Third Sunday of Easter
May 5, 2019
Commentary on the Texts
There is no Lectionary Commentary for this reading, but
there is available a
Structure/Elements of the Psalm
Psalm 30 is a rather straightforward Psalm of Thanksgiving or todah psalm (see Thanksgiving Psalms in Patterns for Life). That is, all the traditional elements of todah are present in this psalm with only slight variation, such as introducing the call to praise early in the psalm (vv. 4-5) and then repeating it at the end. Also, it demonstrates the fairly typical variation of introducing the psalm with an element of praise. While this is obviously a psalm for individual thanksgiving, there is an invitation for the community to offer thanks and praise with the worshipper. That emphasizes the communal nature of this act of worship.
The superscription of this psalm does not really match the content of the psalm itself. The psalm presents rejoicing at deliverance after a cry for help, and really has little to do with temple dedication. Since the superscriptions were added to the psalms much later, this could be dismissed as inattentiveness on the part of the editors. However, in many places, even though the superscriptions have been added later, they provide valuable clues to how that later community thought the psalms should be used. That is, the superscriptions were comments about how or in what circumstances the psalm would be used in worship.
From this perspective, the superscription directs the worshipper to use this psalm to mark new beginnings, where the worship of God would be made public, and the joy at celebrating God would be the focus of attention. It is this sense of joyfully embracing the newness that God has made possible that lies at the heart of the psalm.
Movement of the Psalm
Following the form of a todah psalm, this psalm naturally divides into three logical divisions or movements: the introduction and summary with a call to praise (1-5), narration of the experience and deliverance (6-11), and the confession of todah, thanksgiving (11-12), with verse 11 serving as both affirmation of the deliverance and introduction to the praise.
This psalm begins typically for todah psalms with a summary testimony that quickly sketches the problem faced by the psalmist, his response in crying out to God, and God's intervention on his behalf. In doing so, the todah psalm picks up the language of lament in this section, often using the same words that would have been used by the psalmist in the original plea to God in the lament prayer.
While the problem here may have been a physical illness, from the language of verse 3 ("healed"), that is not at all certain. There are not enough details given here or later in the psalm to determine the exact cause of the problem. The language here is stereotyped and metaphorical. That is, the metaphors are not literal references to situations but are the "stock" language of prayers of lament, and therefore are also found in the todah psalms, which are the positive counterpart or result of the lament.
For example, the reference to "foes" or "enemy" is a metaphorical way to refer to any circumstance that threatens to disrupt the "orientation" or stability of life. Yet, there may be a more subtle allusion in this metaphor, a perspective sometimes expressed openly in the Psalms. Some viewed misfortune as a sign of sin, a punishment from God (cf. Job). The implication here is that misfortune would bring the derision of other people who would "rejoice" that God's justice was being carried out. Like Job, if the misfortune could not be traced to sin, the derision of others would only serve to compound the problem. The plea for vindication from these "enemies" is a common feature of lament psalms, and here the psalmist rejoices that God has provided just such vindication.
The metaphors of death are prominent in verse three. In typical Hebrew parallelism, Sheol and the Pit are paired are synonyms. In Hebrew thought, Sheol was the abode of the dead, the underworld where people went when they died. Israelites did not have a well-developed concept of an afterlife until after the Babylonian exile. Instead, they adopted metaphors for death from the cultures of surrounding people. Most of these cultures had a mythology that explained death in terms of a story about a journey that the person made underground after death. In these cultures, with the exception of Egypt, there was no concept of a "soul" that survived after death to live in another place. It was merely a way to conceptualize in story form the reality of death and burial.
The mythical stories told of an underworld ruled by gods whose task it was to find rest for the one who died. Of course, the Israelites did not accept the idea of domains of other gods. Yet, they did adopt the language and the metaphor of the underworld to speak of death. In reality, the idea of Sheol or the Pit, simply became a poetic metaphor for the grave and burial. To "go down to Sheol" was simply to die and be buried. The term "soul" that appears in some translations of verse 3 is the Hebrew word nephesh, which in this context simply means person or life.
