A Reflection on Psalm 30
How do I find joy in the midst of suffering? Where do I see God present in the midst of difficulties, whether illness or death or difficult moments of life? Little slogans like “when life gives you lemons make lemonade” simply don’t work. It puts the onus on the individual, and if you can’t overcome on your own your difficulties, then surely there’s something wrong with you. Wasn’t that the message of Job’s friends? But then, thinking of Job, did Job find joy in the midst of his suffering? Such questions need to be kept in mind as we reflect on this Psalm that the lectionary has chosen for this Sixth Sunday of Epiphany.
Psalm 30 appears to have been written for the dedication of a Temple, to celebrate the victory of God, who provides the opportunity to build an altar where thanksgiving can be offered. Israel’s history was one full of death and resurrection. Three Temples were either built or rededicated -- Solomon’s, the Post-Exilic Temple, and the same Temple rededicated after the Maccabean revolt, which reclaimed the Temple after its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes. It is a Psalm of Thanksgiving that reflects recognition of having emerged from difficult times. It also invites us to give thanks for being restored from illness.
This Psalm is a beautiful and powerful Psalm, but it’s also a challenge to us. It is an invitation to find one’s hope in God, but it can easily be taken as a simplistic suggestion that don’t worry, be happy, because God will take care of everything. We know that life is much more complex than that.
As we read this passage, verse 6 stands out to me:
When I was comfortable, I said, “I will never stumble.”
Because it pleased you, LORD, you made me a strong mountain.
But when you hid your presence, I was terrified. (Ps. 30:6 CEB)
The first sentence, suggests to me a sense of overconfidence that comes upon us during good times. “When I was comfortable,” when I’m prosperous, I declare “I will never stumble.” It’s difficult to imagine difficult times when everything is going well. But, how easy it is, during such moments to begin to think – I did this. I’m okay, because I’ve worked hard. The Psalmist, however, wants to remind us to be careful about such self-confidence – it was the LORD who had has made me a strong mountain.
The last phrase carries this message much deeper. The Psalmist declares: “when you hid your presence, I was terrified.” This translation seems to grab me more than either the NIV or NSRV, which use the word dismay. I’m dismayed when a friend I hoped was coming to a party doesn’t show up, but that’s different from being terrified that God might not be present, that God isn’t looking out for us. As I hear this word in this context, I can imagine a person finding themselves discovering that they have over extended themselves, looked down, and see that the bridge is out and they are standing a thousand feet in the air with nothing to catch them. That’s not just mere dismay – that’s terror. When you realize that your security blanket has been ripped out from around you, you realize that you cannot depend on your own devices, there is great terror. But, the Psalmist doesn’t leave us in that position. We may have discovered that we can no longer trust in our own devices, but the Psalmist gives us words to cry out to God, begging for mercy, reminding God that there’s nothing gained from spilled blood or from ending in Sheol. Dust can’t offer thanks or proclaim God’s faithfulness – so have mercy on me.
As the Psalm comes to a close in verses 11-12, the passage that caught my eye as I was looking at the lectionary and deciding what to preach. “You changed my mourning into dancing.” What a powerful image. I was grieving, living in despair, and then God turned it all around I end up dancing for joy. From funeral clothing (sack cloth) to festive clothing. How do we move from one to the other? What is the requirement? Is emphasizing finding joy in the midst of difficult times making light of such realities?
J. Clinton McCann, in his commentary on the Psalms, writes:
In short, suffering need not be an indication of the absence of God for those who take refuge in God (Ps. 2:12). The existence of suffering does not negate the good news that life is a gift from God.”
The point is not that we ignore suffering or that we might be completely freed of physical suffering/sickness, but that we can be aware of God’s presence in all aspects of life, and “this awareness engenders thanks, praise, and dancing” (New Interpreter's Bible: 1 & 2 Maccabees, Job, Psalms (Volume 4), 797).
Can we find joy in life, even if things don't get sorted out how we wish? That is, do we wait for healing on our own terms, or are we able to find hope in the midst of difficult times? Job gets most of what he'd lost back -- different children to replace the ones he lost. But what if that doesn't happen for us? Is it possible to move from mourning to dancing in that case?