Commentary on Psalm 30
Having been rescued from foes, the poet lifts up the Lord in a jubilant praise. If the Lord had not been there for the poet, the foes would have prevailed, causing grief and even possibly death. One need not read hatred into the term “foe,” for the word covers all situations of opposition. The poet does not dwell on details of the dangerous situation that transpired. Only in sight is the thanksgiving for God’s intervention that saved the poet. The life-threatening situation is no more. Neither is the fear of death.
The poet’s praise is not just for the reversal of fortune but for the fact that this has taken place through God’s gracious act. The poet needed God’s help and cried to the Lord. The Hebrew expression for crying out involves a raw outburst, conjuring a desperate situation. In reply to the plea, God provided healing. Whether it was a serious disease or another life-threatening situation that left him all but dead, the Lord removed the specter of death from the poet’s path.
For the poet’s report of deliverance, the Hebrew Masoretic Text preserves two strands of tradition. One is known as the written tradition, which has the poet report the restoration of life “from among those gone down to the pit” (adopted by the NRSV). In the other, known as the reading tradition, the psalmist says, “that I should not go down to the pit” (preserved in the marginal note of the NRSV). According to the former, the poet marvels at the extraordinary measure of grace God provided, for the poet recognizes that not everyone has experienced being snatched from the clutches of death like that. The latter signals a self-reflection of the poet as the recipient of God’s salvation. Either way, the poet underscores that God’s saving action is a special deal. It inspires gratitude.
The poet invites others to join in thanksgiving. In the Hebrew text, the command of praise is clearly marked in the second person plural verb. The poet calls upon the “faithful ones” to praise the Lord (verse 4). The poet cannot and will not reserve God’s salvation to a private celebration. The community ought to know how gracious God is. The poet shares the story of salvation for communal celebration.
The poet compares God’s favor with God’s anger. The latter is momentary, whereas the former lasts for life. The sense of divine displeasure can provoke an all-night weeping with persistent tears, but no sorrow is eternal. The poet testifies to joy that returns with the rise of the sun. The poetic image may also speak of the passage of time that turns and mends steadily (compare with “the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day” in Proverbs 4:18). Likewise, joy may take time in coming but is sure to come. The poet is aware of this, calling it God’s “favor” (30:5)—the Hebrew that also signifies that is what God desires. With the joyous morning, the poet bursts into celebration. The Hebrew for joy (rinnah) in this verse conjures happiness—like the sound of delight in the popular Jewish song, Havah Nagilla, which includes the refrain of nerannanah (“let us rejoice”).
The poet acknowledges that there had been a time of prosperity that provided confidence and fortitude (verse 6). In retrospect, the poet realizes that it was none other than God that sponsored the time of wellness. In those days, thanks to God, the psalmist was as sturdy as “a strong mountain”; by contrast, without God there was nothing but fear and confusion (verse 7).
In spite of present trouble, however, the poet realizes that there is no reason to remain in despair. The poet is confident that God will certainly grant audience for the poet’s petition for deliverance, for the poet’s death will be a great loss for God. God would not want to lose such an important member of God’s choir (verse 9). With a hint of humor, the poet reminds God that the dust has no capacity to praise God. Nor can the inanimate object tell the truth of God’s faithfulness. Singing requires a live voice. Once the living turn to dust, as the Israeli singer Shiri Maimon sings in Shir lashalom (“Song of Peace”), not the purest prayers can bring back the dead. The poet of Psalm 30 presents a strong case for his deliverance.
Based on the experience of God’s rescue, the poet offers a compelling picture of God as “helper” (verse 10; see also verse 2). In the common usage of the word, a helper customarily takes on the meaning of an auxiliary or assistant. The common cultural presupposition results from the failure to recognize the critical role of the service providers who make life possible for the world. More importantly, God is prominently known as the helper in the biblical tradition (for example, Psalm 115:9, 10, 11; 121:2). With God the helper, despair gives way to dancing, and grief to joy (30:11). God removes the mourner’s sackcloth, signaling the end of the time to grieve. The time to rejoice has come.
The poet concludes with a vow of paise: “I will give thanks to you forever” (verse 12). Every instance of a mortal speaking of eternity may be a hyperbole, but it is the language of worship that enables the poet to speak of the grand things beyond experience, but not beyond imagination. The poet’s promise is not something “which alters when it alteration finds” (William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116).
In the present form of the text, Psalm 30 comes with an obscure superscription that designates it as “A Song at the dedication of the temple. Of David.” It is commonly recognized that while the superscription belongs with an ancient tradition, it is most likely that it was not part of the original form of the psalm. Since it is before the construction of the Solomonic temple of Jerusalem, the heading seems to refer to an earlier place of worship. Wherever it may take place, the prayer of Psalm 30 finds its home in the sanctuary where a thanksgiving for healing is offered in company with others who have gathered to praise the Lord.