Shiur #24: Psalm 30 - "I Will Extol You, O Lord, For You Have Lifted Me Up" (Part II)

  • Rav Elchanan Samet

SEFER TEHILLIM

 

 

Lecture 24: PSALM 30 -

"I will extol you, O Lord, for you have lifted me up"

(part II)

 

Rav Elchanan Samet

 

 

II.            A song of thanksgiving

 

              (1)     A Psalm. A song at the dedication of the house. Of David.

1            (2)     I will extol You, O Lord, for You have lifted me up,

                        and You have not made my enemies rejoice over me.

2            (3)     O Lord, my God, I cried out to You,

                        and You healed me.

              (4)     O Lord, You brought me up from She'ol.

                        You kept me alive,

                        that I should not go down to the pit.

4            (5)     Sing praise to the Lord, O you His pious ones,

                        and give thanks at the mention of His holiness.

5            (6)     For He remains a moment in His anger,

                        a lifetime in His favor.

6                      In the evening one goes to sleep weeping,

                        but in the morning - joy.

7            (7)     But I said in my prosperity,

                        I will not stumble ever.

8            (8)     O Lord, by Your favor You made my mountain stand

                        strong

                        You hid your face - I was dismayed.

9            (9)     To You, O Lord, I cried,

                        and to the Lord I made supplication.

10          (10)   What profit is there in my blood,

                        when I go down to the pit?

11                   Can You be acknowledged by dust?

                        Can it declare Your truth?

12          (11)   Hear, O Lord, and grace me.

                        O Lord, be my helper.

13          (12)   You turned for me my mourning into dancing.

                        You loosened my sackcloth and girded me with

                        joy

14          (13)   so that glory will sing praise to You not be silent.

                        O Lord, my God, I will forever give thanks to You.

 

            Why did Natan Sharansky find this psalm most suitable to express his feelings when he was informed about his impending release? The answer is clear: this is a vigorous psalm of thanksgiving, in which the psalmist expresses his gratitude to God for having saved him from the danger of death, and for the fact that his deliverance involved a speedy and radical turn of events - "from a deep pit to a high pinnacle."

 

            Of course, this is not the only thanksgiving psalm in the book of Tehilim. There are several others like it; some of them are national or communal psalms of thanksgiving,[1] while others, like our psalm, are individual psalms of thanksgiving.[2] There are also several additional psalms of thanksgiving outside the book of Tehilim.[3]

 

            What are the characteristic components of individual psalms of thanksgiving? There appear to be four such features, each of which is found in our psalm:

 

1)         A retelling of the individual’s deep distress.

2)         An account of his calling out to God for salvation.

3)         A description of God's answer – the deliverance of the petitioner.

4)         An expression of thanksgiving to God for answering his prayers and saving him from his trouble.

 

Of course, these components do not appear in the psalms of thanksgiving in the chronological and logical order presented here. The point of departure in a thanksgiving psalm is the stage of thanksgiving for the deliverance – the fourth component listed here.[4] However, in order for the psalmist's expression of gratitude to be well reasoned, the psalm, by its very nature, must relate to all three earlier components.

 

Let us illustrate this point with respect to the first three stanzas of our psalm: The opening words of the psalm, "I will extol You (aromimkha), O Lord," already allude that the topic of the psalm is thanksgiving to God (the verb "le-romem" appears several times in the book of Tehilim paralleling "le-hodot" ["to thank"] or "le-hallel" ["to praise"]). In the continuation of stanza 1, the invocation at the beginning of the stanza is explained by the fact that God had "lifted up" the petitioner from his lowly state, and thus prevented his enemies from rejoicing in his downfall.

 

In stanza 2, the petitioner thanks God for having heard his cry and healed him, and in stanza 3 it says that the danger in which he had been, and from which God had saved him, was a mortal danger. That is to say, we have here all four components intermingled together, except that the fourth component – that of thanksgiving – constitutes the point of departure, and establishes the perspective on the various other components.

