For centuries, Christians have found the book of Psalms to be a powerful resource for all dimensions of life -- the highs, the lows, and all the places in between.
The two dominant kinds of psalms are laments and psalms of praise, reflecting the lows and highs of life. Most of the psalms in the first part of the book are laments, but these prayers usually end on a hopeful note. That hope is sometimes expressed as a promise or vow of praise.
Psalm 30 is a fine example of a text that fulfills such a vow. It is a classic psalm of thanksgiving where the speaker declares or narrates to the congregation what God has done to deliver him/her from crisis. The Hebrew term for this kind of psalm is todah, a song that confesses how God has acted to deliver. In poetic form, the psalm tells a story of thanksgiving; it narrates the divine action of deliverance that has brought forth praise.
The structure of Psalm 30 tells the story:
The opening of the psalm declares praise and thanksgiving for God's rescue from the crisis at hand and from opponents who had made the crisis more difficult. The psalmist lifts up God just as God has lifted up the psalmist.
Sheol and the Pit (verse 3) indicate the realm of death or the underworld. The poetic imagery suggests being lifted up out of a well or cistern as a way of narrating God's rescue from the power of death. God has delivered from the grip of the power of death and has brought this one back to full life. Central to the psalm is the confession that it is God who has given this new life.
Beginning in verse 4, the speaker addresses the congregation, the "faithful ones." They are called to join in the thanksgiving to God. Verse 5 uses powerful poetic imagery to articulate the reason the congregation should give thanks: God's anger and the resulting weeping are but a moment in the context of a life of joy and hope.
Another way to put this is that God's 'no' to the faith community always comes in the context of God's 'yes.' Night and day become symbols of God's anger and favor. The striking reversal witnessed in verse 5 is characteristic of the poetic power of this psalm; other reversals are in verses 2, 7, and 11.
The body of the psalm tells the story of the crisis, the prayer, and the deliverance. All was well in the life of this person. Perhaps he or she had come to trust in human achievement rather than in God. Suddenly prosperity faltered and he/she cried out to God for help and mercy. The pleas are in verses 8 and 10.
The petitioner's questions in verse 9 are part of this persuasive prayer to convince God to answer mercifully. Behind the questions lie the petitioner's hopes to live and praise God, a life that is only possible with deliverance from death. In such praise, the speaker will bear witness to God's involvement in the world and narrate the good news of God's deliverance.
We again find powerful poetic imagery in verse 11 to describe the rescue. Grief changes to dancing and the customary sackcloth attire for grieving is turned in for joy. The thanksgiving is for God's deliverance from the crisis and for a new perspective on life centered upon gratitude.
The psalm concludes with a renewed promise of praise and thanksgiving to God throughout life. With the new perspective of gratitude, the psalmist's main vocation for life is the praise of God. Renewed life is a gift from God best enjoyed in thanksgiving.1
Towards a Sermon
Some contemporary preachers proclaim a health and wealth gospel that claims God showers prosperity upon all who are faithful. These preachers have found many followers in churches and in our society. However, Psalm 30 questions such a view of life and such a view of God.
Psalm 30 narrates a story that envisions God as present in joy and in trouble, that is, in all of life. The psalm proclaims a gospel of divine involvement in the world in all of life. It is a daring act of faith to see God in all the parts of life, and our psalm with powerful poetry helps us to imagine such a reality. The psalmist strongly holds to God's providence in the midst of a crisis of life and death, and God did not leave the psalmist alone but came to deliver her/him from the crisis.
Psalm 30 is a poetic testimony. Giving testimony or bearing witness is an old tradition in Christian communities. Such words powerfully seek to draw listeners into the experience of thanksgiving so that God's providence is not limited to the speaker, but becomes part of the life of the congregation. The poetry of Psalm 30 thus becomes a compelling way to express faith in terms of prayer and thanksgiving.
Life as praise or thanksgiving would be an appropriate response to the psalm. The goal of the divine deliverance narrated in the psalm reaches beyond the rescue itself to the response of gratitude as a completion of the prayer.
Walter Brueggemann has proposed reading the Psalms in a cycle of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation.2 The narrative of Psalm 30 illustrates that cycle. Confidence in human achievement reflected the old orientation that gave way to trouble and disorientation. A new orientation of gratitude is found in divine deliverance and the psalmist's thankful response.
1See Eugene Peterson's rendering of verses 11-12 in The Message as a fine placing of the verses in contemporary language.
2Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), especially p. 127.