Psalm 31 is entitled "The Lord a Fortress in Adversity" [in the New King James Version], and it is a Psalm written by David by direct inspiration of the Spirit of Christ which dwelt within him. Although David does not reveal any specific "hints" within the Psalm concerning the context of him writing this Psalm, making it difficult for us [the reader] to pinpoint exactly when he composed Psalm 31, his life [as revealed in Scripture] shows us that David was often in trouble and distress, and that his life was one marked by trials- which in turn produced the various psalms, including this one in particular. The very nature of the Psalm [as revealed through the writing tone and words] clearly invokes an urgent plea unto God for some sort of protection. So profound and honest are the words of David, and such weightiness are found in the reflection of this anointed man as he desperately cries out to God that many holy men have drawn from this Psalm for inspiration in the midst of their own trials. While engulfed in the stomach acid of a whale for three days, the prophet Jonah recites a prayer unto God after accepting his fate [as it is recorded in Jonah chapter 2], and towards the closing portion says as such:
"Those who regard worthless idols forsake their own Mercy. But I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord."(Jonah 2:8-9)
Now, one cannot simply read this portion of the prayer of this man and not come to a simple conclusion: There is urgency in this man's prayer. Up to this point, this man has spent three days being slowly dissolved by the stomach acid of the whale [leaving his skin bleached and hair dissolved]. Three days in agony, three days in absolute hopelessness [in the opening verse of his prayer he says, "Out of the belly of Sheol I cried", which is the realm of the dead!] yet ultimately finishes his prayer with a testament of his faith- "Those who regard and cling to idols forsake the mercy of God! But I have a God who will hear and save me!"
Surely such a declaration of faith was the culmination of three days spent reflecting in the midst of his agony. There surely must have been a source by which this man drew upon to sustain him those three days and combat every thought of despair and hopelessness which quite literally surrounded him, ultimately leading to this declaration of faith and cry for the intervention of God. To get there, Jonah first addresses the error of those who "regard worthless idols" which is reminiscent to what David declared in Psalm 31:
"I hate those who are devote to worthless idols, but I trust the Lord. I will rejoice and be glad in Your faithful love because you have seen my affliction."(6-7)
Though I cannot speak on Jonah's behalf [nor would I dare claim to], one cannot see the plea/statement of Jonah, which mirrored David's and not draw upon the conclusion of the possibility [not certainty] that this man may have been reminded of the lyric of David's Psalm [which is literally "Hymn" or "Song"] and drew upon it for the motivation to make this declaration of faith before God which resulted in the Lord causing the fish to spit him out.
Likewise, the same can be said of the prophet Jeremiah- a man who was anointed [much like Jonah] yet differed from Jonah in that he did not flee from his calling. This being said, one cannot read the account(s) of Jeremiah's life and ministry- nay, his own writing without being swift to discern the consequences which resulted in this young man being divinely ordained by God. For the sake of ensuring I do not weary you with examples [though should you desire to quench a strong appetite I recommend reading Lamentations chapter 3], I will cite a single prayer [lest I show favor over Jonah]. It is possible, that Jeremiah was haunted by the words written by David:
"For I hear the slander of many; fear is on every side; while they take counsel together against me."(Psalm 31:13)
As when Jeremiah finds himself struck across the face by Pashur [the chief governor within the temple], bound, and placed in a torture rack outside the high gate to be publicly humiliated, he in response prays as such:
"O Lord, You deceived me, and I was deceived. You seized me, and prevailed. I am the laughing stock all the time; everyone mocks me. For when I spoke, I cried out; I shouted, 'Violence and destruction!' so the word of the Lord has become my constant disgrace and derision [mockery]…. For I have heard the gossip of many people, 'Terror is on every side! Report him; let's report him!' Everyone I trusted watches for my fall. 'Perhaps he can be deceived so that we might prevail against him and take our vengeance on him.' But the Lord is with me like a violent warrior. Therefore, my persecutors will stumble and not prevail. Since they have not succeeded, they will be utterly shamed, an everlasting humiliation that will never be forgotten."(Jeremiah 20:7-8,10-11)
Notice how Jeremiah's prayer is similar to David's verse in the psalm. However we are unable to finish Jeremiah's prayer without seeing a bold declaration of faith- "The Lord is with me like a violent warrior. Therefore, my persecutors will stumble and not prevail.." What led Jeremiah to this outlook? He had to trudge through the bitterness- which reminded him of God's anointed who walked before him [like David in Psalm 31], which possibly gave him the confidence to make such a brazen statement.
