Shiur #27: Psalm 30 - "I Will Extol You, O Lord, For You Have Lifted Me Up" (Part V)

  • Rav Elchanan Samet

SEFER TEHILLIM

 

 

Lecture 27: PSALM 30 -

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

(part V)

 

Rav Elchanan Samet

 

 

              (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 sons,

                        and give thanks to the remembrance 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 there is joy.

7            (7)     But I said in my prosperity,

                        I will never stumble.

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

                        strong

                        You hid your face, and I was dismayed.

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

                        and to the Lord I made supplication.

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

                        when I go down to the pit?

11                   Shall the dust give thanks to You?

                        Shall it declare Your truth?

12          (11)   Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me.

                        O Lord, be my helper.

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

                        You loosened my sackcloth and girded me with

                        gladness.

14          (13)   Therefore glory will sing praise to You, and I will

                        not be silent.

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

 

VII.         HOW THE ARRIVAL OF TROUBLE IS PERCEIVED IN THE SECOND HALF OF THE PSALM

 

            In section III of this study, we demonstrated the unique structure of our psalm. We raised the question there why does the psalmist find it so important to resurrect the past, the time of trouble, across the entire second half of the psalm, to the point that he changes his temporal perspective in the second half to the time of trouble itself (whereas the first half takes place after the rescue).[1]

 

            The key to the answer seems to lie in the first two stanzas of the second half of the psalm – stanzas 7-8.

 

            Let us ask: How is the trouble perceived in our psalm in comparison to other psalms of thanksgiving? In most psalms of thanksgiving the trouble is an objective given: it exists because that is the way of the world. This is particularly true regarding those psalms of thanksgiving in which the trouble involves conflict with an enemy. In these psalms the trouble arrives owing to the enemy's wickedness and the petitioner is rescued owing to his righteousness.[2] Rarely do we find in psalms of thanksgiving the trouble being hung on the sins of the petitioner,[3] something that is very common in psalms of supplication.

 

            Things are different in our psalm. Here the arrival of the trouble has a clear educational objective: to change the outlook of the person who says: "In my prosperity, I will never stumble." This feeling of stability is but an illusion, and a person who lives in this illusion lives in a perverted religious consciousness.

 

            What is the appropriate religious consciousness for a person who merits a prosperous and stable life? It involves the recognition that his ideal situation is a heavenly gift of Divine lovingkindness, and something for which he must thank his Creator at all times, morning, noon and night, each and every day. Such consciousness not only reflects man's duty to appreciate the goodness of his Creator who graced him with such a life, but it also bestows meaning and joy upon the person's peaceful life, when he knows that his life is not something to be taken for granted.

 

            Even though our psalmist does not explicitly say this, it is clear that God's momentary anger was meant to shake the illusion of peace and stability in which he had been living, in order to change his religious outlook and lead him to the proper approach. And indeed, his dismay owing to God's anger –the trouble that hits him by surprise in the days of his prosperity - brings him to the appropriate attitude. This new consciousness, not only relates to the present and the future, but also changes his perspective regarding the past:

 

O Lord, by Your favor You made my mountain stand strong!

 

            My days of prosperity, the days during which I felt that I was standing on a strong mountain, protected from all evil, were "by Your favor." I did not know this at the time, but rather I said in my heart that it was a law of nature, and that "I will never stumble."

 

            Now, however, after "You hid Your face," and "I was dismayed," Your hidden face worked in a paradoxical manner to reveal Your face to me. Your face had been revealed to me during the time of my prosperity, but I had then hid my face from You.

 

            The new religious consciousness with which the psalmist is now inspired expresses itself in the prayer that he offers during his time of affliction. He refuses to reconcile himself with his imminent death; he desires life. But not that same life, oblivious of God, which had been his lot in the past, before his troubles arrived, but rather "a life in His favor" – that Divine favor that had been removed from him during the period of his prosperity, and that he will now recognize and be grateful for with all his heart.

 

            We come now to the rhetorical question that the psalmist raises twice in his prayer:

 

What profit is there in my blood,

when I go down to the pit?

Shall the dust give thanks to You?

Shall it declare Your truth?

