“It is you, O Lord, who are my hope, my trust, O Lord, since my youth. On you I have depended since my birth…” Psalm 71:5. This Psalm is the lament of an older person who is suffering from the natural afflictions of age, which his enemies interpret as divine judgment upon him. In this first part of the psalm he is praying to God for help against them. He does so because of his hope in God, a hope that he has learned over time to put his trust in, because of his personal experiences of God’s workings in his own life. It is this hope that we want to focus on.
As one who has lived four score and ten years myself, I understand this psalm in a more intimate way at this time in my life than I did in my youth. I too suffer from some of the ailments and frailties of one who is getting older. Like the psalmist, I have looked back over my life and recognized that God’s presence and grace has been with me many times and in countless ways. Like the psalmist, I can see in my rearview mirror, that God has been in my life from my youth. Even when I rebelled in my youth, he did not abandon me. He has saved me from much foolishness too. He has graced me with his love through my wife and our children and our grandchildren. He was with me in my career as a teacher. When I was prodigal, I always found him waiting for me on my return. When I look back I recognize both the utter emptiness of my life in the times I wandered away from God, and I see the bright light and peace of His forgiveness countless times over the decades. Like the psalmist, I can say that I have more than enough reason to hope in God, and to put my trust in him.
As we pray the psalms thousands of times over the course of a lifetime their meaning deepens for us. Let me use an example here to show how the prism of more life experience deepens our understanding. When I read Shakespeare’s Hamlet in high school, I got very little out of it. I was too young and inexperienced in life to understand its depth, or the great existential questions and moral dilemmas it revealed. I did not go to college until after returning from Vietnam and when I read Hamlet again, I not only began to understand the technical, artistic genius and beauty of the language, but I began to understand Hamlet’s life and death dilemmas from the prism of my own experience. Teaching that play many times over the years, I came to an intimate understanding of the universal story of human tragedy, and how easy it is to fall from grace through false pride. My life experiences were many and varied enough by this time that I could understand more clearly why Hamlet’s story was so familiar. Because of the psalmist’s reflections on the actions of God over the length of his own life through the prism of his many experiences, he could see countless reasons to put his hope and trust in God. This is what this psalm does for me, now, at this stage of my life. It helps me to reflect on the workings of God in my life and to see that my hope in him is rooted in those experiences. It is because of this that I, too, can have the confidence to put my trust in God. Out of this recognition, then, comes a deep desire to praise God in all things.
Praise of God is the focus of the final part of this psalm. The psalmist says: “God, you have taught me from my youth, to this day I proclaim your wondrous deeds. Now that I am old and gray, do not forsake me, God, that I might proclaim your might to all generations yet to come, your power and justice, God, to the highest heaven.” (verses 17-18) Here is a man who, in his old age, really understands the hope that one can have in God. He is so completely aware of it now that he wants to live long enough to tell of it, to praise the God of love and mercy and to proclaim Him “to the highest heavens.” He wants his very life to be a prayer of praise to God who has walked with him, even when he was not aware of it. He is moved to praise the God who guarded him in times of trouble, who strengthened him to meet life’s more difficult challenges, and who forgave him his many failings. His psalm continues to do this, down through the centuries, to us today, and will continue to do so to the Last Day. Let us reflect on these things as we pray this psalm over the flowing years of our own lives. And let us learn to praise God with the same enthusiasm, hope, and trust.
Lord, help us to see your presence and your grace in and through the many experiences of our lives. Give us the wisdom to see that you have been with us all along, that you remain with us now. Give us an ever-deepening faith to put our hope and our trust in your promise to be with us to the end of our time here on earth, and forever in heaven. Then, let us lift up our prayers of praise. In Jesus’ name. Amen!