In you, O Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame.
In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me;
Incline your ear to me and save me…
For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth.
Upon you I have leaned from my birth;
It was you who took me from my mother’s womb.
My praise is continually of you…
So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me,
until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come.
Your power and your righteousness, O God, reach the high heavens.
You who have done great things, O God, who is like you?
You who have made me see many troubles and calamities
will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again.
You will increase my honor, and comfort me once again.
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…
Reflection – This is really less than half of Psalm 71, as you can see from all the ellipses (…). The parts I omitted are beautiful, actually, but are typical psalm sentiments that we have covered in this series many times—cries for help in distress and acclamations of praise and trust in God.
What is unique in this psalm is the reference to old age and gray hairs, and it is this I would like to reflect on. In psalters and breviaries this psalm is often giving the title ‘a psalm for old age’, and so it is. It is a grand teaching on how to grow old and what spiritual attitudes to bring into the latter years of life.
The key attitude here is, simply, steadfastness. The psalmist has known and served the Lord since his youth; he intends to continue to serve the Lord until his death. God has been his sure help since birth; he trusts that this will be the case until the end.
And even beyond death. This reference to the depths of the earth and being brought up again is quite telling. It could be a metaphorical reference to being raised up from the lowest position possible—when we say we are down in the dumps we do not literally mean that we are hanging out at a landfill site, right?
But this ‘depths of the earth’ is, literally, a reference to Sheol, to the place of the dead. And this psalm could reflect an early dawning awareness in Judaism that even death is not the end of YHWH’s fidelity to them, nor to the power of his steadfast love, his hesed for his people.
At any rate, whether in its original Jewish context it was metaphorical or literal, Jesus Christ has taught us to pray this psalm literally, for He Himself came back from the depths of the earth and in Him we all have the hope of being raised up even from death.
And this is the core attitude that we are meant to carry into old age and the decline of the body, the gradual diminishing and ending of all our earthly hopes and dreams. As the curtain slowly comes down on all these things—hopes of health, well being, the vigor and energy of youth that at least seems to make all things possible—we are meant to have a flourishing of theological hope, hope in God, hope that even as our humanity is exhausted the divine is anything but.
In our current Canadian climate of euthanasia, where the best thing we can seemingly think to offer an elderly and sick person is a lethal injection, this psalm and the spiritual attitudes within it take on deeper importance yet. It is so crucial for the elderly that as they experience the breakdown of their bodies and all that goes with that—chronic pain, weakness, and the emotional distress that naturally accompanies all of this—that they do not allow our increasingly cold, utilitarian, heartless society to rob them of the faith, hope, and love that will carry them over the threshold of death into the arms of God where all are made new.
So let us pray this psalm, too, we who are not old yet, in solidarity with our elder brothers and sisters, and let us be vigilant that we do not let society’s ethos and norms poison our minds in this matter. God is faithful, and He desires us to walk faithfully with Him until the very end of our life, so that His steadfast love may raise us up in the next one.