 

            Inasmuch as the psalmist perceives the shock of God's hiding His face from him – "I was dismayed" – as an educational punishment meant to open his eyes to the fact that it was God's favor that had brought him prosperity in the past, then surely his death will bring no benefit. Can his new understanding, that he must always thank God for his life, find expression after his death? Surely once he returns to dust he will never again be able to offer God his thanks!

 

            It may be suggested that in the second half of the psalm the psalmist undergoes a process of inner repentance with all of its component parts. He recognizes his sin, confesses it, and implicitly accepts upon himself to repair it, and to live from this point further a life of gratitude to God for his very life and all the good that it contains.

 

            God hears the psalmist's prayer and accepts his repentance, and after "a moment in His anger," He responds with "a lifetime in His favor." And the psalmist, on his part - not only does he offer his gratitude to God and extol Him for His deliverance, and not only does he expand his thanksgiving by turning to God's pious ones, but he even obligates himself to "give thanks to You forever." That is to say, to forever replace his distorted outlook according to which he had said, "I will never (le-olam) stumble," with a life that includes uninterrupted gratitude to God – "I will give thanks to You forever (le-olam)."

 

            It turns out then that our psalm is not only a psalm of thanksgiving, but also a psalm of repentance. Not only does the trouble that befell him constitute grounds for expressing his gratitude to God, but it is perceived as an act of hidden lovingkindness that brought him to live his life with a new consciousness already at the time of his trouble. This life and this awareness will continue even when he returns to a life that is marked by God's favor.

 

            It is for this reason that the second half of the psalm is devoted to an account of the psalmist's afflictions through a resurrection of the past. This past is very dear to the psalmist, because it was then that God performed His act of hidden lovingkindness toward him, and it was then that the psalmist underwent a process of repentance that brought him speedy deliverance.

 

VIII.     "FOR YOU HAVE LIFTED ME UP"

 

            There may already be an allusion to this idea in the psalm's opening words:

 

I will extol You (aromimkha), O Lord,

for You have lifted me up (dilitani).

 

            The two verbs appearing in this verse, "aromimkha" and "dilitani," are close in meaning – they both denote "elevation." Why then didn't the psalmist use the very same verb in order to express the connection between God's lifting him up and his lifting up of God's name? For example, he could have said: "I will elevate You (aromimkha), for You have elevated me (romamtani)."[4]

 

            The answer is that our verse describes two different acts of "elevation": elevation from the level plain to the heights, which finds expression in the root "resh-vav-mem," and elevation from the depths to the surface, which finds expression in the root "dalet-lamed-heh."

 

            We must still account for the use of a verb derived from the root "dalet-lamed-heh," rather than one of the usual verbs for elevation. Verbs derived from this root are found in only two other places in Scripture, and in one other place we find the noun "deli":[5]

 

1)         In the story about Moshe and the daughters of Re'u'el in Shemot 2, the verb "le-dalot" appears three times:

 

(16) And they came and drew ("va-tidlena") water, and filled the troughs.

(19) An Egyptian man delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds, and also drew ("dalo dala") water enough for us, and watered the flock.

 

            Here the word denotes the drawing of water from a well by way of a bucket.

 

2)         Mishlei 20:5 records the following saying: "Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out ("yidlena"). Here too the verb denotes drawing "deep water," though here both the water and the act of drawing are metaphoric.[6]

 

3)         In Yeshayahu 40:15, we read: "Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket ("mi-deli") – the reference here is to the drop of water that falls from a bucket while drawing water. This expression serves as an analogy for the worthlessness of the nations.[7]

 

The common denominator in all these places is that the word is connected to the drawing of water: in the literal sense in the story of Moshe and the daughters of Re'u'el; as a metaphor in the book of Mishlei, and as an analogy in the book of Yeshayahu.

 

Our psalm is unique in that the metaphor, "for You have lifted me up," appears without any specific context. The superiority of a unique metaphor of this sort is similar to the superiority of an analogy (as we noted in the second half of our study of psalm 128): it arouses in the reader or listener a concrete image that is familiar to him, in the wake of which he asks himself which of the details of the concrete image apply to the object of the analogy. Thus it is possible to fill the analogy or unique metaphor[8] with hidden and revealed meanings without additional words.

 

What then is included in the metaphor "You have lifted me up"? First of all, the effort to raise up from the depths.[9] During his time of affliction, the psalmist had been in mortal danger, and almost descended to the grave, as he says two verses later: "O Lord, You brought me up from She'ol.        You kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit." Thus, the lifting up from the pit is already alluded to in the metaphor, "For You have lifted me up."

