Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)

From Mourning to Morning

February 12, 2012

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Commentary on Psalm 30

From Mourning to Morning

Psalm 30 may be the most beautiful lyric in the Psalter. The poetry here is balanced, emotional, picturesque, and expressive. The poem has some of the greatest lines in the whole Bible: God’s “anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. / / Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” And, “You have taken off my sackcloth, and clothed me with joy!”

For me, this song captures the evangelical witness to the God of Israel as well as any passage in the Old Testament. It describes one sinner’s personal testimony. It says that the Lord meets us in our suffering — in the pit. And God does not leave us there, but moves us from mourning (“you have taken off my sackcloth”) to morning (“joy comes in the morning”).

I show up in worship on Sunday morning in the hopes that someone will tell me this good news, in the hopes that someone will tell me this promise.

The Psalm in Review

This song of thanksgiving moves through five tightly balanced stanzas of six lines a piece. Each stanza has its own setting in the psalmist’s story.

Stanza 1 (verses 1-3) — Typical of the song of thanksgiving, the psalm starts by describing how God delivered the psalmist from a crisis. The language is intentionally metaphorical — “you have drawn me up,” and “restored me to life” — so that any person who has walked through some dark valley can sing the song. Particularly worth noting is the language of “going down” and being “drawn up.”

Stanza 2 (verses 4-5) — Again, typical of the song of thanksgiving the psalm invites others to join in praise. If a person snipped these verses out of this song and let them stand alone as an independent psalm, we would call it a “hymn of praise” because it has all the elements of that genre: a call to praise (verse 4) and reasons for praise (verse 5). Why does the psalmist invite others to join him or her in praise? Because when you praise God in response to what God has done for me, it is a way of restoring me to the community. When a person goes through a crisis — an illness, the loss of a job, the death of a child, a divorce — it is easy for a person to become isolated from the community.

Here, the person returns to the community after the period of crisis and says, “Praise God with me, because God saw me through that difficult time.” When the community responds with a joyful “Amen,” it is the liturgical way of throwing our arms around the former sufferer and saying, “Welcome home.” And, as noted above, don’t miss the beautiful poetry: God’s “anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. / / Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” The second phrase can be translated as “in his favor there is life.” There is no need to choose between the two translations, both are equally possible and the poet likely intended a double entendre.

Stanza 3 (verses 6-7) — The psalmist looks back on life before the crisis. The psalmist remembers a time when everything seemed fine, when there was health, or wellness, or security, or prosperity. Nothing wrong with those things, to be sure! What was wrong, according to the psalmist, was his or her attitude. He or she just took it all for granted. And when it went away, “I was dismayed.”

Stanza 4 (verses 8-10) — In this stanza, the psalmist recalls the prayer for help that was prayed during the crisis. Similar to stanza 2, if these verses were excised and printed as an independent psalm, form critics would label it a “prayer for help.” In this context, the psalmist recites the prayer as part of the testimony about what God has done. Note the connection again to the recurring metaphor of going down, being brought up: “if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you?”

Stanza 5 (verses 11-12) — The final stanza is a poetic work of art. It is a soaring exclamation point to the psalmist’s testimony: “you have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” Can a person literally be clothed in joy? Of course not. And yet, we all know what the psalmist means. A person can wear a frown, or a smile, or a grimace. And joy.

Life in the care of the savior is a life in which the garments of darkness, repentance, and sin are replaced with the clothing of salvation: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, humility, and the like. In the Christian faith, the newly baptized are often clothed in a white robe to symbolize the new creation, the new life of “putting on Christ.” This liturgical practice is more than just a ritual, however. It is a ritual that makes a promise. God meets sinners in their suffering. And God does not leave us there. God takes off our sackcloth and clothes us with joy.

1 A further issue that might be explored here is the idea that God sometimes causes calamity in order to bring about salvation. Luther wrote, “God’s ‘alien’ works are these: to judge, to condemn, and to punish those who are impenitent and do not believe. God is compelled to resort to such ‘alien’ works and to call them His own because of our pride. By manifesting these works He aims to humble us that we might regard Him as our Lord and obey His will” (LW 13:135). Luther emphasized, God’s alien work exists only for the purpose of accomplishing God’s proper work, which is to save, bless, and be gracious: “It is as if he were saying: ‘Although He is the God of life and salvation and this is His proper work, yet, in order to accomplish this, He kills and destroys. These works are alien to Him, but through them He accomplishes His proper work. For He kills our will that His may be established in us. He subdues the flesh and its lusts that the spirit and its desires may come to life” (LW 14:335).