Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 5, 2016
Psalm 30 Commentary
Easter and Eastertide have now passed this calendar year and yet in the Sundays after Pentecost the Lectionary provides us with some wonderful poetry to help us continue living into and celebrating Easter. With its imagery of death and resurrection, Psalm 30 is a perfect post-Easter Psalm. Its purpose is to keep the memory of our deliverance from death alive by voicing the deliverance again and adding our profound thanksgiving for it. It is, as one scholar put it, a prayer that is wholly praise, but the praise comes out of answered prayer.
From beginning to end, Psalm 30 is a many splendored thing, filled with some of the best lines in the Bible. The fact that it has three introductory notes in the superscription suggests that it can be used in a wide variety of settings. It is simply “a Psalm, a song.” It was intended “for the dedication of the house (a better translation than temple).” And it is “of David.”
Some scholars insist that we can’t take the “of David” literally, but others see a close connection between this Psalm and David’s experience in I Chronicles 21:1-22:6. In a burst of regal hubris, David ordered a census of his army. “Let’s see just how great I am.” God was very displeased with David. After all, the Lord, not the army, was the true source of David’s prosperity and security. So God visited his wrath upon Israel for David’s sin. The results were deadly, because the angel of the Lord moved through Israel as he had once moved through Egypt. There was death everywhere.
David repented and God relented and there was life again. That’s when David began to prepare for the construction of the temple, even though he knew that his son, Solomon, would be the actual builder. Perhaps those experiences of sin and judgment, of death and new beginnings, and of preparation for the building of the temple are behind the superscription, “For the dedication of the house. Of David.”
It is certain that Psalm 30 came to be applied to Israel’s exile. Was it sung at the dedication of the second Temple, after a presumably dead Israel was restored to life and favor with God? Perhaps. We know for sure that in Jewish liturgical practice, it was chanted at the Hanukkah feast that celebrates the re-dedication of the temple by Judas Maccabeus after the desecration of that temple by Antiochus Epiphanes. Indeed, the word “dedication” in the superscription is the Hebrew word hanukkah.
Not only does Psalm 30 resonate with key stories in Judaism, but it also anticipates the central story of the Christian faith. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to read this Psalm as a description of Jesus experience on Good Friday and Easter. We can’t help but notice all these references to “death/the pit/the grave” and to being “lifted/brought up/spared.” That reference to the temple in the superscription might remind a creative preacher of Jesus’ words in John 2:19. After he cleansed the temple, Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” The Jewish leaders, of course, didn’t understand this saying. Indeed, they used it later as an accusation at his trial before the Sanhedrin. His disciples understood that “the temple he had spoken of was his body” only after “he was raised from the dead.” It is probably far too speculative to imagine Jesus singing this song of resurrection as he exited the grave. But it surely would have been suitable for that resurrection/rededication of the “temple of God,” where we now meet God in person.
Further, who can miss the applicability of this Psalm to our individual lives? The description of the trouble in the text seems to be almost intentionally general. We’re not told what the depths were, who the enemies were, what illness was healed, etc. It’s almost as though Psalm 30 was written in generic language so that any and all of God’s people could relate to the experience of having their lives radically changed by God.
That is the theme of the Psalm—change effected by the Sovereign Yahweh. That theme is repeated again and again through a pattern of alternation and reversal that is woven through the entire Psalm: “I called… you healed; “anger… favor,” “weeping…rejoicing,” “wailing… dancing,” divine displeasure… divine pleasure (verse 5), divine pleasure… divine displeasure (verse 7), silence of the grave (verse 9)… “my heart will not be silent (verse 12).” With these lovely literary turns of phrase, the Psalmist captures the changing shape of our lives. Through all the changes of life, God is the sovereign Lord who alone can save. Note how God is the mover in all of those radical turns in life. Again and again our God gives us a new lease on life through a gracious experience of resurrection. (See today’s readings from the Gospels and the Epistles for biblical examples—Peter in John 21 and Paul in Acts 9.)
Not only does the Psalmist burst forth in praise and commit himself to continue that praise all the days of his life, but he also calls on all the saints to join him in this song of thanksgiving. Indeed, it is possible to read the “I’s” of the Psalm as an expression of corporate identity. The “I” is Israel, the church, all the people of God. For the miracle of resurrection, all of God’s people must join in praise. This is something we can’t do alone. What God has done in the resurrection of Jesus and in our own resurrection is too big, too important to celebrate alone. So “sing to the Lord, you saints of his….”
