Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 30

Psalm 30

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsr (vv. 9-13 [8-12])

This is a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from death (possibly due to an illness), and thus has a setting similar to several other Psalms we have examined thus far (e.g., the opening portion of Ps 28, and see especially the earlier study on Ps 6). The poetry of this composition has been particularly admired by commentators. Its meter is irregular, with a 4-beat (4+4) couplet tending to dominate; there are also 4+3 and 3+3 couplets, and at least one 2-beat tricolon. The lines thus tend to be ‘heavier’ (longer) allowing for more detailed imagery and a richer mode of expression.

The superscription marks this Psalm as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”. It also adds the detail that it is (to be) used for the “dedication of the house” (ty]B^h^ tK^n%j&)—that is, the celebration of the rededication (or consecration) of the Temple, better known as the festival of Hanukkah (transliteration of the noun hK*n%j&). This may be an indication of the relative date of the superscriptions (i.e. after 165 B.C.), long after most of the Psalms themselves had been composed. The reason why this particular Psalm would have been applied to the occasion of the Temple-dedication festival is not at all clear.

Verses 2-4 [1-3]

In the opening stanzas, the Psalmist sings out to God in praise for his deliverance.

Verse 2 [1]

“I will raise you (high), YHWH, for you drew me out,
and did not (let) my enemies take delight from me.”

There is a parallel built into the opening line that is easily obscured in translation. The Psalmist says that he will “raise” God up high (through his praise); this is in response to YHWH lifting him up. The latter verb (hl*D*) specifically refers to drawing up water, lifting it up out of a (deep) well; it is a proper symbol for God delivering the Psalmist out of the “pit” of suffering and death.

As is often the case in these Psalms, the attitude of the Psalmist’s enemies and adversaries plays a role in how and why the protagonist prays to God as he does. It is not always clear whether these nameless enemies are to be taken as real or imagined, actual persons or literary and proverbial figures. Generally, those Psalms which evince a stronger royal background are more likely to refer to actual adversaries; on the whole, they appear to be generalized figures, representing the wicked in contrast to the righteous (i.e., the Psalmist). The Psalmist’s enemies naturally would take delight in his suffering, even as the wicked may do, in various ways, toward the righteous.

Verse 3 [2]

“YHWH, my Mighty (One),
I called to you for help
and you have healed me.”

The meter of this verse can be discerned roughly as 2+2+2, or a 2-beat tricolon (compared with the 4+3 couplet of verse 2 [1]). It summarizes the situation of the Psalm:

    • Line 1: He calls out (in praise) to YHWH, his God (lit. “Mightiest [One]” = “Mighty [One]”)
    • Line 2: In his suffering he had previously called to God for help (vb uw~v*)
    • Line 3: God responded to that prayer and healed him (vb ap^r*), making him whole again
Verse 4 [3]

“YHWH, you made my soul come up from She’ol,
you gave me life (in) my going down (to the) Pit!”

The meter of this couplet (4+3) generally matches that of verse 2 [1] (above). It builds upon the idea expressed in the last line of the tricolon in verse 3 [2]—of how God responded to the Psalmist’s prayer and healed him, presumably from an illness that had left him at the point of death. His soul was on its way down to the realm of death (and the dead), called here by the noun loav= (š®°ôl, cf. the earlier note on the meaning and background of “Sheol”) as well as roB (“pit”). The “pit” is equivalent to the deep place from which the Psalmist was lifted up, like water from a well (in the first line of v. 2 [1], cf. above).

The preformative mem [m] of the Masoretic yd!r=Y`m! (qere yd@r=oYm!) is problematic. Dahood (p. 182) suggests that it should be regarded as an enclitic mem [<] and attached to the previous word. Along these lines, it may be that the MT kethib yd!r=y` is correct, read as a form of the singular participle, i.e. “(in) my going down”. The sense of the line is that YHWH gave life to the Psalmist as he was going down to the Pit.

Verses 5-8 [4-7]

The next section of the Psalm addresses the power YHWH has over life and death. It is right and proper to trust that He will act to bring (and restore) life to those who are faithful to Him.

Verse 5 [4]

“Sing to YHWH, (you) His good (and loyal one)s,
and throw (praise) to (the) remembrance of His holiness!”

This 3-beat  (3+3) couplet is somewhat difficult to translate literally in English; a certain awkwardness is the result, with the rhythm of the lines better captured as follows:

“Sing to YHWH, (you) His loyal (one)s,
and throw (praise), remembering His holiness!”

