Just a Bit O’ History… Psalm 31: ‘The Final Watchword’

Psalm 31

jessta12This psalm sparkles all through with lamps, which have lighted the steps of men in dark places. Above all, the 5th verse has given the closing words to many a life. It was one of the seven sayings on the cross, and the last.
–‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.’  

It was the dying word of Stephen, addressed to Christ himself, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ It was the parting word of Luther, of Knox, of John Huss, of Jerome of Prague, of Julian Palmer, one of the noted martyrs in the reign of the English Mary, of Francis Teissier, the first martyr of the Desert, who ascended the scaffold singing it, in 1686, and of countless more.

The Lord himself gave the word, and great has been the company of those who published it.

No watchword of the Captain of salvation has been taken up by so many sons whom he has led to glory through the valley of the shadow of death.

Let us try to catch more fully the accents of some of them.

On the 6th of July 1415, the anniversary of his birth, John Huss was burned to death in a field near the ancient city of Constance. He had come there from Bohemia, under a warrant of safety from the hand of the Emperor Sigismund, for the violation of which the pope granted absolution, pressing it on the reluctant monarch. The doctrines for which Huss was condemned were essentially those which Luther proclaimed a century later. A brass tablet let into the floor of the cathedral marks the spot where Huss stood, while seven bishops removed his priestly dress piece by piece, and placed on his head a paper crown painted with demons. They addressed him, ‘We deliver thy soul to Satan.’ ‘But I,‘ he said, ‘commend it into thy hands, Lord Jesus Christ, who hast redeemed me.’ When taken to the place of execution he fell on his knees, and repeated in prayer some of the psalms, especially the 51st and 53rd. He was heard to repeat frequently the words: ‘Into thy hands I commit my spirit; thou hast redeemed me, Lord God of truth.’ When he arose, he said, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, stand by me, that by thy and thy Father’s help, I may endure this painful and shameful death which I suffer for thy word.’ When the fire was kindled he cried three times, ‘Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me.’ At the third time his voice was stifled by the smoke, but they saw his lips still moving. His ashes were cast into the Rhine, and for a century it seemed as if fire and water had triumphed over truth.

Luther died in 1546. His last words were, ‘0 my heavenly Father, the God and Father of my Lord Jesus Christ, the God of all consolation, I give thee thanks that thou hast revealed to me thy dear Son Jesus Christ, in whom I believe, whom I have preached and confessed, whom I have loved and honoured. I pray thee, 0 Lord Jesus Christ, to take my soul into thy keeping.’ Then he said thrice, ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: thou hast redeemed me, Lord God of truth;’ and, without a struggle, he yielded up his breath.

John Knox died on the 24th Nov. 1572, when dark clouds were gathering again round the Reformed Churches, at home and abroad, after the terrible massacre of St. Bartholomew. On Friday, 21st, he ordered his coffin to be made, and was much engaged all day in meditation and prayer. These words were often in his mouth, ‘Come, Lord Jesus. Sweet Jesus, into thy hands I commit my spirit. Be merciful, Lord, to thy Church which thou hast redeemed. Give peace to this afflicted Commonwealth. Raise up faithful pastors who will take the charge of thy Church.’

From this time till his death his pious exclamations were so many, that those who waited on him could remember only a small part; for they were seldom silent, except when they were employed in reading or prayer. 

On Monday the 24th he said, ‘I Now, for the last time, I commend my spirit, soul, and body,’ touching three of his fingers ‘into thy hand, 0 Lord.’ About eleven o’clock at night he gave a deep sigh, and said, ‘Now, it is come.’ Richard Bannatyne, his faithful attendant, immediately drew near, and desired him to think upon those comfortable promises of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, which he had so often declared to others; and, perceiving that he was speechless, requested him to give them a sign that he heard them, and that he died in peace. Upon this he lifted up one of his hands, and, sighing twice, expired.