Lastly, I would not do the Scripture any justice if I do not make the point to direct your thought to Jesus Himself. Yes, even our Lord Himself revealed His humanity when He was subjected to the agonizing death on a cross. Although the Spirit of Christ prophesied of Jesus' suffering while He was on the cross elsewhere [namely, Psalm 22], the gospel hints to us the source by which Jesus drew on to sustain Him on the cross:
"Father. 'Into Your hands I commit My spirit.' Having said this, He breathed His last."(Luke 23:46)
In the midst of His agony [of the cross], humiliation [of those who mocked Him], and inner turmoil [which Psalm 22 reveals], in His dying breath Jesus offers up one final prayer- He begins it with "Father", both as a means of addressing to the Father, and to draw the Father's attention to Himself, and cites a verse. A verse which was first uttered by David in Psalm 31:
"Into Your hand I commit My spirit; You have redeemed me, O Lord God of truth."(5)
What motivation could Jesus possibly have had when He chose to directly cite [not indirectly reference] this verse? Notice how Jesus only cites the first half of the verse as well. Why? Because in those final moments, Jesus drew from the source of Psalm 31:5 precisely, and in doing so willingly accepted this unjust death because He knew the remainder of the verse. "Father! I am committing My spirit into Your hands and will willingly accept this because You will redeem Me. I know You will because You are the God of truth, and will not stand by idle to permit this injustice to remain in Your sight. You will raise Me from the dead."
It is my hope then, that I have caught your attention and captivated your thought to consider the significance and importance which this Psalm has had in terms of the great figures of faith [and according to Hebrews 12:2, the literal author of faith- Jesus Himself] as they mined this Psalm to draw from in their most crisis hours. Though I would not associate myself among these great figures of faith, there have been times when our Lord saw fit to bless me with times of sorrow and pain and Psalm 31 has acted as a source for me to find comfort, faith, and hope. And one verse in particular has stood out among all:
"I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind; I am like a broken vessel."(Psalm 31:12)
In Psalm 31 we see [contextually] David pouring out his grief, complaints, and condition before God- all while also struggling within to reassure himself of that which he has both tested and proven to be true of God, and His nature. He starts the Psalm:
"In You, O Lord, I have put my trust; let me never be ashamed; deliver me in Your righteousness. Bow down Your ear to me, deliver me speedily; be my rock of refuge, a fortress of defense to save me."(1-2)
Immediately we see the contrition of David's heart as he looks for deliverance from God yet cites none of his own merits nor boasts of his own righteousness- as he did in the past, namely after being delivered from the Philistines and from Saul [who sought to destroy him]:
"The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; the God of my strength, in whom I will trust; my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge; my Savior, You save me from violence.... the Lord rewarded me according to MY righteousness; according to the clearness of MY hands He has recompensed me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not wickedly departed from my God."(II Samuel 22:2-3, 21-22)
In comparing both Psalms [The passage cited from II Samuel is also recorded in Psalm 18], we see that despite both Psalms are attributed to being written by David through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, David has two very different approaches when writing about [relativity] the exact same thing [the deliverance of God], as he is writing about/directing to, the same God. As such we see interesting similarities between the two Psalms in David's word choices:
"In You, O Lord, I have put my TRUST; let me never be ashamed; DELIVER me in Your righteousness. Bow down Your ear to me, DELIVER me speedily; be my ROCK of REFUGE, a FORTRESS of defense to save me."(Psalm 31:1-2)
"The Lord is my ROCK and my FORTRESS and my DELIVERER; the God of my strength, in whom I will trust; my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my REFUGE; my Savior, You save me from violence.... the Lord rewarded me according to MY righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands He has recompensed me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not wickedly departed from my God."(II Samuel 22:2-3, 21-22)
Indicating through his writing that David wrote Psalm 18 [Or that which is revealed in II Samuel] while standing on the mount of victory [if you would] looking back at his great deliverance and testifying:
"The Lord IS my rock and my fortress.."
Whereas he writes psalm 31 whilst in the valley looking up:
"BE my rock of refuge.."
And the contrition [remoarseful nature] of David's heart is revealed in that, in Psalm 18 he says [regarding his deliverance]:
"[T]he Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands He has recompensed me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not wickedly departed from my God."(21-22)
Showing a sense that David felt he was rightly rewarded- "I am righteous, keeping the ways of the Lord, and remaining faithful so the Lord has rewarded me accordingly." Unlike in Psalm 31, in which he pleads with the Lord:
"In You, O Lord, I have put my trust; let me never be ashamed; deliver me in Your righteousness."(1)
David no longer boasts of his righteousness, his clean hands, his faithfulness. And unlike Psalm 18, this produces something within him- a fervent desire for deliverance by which he no longer tells God, "Look upon my righteousness and deliver me in accordance to my righteousness", but rather contrarily: "Lord I'm in desperate need- do not take into consideration anything ascribed to me, nevertheless in Your righteousness make haste!" Why? Exactly what occurred to cause David to change his stance? In verse 6 [of Psalm 31] he testified that he "hated those who regard useless idols, but [he] trust in the Lord." However, a little later also says "my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away."(10b) Which is contrary to what he boasts in chapter 18:
"The God of my strength.."(2)
And it is precisely here that many would point a finger of accusation towards David and say, "Aha! Gotcha. This is why trouble befalls you David- your sin has crippled your strength, causing you to fall under the weight of your sin. That's why your not on the rock, that's why your not in the refuge of God- because your hands are not clean, your not faithful, your not pure!" And we would be absolutely correct in our deduction. Our conclusion would be justifiable given the comparison. However I would argue that David was more [spiritually] mature and near to the heart of Christ when writing Psalm 31 than 18 [of sorts]. In fact, in one of David's other psalms when writing upon the faithfulness of God he testifies:
"Though the Lord is on high, yet He regards the lowly; but the proud He knows from afar."(Psalm 138:6)
And when he writes Psalm 18 he speaks of the great deliverance that the Lord has done, all the while citing it was because of his own righteousness, his own faithfulness, his own cleanness of hands. And he was completely correct, yet I wonder- by doing so, was he indirectly distancing himself from the Lord? How often do we do the exact same thing? We borderline boast of our devotion to Christ, we testify of OUR standing in God, we stand in a "broad place" [Psalm 18:19] which could all be very true, yet all the while unknowingly causing Christ to slowly and silently withdraw from us because we begin to attribute our deliverance to our own righteousness.