The adjective dys!j* (related to the noun ds#j#) has the fundamental meaning “good, kind”, but in the context of the covenant-bond often connotes faithfulness and loyalty. Those who are faithful/loyal to YHWH will praise Him for His own goodness and faithfulness. Beyond this, there is the religious context of recognizing what sets YHWH apart from all others, as Israel’s God and the true Creator and Deity over all. This is expressed by the idiom “remember(ing) His holiness [vd#q)]”, which we might paraphrase as “recognizing that He is the Holy One”.

Verse 6 [5]

“For (there is) violence in His anger, (but) life in His pleasure;
at (the) setting (sun) weeping lodges, but at (day)break a cry (of joy).”

This is the first of several long 4-beat (4+4) couplets, tense and full of rich imagery. The contrast is between God’s harsh/violent anger and the grace/mercy he shows to the faithful ones. Even those loyal to YHWH may experience something of His anger—like the protagonist of the Psalm in his suffering and illness—but this does not affect the life that ultimately comes to them in the end.

The parallelism of the first line requires that the noun ug^r# is to be related to <yY]j^ (“life, living”). The problem is that there appear to be several different roots ugr; the noun ug^r# is typically thought to denote a short space of time, something which happens quickly (the sense of ugr I being “act quickly”). However, in a passage such as Job 26:12, ug^r* clearly refers to a violent act, something which is both harsh and decisive, and this appears to be the connotation of ugr here (whether or not ug^r# is the correct vocalization). The noun [a^ literally means “nose, nostril(s)” but is a regular Semitic idiom for anger, presumably drawn from the image of an angry, snorting bull, etc. I have translated it above in the more abstract sense of “anger” so as better to highlight the parallel with God’s /oxr* (“delight, pleasure, favor”).

The comparative contrast between sunset/sunrise and weeping/crying-with-joy is both natural and poignant. It expresses a message of hope and trust that is virtually universal to religious experience among human beings. Even if one has to endure a “night” of suffering, there will be a time of deliverance and release in the “morning”.

Verses 7 [6]

“And I said, in my tranqil (security),
‘I shall not slide for (the) distant (future)!'”

The sense of this couplet is not entirely clear. Presumably, it expresses the idea that the Psalmist’s trust in his own security (given to him by God) was misplaced. That is to say, just because he lived in faithfulness to YHWH, with the security and protection that brings, it did not mean that he would never experience suffering. This issue of the ‘suffering of the righteous’ has a long history in religious thought, being found frequently in ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature; it is, of course, the subject of the great discourse-drama in the book of Job. The Niphal (passive/reflexive) form of the verb fom connotes being “made to slip/slide”; the (misplaced) confidence expressed by the Psalmist can be accurately paraphrased as “nothing will ever make me slip” (i.e. slip from this peaceful and secure life).

Verse 8 [7]

“YHWH, by your pleasure you made me stand for [i.e. like] a strong mountain;
(but) you hid your face (from me), and I was (suddenly) disturbed.”

The illness experienced by the Psalmist is presented as something that came upon him suddenly and quite unexpectedly. Yet now he realizes (and acknowledges) it is a simple fact of the sovereign power of YHWH; all He has to do is turn away His “face”, even for a moment (and for whatever reason or purpose), and suffering is the result. This may happen even to the righteous. As long as the protagonist experiences the pleasure and favor of God, he stands firm and strong like a mountain. The prefixed l= preposition is correctly read here as a lamed of comparison (lamed comparativum, Dahood, p. 183). Dahood also suggests that the verb form T*r=T^s=h! is of a t-infixed (i.e. Hishtaphel) stem of the root rWs (“turn [away]”), rather than a Hiphil form of the root rt^s* (“hide”). The basic meaning would not be too different in either case.

Verses 9-13 [8-12]

In the third (and final) section of the Psalm, the focus reverts to that of the first section (cf. above). Now, instead of addressing YHWH with praise and thanksgiving, the Psalmist prays for future deliverance—that is, to be delivered from any similar (life-threatening) illness and suffering in the future.

Verse 9 [8]

“(It is) to you, YHWH, (that) I call,
and to (you), my Lord, do I ask for favor.”

Here the prayer (vb ar^q*, “call [to]”) is petitionary, with a request that God show favor (lj@) to him (by answering the petition); the verb /n~j* here has the sense of “ask for favor”.

