Again, the singer does not explain whether the cause is his crime, one he thinks God cannot countenance, or whether his despair, and, with it, his very absenting of God, is itself the crime.
The last word of the song’s third section is “life” (v. 14). And although the singer fears the loss of his life, the very word itself leads wondrously into the fourth part of the song, into verses 15 to 19. These verses begin with a declaration of faith, as if the singer had, in the space between verse 14 and 15, in the space following the word “life”, freed himself from the “straits” imprisoning him:
                                            As for me, I trust in You, O Adonai.
                                                                   I say, ‘You are my God’. (v. 15)
The image pattern continues its description of organic physicality: the hand of God once again (as in verses 6 and 9) opposes the hand of the singer’s enemies, of his pursuers (v. 16). God is asked, “Shine Your face on Your servant” (v. 17) and the light emanating from the image cuts the shadows of the verses of despair. “Rescue me” of verse 17 echoes the plea for shelter of verse 2, the need of a “fort-house” of verse 3. But now, rather than a solid structure of shelter, what is asked for in verse 17 is intangible, the felt “kindness” of God. “My times are in Your hand” (v. 16): the imagery of shelter, of place, alters to that of time –of, that is, life.
The request for kindness in verse 17 recalls that of verse 8 –“Let me exult and rejoice in Your kindness” — and though the singer again alludes to his disgrace –“Adonai, let me not be shamed” (v. 18)– this time it is to repeat verse 2’s “let me never be shamed”. The disgrace that had previously humbled the singer he now transfers to his enemies, the death he had feared (v. 13) is to be theirs:
                                              Let the wicked know shame,
                                                                  and be stilled in Sheol. (v. 18)
The “lying lips” of his foes (v. 19) re-iterate their “vaporous lies” of verse 7, their “slander” of verse 14, but now the silence imposed upon them (v. 19) is the stillness of Sheol.
Verse 9 describes the singer’s feet fixed firmly upon a wide-open space. The remaining three parts of the song, consisting of verses 20 to 25, issues from that expanse –the singer’s vision is of the goodness of God, and, as a result, of his own safety. As the singer is uplifted, so his enemies are cast down.
Verses 20 and 21, the two verses of the song’s fifth part, unite the two image patterns, physicality or bodily organs, and structure or place:
                                                How great Your goodness
                                                                     that You hid for those who fear You.
                                                You have wrought for those who shelter in You
                                                                      before the eyes of humankind. (v. 20)
                                                Conceal them in the hiding-place of Your presence
                                                                      from the crookedness of man.
                                                Hide them in Your shelter
                                                                      from the quarrel of tongues. (v. 21)
“Shelter”, twice repeated, recalls that of verse 12; it is now, however, a ‘hiding-place” from crookedness and quarrels. It does not so much stand between those seeking God’s presence, and those who would assault them, as it transforms the seekers themselves: they are able to withstand those who would slander them, those who would assault them.
Verses 22 and 23, forming the song’s sixth section, resound verse 3: it had pictured the singer urgently calling on God –“Quick, save me”– asking God to bend toward him –“incline Your ear to me”. Verse 23 affirms that though “I had thought in my haste, ‘I am banished from before Your eyes’ “, nonetheless God’s ear had indeed heard, and God’s eye perceived, his distress.
It is this affirmation that closes the song. Verses 24 and 25 include the singer among all of God’s ‘faithful” (v. 24). He declares to them God’s “steadfastness” and justice. The ‘heart” of others that the singer feared had forgotten him, in verse 13, now forms part of his exhortation:
                                               Be strong, and let your heart be firm,
                                                                       all who hope in Adonai. (V. 25)
The two words, “heart” and “firm”, bring the two image patterns together inextricably: the firmness, the strength of God’s protection, God’s shelter, is the quality of the faithful heart.
* The translator, Robert Alter, explains that he has given an anatomical interpretation to the Hebrew nefesh, in keeping with “the physicality of the whole line”.


rock heart photo