 

Let us try now to reconstruct the events serving as a backdrop to our psalm: What happened to the psalmist from the time that he fell into terrible trouble and until he uttered the words of thanksgiving recorded in our psalm? From what was said earlier, it is clear that this must be reconstructed from the psalm as a whole, for the events are not arranged in their order of occurrence. We, however, will try to arrange the information that can be culled from this thanksgiving prayer in chronological order:

 

1)         Trouble struck the psalmist all of a sudden, at a time when he was enjoying prosperity, and this caused him great dismay – stanzas 7-8.

2)         He was in mortal danger – stanzas 3, 10-11.

3)         His enemies hoped to rejoice in his downfall – stanza 1.

4)         In his time of trouble, the psalmist pleaded before God that He should save him from his trouble – stanzas 2, 9-12.

5)         During his time of trouble, the psalmist conducted himself in the manner of a mourner, donning sackcloth and sounding a eulogy – stanza 13.

6)         God heard his prayer and saved him in a short time, and thus his trouble lasted for only "a moment" – a night, and the morning afterwards he was already saved – stanzas 5-6.

7)         His rescue utterly changed his situation, and brought him to gladness and thanksgiving – stanza 13.

8)         After being saved, he sounded a moving thanksgiving prayer to God who had rescued him – stanzas 1-3.

9)         As a continuation of his expression of gratitude to God, the psalmist turns to God's pious ones and invites them to thank and sing praise to Him for the Divine lovingkindness that became manifest through his deliverance – stanzas 4-6.

10)      His singing and offering of thanks to God will not cease, but rather they will continue forever – stanza 14.

 

We have here a rich and detailed account that describes the events that form the backdrop of our psalm. What is missing from this account? Only one thing: what was that sudden and terrible trouble that brought the psalmist to the gates of death? The nature of his rescue from that danger is also not clear, for the one depends on the other.

 

At first glance, it might be argued that this claim is wrong: Surely, in stanza 2 it says: "I cried out to You, and You healed me," and so it is explicitly stated that the trouble in our psalm is a difficult and dangerous illness from which God healed the psalmist. In fact, two of the classical commentators understood our psalm in this manner. The first is the Ibn Ezra, who says: "At that time [= when David dedicated his house of cedars], David took ill, and recovered from his illness." And in his commentary to verse 3, he writes: "I cried out to You – to you alone, and not to a doctor, and You healed me." The Malbim offers a similar explanation: "The entire psalm was meant to offer thanksgiving after he was sick and then recovered from his illness."[5]

 

This understanding, however, is far from certain: Words derived from the root, resh-peh-alef, occasionally appear in Scripture in the metaphoric sense of repair, improvement, or rescue, both in the real sense and in the spiritual sense.

 

In several places, a sinner is likened to a sick person, and the acceptance of his repentance to his healing.[6] Accordingly, Rashi, Radak, and other commentators explain that "You healed me" in our psalm refers to "the pardon of sin" (Rashi).

 

As stated, however, the root, resh-peh-alef, is used in reference to repair and rehabilitation in other realms as well.[7] Accordingly, the words "You healed me" in our psalm can be understood as a metaphor for the psalmist's rescue from the calamity and misfortune discussed at length in the psalm, but without that trouble being defined.[8]

 

It turns out then that the words, "You healed me," do not suffice to establish that the psalmist's trouble was an illness. Such an assertion would have been justified were the trouble described elsewhere in the psalm in a manner characteristic of an illness.[9] This, however, is not the case: the mortal danger that lasts for a short time, the enemies' hope to rejoice – all these can characterize various types of troubles.

 

This phenomenon that we have just see is exceedingly typical of the book of Tehilim: the psalms of supplication and thanksgiving provide rich and detailed background to the misfortune and deliverance that they describe, but they do not clarify the precise nature of the misfortune and deliverance. They leave these matters open, so that every reader in every situation can adopt the psalm to express his own trouble and his own rescue. Thus, there is created a gap between the detailed description of the emotional reality in these psalms, with which anybody in a similar situation can identify, and the blurring of the physical reality of the situations described therein, a blurring that allows everyone to find in these psalms an expression of what is going on in his own heart.

