Literary analysis of Psalm 30 – “You have turned my lament into dancing for me”

ריקוד photo   Click here to read “Psalm Thirty: Translation of the Song”

Song 30 presents a puzzle in its opening verse: “a song for the dedication of the Temple” (v. 1). For the Temple was built not by David but by his son, Solomon. It would seem, then, that David composed the song for the Temple that he envisioned, so that though he himself would not enter it, his words and melody would fill its space.


The verses following, 2 to 5, are composed of gratitude and exaltation: the singer affirms


Sing to Adonai, His devout ones,

And give thanks in recollection of His holiness. (v. 5)


This verse thus declares the purpose of the song: “to give thanks”. For, as verse 4 clarifies, the singer has escaped death and acknowledges Adonai to be his rescuer. The image in verse 2 – “for You have drawn me up” – has as its verb the Hebrew daloh  (דִלִּיתָנִי), the verb used for the act of drawing water from a well. The singer has been rescued from a confinement, be it emotional or physical, one he could not have surmounted on his own. That it was a deliberate entrapment is suggested by the second line of the verse, “and You have not gladdened my enemies against me”; it appears he has been the victim of enmity. The metaphor, however, not only portrays the singer’s gratitude, it presents him, in the very image of being drawn out of a well, as the element of water. Thus the image itself describes his sense of being renewed, replenished, a sense that the next verse states straightforwardly as “I implored You, and You healed me” (v. 3). The two verbs in verse 2, “raise up” and “drawn up”, similar in meaning, join their subjects together in a parallel movement: “I will raise You up, Adonai, for You have drawn me up”. Nonetheless, the correspondence is not one between equals: the singer is lifted from an abyss to ground level; God, in contrast, is exalted, His sphere transcendent, from the earth to the heavens.

The image of confinement in verse 2 gains power as verse 4 elaborates upon its nature: the singer has been cast, presumably by his enemies, into Sheol, into the Pit of death. Thus the verses, 2 to 4, build up a tension that climaxes into ever-increasing sound, its full song expressing itself in verse 5, “Sing to Adonai”.

But even as the voices rise in unison, the singer’s call to the devout is itself a jarring note, interrupting the tone he has created in the previous verses. Those verses address God directly, intimately, as “You”. Verse 5, however, calling upon God’s  “devout ones”, uses the possessive pronoun “His”, an apparent distancing between himself and God that the singer continues in verse 6:


For a moment, in His anger; life, in His will.

In the evening, [one[ will sleep, cry[ing]; but in the morning, a happy song.


The despair and joy the singer describes, then, is not his alone, but that of each of the devout, of all those who “recollect” that God’s will determines the whole of their lives, from sorrow, imaged as evening, to happiness, as morning.


Verses 7 and 8 return to the singer’s own moments of helplessness and elation: how, in his “serenity”, untroubled and naïve, he believed himself invulnerable – “Never will I stumble” (v. 7) – and how, living in God’s favour, he felt he stood “with the might of a mountain” (v. 8). Yet how, fearing God’s anger, as God hid His face from him, he “was utterly terrified” (v. 8). Once again, the singer addresses God directly; naming God as both the source of his strength and self-assurance and the cause of his poignant despair.

The singer’s gratitude for God’s life-giving mercy and healing (v. 2, 3,4), coupled with his vivid memory of his near-entrapment (v. 2 and 4), lead him, in verse 9, to use the present tense –“I appeal”—rather than the past tense, as he recounts his cries to and pleading with God; and to use the future tense – “I will call out” – as he makes clear his certainty that neither his appeals nor God’s answer will cease. Verse 10 repeats the arguments he used to convince God to rescue him and thus explains his certain trust:


What benefit [is there] in my blood, in my falling down to Sheol?

Can dust give thanks to You, can it narrate Your truth?


The words were uttered within the Sheol, death’s Pit (v. 4), but they could be the cry of all mortals, though the singer speaks, at least in verse 10, of only his own mortality. Certainly his self-bereavement is such that he imagines himself grieving, his garments those of “sackcloth”, his voice sounding not a song but a dirge (v. 12).


And yet, verse 12 transforms the poem into praisesong, the singer’s affirmation that God has turned the lament of grief “into ecstasy”, has undone his mourner’s cloth and “girdled” him, instead, “with gladness” (v. 12). Clad in joy, sure of God’s blessing, the singer acclaims Adonai; his heart singing the very song of praise that the poem’s 13 verses sound:


In response, [my] glory will sing to You, and will not be silent.

Adonai, my God, for all the world’s time I will give thanks to You. (v. 13)


Thus the song closes with the singer himself illustrating his description in verse 6 – his sackcloth has become the garment of a “moment”; his joy, the clothing of his “life”.


As the singer’s “lament” turns  into praisesong, so do the meanings themselves of his images. “And will not be silent”, of verse 13’s song, echoes the image of death in verse 10 (“Can dust give thanks to You”), but as its absolute opposite: out of the stillness, out of the silence of Sheol and his release from its Pit, comes his song of exultation. The song’s closing words, “I will give thanks to You” (v. 13), are both the contrast to the dust’s voicelessness and the answer to his question – only life, not dust, can offer praise. His words of thanks repeat his counsel to the faithful in verse 5 –“give thanks in recollection of His holiness” – as, imagistically, the singer, “with the might of a mountain” (v. 8), fulfills his promise in the opening verse: “I will raise You up” (v. 2). That his acclamation will endure “for all the world’s time” (v. 13) rewords verse 6, “life, in His will”. Grateful for God’s help, he now sings morning’s “happy song” (v. 6).


Verse 11 asks God, “become my aid”. Certainly the “favour” he pleaded for has been granted. But the singer does not use the verb “to help” (as in, say, “Please help me”); rather, he employs the noun, making it the subject of the verb “to be” or “to become”. The opening of the same verse may very well explain his reasoning: “Hear, Adonai”. “Hear” is the first word of the Shema, the Jewish declaration of faith, but, in the Shema, it is the people Israel who is asked to listen. The words they are to listen to, however, name “Adonai, our God’, just as the singer, in verses 3 and 13, acknowledges “Adonai, my God”. The letters that form the root of the word “Adonai” spell out “I will be Who I will be” –spell out, that is, both being and becoming. It would seem, then, that, in composing his song –and composing it to be sung at the Temple’s dedication – the singer is suggesting that to “give thanks” is itself life-affirming, life-giving. Repeated three times in the song –verses 3, 10 and 13—the verb, the act of thanking, changes its subject, from the devout ones to the dust to the singer. As the poem ends, the voices of the devout and the singer together rise above the “silence” of the dust, their song sounding “for all the world’s time”.

Click here to read “Psalm Thirty: Translation of the Song”

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