Calvin on Psalm 31:5

 

Ps31_5

“Into your Hands I commit my spirit.”

David’s statement of trust in the midst of trial was so spiritually significant that the Lord Jesus himself quoted it on the cross. Later, Stephen quoted the same text at the moment of his own death by martyrdom. What does it mean to commit one’s spirit into God’s hands. Does this affirm the immortality of the soul?

John Calvin thought so. He was convinced that “man consists of a body and a soul; meaning by soul an immortal though created essence, which is the nobler part.”[1] He concluded that “Christ, in commending his spirit to the Father, and Stephen his to Christ, simply mean that when the soul is freed from the prison-house of the body, God becomes its perpetual keeper.”[2]

Calvin did not come to that conclusion by reading Psalm 31. He rightly commented on David’s statement by saying “Whoever commits himself into God’s hand and to his guardianship, not only constitutes him the arbiter of life and death to him, but also calmly depends on him for protection amidst all his dangers.”[3] David was asserting his trust in God to deliver him, not his confidence in possessing an indestructible spirit.

Yet Calvin could not resist taking David’s words out of their context, and teaching that Christ and Stephen asserted something not about theology but about anthropology. His belief in Plato’s doctrine of the immortality of the soul was so strong that it led Calvin to forget his rules of exegesis.

Christ quoted from Psalm 31:5 while dying on the cross. He said “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”[4] In doing so, he was expressing the exact same sentiment that David had expressed when he had used those words. He was not saying that his body was going to die, but that the real him was going to fly to heaven to be safe in his Father’s hands. He was saying that he trusted his Father to rescue him.

His Father did rescue him. He was raised from the dead three days later. His spirit had not gone to heaven to be with his Father at death. He told Mary “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.”[5] Christ went to the grave. He had committed his spirit – that is, his life – into the hands of the one person who could redeem it.

Stephen’s quote of Psalm 31:5 was also true to its context. Stephen knew that he was going to die. The prison-house was not his alive body, but death itself. But he also had confidence that his death would not be the end. God would rescue him from the prison-house of death in the same way that he had rescued Jesus – by a resurrection. Luke records, “as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.””[6] I heard a preacher at a funeral of a friend of mine say that Stephen did not sleep in the grave because God received his spirit. The preacher had quoted this verse. Later, I had to remind my students (who also heard this sermon) that the preacher forgot about the next verse! Luke continued “And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”[7] Stephen’s committing his spirit to Christ was not a rejection of the reality of death. It was an expression of confidence that death would not be permanent.

Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 31 also quoted Paul’s reflection on death. He says “What David here declares concerning his temporal life, Paul transfers to eternal salvation.”[8] He was referring to where Paul says “I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.”[9] What Calvin did not point out is that Paul’s words in 2 Timothy are not words of someone who denies death. Paul’s words imply that his death would come, but he has entrusted himself to God who can rescue him from that death. Paul’s trust was not in his possessing an immortal soul, but in his possessing a resurrecting God.

That is the sentiment expressed in Psalm 31:5 by David, and reflected in the words of Jesus on the cross, and those of Stephen at his death. It is not that God has made a part of our being that will never die. It is that God has promised to restore his own by a complete resurrection. It is not about something inherent within us. It is about the faithfulness of God.


[1] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1. (Forgotten Books), 190.

[2] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1. (Forgotten Books), 190.

[3] John Calvin, Calvin’s Bible Commentaries: Psalms, Part I. (Forgotten Books), 429.

[4] Luke 23:46 ESV.

[5] John 20:17 ESV (emphasis mine).

[6] Acts 7:59 ESV.

[7] Acts 7:60 ESV (emphasis mine).

[8] John Calvin, Calvin’s Bible Commentaries: Psalms, Part I. (Forgotten Books), 431.

[9] 2 Timothy 1:12 NIV.

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