Commentary on Psalm 30
Psalm 30 frames the struggles of the life of faith within a glorious edifice: the Jerusalem Temple, a powerful cultural icon that “narrates” the faith of the believing community, the enduring presence of God, and the inviolability of God’s promises to Israel.
The psalm is ascribed to David, but it is also designated for the dedication of the Temple. Since the dedication of the first Temple took place under Solomon (1 Kings 8:63), in view here must be either the dedication of the second Temple in 515 B.C.E. (Ezra 6:16) or its rededication in the Maccabean era (1 Maccabees 4).
The complexity of the superscription invites us to hear the psalm as a prophetic reflection on the fortunes of God’s people from the early monarchy through the Persian period or even later. “Temple” becomes a richly layered symbol for the participation of the faithful in worship through the centuries. In the sweeping historical perspective constructed by the superscription, the Temple with its liturgical rhythms becomes the spiritual edifice constructed by those who sing God’s praises in every generation.
The psalmist begins with a shout of praise: God has drawn him up, healed him, and restored his life! The psalmist names his experience of healing using allusions to mythic depths, hinting at the spiritual deeps from which God has drawn him up (verse 1) and referring explicitly to Sheol and the Pit (verse 3), tropes for the spiritually inert arena of dusty darkness that awaits the dead. A chiastic structure with healing at its center (verse 2) renders transparent the veil between this life, with its pragmatic challenges of sickness and enmity, and the underworld that exists outside of human time. The mythic places of chaos and meaninglessness press on every side, threatening not only those who have already expired but those who seek to flourish in the present moment.
The psalmist breaks off his narrative to exhort the gathered community to praise the LORD (verse 4). Implicitly, we are invited to join the ranks of God’s seasoned “faithful ones.” The basis for praise? Experiences of divine punishment are only fleeting, whereas God’s favor lasts “for a lifetime.” The Hebrew phrasing here may be read in a theologically profound way: “a moment” is contrasted not with “length of days” or “all the days of my life” or another such commonplace expression of time, but with life itself (chayyim; compare Psalm 36:9 and 42:2.1 Transient pain is answered by God’s eternal grace.
The following lines feint toward the continued establishment of the one who praises God for divine favor: “I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’ By your favor, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain.” But the confidence of the psalmist is decimated by two startling words in the Hebrew: histarta paneka, “You hid your face.” All his strong talk is unraveled in a moment of abandonment! We are undone as well, for we trusted this narratorial voice.
The psalmist had not been boasting in any untoward way; he had rightly credited God’s “favor” as the means by which he had been caused to prosper. Surprised by his experience of abandonment, we find ourselves standing with the psalmist in that ragged liminal moment in which praise shades over into mourning. With his remembrance of having been left by God, the psalmist not only subverts false confidence. He renders poignant — and fragile — the shouts of praise that still echo in the sanctuary.
We are compelled to face the terrifying absence of God in the very midst of our singing. The psalmist challenges God with a barrage of rhetorical questions and impassioned pleas (verses 9-10). But this, too, is faith, for the psalmist’s anguished “Hear, O LORD!” (shema Adonai) evokes the majestic Shema Yisrael that perpetually reestablishes the covenant relationship between God and people (Deuteronomy 6:4).
We could try to dismiss the psalmist’s cries as irrelevant now, in the present moment of healing. But because of the brilliant way in which the psalm weaves together past and present, these sharp challenges to God remain forceful. Their traces cannot be silenced even in a sanctuary resounding with praise. The psalm may move gracefully into joy once again (verses 11-12), but we are left with trauma as an insistent memory just beneath the surface of our recovery.
Psalm 30 inscribes holy space in two temporal dimensions. One dimension is the contested space of historical time lived in God’s presence. We are drawn into the drama of the life of the believer with its doubts and joys, its anger and trust, its barely-suppressed fear of enemies. But another temporal dimension unfolds as well: the sacred space of eternity, in which God’s favor continually heals believers and clothes them with joy. Mourning turns to dancing; sackcloth is traded for a garment of rejoicing. These are liturgical terms: we are led to perceive the “Temple,” as both literal and spiritual edifice, holding together these two dimensions of faithful living.
It is not the case that we struggle and then are healed, once and for all. That might suggest that God’s redemption is a commodity that believers could seek to manipulate liturgically. Rather, we seek God through the changeable rhythms of joyous praising and bitter wrestling. Faith is lived in a dance of mourning and rejoicing — a dance that is by turns brutal and lyrical, as the turbulent Hebrew meter of this poem might suggest. Belief means alternately challenging and submitting to One whose power to save cannot be bounded by our expectations.
In many Christian traditions, Psalm 30 is read at the Easter Vigil in all three lectionary years. The suggestion is an ancient one that this psalm speaks of God’s mercy overcoming death itself. Augustine interpreted the psalm as singing “the joy of the resurrection” (see his Exposition on the Psalms at Psalm XXX). But this psalm resists any sort of triumphalist plot-line. God is not always experienced as loving and present.
And so we preach the good news of God’s mercy while honoring the reality of the spiritual bleakness that even seasoned believers can experience. We acclaim God in times of joy and desolation alike, for we testify to an incarnate Lord who struggled with temptation in the desert and cried out his despair on the Cross. Psalm 30 is urgently necessary for preachers because it invites us into an honest ministry of accompaniment. We can proclaim God’s redemption in Christ persuasively only while walking with our beloved community through its dark and agonistic experiences of the Cross.
1Due to variant numbering in the Hebrew text, the corresponding verses in Hebrew are Psalm 36:10 and 42:3.
July 1, 2012