Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 21, 2014
Psalm 30 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 30’s superscription claims it’s a song for the dedication of the temple. Yet its modern relevance seems greater than that. After all, it appears to be a song of thanksgiving to God for deliverance from a perilous situation. It doesn’t require much imagination to deduce that God has rescued the psalmist from some type of life-threatening illness or other dangerous circumstance. In that way Psalm 30’s language is reminiscent of that of Psalm 130’s poet, Jonah and Jesus.
Those who wish to preach or teach this psalm may want to ask themselves who might be able to join the poet in singing this psalm. Is it a child in whose life her classmates have intervened to rescue her from a bully? Is it an infertile married couple that God has empowered to conceive and bear a child? Is it a grandparent whose cancer God has managed or cured through chemotherapy? In fact, those who preach or teach Psalm 30 may want to relate the story of someone they know or about whom they know who could sing this psalm.
The tone of this psalm is one of praise. Commitments to praise and thank God frame it. Yet as James Mayes notes, it’s both a prayer that is completely praise and praise that arises out of God’s answer to prayer. The psalmist praises God for God’s deliverance of her. Yet she also recognizes that that deliverance arises out of God’s “yes” to her prayers for it.
The praise that arises out of such deliverance has a communal dimension. This psalmist doesn’t want to be a soloist. She longs for God’s saints to join her in a full-throated song of praise. Good news such as the psalmist shares in Psalm 30 can be a powerful stimulus to others to join in praising God’s holy name.
However, the psalmist’s remembers that his dire circumstance was once a threat to that praise. Had God not delivered him, he would be unable to fulfill his vow to praise the Lord. Silence rather than praise would then reign. The “dust” (9), after all, is unable to praise the Lord or proclaim God’s faithfulness.
Yet Psalm 30’s author insists that there’s more at stake in her healing than just praise to the Lord. Her demise might have led her enemies to gloat over her, much like a warrior might gloat over a fallen enemy or a football player might gloat over someone he tackled.
Psalm 30 is full of “lowness” imagery. It speaks of the depths, the grave, the pit and the dust. At the same time, however, the psalmist also fills it with rescue imagery. He describes being lifted out of the depths, healed, brought up from the grave and spared from going down into the pit. In that way the psalm is suggestive of a wide array of human circumstances and emotions, as well as God’s actions. This makes this psalm one that nearly everyone has sung, can sing or will sing at one point or another.
Psalm 30 is replete with contrasting pairs. The “negatives” reflect the psalmist’s enemies’ desire for her harm. Its “positives” reflect both the psalmist’s own rescue by God and the shalom for which God longs for God’s sons, daughters and whole creation. So, for example, while the psalmist exalts the Lord, her enemies wish to exalt in her destruction. God’s anger lasts only for a moment, but God’s favor lasts for a lifetime.
While weeping may remain for a night, rejoicing comes in the morning. When God favored the psalmist, God made her stand firm. Yet when God hid God’s face, the psalmist was dismayed. God turned the psalmist’s wailing into dancing and replaced her sackcloth with “clothes” of joy.
Among the most striking features of Psalm 30 is its blunt honesty with God. In the context of a North American church that sometimes seems afraid to be honest with God about disappointment or doubt, the psalmist is very candid. So those who preach and teach this psalm may want to use it to help people explore how we can be more honest with God about our plight. The stifling of such honesty can, after all, be very unhealthy.
In contrast to at least some modern church language, the psalmist talks about the depths, grave and pit. She’s very candid about enemies who long to revel in her destruction. She’s even bold enough to ask the Lord what good it would do anyone if she died. The psalmist adds language about weeping, wailing and sackcloth.
Yet she’s also very honest about her own arrogance. In verse 6 she tells God that she once felt that nothing could “shake” her. She assumed that she’d somehow made herself “secure.” Yet the psalmist remembers how God’s hiding of God’s face shattered that illusion. When, after all, God hid God’s face, the psalmist was dismayed.
However, the psalmist is also very confident in God’s power to transform the difficult situations of even arrogant people. God, after all, lifted him out of the depths and healed him. God brought him up from the grave and spared him from going down into the pit. God turned the psalmist’s wailing into dancing, stripping off his grief and replacing it with joy.
The contrast the psalmist cites between God’s momentary anger and lifelong favor is reminiscent of the second commandment. There God insists that God punishes the children for the sins of their parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate the Lord. Yet God shows love to thousand generations of those who love the Lord and keep God’s commandments.
Biblical scholars note that “remaining for a night” (5) is lodging imagery. So it’s as if the psalmist suggests that weeping is like an uninvited guest who comes into the home that is our life for the night. It may make for a long night, just as God’s anger sometimes seems to last through our “nights.” Yet rejoicing comes in the morning, expelling the unwanted weeping and making its lasting home with God’s favor in God’s children’s lives.
As Mayes also notes, this psalmist makes a rather bold link between her experiences and God’s sovereignty. She, after all, attributes her once-prosperous life to God’s royal pleasure (7a). Her dismay is a result of God’s hiding of God’s face from her. Her restoration is a result of God’s transforming her situation (11).
As Mayes notes, such a direct linkage between the course of one’s life and God’s sovereignty can be dangerous. It may lead worshipers to blame God for the evil of which God is never a source. However, it serves as a good corrective to 21st century assumptions about human autonomy. We naturally think of ourselves as “mountains” that little can shake. Psalm 30 reminds us that our true help and security is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
At the same time, however, many of our contemporaries also think of themselves as completely at the mercy of enemies such as economic upheaval, environmental degradation, catastrophic illness and terrorism. While they may think of themselves as largely helpless against such onslaughts, Psalm 30 reminds us that God is sovereign and that God longs for the complete restoration of all things.
In verse 4 the psalmist follows her vow to “exalt the Lord” with a call to God’s saints to join her in singing to the Lord and praising God’s holy name. In that way God’s sons and daughters can be a bit like mockingbirds.
After all, mockingbirds have their own beautiful song. However, they’re also famous mimics. Their repertoire can include over forty different songs, including the barking of a dog. Some ornithologists claim mockingbirds even mimic things like squeaky gates, pianos and sirens.
When Christians praise God for God’s work of rescue and redemption, we provide an appropriate song for the “mockingbirds” that are other believers to mimic.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!