Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 30 presents the dramatic ups-and-downs of a life lived in relationship with God.

Jesus Raises Girl to Life
Jesus Raises Girl to Life, metal relief sculpture in National Children's Hospital, Tallaght, Dublin, Ireland; from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn.

June 28, 2015

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Commentary on Psalm 30

Psalm 30 presents the dramatic ups-and-downs of a life lived in relationship with God.

A study in contrasts

This short prayer of thanksgiving contains a surprisingly large number of antitheses: night and day (verse 5), down and up (verses 1, 3, 9), weeping and joy (verses 5, 11), anger and favor (verse 5), absence and presence (verse 7), mourning and dancing (verse 11), sackcloth and party clothes (verse 11). These contrasts reflect the dynamics of a relationship, in this case, the relationship between an individual and a powerful, loving God.

One of the key contrasts in the psalm is that of up and down, high and low. This “vertical axis” is evident from the very first lines, in which the poet suggests that Yahweh has pulled him up (verses 1–3). But in what way had the psalmist been down?

Multiple problems have brought the psalmist low. One problem is that the psalmist has enemies (verse 1). While we don’t know how the foes contributed to his suffering, we do know that because of Yahweh’s activity, these enemies no longer have a chance to celebrate his downfall.

The psalmist may also have been brought low by some sort of illness. Verse 2 suggests as much in its statement “You have healed me.” The Hebrew word for healing (the verb rapha’) can indicate a specific act of physical healing or, more generally, a revival or uplifting.

So we don’t ultimately know if the psalmist’s suffering was somatic or social, or some mixture of the two. All we know is that the psalmist was down and out. In fact, the psalmist was way, way down—in Sheol, the Pit (verses 3, 9)—that is to say, the realm of the dead.

In Hebrew thinking, Sheol was a quiet, dark, subterranean world inhabited by the deceased. We should be careful not to conflate this place with many modern notions of hell, replete with fire, demons, and the devil with a pitchfork. That view of hell is a relatively new theological idea.

Instead, the psalmist describes himself as in a place profoundly below the thriving, pulsing world of the living. In Sheol, the psalmist would be separated from God. Moreover, the psalmist would be unable to praise God (verse 9) because of the silence that characterizes the underworld.

While some interpreters have understood this text as describing a resurrection from the dead, in its original context such an association is probably not active. Rather, the psalmist presents his suffering as so bad that it has pushed him to the extreme limit of human existence, a position virtually indistinguishable from death.

It’s helpful to remember that ancient understandings of mortality were such that the time of death was seen as a fluid process. Death occurred on a continuum, rather than happening at a fixed point in time. Becoming dead was often considered a slow and ambiguous progression without clear boundaries. And into this shadowy, deathlike existence God has intervened to bring about restoration.

The psalmist’s complete turnabout from death to life prompts him to praise God (verses 1–3, 6–12) and to call the community to praise God (verses 4–5). In this testimony of God’s salvation, remarkably, the psalmist credits God as the ultimate source of both weal and woe.

God’s role in suffering and salvation

The psalmist draws a clear connection between Yahweh’s anger and his own suffering (verse 4), suggesting that Yahweh’s emotional state has had a palpable effect on his well-being. Likewise, the psalmist describes his suffering in terms of the absence of God, the times when God hid God’s face (verse 7).

As such, this psalm engages, albeit briefly, in a complex intrabiblical conversation about the nature of suffering and God’s role in it. To be sure, the Bible does not speak with one voice on this issue. At various points, the biblical texts suggest that suffering arises because of human activity, divine activity, or divine inactivity. Taken as a whole, the witness of Scripture cautions against any totalizing theory of the ultimate cause of suffering.

Whatever one’s doctrinal positions about God’s role in suffering, most of us can recall the experience of suffering so severe that God seems absent from us (verse 7) or angry with us (verse 8). The psalm thus has the power to resonate deeply with many. It can bear witness to the validity of many people’s experiences of severe suffering and lowliness.

It is not clear whether the psalmist thinks that Yahweh’s anger and absence are justified or not, whether he is being punished or simply the victim of divine caprice. We simply hear that, in some way, Yahweh is the cause of his suffering.

Yet it would be missing the point of the psalm to hear this statement as the most important message of the psalm. In fact, the psalm’s major accent is on God’s acts of salvation rather than God causing pain. God’s anger is momentary, while God’s favor lasts a lifetime (verse 5). God’s absence is a deeply painful experience, but God’s presence means joy (verse 5).

Each of the contrasts in the psalm (verses 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11) resolves in a positive direction thanks to the powerful intervention of God. The psalm’s overwhelming theological witness is that God sets wrong situations aright. And that salvation has a powerful effect on the psalmist and the community.

Thanks to God’s work, the psalmist is compelled to praise God. He cannot remain silent (verse 12). At the brink of the silence of death, he found a voice to cry out to God (verses 2, 8). He has not stopped crying out since. Now, instead of pained cries in the context of prayer, he cries out songs of praise and calls the community to do the same (verses 4–5).

God has the power to reach down into the lives of the most lowly and despised people. God can pull us up.