‘My life is in my hands continually, but I do not forget your law.’ This verse from Psalm 118 expresses a sentiment that on the face of it is odd, from a religious perspective. Surely a religious sentiment would be: my life is in your hands continually. In fact, at least one modern translation of the Bible assumes there is a mistake in the text here, and does translate ‘my life is in your hands’.
‘Life’ here is not simply time spent living, and the psalmist is not just saying that I am master of how I spend my days. ‘Life’ in the psalm is the principle of life in us, the soul, the spirit. Or simply, ourselves. Fully understand, in this context ‘soul’ is not simply the spiritual part of us, but our whole human person, body and soul, or if you like, the embodied soul.
It is a point on which our faith and the world, secular thought, are in fundamental opposition: the world says our lives are indeed in our own hands. We are free to do with ourselves as we wish. We can do whatever we want with our own bodies, we can end our lives as and when we wish. Faith says our lives belong to God and we find freedom in giving them to God: into your hands, Lord, I commend my soul.
The real sentiment being expressed in the psalm is not joy in humanity’s power to control, but a deep sense of the precariousness of life. The sense is that God has indeed placed human life in the hands of men, he has given us charge of our lives, and for this reason our lives are in constant peril. Life is like water we hold in the palms of our hands, desperately trying not to spill it. It is only God’s protection and guidance that preserves our lives: I do not forget your law.
In the beginning, man’s mastery over life was part of his dignity and his blessing. In the biblical portrayal of paradise, he is unique in being the only creature that works. He works to sustain his own life, and also for the beasts. By his work, tilling the ground, he makes it possible for food to grow. He works and lives in dependence on God, but in his original state of innocence and integrity his life was not thereby made precarious.
To the world, the problem of life, what makes life uncertain, is that we do not have enough power. We need more knowledge and more power. To faith, the problem is sin. It is because of sin that the original blessing and order were lost, and our dependence became precariousness.
It is because the problem is sin that in his precarious condition the psalmist looks to God’s law: my life is in my hands always, but I remember your law. The laws offers man the possibility of beginning once more to work with God. It brings stability back into his life and into the world.
The consequence of sin is to withdraw the creature from the consoling touch of the life-giving breath of God. Creation began with the presence of the Spirit of God. Man became a living soul when God breathed into him. Because of sin, the body became incapable of sustaining within itself the divine breath: “My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh.” (Gen 6: 3)
At Pentecost God breathes again on his world, on man, not a created breath but his own Spirit, the Holy Spirit, and this Spirit will never depart. There is a new imperishable body, vivified by the Spirit. It is the Body of Christ, his Church, the fruit of his Passion and his Resurrection. We continue to carry our life in our hands, but we know that when we open our hands, and let go of ourselves, we shall not be lost, we shall be found in the Body of Christ.
Abbot Anselm Atkinson OSB