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April 14, 2013
Psalm 30

Psalm 30 is another psalm attributed to or connected with David in some way. The Hebrew ledavid can mean ‘by’, ‘about, ‘for’ or ‘dedicated to’ David so it is possible that it is part of a collection of psalms thought to be associated with the great. The psalm also carries the unusual addition to the superscription ‘A Song at the dedication of the temple.’ The sense of this is not transparent as the psalm itself does not mention the temple at all. It is written in the first person, and looks like an individual song of thanksgiving for recovery from some ‘weakness unto death’, possibly some grave illness. However, some scholars believe that the ‘dedication of the temple’ mentioned in the superscription could refer to the purification of the Temple by Judas Maccabaeus (1 Macc. 4:42ff.) which took place in the second century BCE, long after David’s time. The temple had been desecrated by Seleucid invaders. If that is the case, the ‘individual’ in the psalm has become the community, delivered of grave difficulty or weakness, and now restored. The psalm is then a ritual thanksgiving for the deliverance of the nation.

The psalm itself is written in four parts and we will read it as an individual thanksgiving. Even if it was used for a rededication of the temple late in Old Testament times, it was likely a psalm used by many individuals giving thanks well before that.

In the first part (vv. 1-3) there is praise of God and thanksgiving that the psalmist has been restored to life. The reference to ‘healing’ suggests a background of perhaps weakness or illness or injury of some kind. However, the use of metaphorical language following, of being ‘brought up from Sheol’ and having been ‘restored to life from among those who go down to the Pit’ (v. 3), would allow the psalm to be applied to any situation in which life seemed threatened thus suggesting some metaphorical sense of ‘healing’. It may even be that the psalmist had experienced a loss of the former ‘good times’ they speak about in v. 6.The fact is that we simply cannot locate this psalm in any particular context, let alone one of illness. It is clear, however, that the psalmist ‘lost’ everything at some stage and was brought to despair before recovery was experienced.

In the second part (vv. 4-5), relief and joy are written loudly and clearly between the lines. The psalmist invites others to join them in praise of God (v. 4). Faith in a God who will not forsake them is renewed. The psalmist does not deny God’s displeasure or ‘anger’ as they put it, but that is always overwhelmed by God’s ‘favour’. The former may last a moment; the latter ‘is for a lifetime’ (v. 5). Suffering and desolation may come, but it will not last forever: ‘Joy comes with the morning’ (v. 5b).

The third part of the psalm (vv. 6-10) is a little more ambiguous in its expression, and perhaps deliberately so. In vv. 6-7 the psalmist looks back to the time before the affliction when they experienced prosperity and full strength: ‘you had established me as a strong mountain’ (v. 7). Then things went wrong (v. 7b). The psalmist feels that God’s face is now hidden from them. They cannot understand why all of this has happened. After all, in their strength they felt they were invincible: ‘I shall never be moved’. It is not clear whether this is an expression of self reliance and that the psalmist had somehow forgotten the source of their strength, or whether they had presumed too much on God’s keeping them strong. In any case, the psalmist doesn’t know why they are abandoned and why they should ‘go down to the Pit’ (v. 9). They simply feel forsaken and cry to God for an explanation.

The expression in vv. 8-9 is also ambiguous. The Hebrew verb is such that in its poetic circumstance it could refer to a past action, i.e. the psalmist in their prosperity called to God proclaiming that any diminution of their situation would not help, or it could be that the psalmist presently cries for God’s help out of difficulties that have overtaken the former prosperity. It could also be that the ambiguity is itself important. Thus, whether we cry to God from prosperity or from difficulty the result would be the same. What comes through in the psalm is not so much the ‘arm twisting’ that could be seen in v. 9 but the point in v. 10, that our only help comes from God, whether we are people of abundant resources or stripped of all self-reliance.

The fourth part of the psalm (vv. 11-12) is a full return to the joy of recovery and restoration. The time close to the ‘Pit’ is characterized by ‘mourning’ for the life and the purpose that had gone before, when the psalmist felt held in God’s favour. That time of mourning is now over. The psalmist sings with exultation: ‘you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy’ (v. 11). Finally, they make a promise to God of giving thanks ‘forever’ (v. 12).

The final mood of the psalm is of singing and dancing in praise of God, with the psalmist’s flash-back providing the reason for the joy. This psalm may have been part of a liturgy involving ritual dancers in Maccabaean times, expressing the joy of deliverance from what looked like certain death as a nation. Whether the speaker is an individual or the nation, the joy in this psalm is an expression of great relief after deliverance from sadness or despair. Genuine joy can only come after belief that ‘all is lost’. After the sadness, comes joy. The response is to praise God forever! (v. 12)

Psalm 30 is a superb accompaniment to the Gospel reading from John 21:1-19 set down for Easter 3. In the scene on the beach the disciples of Jesus are overwhelmed with joy on their realisation that Jesus lives. After their deep despair over his death, and on the apparent death of all for which he stood, suddenly there comes deliverance. He lives on. After the crucifixion, comes resurrection. He is risen. They too can go on – forever.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:

Several verses form this psalm can be used throughout worship. Verse 10 could well form a congregational response during the prayer of confession:

Hear, O LORD, and be gracious to me! O LORD, be my helper!"
Verses 4-5 could then form the introduction to the declaration of forgiveness following confession:
Sing praises to the LORD, O you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment;
his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
I proclaim to you in the name of Jesus Christ,
‘Your sins are forgiven!’
        Thanks be to God.
Finally v. 11 can be used, with some minor modifications to incorporate the whole congregation, as the introduction to the blessing at the conclusion of the service:
God has turned our mourning into dancing;
God has taken off our sackcloth
and clothed us with joy,
and the blessing of God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
is with us, and remains with us,
now and forever.
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