Proper 8B

June 25, 2012

  • The Lectionary Psalms

    Psalm 30

    Author: Doug Bratt

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    Psalm 30 is what Karl Jacobson calls “an exercise in praise” that tells a story and models a reality of a poet whom God has humbled, rescued and upheld.  It also contains a variety of emotions, from exuberant and contagious joy, to humble reflection, to a determination to praise God as long as the poet lives.

    James Mays notes that Psalm 30 “is a prayer that is wholly praise; it is also praise that comes out of prayer.”  By that he means that the poet’s prayers for help anticipate its prayers of thanksgiving.  We might even say that this psalm’s praise completes what the poet began in asking for that help.  It reminds God’s sons and daughters that prayers of supplication always find their completion in prayers of thanksgiving to God for God’s acts of kindness and mercy.

    And yet praise to God seems to be the very heart of this psalm.  After all, the psalmist’s vows to praise frame it.  The poet’s praise to God is also, according to verse 1, her response to God’s rescue of her.  What’s more, in verse 4 the psalmist professes that her praise grows out of the rich soil that is God’s lifelong favor shown toward her.  On top of that, it’s as if in verse 9 the psalmist almost warns God that her destruction would, among other things, silence her praise to the Lord.  And finally, verse 11 suggests that God turned the poet’s wailing into dancing and clothed her with joy rather than mourning precisely so that she might sing her praise to God.

    All of this offers a perhaps rather provocative perspective on God’s acts of mercy, kindness and deliverance.  After all, the psalmist seems to suggest that God has done things like heal him, spare him and turn his wailing into dancing precisely so that the psalmist will respond with the praise that God so richly deserves.  It suggests that God deals lovingly with God’s children not just so that they may thrive and flourish, but also so that they may offer God the praise that belongs to God.

    Human beings who act in such apparently self-serving ways often seem rather self-centered.  After all, if I give a gift not just to bless the receiver, but also to prompt her to thank me, my generosity may ring a bit hollow.  Those who preach and teach Psalm 30 may find fertile soil for reflection on just what kind of God would give, at least in part, so that people would praise the Lord.  Were such a God not entirely deserving of even far more than all the praise and thanks that the whole creation can muster, God might seem haughty.

    Clearly the psalmist’s praise stems from her growing sense of dependence on God for every good thing.  She recalls a time when she seems to have felt far more independent.  In verse 6, after all, she remembers how she once felt “secure,” assuming nothing would ever shake her.  The poet recalls a time when she, in fact, felt as strong and unmovable as a mountain.

    Yet something happened that rattled the poet’s self-confidence.  He attributes it to God’s hiding of God’s face.  Whether or not the God whom the Scriptures suggest never turns God’s face away from God’s beloved actually hid God’s face, the psalmist at least felt that God was inattentive to him.  When that happened, he remembers, he was “dismayed.”

    Now, however, the psalmist recognizes her complete dependence on God for every good thing.  After all, notice how often the poet uses the second person pronoun “you,” referring to the Lord, as the subject of Psalm 30’s verbs.  There’s no sense that the psalmist pulled herself up out of the pit “by her own bootstraps.”  It’s God who did things like lift her out of the depths, heal her, spare her and turn her wailing into dancing and her mourning into joy.

    In fact, it seems as if God turned the difficulty that has been some of the psalmist’s suffering into the good precisely so that she’ll have a heightened awareness of her complete dependence on God for every good gift.  Her misery and subsequent relief has, after all, reminded the psalmist of divine, not human sovereignty over life and its flourishing.  While such an awareness is subject to distortion, to a linking, for example, of suffering to God’s will, it does reflect a strong faith in God’s loving providence.

    Among Psalm 30’s most striking characteristics is its series of contrasting pairs.  We notice how often the first half of the pair reflects the sometimes difficult nature of life on this side of the new creation.  Things like “the depths,” illness, God’s righteous anger, weeping and mourning remind us that things are not yet as God created them to be.  However, the second parts of those pairs reflect the wholeness for what God has made creatures.  So the psalmist can rejoice in God’s lifting him up from the depth, healing, favor, dancing and joy.

    Sometimes it feels as though we live much of life on the dark side of those pairs.  It’s hard to know to what kind of misery the poet alludes in Psalm 30.  Some suggest it’s physical suffering, perhaps some kind of life-threatening illness.  A good friend noted that Psalm 30 uses language that’s consistent with the affects of some kind of mental illness, perhaps depression that has dragged the psalmist down into the dust.  Still others wonder if this is the language of someone who has experienced a kind of crisis in her relationship with God.

    In some ways the exact nature of the psalmist’s suffering doesn’t matter.  After all, its ambiguity allows the Spirit to apply it to a wide variety of misery.  The psalmist longs to remind all of us that God’s will isn’t for any kind of suffering.  It’s, instead, for the salvation, rejoicing and celebration of God’s beloved sons and daughters.

    One of Psalm 30’s most intriguing pairs is that of verse 1’s psalmist’s enemies and the psalmist.  The poet has begun by vowing to exalt the Lord.  So the “noise” he longs to make is that of praise.  However, when he was in “the depths,” his enemies threatened to make a very different “noise.”  They threatened not to praise the Lord, but to gloat over the psalmist’s demise.  Verse 1 calls to mind the image of a warrior standing over an enemy he’s injured, exalting in his triumph.  The psalmist rejoices that God’s deliverance has resulted not in such taunting, but in the sound of the poet’s praise to the Lord.

    Psalm 30 is characterized by vivid imagery.  It includes a metaphor of “the depths,” perhaps eliciting images of looking up from the bottom of a grave.  There’s God’s anger that only lasts a few dark hours and is dwarfed by God’s favor that stretches across a whole lifetime.  We read of weeping and wailing that lasts throughout the night, perhaps calling to mind a parent who sobs over the death of a young child.  Yet in the morning God graciously replaces that wailing with rejoicing and even dancing.

    Verse 9 may be, as Jacobson points out, a bit disconcerting.  After all, its key word, “gain,” generally has negative connotations.  So it’s interesting that the psalmist hangs part of his argument with God on a word that the Bible often links to thieves and swindlers.  The use of the word “gain” almost implies that God was dealing if not unfairly, then unprofitably with the psalmist.  If, after all, her destruction silences the psalmist, then God will get none of the payoff that is the poet’s praise.  In fact, it’s almost as if the psalmist claims that death’s greatest tragedy is its muting of praise to the Lord.  The death of a person, to the psalmist’s mind, is the death of praise.

    Psalm 30 paints a picture of a psalmist who has known misery, who’s familiar with sorrows and acquainted with grief.  However, God has taught her that in the big picture, such misery is temporary, while both God’s favor and praise to God last not only a lifetime, but stretches even into eternity.