Nearly a century after this, on a dark morning, Dec. 22, 1666, the words were the parting-song of Hugh M’Kail, at the Grassmarket, Edinburgh, in the version now used in Scotland,

‘Into thine hands I do commit
My spirit; for thou art he,
0 thou, Jehovah, God of truth,
Who hast redeemed me.’

We have already, at Psalm 16th, spoken of his imprisonment. He was among those who came from the west before the fight at Pentland, but wishful to enter Edinburgh on a mission to friends, he was taken at Braid’s Craigs, and, after suffering the torture of the boot, was condemned to death. ‘About two of the clock,’ says the narrative,’ he was carried to the scaffold with five others, who suffered with him, where he appeared to the conviction of all that formerly knew him, with a fairer, better, and more staid countenance than ever they had before observed.

Being come to the foot of the ladder, he directed his speech northward to the multitude, saying that “as his years in the world had been few (only twenty-six), so his words at that time should not be many.” Having done speaking to the people, who heard him with great attention, he sang a part of the 31st Psalm, and then prayed with such power and fervency as forced many to weep bitterly. Having ended, he gave his cloak and hat from him; and when he turned himself and took hold of the ladder to go up, he said, with an audible voice, “I care no more to go up this ladder, and over it, than if I were going home to my father’s house.”

As he went up, hearing a great noise among the people, he called down to his fellow sufferers, “Friends and fellow-sufferers, be not afraid! Every step of this ladder is a degree nearer heaven.” ‘His farewell address is known to all acquainted with Scottish history, and is one of the most rapt and seraphic of that fervid time. Death touched his lips with a live coal from the altar before it closed them. The deaths of such men produced so much sympathy that at length drums were beat to drown their voice, and the place of execution was transferred to some distance from the city, between Edinburgh and Leith.

Psalm 31

In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust; let me never be ashamed: deliver me in thy righteousness. Bow down thine ear to me; deliver me speedily: be thou my strong rock, for an house of defence to save me. For thou art my rock and my fortress; therefore for thy name’s sake lead me, and guide me. Pull me out of the net that they have laid privily for me: for thou art my strength. Into thine hand I commit my spirit: thou hast redeemed me, O Lord God of truth. I have hated them that regard lying vanities: but I trust in the Lord. I will be glad and rejoice in thy mercy: for thou hast considered my trouble; thou hast known my soul in adversities; And hast not shut me up into the hand of the enemy: thou hast set my feet in a large room. Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for I am in trouble: mine eye is consumed with grief, yea, my soul and my belly. For my life is spent with grief, and my years with sighing: my strength faileth because of mine iniquity, and my bones are consumed. I was a reproach among all mine enemies, but especially among my neighbours, and a fear to mine acquaintance: they that did see me without fled from me. I am forgotten as a dead man out of mind: I am like a broken vessel. For I have heard the slander of many: fear was on every side: while they took counsel together against me, they devised to take away my life. But I trusted in thee, O Lord: I said, Thou art my God. My times are in thy hand: deliver me from the hand of mine enemies, and from them that persecute me. Make thy face to shine upon thy servant: save me for thy mercies’ sake. Let me not be ashamed, O Lord; for I have called upon thee: let the wicked be ashamed, and let them be silent in the grave. Let the lying lips be put to silence; which speak grievous things proudly and contemptuously against the righteous. Oh how great is thy goodness, which thou hast laid up for them that fear thee; which thou hast wrought for them that trust in thee before the sons of men! Thou shalt hide them in the secret of thy presence from the pride of man: thou shalt keep them secretly in a pavilion from the strife of tongues. Blessed be the Lord: for he hath shewed me his marvellous kindness in a strong city. For I said in my haste, I am cut off from before thine eyes: nevertheless thou heardest the voice of my supplications when I cried unto thee. O love the Lord, all ye his saints: for the Lord preserveth the faithful, and plentifully rewardeth the proud doer. Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen your heart, all ye that hope in the Lord.


Written by John Ker, D. D.
Taken from, “The Psalms in History and Biography”.