From Learning to Love the Psalms
The title of Psalm 30 attributes the psalm to David and tells us that it was written for “the dedication of the temple.” Perhaps David, who was not permitted to build the temple himself, was looking forward to that future building of the temple and its meaning for God’s people. Yet, when we look at the psalm, we find no mention of the temple and no obvious connection to its dedication. Psalm 29, with its statement, “And in his temple all cry, “Glory!” (v. 9), might seem more appropriate for such an occasion. More appropriate still would be Psalm 68 with its picture of a procession into the temple: “Your procession is seen, O God, the procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary,” (v. 24). But if we remember that Book One of the Psalter focuses more on the personal than on the royal or communal, Psalm 30 may be giving us what the new temple in Jerusalem meant to the king and to individual Israelites. Just as Psalm 92, titled, “For the Sabbath day,” has no explicit reference to the Sabbath yet is most appropriate for the Sabbath, so we will see that the very personal quality of Psalm 30 is most appropriate for the dedication of the temple.
This remarkably beautiful psalm is a song of praise for affliction and for rescue. David sings God’s praise while looking back on a time of spiritual crisis in his life. The crisis came not in a time of external opposition and difficulty but in a time of success: “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved,’” (v. 6). At some high point in his reign, David came to think of his state as secure and unchanging and as the result of his own work. David had certainly experienced moments of great success: “And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him,” (2 Samuel 5:10). All his success clearly came from God: “And David knew that the Lord had established him king over Israel, and that he had exalted his kingdom for the sake of his people Israel,” (5:12), and “The Lord gave victory to David wherever he went,” (8:14). But Psalm 30 reflects on a time when David had forgotten that all he had was from the Lord. He had come to believe that his prosperity – that is, his ease or quiet, the tranquility of his life and kingdom – belonged to him by right and would never change. His security could not be moved; it could not totter and fall.
The Lord did not allow David to continue in his pride. As God had raised him up, so he could put him down, (v. 7). God brought great problems into David’s life. David was afflicted with enemies who gloated over him (perhaps at the time of Absalom’s revolt), with sickness, with nearly dying. These woes were to remind him that he was being consumed by pride and forgetting his God.
In his afflictions, David remembers the Lord, and in his distress he cries out for help. His praise recalls the intensity of his prayers, remembering that the Lord is his helper, that the Lord is the only source of mercy, rescue, and life, (vv. 2-3, 8-10). His prayers are not dry and formal but are intense and heartfelt. They express the greatness of his need and his recognition that only the Lord can help. David expresses his dismay when God hides his face from him, (v. 7). to be apart from the face of God is death: “When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust,” (Psalm 104:29). He knows that the face of God brings blessing, as God taught Israel through the blessing pronounced by Aaron: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his face upon you and give you peace,” (Numbers 6:24-26). He comes to know that only God can give him a kingdom that cannot be shaken, (Hebrews 12:28).
In his prayers, David shows us that he does not just pretend his request to God. He also reasons with God in his prayers. He explains to God why he ought to grant his quest, (e.g., v. 9). The discipline of reasoning with God in prayer is important for us. Of course, it is not that God would not otherwise think of the reasons we offer to him. Rather, reasoning with God forces us to think through why we are making our requests to God. Are our requests just selfish or are they really for the glory of God as well as for our good? God has promised to hear our prayers and to answer them to extend his kingdom. So, we must pray with the good of his kingdom as our first concern.
One of the reasons offered by David in this psalm raises a question that applies to several psalms: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” (v. 9) Psalm 115:17 uses a similar expression: “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down into silence.” These expressions have led some to claim that there is no sense of everlasting life in the Old Testament. We have already seen in our consideration of Psalm 21:4, however, that the psalms do indeed have an expectation of life beyond the grave. So what does it mean that the dead do not praise God? To answer that question, we have to keep in mind God’s purpose in creation and redemption. God created the Earth for man as his home and the sphere of his work. Sin brought frustration and death and the need for redemption into the world. But sin did not change the fact that man had been created to enjoy everlasting life on the Earth. The New Testament vision of the future life is not of a purely spiritual existence in Heaven. Indeed, the New Testament makes clear that the life of the soul in Heaven is just a temporary state in which there is a continuing sense of incompleteness: “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the Earth?’” (Revelation 6:9-10) In the fullest sense, Christians do not look forward to Heaven (although it is a wonderful waiting place!); they look forward to the resurrection of the body and a new Earth in which the original purpose of God for man will be realized. When Jesus said, “My kingdom is not from the world,” (John 18:36), he did not mean that it was only a spiritual kingdom. He meant that it was not a kingdom of this present world with corrupt priests and pagan soldiers. His kingdom will be realized in the new world that he will make when he returns in glory.