 

(To be continued.)

 

(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] For example, Ps. 124: "Were it not for the Lord who was with us, let Israel say." Psalms 66, 75 and 76 also fit this definition.

[2] For example, Psalms 9, 18, 34, 40, 41, 116 and 118 (2 psalms of Hallel) and 138. It should be emphasized that the distinction between individual thanksgiving and communal thanksgiving (and even the thanksgiving of the entire people of Israel) is not always sharp and clear. At the end of Psalm 66 cited in the previous note, there are also verses of individual thanksgiving, while in Psalm 9, cited in this note, there are several verses that are fitting for national thanksgiving. The distinction between them is based on the wording of the party giving thanks – in the singular or in the plural. This, however, is not a clear distinction, for the individual who is offering thanks might be the collective entity of all of Israel ("let Israel say"), or a singular that serves here as a plural. Another distinction between them is based on the nature of the event for which the thanksgiver offers thanks. But this too is not a clear distinction: A danger that is generally associated with an individual might be used as a metaphor for a national danger.

In general, the sharp distinction that modern man makes between the individual and the collective – the society or the nation – is not valid for biblical man, and therefore the distinction that we made between the two types of thanksgiving psalms is questionable.

Accordingly, the editors of the book of Tehilim had no difficulty concluding psalms having a clearly individual nature with a verse having a clearly national character, as we saw in the conclusion of Psalm 131 (see the end of section III of our study of that psalm). Similarly, over the course of the generations, nobody had difficulty adopting psalms of individual thanksgiving to express national thanksgiving. Thus, the psalms of individual thanksgiving of Hallel (116, 118) were fixed in the framework of "Hallel" in which Israel offers thanksgiving for its deliverance. It seems that psalm 30 was also used to express national thanksgiving during the second Temple period by the Hasmoneans, who saw in it an expression of their glorious victory over their enemies, and the turning of their mourning into joy. An allusion to this is found in the tradition of reciting this psalm during the week of Chanuka (Tractate Soferim 18) to this very day. See also Mishna, Bikkurim 3:4.

To the thanksgiving psalms in the book of Tehilim we must add the most important psalm in the category of thanksgiving – Psalm 107. Even though it is not a thanksgiving psalm in the usual sense, for it does not turn to God in prayer, it formulates the "law of thanksgiving" – for what must thanksgiving be offered, and what is the order of thanksgiving.

[3] Chana's prayer (I Shmuel 2:1-10); Yona's prayer (Yona 2:3-10); Chizkiyahu's prayer (Yeshayahu 28:9-20), which has several connections to Psalm 30, both in substance and in style (see note 5). These are all thanksgiving psalms of an individual. Examples of national thanksgiving psalms are the Song of the Sea and the Song of Devora.

[4] The following point must be emphasized: many psalms in the book of Tehilim are psalms of supplication voiced by someone who is in trouble (such psalms are the most common type of psalm in the book of Tehilim). Many of these psalms conclude with an account of the psalmist's deliverance and with his offering of thanks to God for his rescue (see, for example, psalms 3, 4, 6, 7, 13, 22, 26, 31, all of which are found in the first section of Tehilim, and many similar psalms in that section and in the other sections of Tehilim). It turns out then that psalms of supplication also have all four components that were listed above regarding psalms of thanksgiving: a description of the trouble, prayer for rescue (both in the main section of the psalm), and in the end a description of the deliverance and thanksgiving for it (both in the psalm's conclusion, sometimes in very concise fashion). How then are these supplication psalms different than thanksgiving psalms?

The answer is that these psalms are the opposite in their point of departure, or perhaps we can say, in the time that they are voiced. Thanksgiving psalms are uttered after the deliverance, and therefore they open with words of thanksgiving and joy, and it is only from the perspective of the thanksgiving that an account is given of the trouble and the prayer that preceded the deliverance.