But even this picture is not quite as straightforward as it sounds. In our more scientific way of thinking, death is a biological function that can be marked at a certain point in time. Yet, in the Israelite thought world, death was a much more extensive concept than biology. Of course, they knew enough to know that when a person stopped breathing, they died. Yet, their conception of death and life extended much more broadly.
Life, far more than simply a biological function, encompassed well-being, happiness, vitality, all the activities that define human existence. Death, then, was any diminishment of that vitality. Sickness, for example, was a form of death, because it diminished the vitality of life, and in a very real sense, was a beginning of death. That was far closer to reality in the ancient world with little medical knowledge and fewer cures than it is in ours.
That is not to say that the psalmist was not facing physical death; only that "death" could refer to a much wider set of problems or situations than just physical death. Therefore the "healing" could also be a stereotypical way of affirming God's intervention in the crisis on any level. These images of death provide the metaphorical and emotional contrast for God's actions with the verbs "heal," "bring up," and "make alive." The prayer focuses three times in these three verses on God who has delivered the psalmist from the crisis. The Psalmist has prayed for help, and now rejoices that God has heard and answered.
As mentioned, the plural call in verse 4 to "sing praises" (the verbal form of the Hebrew noun translated "psalm") and "give thanks" (the verbal form of the Hebrew noun todah; see Thanksgiving or Todah Psalms in Patterns for Life) places this prayer firmly in the context of communal worship. This is not a private prayer intended for personal rejoicing; it is intended as testimony to the community of God's grace experienced in the life of the psalmist.
The affirmation of verse 4 is a common funeral text. On one level, it might seem incongruous to use a prayer of thanksgiving at such a time. But there is more logic to this move than it might first appear, if the flow and intent of the psalm is understood at this point. The psalmist has interrupted recounting his past desperate situation with a joyful expression of testimony of his deliverance, inviting the entire community to share that joy. In that context, verse 5 is not a promise that this will always be the case, or a statement about how things always are. It is the same continuing testimony of the Psalmist, that where there once was death now there is life, where once there was weeping now there is joy, where once there was night now there is morning. His experience allows him to declare praise to God because of a newness brought by God.
It is that testimony from others of how God has worked in their lives to bring new life that often allows us to deal with the realities of our own life when we cannot see beyond the death of our circumstances. This makes this a totally fitting funeral text as we declare to those who are grieving, not promises of what God will or will not do, but the testimony of others who have walked in the darkness of that night, and yet have found a dawn of God's grace.
The second section of this todah prayer returns to the Psalmist's recounting of his experience. Verses 6-7 reveal clearly the sequence that Walter Brueggemann has used to characterize the theological flow of the Psalms in the Psalter: orientation, disorientation, reorientation (see The Dynamic of Faith: Life Journeys in the Psalms in the article Patterns for Life). The Psalmist was secure in his life and adopted the attitude that nothing would change. There is even the hint (v.7) that while he attributed his success to God, he may also have overlaid his prosperity with a theology that God would make sure that nothing happened to him. This would mean that whatever experience he went through that shook that confidence also raised a profound theological crisis.
The absence of God, or at least the emotional experience of the absence of God, is as profound a crisis as is ever addressed in Scripture. Samuel Terrien has pointed out that our experience of God is often the tension inherent in an "elusive presence." In many ways, the sense of God's silence or absence is all the more profound for people who have trusted God completely, and genuinely confessed him as God. Against the background of that relationship, silence and absence is unbearable. Here, there is no point in attempting fine theological distinctions that God was not really absent, or that he was not really silent. The dismay, the sense of loss, and the feeling of being alone in the world will not be solved by such theological points. This is an emotional crisis that will not yield to theology. It will only yield to a new sense of God's presence.
The apparent "bargaining" with God in verse 9 seems out of place to us. And yet motives presented for God to deliver are a common feature of the psalms. Here, this picks up the understanding that proclamation of the goodness of God is one of the primary reasons for God creating a people. There is no sense here of the later ideas about God imported from Greek philosophy in which human beings are insignificant to God, and that God does not need humanity. Here, there is the simple relationship between God and his people whom he has brought into being for a specific purpose in the world: to bear witness to who God is. The motive here is that if God had allowed the psalmist to die, He would have been defeating his own purpose in the world. This is really a way for the psalmist to confess who he is in relation to God. The entire psalm itself is a fulfillment of what he understands his role to be as one who would "tell of your faithfulness."