As I said above, this Psalm contains some of the best lines in the Scripture. A careful exploration of them will help us appreciate the miracle of resurrection/salvation, so that we may give more profound thanks. Take verse 5, for example, which talks about God’s anger. “For his anger lasts only for a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” Many Christians today don’t want to hear anything about God’s anger, but the Psalmist echoes the rest of Scripture in unabashedly saying that our sin makes God angry. That is not the only or the final reality, but it is a reality. Thankfully, God’s anger lasts only a moment, but that’s not how life feels all the time. When we know that we have sinned and God is angry, it can seem as though the sun will never shine again. But what we feel is not reality, not the greatest reality. In fact, weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.
Again, verses 6-7 can help us explore the sin that can sink us into the depths of despair, but from which God can raise us to the heights of praise. The Psalmist’s sin was the quintessential sin of our age—pride, hubris, expressed as complete self-reliance. “When I felt secure, I said, ‘I will never be shaken.’” In David’s case, it was the size of his army that made him feel completely secure, rather than the size and love of his God. For us, it might be the size of our portfolio, the security of our job, the strength of our connections, or the number of our achievements. Anticipating the bloviating of our politicians, David took credit for the prosperity of his life and nation. But God showed him that it is God who raises up and God who brings low. That’s the point of verse 7; the sovereignty of God controls the ups and downs of life. Now, we can make bad use of that truth, but it is a truth that must be preached in our self-sufficient age. Pride goes before the fall. And only God can raise up the fallen, even from the grave.
Verses 8-10 might also be fruitful ground to cultivate sermonically. Here we have a humble sinner crying to the Lord for mercy. There’s a point to preach. We don’t deserve resurrection; when it comes, it is sheer mercy. But more interesting is the way the Psalmist reasons with God as he pleads for mercy. Almost like Abraham bargaining for Sodom or Moses pleading for Israel after the Golden Calf, David asks God what good it will do God to destroy him. “After all, if I’m dead, who will praise you? Will the dust?”
Of course, behind this kind of reasoning is a less than New Testament understanding of life after death. Revelation had not progressed that far yet. Apparently David believed that when he died, that was it. It remained for Jesus to declare, “I am the resurrection and life. Whoever believes in me shall live, even though he dies. And who lives and believes in me shall never die.” At this moment in the history of redemption and revelation, David’s best argument for mercy was that his continued existence would mean continued thanksgiving to God. His death silence his praising lips.
Strange as that reasoning may be, it does point us ahead to the end of the Psalm in verses 11-12 where the resurrected one commits himself to give thanks forever. God “has turned my wailing into dancing, [and] removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to you and not be silent.” Having received his life back, David will spend the rest of his life giving thanks.
There’s a simple, but profound truth in David’s commitment. Thanksgiving is the necessary response to God’s deliverance. To fail to give thanks after the miracle of resurrection is to make life unbalanced and distorted and diminished. After Jesus healed those ten lepers, only one returned to give thanks. With astonishment and sadness, Jesus asked, “Where are the others?” Indeed. Reality has been forever changed by the Resurrection of Jesus and our attendant mini-resurrections. How can we not respond with a lifetime of thanks?
Just when we thought Rocky Balboa had shuffled off this mortal coil, he’s back in a new movie called “Creed.” In my less than sanctified state, I loved those bloody tributes to the underdog who rose up from apparent defeat to vanquish the invincible foe. It was thrilling to see Rocky dancing in victory on the stairway. There is something to admire in those who will not quit.
But those movies, and hundreds like them, are an expression of a kind of American can-do attitude that might make genuine salvation almost impossible to grasp. When we see our success, security, prosperity, and salvation as the result of our own efforts, we are danger of a great fall. Indeed, sometimes it takes a fall to make us see the truth. “When I felt secure, I said, ‘I will never be shaken.’ O Lord, when you favored me, you made my mountain stand firm; but when you hid your face, I was dismayed.” It’s not about us; it’s about the God who raises up the fallen, and replaces weeping with rejoicing, sackcloth with clothes of joy.
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