Whether you are facing life or death, there is something here for you. Either way, it is the path of surrender.
Some of you are old enough to remember the gospel-pop song written by Gene MacLellan called Put Your Hand In The Hand. It was released in 1971 in a recording by Anne Murray on the album Honey, Wheat, and Laughter. It was one of the best selling songs of 1971. What a year, eh?
In hindsight, the song seems very retro, and not a contender for the charts. But, like a lot of bad ideas, it had its day in the sun.
A few weeks ago I wrote that Jesus is the God who holds our hand. He does that a lot in the Gospel of Mark, and it’s a comforting image for many. Sometimes all we really need is for somebody to hold our hands for awhile.
The Daily Office gave us Psalm 31 this week, and I sometimes call that one “the hand Psalm,” because the Hebrew word yad — hand — appears four times in this single chapter. Even with over a thousand uses in the whole Bible, to see the same word four times in a single chapter means that we should pay attention to it.
In the nearly 100 times we see this word in the Psalter, there is a lot going on with it. All kinds of things are in various hands, and hands can do a lot without anything in them at all. In another book of the Bible, we learn that idle hands are the Devil’s workshop. So, it’s good to keep them busy.
Psalm 8 talks about the work of God’s hand, Psalm 10 asks God to raise his hand on behalf of the humble. There are about ten references to the hands of one’s enemies or wicked people — One presumes the wicked are our enemies. And there are even a couple of verses about having clean hands. Hands have mischief and bribes in them, arguably related. Time can be in hands, and spirit can be found in hands too. We are going to talk about time and spirit today.
The gematria number for yad, or hand, is 14. There’s something interesting about that. Refuah, the Hebrew word for healing, appears 14 times in Torah. One of the things that might tell us is that healing and the hand are related. So, let’s look for the kinds of healing that may come to us through God’s hands: Healing that happens while we are living inside of time, and healing that happens when we leave the time-bound world.
In Psalm 31, the writer speaks of the hands of his enemies and that is a clue about the distress, the lament, expressed in the rest of the Psalm. Some people think that this Psalm was written by David at the time Saul was trying to kill him, and it begins with words like, deliver me and rescue me. These are words that cry out for intervention, for restoration, or healing.
So, we have two reasons to think that there is a connection between great need, distress, or disease and the hand of God: The gematria, and the language of the psalm itself. And there are two things that the Psalmist places in God’s hands: His time and his spirit. We mustn’t be too literal about time and spirit. I think we can read time as one’s whole life. Everything that happens in a lifetime, happens in time. We don’t step outside of time until what we call death. Correspondingly, we can read spirit as life force, the thing that keeps us here on earth and inside a body. Thus, the psalmist places his life and his death in God’s hands.
“My times are in your hands,” he says. In the same verse, we are reminded of the urgency, the great need for deliverance, for healing. “…deliver me from the hands of my enemies, from those who pursue me.” This comes after he has recounted all his troubles, and he has a lot of them. He says that they are mostly caused by his own iniquity, and the repercussions seemed to go on for years. There was sorrow, grief, anguish, affliction, groaning, and he says his bones were weak. “I am the utter contempt of my neighbors and an object of dread to my closest friends,” he says. “It’s as if I am already dead.”
He is in a really bad place. Yet, most of us can relate. We have been in bad places too, and maybe even on account of our own sin, like the writer. We may not have as many complaints as our Psalmist. He is pretty dramatic. But, we have known sorrow and anguish, the groan that escapes our lips despite us. Some of us have even known what it is to have a friend be unable to look upon our affliction, to turn away from us as if we were already dead. But, in this passage, this dark and hopeless passage that seems to kick us all right in the gut because… well, we’ve been there, the psalmist gives it all up and says:
“Hey, my life, all this time on earth, it’s in your hands Jehovah.”
It is a real life-wish, an admission that it is not going well. Things are hard. He might as well be dead. But, for whatever reason, something in him yearns for deliverance, for health, and life.
The other key verse is Psalm 31:5 which says, “Jehovah, you are true, I place my spirit into the care of your hands.” Christians will immediately recognize these as words that Jesus spoke from the cross. The protomartyr Stephen also said them at his death. And many of us may say them at our own death too. That is why this Psalm is often used when people are dying. The cure, the healing, at death is to commit one’s spirit into the hands of the one who made it in the first place. This verse, then, becomes an affirmation of life. The prayer might be restated as,
“I can no longer contain my spirit, so I am giving it back to you.”
If verse 15 is a life-wish, then this verse is a prayer for a good death. At some point, life becomes too much. Oh, we don’t think about it much, but it’s hard just to be alive. Enemies really are everywhere, and it’s not just your life they want, it’s your life spirit. Your time, your energy, your peace… they are all up for grabs and the only real protection is utter surrender.
“Allah… I surrender.”
Whether you are facing life or death, there is something here for you. Either way, it is the path of surrender. Give up your life inside of time, give up your life when you step outside of time.
There is deliverance for you, and for all of us. The enemies of your life and peace may keep coming after you, but in surrender, we find the safe place of God’s own sukkah.
Yield and overcome;
Bend and be straight;
Empty and be full;
Wear out and be new;
Tao te Ching, chapter 22 – Lao Tzu
Linda McMillan lives in al Qurayat, Saudi Arabia
You can read more about the song, Put Your Hand In The Hand, here.
To put it in perspective, here are a few more things that happened in 1971
Proverbs 6:29… Idle hands are the devil’s workshop; idle lips are his mouthpiece. An evil man sows strife; gossip separates the best of friends.
Psalm 18:44… He teacheth my hands to war
Psalm 26:10… In whose hands is mischief, and their right hand is full of bribes.
Psalm 31:5… Into thine hand I commit my spirit: thou hast redeemed me, O LORD God of truth.
Psalm 31:15… My times are in thy hand: deliver me from the hand of mine enemies, and from them that persecute me.
Psalm 31 has all the elements of a typical lament, though they are scattered around a little bit.
You can read more about gematria here.
In this essay, Psalm 31:5 is my own translation… Jehovah, you are true, I place my spirit into the care of your hands. Otherwise, translations are from something more standard. I pick the one I like best.
Luke 23:46… Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. Jesus quoted from the Psalter a lot. He also recited from Psalm 22 on the cross… My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Jesus may have recited these prayers in more detail, and only these snippets got reported, or maybe he just shot these up as ejaculatory prayers in the moment. As “Hail Mary” can stand-in for the whole prayer, perhaps these one-liners were stand-ins for prayers that he knew and used from the Psalter.
Acts 7:59… And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.
You can read all of chapter 22, Tao te Ching here.
It’s still hokey, but at least I’m giving you the Joan Baez version. And I am sorry for the earworm. Truly, I am.