The final section of the psalm again breaks into the pure joy that comes from this new experience of God. The contrast of the cry of verse 10 with the unrestrained joy of verse 11 underscores the total reversal of the circumstances. As unbearable as the absence of God had been, the new encounter of God's presence evokes as much more joy.
Again, we do not have details about what the problem was, so we do not know what the deliverance entailed. It really does not matter. The fact of this new experience of God is at the heart of the psalm. Life has changed because of this encounter with God! In fact, it is this very ambiguity that allows such psalms to become prayers of the people. While the language is Hebrew, the metaphors are arcane, and the thought world is ancient, the experience is one shared by people across millennia of history. It is that sense of shared crisis that allows us to empathize with the psalmist. It is his testimony from that shared experience that allows this psalm to bear testimony across the years to a God who hears the cries of his people, and reverses the death, the endings of our lives into new beginnings, into new life.
As a reading for the third Sunday of Easter, this psalm carries tremendous opportunities to refocus on the real life results of Resurrection Faith. We have told the story in terms of the fact of Jesus' Resurrection as an event in history that becomes the defining moment for the Christian faith. And yet, in this psalm from the testimony of one who never even conceived of that event, we find the same resurrection faith forged from his own bitter experience. We must not read Christian perspectives into this psalm, nor should we too easily speak of the Resurrection in preaching this psalm. And yet there is a reality about God here that is only confirmed in yet another way at the resurrection.
This psalm proclaims that endings are not as final as we sometimes think they are. It does not deny the reality of the darkness. It does not deny the experience of the absence of God. And it does not deny the dismay of finding that our beliefs do not always stand up to the realities of life. But it affirms that out of that grievous experience of death can emerge a new joy, a new hope, a new future, and a new confirmation of what it is to be the people of God.
It proclaims that God is faithful in the lives of his people. This is no prosperity message. It is a message that refuses to be perverted into glib assertions of triumph. The images in the psalm are far too realistic and somber for that. Yet, the experience of being drawn out of the Pit and restored to life are an affirmation that faith matters and that God cares, and that those two factors together can lead to new joy. It is one thing to affirm all the right theology; it is another to go through the darkness to find a new dawn!
One of the most profitable Preaching Paths here is to focus on the function and importance of retelling the story of God's grace as it works out in the real life experiences of people. The entire thrust of this psalm is toward recounting to others the experience of God in the midst of crisis. "Tell me the old, old story" is more than the words of a Gospel song; it is an expression of a fundamental truth about being God's people in the world. From the piles of stones on the banks of the Jordan river that evoked occasions for future generations to ask about the story, to the excited exclamation of Mary "I have seen the Lord!," the story of God's work in the lives of people and in the community of his people is at the heart of biblical faith.
Even when the crises of life prevent people from affirming the most basic affirmations about God, there is a validity to this kind of testimony that cannot be easily dismissed. Here is the value of the testimonies of the older "saints" of a local congregation. When we hear a 90 year old tell of all the struggles of life that she has gone through, and then in an age weakened voice that is strong in conviction recount the faithfulness of God throughout her life, we must listen. When we hear a grandfather quietly affirm his faith and the faithfulness of God over the years, and yet we know the son that was killed tragically, the daughter who died a horrible death of cancer, the wife who sits in a nursing center and does not even recognize who he is, the physical infirmities that he must endure each day, we know that we have heard the Gospel proclaimed! It is the faith and joy of one who has walked his entire life in darkness, who cannot sort out all the details of his encounter with God, but who can tell the story of that encounter and how it changed his life: "I once was blind, but now I can see!"
Personal testimony cannot replace well thought out theology and biblical study, and should not. Yet, there is a power in personal recounting of life changing encounter with God in the context of communal worship that will confirm the best theology. And this recounting of the story becomes another expression of the mission of the people of God in the world and of the mission of the post-Easter church.
This Sunday in the Church Year
Color this Sunday:
White/Gold or Red
Reading also used:
Epiphany 6, Year