Verse 10 [9]

“What (is) bit off by my tears, in my going down (to) destruction?
Shall (the) dust throw (praise), shall it put your firmness up front?”

This is another instance of a long (4+4) couplet that is packed tight with imagery. In the first line, the idea is that nothing is to be gained by the sorrow and suffering of the Psalmist (i.e. the righteous) if it ends in death. The root ugb denotes “cut off, cut out”, but it can be used figuratively for unjust (or ill-gotten) gain; a comparable idiom in English might be “bite off”, “take a bite”. I follow Dahood (p. 183) in reading ym!D* as derived from <md II (“weep”), rather than the noun <D^ (“blood”). The idea of weeping (i.e. “tears”) better fits the context here (cp. Psalm 4:5). The rhetorical question of lament in the second line is similar to that in Psalm 6:6 [5], to the effect that the dead are no longer able to give praise to God. The noun tm#a# is best understood in the fundamental sense of “firmness” (i.e. faithfulness); to put the faithfulness of YHWH “up front” or “out front” (the basic sense of dgn) means to declare or make it known to others.

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

“Hear (me), YHWH, and show me favor!
YHWH, may you be (One) giving help to me!
(May) you turn my wailing over to whirling for me,
open my loose (garment) and bind me (with clothes) of joy!”

The initial 3+3 couplet, expressing again the Psalmist’s desire to experience God’s favor in the future (by keeping from another bout of severe illness and suffering). The second couplet is yet another long 4-beat (4+4) bicolon, the imagery of which can be difficult to render clearly in English. To begin with, we have the perfect forms of the principal verbs. As the context involves a prayer for future deliverance, it is perhaps best to read these as precative perfects—expressing a wish for what will (or should) happen as though it is something that has already occurred. Unfortunately, this is rather difficult to convey in English syntax, i.e. “O, that you would have turned…”, which is admittedly awkward. The simple translation as a wish, “(May) you turn…”, etc, is perhaps the best solution.
Note: the Qumran manuscript 4QPsr reads the verb forms in verse 11 [10] also as (precative) perfects.

The contrast in the second couplet is between mourning and joyful celebration. The idea of mourning is obviously conveyed by the verbal noun dP@s=m! (“wailing”), but also by the loose/coarse garment (qc^, i.e. ‘sackcloth’) which is worn as a sign of mourning. By contrast, the prayer is that God would turn “wailing” into “whirling” (a similar verbal noun lojm*),  that is, dancing around joyously. In a comparable way, the loose mourning garments are to be replaced by tight-fitting clothes of joy.

Verse 13 [12]

“In response, my inner (parts) will make music to you,
and will not be silent, YHWH, my Mighty (One)—
into (the) distant (future) I will throw (praise) to you!”

The Psalm closes with a tricolon of irregular meter, in which a dual promise of (future) praise to YHWH (lines 1 and 3) bracket a central declaration regarding YHWH as the Psalmist’s God (“Mightiest [One]” = “Mighty [One]”). Such a theological confession may seem obvious, but it was central to the ancient covenant-bond established between YHWH and Israel as His people. YHWH is identified as the true “Mighty One” (indeed, “the Mightiest”), the Creator of heaven and earth. The verb in the central line, <m^D*, is somewhat ambiguous, as both of the main roots (denoting “be silent” and “weep”, respectively) are applicable to the context. The contrast between mourning and joy in the prior couplets (cf. above) would tend to support the latter, but the force of the promise (to praise YHWH) here favors the former—i.e., the Psalmist declares that he will praise God continually, and will not be silent. Perhaps a bit of dual-meaning wordplay is at work.

The two verbs for expressing praise to God are rm^z` (“make music”) and hd*y`, the latter literally meaning “throw” but often used in the sense of throwing/casting praise toward someone. The Masoretes have almost certainly mispointed dbk as dobk* (“weight, worth”, i.e. honor, glory), whereas db@K* is doubtless correct, referring to the liver, i.e., in a figurative sense as the location of deep feeling and emotion (equivalent to the “heart” in English). Some would derive it from the root dbk in the sense of the “heavy” (i.e. large/thick or deep) organ, but this is far from certain. In any case, “liver” sounds most strange in context here, as rendered in English translation; I have opted for the more generic “inner (parts)”, i.e. “inner (organ[s])”, which conveys something of the Hebrew term when used in this way.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).

 

 

 

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