In the Old Testament, Israel with its land and the house of God was a symbol of that new Earth where God would dwell forever in the midst of his redeemed people. To lose the land and the house of God was the most bitter loss that the Israelites could suffer. Therefore, a part of the great regret of the dying was that they could no longer join in the wonderful praise of God with his people in worship at the temple.
Some Christians today seem to forget that death is not simply the happy entrance to Heaven but also the last enemy that seems to frustrate the plan of God to give the Earth to man, (“For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” (1 Corinthians 15:25-26)). Only when our bodies are raised will redemption be complete: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies,” (Romans 8:22-23). The resurrection of Christ, of course, also points us to the importance of the body and of creation. So the psalms properly express the sense that Earth is our proper home and death takes us away for a time from the place where we belong and where we most properly praise God.
The theme of resurrection is powerfully present in this psalm. It begins with praise to God for “you have drawn me up,” (v. 1). The verb here, “draw up,” is used of water being drawn from a well. This resurrection can refer to a variety of things. It can refer to the grave, as it does at least in part here, (v. 3). But it may refer to other sufferings than just death. Here, it would seem to include the psalmist’s severe illness and the gloating of his enemies at his trouble.
An interesting parallel to Psalm 30 is found at the beginning of Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!” Psalm 130 is one of the songs of ascents that pilgrims apparently sang on their way up to Jerusalem and to the temple. The ascent to the temple symbolized their rescue by God from the depths of need in which they found themselves. So, the praise of David in Psalm 30 for being lifted up out of the depths is a theme appropriate to the temple and its dedication. It expresses the purpose of the temple in the lives of God’s people. The temple is where the people gather to praise God for delivering them, (vv. 1-5, 11-12). It is the place where they express their needs to God in prayer, (vv. 8-10). It is the place where God displays his mercy and forgiveness to them in the sacrifices offered there, (v. 10). It is the place where they meet with God to hear his blessing through his priests.
The very personal experiences of David recorded here in Psalm 30 are meant to lead Israel to faith, praise, and prayer. David explicitly calls on all the saints to sing it with him, (v. 4). The saints are to thank and praise God for deliverance just as David has. This praise of the community to the life-giving God is surely most appropriate for the dedication of the temple.
Finally, we should pause to appreciate a key attraction of the Psalter that we have rather neglected to this point. The Psalter is full of beautiful, arresting poetic expressions of God’s truth. We have a fine example of that here in Psalm 30: “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning,” (v. 5). The truth contained in these words is very simple and a common teaching of the Bible. We can find parallel sentiments and several places, (e.g., Psalm 126:6, John 16:20-22, 2 Corinthians 4:17). But the poetry of these words carries the truth home with particular power. It also directs our minds to the resurrection of Jesus. We must never rush through the psalms but learn to pause, ponder, and meditate on them so that their poetic beauty and profound truths will penetrate deeply into our hearts. Meditation in the Hebrew language is muttering – repeating the words over in our minds and with our mouths. As we consider the great promise of these words, turning to them again and again, we will find more and more encouragement.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- How does Psalm 30 point to the meaning of the new temple in Jerusalem for the king and for individual Israelites?
- What kind of prideful problems existed in David’s life? How did this distress intensify his prayers? How did David reason with God in his prayers? Give an example of when you reasoned with God in your prayers.
- How is the theme of resurrection present in this psalm? What are some examples of arresting poetic expressions of God’s truth in this psalm? Why is it that such poetic beauty penetrates deeply into our hearts, unlike other forms of writing?