However in contrition of heart David writes 31, with an earnest plea for that which he has tested and proven to be true in his past- God being a fortress and refuge; and One who brings deliverance, yet acknowledges that his own righteousness will not suffice to bring about what he desires causing him to implore the Lord to answer in His own righteousness. This is what it looks like to be in covenant with the Lord while having a contrite heart.. It is one which acknowledges and comprehends that their relationship with God is not dependent upon their own devotion and faithfulness [though it is imperative for one to devote entirely to Christ], but rather on God's devotion and faithfulness towards us. And verse 12 of Psalm 31 best illustrates this, as David refers to himself as "a broken vessel." We are all called to be vessels of God- in fact, while exhorting Timothy in the midst of his ministry Paul [by inspiration of the Spirit] writes to him [yet spiritually us] saying:
"But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay, some for honor and some for dishonor. Therefore if anyone cleanses himself from the latter, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work."(II Timothy 2:20-21)
And though I would not defend vessels of dishonor, I will say that a broken vessel of gold or silver is still more valuable than a vessel made of wood or clay, and useful for the Master. David wrote Psalm 31 to be recited aloud for Israel to hear, and it is either referenced or paralleled 9 times in Scripture both in the Old, and New Testament. We [as Christians] are called to live a life in which the life of God pours forth to those around us- like water. And the primary illustration which we have is to continually pour water into a cup until it overflows to those around us, but we mustn't lose heart if the Lord [as the potter] sees fit to break the vessel, as it still causes very much the same effect- allowing the contents within to be poured out. Beloved Christians, learn from David- no matter how faithful or righteous you may be, your righteous deeds are mothing more than filthy rags before God [Isaiah 64:6] and the only thing we can boast of is the righteousness of Christ. Yet we should never forget the words of the apostle John who writes:
"If we say, 'We have no sin,' we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us."(I John 1:8)
What shall we say then, use this as an excuse to sin when we are crushed by trials? Certainly not! Contrarily, our brokenness ought to motivate us to seek after Christ in an unhindered pursuit whereby we, like the holy saints before us address our brokenness, draw upon the words of the faith in order to testify-even if to ourselves, words of faith as we await for God to move. Do not lose heart, should you find yourself feeling as though you too are a broken vessel. Do not permit your present state dictate the outlook of your life nor rob you of the hope reserved for you in heaven by and in Jesus Christ.
Perhaps you feel broken and confused, like:
"I don't understand what's going on... Why has God allowed me to be broken? What have I done to deserve this? Yes, I am a sinner, but does not my conscience bear witness?.. The conviction which gnaws so profusely at my very thought, keeping me up at night? And the weight of my guilt and shame which wears me down in the day so much that I cannot even bear to look up?.. But who is there among the sons of men that can boast of being perfect?.. You, O Lord are the One who called Me to salvation. You fashioned me into a vessel, only to cast me down to the ground... What use is there to the Master, of a broken vessel? In what does it find it's purpose?.. I have been forgotten as a dead man, of whom there is no remembrance... Will You be silent to me as well? Or have You; like everyone else, forgotten me also?"
Now; I cannot in any way speak on your behalf, nor would I attempt to. Suffering is a very delicate thing for most. Yet of one thing I am certain, and that is God has His reasons and purpose for everything- including your suffering. Of this I am certain- not because I read it somewhere on Instagram and was provoked in thought. Not because I read it in a commentary as I examined this Psalm for a better understanding. No, by reason and time I have tested this to be true of God. Because the "hypothetical" thoughts which may be growing through your mind is actually taken from a page of my personal journal, written on October 12th, 2015. Yet the one who wrote that in anguish and turmoil is now typing this out, with the hope of reassuring you that it does get better. God is working for you a tremendous amount of glory, take heart. Our faith is in God- in who He has revealed Himself to be. Not in what our current condition may be, nor what He has to offer, lest our perception of Him is altered- "Should we accept only good from God and not accept adversity?" Do not cease reciting to the depths of your heart the words drawn from the resources of the faith until your heart recites a new song unto Him. In closing I would like to leave you with a passage which has helped me tremendously during those times:
"Come, let us return to the Lord.
For He has torn us, but He will heal us;
He has stricken, but He will bind us up.
After two days He will revive us;
on the third day He will raise us up,
that we may live in His sight.
Let us know, let us pursue the knowledge of the Lord.
His going forth is established as the morning;
He will come to us like the rain,
like the latter and former rain to the earth."
- Hosea 6:1-3