There are some churches where the Psalms are regularly sung or said by the congregation in their public worship. Others read them as part of their Bible readings in public or private worship, while others simply use them when they are the subject of a sermon. The Psalms are the Prayer book of the Bible. They are of course, not the only prayers in Scripture, nor are they the only place to which you might turn for guidance about prayer but they are the rich heritage of a praying people and ought and used as such.
How do you use the Psalms yourself? My experience is that some of them translate quite easily into my current circumstances but others take a little more reflection and consideration before they yield up their rich treasure and become for me vehicles by which I can bring my praises and prayers before my heavenly Father.
Psalm 30 is for me such a Psalm. It effectively gives expression to the ups and downs of life; the highs and the lows which most of us experience.
One writer gives Psalm 30 a heading drawn from verse 11 of the Psalm itself, “you have turned my mourning into dancing”. He calls it a prayer of thanksgiving for deliverance: the prayer of a person whose cry for help God has answered. The introduction for the Psalm that appears in the text of most Bibles is from a heading that says something like: “Composition. Song for the dedication of the house. David’s”
That reference to “the house” has prompted some translators to refer this to the temple but, in fact, it is equally applicable to the house of an individual such as is referred to in the book of Deuteronomy. Another writer says about this designation of the Psalm that, “Its contents might seem better suited to the dedication of an individual’s house than the temple. But as individuals can use communal psalms, so communities can use individual psalms, and one can imagine thanksgiving psalms being used at the dedication of David’s temple, at the rededication after the exile, and after the desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes in 168 BC when it was subsequently retaken, cleansed and rededicated some four years later in 164.
Jewish writings link this psalm with all three of those momentous events, but it was the last of these, the dedication after the desecration by Antiochus that generated the dedication festival, Hanukkah, which means “dedication”, a festival held at the same time as Christmas in the Christian calendar. Hanukkah is the service referred to by John in Chapter 10 of his Gospel, when Jesus, in the portico of Solomon, in the Temple, spoke about his sheep hearing his voice and following him causing some people to pick up stones to stone him.
So Psalm 30 comes to us for our use after a long history of personal and community usage both in song and chant, in recitation, and in prayerful reflection. It is a worthwhile exercise to recall this long and varied use: to remember that we join a very long line of believing men and women who have used these words to give expression to their faith and their fears, their hopes and their joys in the widely varying circumstances of life, that have been part of such a long history. Let’s be mindful of the vast congregation to whom we are connected when we turn to engage with Psalm 30.
Here’s the Psalm in a contemporary translation:
I praise you, Lord, because you have saved me
and kept my enemies from gloating over me.
2 I cried to you for help, O Lord my God,
and you healed me;
3 you kept me from the grave.
I was on my way to the depths below,
but you restored my life.
4 Sing praise to the Lord,
all his faithful people!
Remember what the Holy One has done,
and give him thanks!
5 His anger lasts only a moment,
his goodness for a lifetime.
Tears may flow in the night,
but joy comes in the morning.
6 I felt secure and said to myself,
“I will never be defeated.”
7 You were good to me, Lord;
you protected me like a mountain fortress.
But then you hid yourself from me,
and I was afraid.
8 I called to you, Lord;
I begged for your help:
9 “What will you gain from my death?
What profit from my going to the grave?
Are dead people able to praise you?
Can they proclaim your unfailing goodness?
10 Hear me, Lord, and be merciful!
Help me, Lord!
11 You have changed my sadness into a joyful dance;
you have taken away my sorrow
and surrounded me with joy.
12 So I will not be silent;
I will sing praise to you.
I will give you thanks for ever.
There are a number of significant lessons to be learned from this psalm. In the first instance the psalm is a reminder that life for the child of God is not always trouble free. Perhaps you can say a hearty ‘Amen’ to that. We know what it is to experience sickness and depression; we suffer severe disappointments; we taste the bitterness of failure and the pain of broken relationships. You may also be aware of personal spiritual failure and have learned by experience the sad consequences that can flow from such failure. The psalm is a reminder that these things are not the last word about us. There is a real sense in which failure and disappointment become the instruments through which we can seek the hand of God on our lives. Our challenges provide the opportunity to call upon God in prayer. That’s what the Psalmist did. He cried to the lord for help. When we cry for help we need to exercise patience and wait for the answer. In that way, and in God’s time, we will see how he answers our prayer.
The psalmist’s experience of deliverance prompts him to testify to the goodness of God. “Sing praise to the lord all his faithful people”, he says. We are all encouraged by hearing and seeing examples of God’s activity and his answers to prayer. Consequently, it is an important and valuable thing to share appropriately with others how God has worked in our lives. It is equally important however to do this sensitively so that we encourage, and do not discourage, someone else who is passing through a difficult time.
The psalm also illustrates the most fruitful way to deal with our disappointments. For example, there is a choice of words to be made in the first verse which, on one reading, would have the psalmist saying that it was God who put him down but in spite of that did not allow his enemies to ‘gloat’ or ‘rejoice’ over his downfall. It’s good spiritual counsel to see, in the end, that all things come to us under the hand of God regardless of how contrary they may seem at the moment to our best interests. If we see all our days in God’s hands then we can do what the psalmist did, we can cry to him for mercy and assistance and look to him for deliverance. This is what it means to trust God and to see him as Lord over all.
The psalm also reminds us to be thankful and grateful for God’s blessing and help in answer to our prayers. Thanksgiving is an often overlooked aspect of our life of prayer and worship. Yet, personal and community thanksgiving is a remarkable way of strengthening our spiritual lives. Do you remember the old children’s chorus that had us sing “… count your blessings; name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the lord has done.”?
Let’s now consider a particular feature of some of the most moving prayers in the Bible. Have you ever noticed how some of the great pray-ers of the Bible argue their case with God? Moses did it. Daniel did it, and so did Jeremiah. And the Psalmist does it in this psalm. He says, “What will you gain from my death? What profit from my going to the grave? Are dead people able to praise you? Can they proclaim your unfailing goodness?” God does not seem to mind that we seek to argue a case before him presenting reasons for our requests. He is our heavenly Father and he allows his children to speak directly to him and from the heart. Samuel pleaded for Saul, and David pleaded for the life of his child. God denied these requests but their pleas were heard even if they were answered in the negative. In prayer, we can engage our heavenly Father in a sustained conversation pleading our case for whatever is on our hearts.
The closing lines of the psalm speak of the great joy the psalmist has experienced in being shown particular mercy by God. Joy is an element in our life with God and it is most obviously present when we find that he answers our requests in the way we had hoped. It may however be a sign of spiritual maturity to be really grateful, if not altogether joyful, when the answer is something other than we had hoped for. Our deepest and foremost joy is to trust God, to open our hearts to him, and to accept from his hand whatever he decrees.
As we conclude note a section of this psalm which is particularly humbling. The psalmist speaks of his firm confidence, saying to himself: “I will never be defeated”, and how that confidence was shattered when God hid himself from him. Thomas a Kempis, a much valued spiritual writer, once said, “I never found any one so religious and devout as not to experience sometimes a withdrawal of grace, or feel a lessening of spiritual fervour.” When such a situation occurs, and from whatever source it may arise, keep the words of the Psalm in mind “Tears may flow in the night but joy comes in the morning”.
So, to repeat some famous words “Never give up, never give up. Never ever give up”.