For my weekly quiet time today, I will blog about Psalm 30 and its interpreters. I have three points:
1. The Psalm is about God delivering the Psalmist from death. There are different ideas about the setting of this Psalm. Christian preacher Jon Courson interpreted the Psalm in light of the events in II Samuel 6: David is celebrating God, but he is proud when he marches the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem on a cart, in violation of God’s command that certain Levites carry it using the Ark’s poles. David is then humbled and saddened after Uzzah touches the Ark and dies. But there is joy in the morning, and David dances before the LORD, to the consternation of his wife, Michal. The Psalm talks about the Psalmist boldly declaring that he shall never be moved, which many interpret as pride, as well as the Psalmist putting off his sackcloth and dancing before the LORD.
Others have maintained that the Psalm has been used for Hanukkah, and that it was utilized as far back as the re-dedication of the Temple in 164 B.C.E. Nowadays, it is used on Hanukkah, which is not surprising, considering that the superscription has the word, which means “dedication.” The Babylonian Talmud relates the Psalm to Hanukkah, and the medieval Midrash on the Psalms applies the Psalm to events in 164 B.C.E. But Jews also use the Psalm in daily services, Sabbath services, and services on festival mornings. Psalm 30 contains ideas that can apply to any day of the year: God’s deliverance of people from death and sadness, and God’s holy ones singing to God and remembering his holiness. It is understandable, therefore, that Jewish interpreters have posited other reference-points for Psalm 30. Rashi, for example, states that the rabbis believe that Psalm 30 refers to Esther and Mordecai.
Others have proposed alternative historical reference-points. As he does with other Psalms, the fourth century Antiochian Christian exegete Theodore of Mopsuestia prefers the deliverance of Jerusalem under Sennacherib as the reference-point for Psalm 30. According to Theodore, David the Psalmist is foreseeing that Hezekiah will become proud after God delivers Jerusalem (II Chronicles 32:23), and so God will humble Hezekiah with sickness. But God will deliver Hezekiah from his disease and from death.
The superscription affirms that Psalm 30 is a song of dedication of the house of David. Does this mean the dedication of the Temple? Many would say “no” because David did not build the Temple, but others would point out that, according to I Chronicles, David dedicated the Temple in all but name! E.W. Bullinger argues that Psalm 30 concerns David’s dedication of his own house, not the Temple, for Deuteronomy 20:5 refers to the dedication of houses, which shows that other places besides the Temple could be dedicated. In this scenario, perhaps David was celebrating God’s goodness in bringing him to the point where he could live in a house, or palace.
Peter Craigie locates the Psalm in the cult, as he speculates that Psalm 30:11 concerns a ceremony of taking off sackcloth. But Craigie acknowledges that there isn’t much about the cult in this particular Psalm: there is nothing about sacrifices or the payment of vows (cp. Psalm 66:13-14), or a banquet (Psalm 22:27). At the same time, the Psalm does appear to acknowledge the presence of fellow worshipers (Psalm 30:4). Is Psalm 30 an exilic or post-exilic Psalm, which was used by small assemblies of Jewish worshipers?
2. The Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary had some good items. You have probably heard people say that hell is a state of mind on earth—that we create our own hell. Traditional Judaism certainly acknowledges that Gehinnom is a place where many people go after their death, but there is also a notion that one can experience hell in this life. The Babylonian Talmud, in Nedarim 22a, affirms that those who are angry are subjected to all kinds of Gehinnom. The Artscroll concludes from this: “The flames of frustration, anguish, and melancholy are the equivalent of the fires of Gehinnom. Throughout the Book of Psalms, most references to ‘falling into the lower world’ refer to this type of emotional inferno.”
This reminds me of how C.S. Lewis portrays hell: as a place where stinkin’ thinkin’ basically takes a person over! Personally, I don’t worship a God who kicks people when they are down, just because they have a problem with resentment, or unforgiveness, or a generally bad attitude. I worship a God whose love is bigger than any resentment we may have, and who offers us hope. Speaking for myself, I do not know if I will ever be free of resentment, or depression, or worry—and I take refuge in the notion that God loves me, even when I have those things. But I will be thankful to God for the times when I do have a sound mind—when those things do not dominate me. And I would like to think that God’s compassion extends even to people in hell—assuming that C.S. Lewis’ portrayal is the correct one—and that there is hope that even they can be delivered from their own personal torments.
Another item in the Artscroll that interested me was its comment on Psalm 30:9, where the Psalmist tries to convince God to save his life by saying that he cannot praise God and declare God’s truth when he is dead. Many historical-critics argues that verses like these show that the Psalmist did not have a rigorous conception of the afterlife, for, if the Psalmist did have such a conception, he would recognize that death was no barrier to his praise of God. The Artscroll acknowledges that the soul continues to exist in an afterlife, but it maintains that the Psalmist’s concern is still valid, for, even if the Psalmist’s soul survives his death, he cannot spread the knowledge of God among human beings when he is deceased! That reminds me somewhat of Paul’s statement in Philippians 1:21 that to live is Christ but to die is gain: Paul’s point is that he desires to be with Christ after his death, but that he can still do a lot of good on earth while he is still alive.
3. In Psalm 30:6-7, the Psalmist declares that, in his prosperity, he thought that he would never be moved. The Psalmist believes that God was the source of his prosperity, for God, by God’s favor, made the Psalmist into a strong mountain. But the Psalmist was devastated when God hid his face, and suffering resulted. Many interpreters contend that the Psalmist was proud, and God humbled him. Maybe that’s what Psalm 30 is about. But perhaps the Psalmist was not proud in his prosperity. I’ve been watching Little House on the Prairie, and I’m in Season 4 right now. On a couple of episodes, there is a particular plot-line: a farmer is thanking God for his harvest, and, soon thereafter, a disaster causes the farmer to lose his crop. You’d think that thanking God would influence God to keep disaster from hitting God’s blessings, but, in these particular episodes, it does not.
Different people on Little House have their explanations for the disasters. Caroline Ingalls says that perhaps God is testing her husband to see if he deserves God’s love. (I find this notion appalling, for why should I assume that God’s love is something that should be deserved? It just is.) The pastor tells his congregation that God may not insulate them from problems, but God promises to be with them through the problems and to give them strength. Whether these explanations are adequate or not probably depends on if they give comfort to the person who is suffering.
I’m also reminded of Brian Peckham’s view on Joel in History and Prophecy. Peckham states that Joel did not believe that the Babylonian conquest of Judah was God’s punishment for Judah’s sin. Rather, Joel blamed the Babylonians for the catastrophe, not God. But Joel still encouraged the Judahites to ask God for deliverance from their problems. Many are tempted to think that the existence of problems shows that God is inactive in the world, if God even exists at all, and so there is no point to asking God to intervene in a situation. But, in my opinion, it doesn’t hurt to try.