Supplication psalms, in contrast, are voiced out of distress, and at a time of distress, and therefore they always begin with a call to God for deliverance (for example, 22:2: "My God, my God, why have You forsaken us?"). The descriptions of the rescue and the thanksgiving at the end of some of these psalms give the impression that they do not mean to describe objective reality, but rather to express the psalmist's confidence that indeed God will come to his rescue, and his commitment to offer thanks for that. Such conclusions come to close these psalms which express great distress on an optimistic note of faith and hope. It turns out, then, that the perspective of a supplication psalm is the distress and trouble, and it only from this perspective that deliverance and thanksgiving are discussed at the end, the very opposite of thanksgiving psalms.

Accordingly, the primary distinction between thanksgiving psalms and supplication psalms is evident already at the beginning of each psalm. A thanksgiving psalm opens with "I thank the Lord with all my heart. I will relate all Your wondrous works" (9:2) or the like, whereas a supplication psalm opens with "O Lord, how many are they that trouble me! Many are they that rise up against me" (3:4), or the like.

[5] The words, "after he took was sick and then recovered from his illness," are taken from Yeshayahu 38:9: "The writing of Chizkiyahu king of Yehuda when he was sick, and recovered from his illness." This verse serves as a heading for a psalm that Chizkiyahu voiced after he recovered from his illness, and regarding which there is no doubt that the background of its recital was Chizkiyahu's sickness (38:1: "In those days Chizkiyahu fell mortally sick"). It was already mentioned in note 3 that there are certain striking similarities between our psalm and Chizkiyahu's prayer. Let us present some of them:

 

Chizkiyahu's Prayer

Psalm 30

(10) My soul was deposited in the gates of She'ol.

(4) O Lord, You brought me up from She'ol.

(12) From day to night You make an end of me.

(6) In the evening one goes to sleep weeping,

but in the morning there is joy.

(16) Restore me and make me live.

(3) And You healed me.

(17) But You have in love to my soul delivered it from the pit.

(10) When I go down to the pit.

(18) For She'ol cannot praise You, death cannot celebrate You.

(11) Can You be acknowledged by dust? Can it declare Your truth?

 

(18) They that go down into the pit cannot hope for Your truth.

(4) O Lord, You brought me up from She'ol. You kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit.

 

It is possible then that the Malbim (and perhaps also the Ibn Ezra) wish to allude to a connection between these two prayers and to support their understanding that Psalm 30 is also dealing with a person who took ill and then recovered from his illness.

[6] For example, Yeshayahu 6:10: "And understand with their heart, and return and be healed"; Tehilim 103:3: "Who forgives all your iniquities; who heals all your diseases."

[7] In several places in Scripture, the sweetening of bitter waters is called "rippui" (II Melakhim 21-22; Yechezkel 47:8-9). The mending of breaks is also called "rippui," whether we are dealing with a human break: "They have healed the hurt of the daughter of My people superficially" (Yirmiyahu 6:14); "He heals the brokenhearted" (Tehilim 147:3), or we are dealing with a broken object: "And he repaired the altar of the Lord that was broken down" (I Melakhim 18:30).

[8] This is the way that the Meiri understands the matter: "And you healed me – that is to say, from the trouble and harassments of the enemies and their many wars against me." Thus the Meiri argues that the psalmist's trouble is the enemies rising up against him. He does this because of the words in verse 2: "And You have not made my enemies rejoice over me," but this is unnecessary. The joy of the enemies is not the trouble itself, but a consequence of the trouble, and the trouble itself is the metaphoric "sickness" from which God "healed" him.

[9] This is very rare in the book of Tehilim. In Psalm 41, which is also a psalm of individual thanksgiving, it says: "The Lord will support him upon the bed of sickness. You turned over his entire bed in his illness" (verse 4), and thus it is explicitly stated that the trouble is a dangerous illness. But in other places (e.g., Psalm 6), there is no clear proof.