 

There is, however, a lack of correspondence between the metaphoric pit alluded to in verse 1 and the real pit in verse 4: the first pit is a well of water, whereas the second pit is a grave! It is therefore possible that the metaphor, "You have lifted me up," alludes to a metaphoric mortal danger of another sort: the petitioner feels himself as if he had been immersed in the mire of a well of water, and God lifted him up from the depths of the mire and thus saved his life.[10]

 

But this too is difficult: Regarding a person who is sinking in mire, and whose life is in danger, we do not use the verb, "dalet-resh-heh," but rather "ayin-lamed-heh," as we find in Yirmiyahu (38:13): "So they drew up Yirmiyahu with the ropes, and took him up ("va-ya'alu") out of the pit."

 

The verb "le-dalot" is always used in connection with water that is drawn by bucket (deli) from a well in order to be used. How then does this term accord with the meaning of our psalm?

 

Water is not drawn from a well in order to "save" the water and lift it up from a place that was not good for it. Rather, it is drawn in order to bring benefit to life on the surface – to man and beast.

 

The metaphor "dilitani" might embrace the image of a person praying for water, or perhaps for a bucket containing water, whose lifting up from the depths is meant to bring great benefit from those depths – life for the world. If this is the case, then the purpose of his descent (during the stage of affliction) is that while he is down in the depths he should equip himself with a new understanding, with a consciousness that is beneficial to himself and others, and then when God lifts him up from those depths, that consciousness that he acquired there should find expression.

 

If we are correct in our understanding of the metaphor, "ki dilitani," it foretells what will become revealed in the second half of the psalm: that the psalmist was afflicted with trouble during his days of prosperity in order to shock his inappropriate outlook, "I will never stumble," and pave the way for a new religious outlook: "O Lord, by Your favor You made my mountain stand strong." And with this new awareness, he will rise back to "life in His favor," and to everlasting gratitude, "I will give thanks to You forever."

 

IX.       APPENDIX: PSALM 30 AND THE CHANUKA OF THE CHASHMONAIM

 

            Tractate Soferim[11] (chapter 18) brings a list of psalms "that the people were accustomed to recite in their appointed times" over the course of the year as "the song of the day." Halakha 2 in that chapter states:

 

On Chanuka – "I will extol You, O Lord."

 

            That is to say, our psalm is "the song of the day" for the eight days of Chanuka.[12]

 

            This practice is observed to this day in various communities,[13] and some people are accustomed to recite our psalm at the time of lighting Chanuka candles.[14]

 

            The connection between Psalm 30 and the days of Chanuka also finds expression in two midrashim:

 

            The Pesikta Rabbati includes passages for the various festivals. The second piska includes a midrashic exposition for Chanuka, which opens with the verse, "A Psalm. A song at the dedication ("chanukat") of the house. Of David." The exposition itself revolves around our psalm, stating that this psalm was authored at the time of the dedication of Shlomo's Temple. This passage in the Pesikta is clearly based on the custom of reciting our psalm on Chanuka.

 

            In Midrash Tehilim ("Shochar Tov"), ed. Buber (p. 236), our psalm is interpreted as a psalm of national thanksgiving for the deliverance of the people of Israel from various afflictions, from the time of the Babylonian exile to the days of the Chashmonaim:[15]

 

I will extol You, O Lord, for You have lifted me up – from the Babylonian exile…

And You have not made my enemies rejoice over me – in Media and Persia.

O Lord, my God, I cried out to You – in the Greek exile.

And You healed me – through Chashmonai and his sons.

You kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit – for they decreed various decrees against me in order to bring me down to Gehinom.

Sing praise to the Lord, O you His pious ones – these are the sons of Matityahu.

 

            The weight that this midrash assigns to the redemption brought about by the Chashmonaim also attests to the recitation of our psalm on the days of Chanuka.[16]

 

            So what is the connection between our psalm and the Chashmonaim? Why was this psalm chosen to be recited and to serve as the object of midrashic interpretation on the days of Chanuka from ancient times to this very day?

 

The answer appears to be simple: The psalm's heading, "A Psalm. A song at the dedication ("chanukat") of the house. Of David," is what brought the Sages to connect our psalm to the Chashmonean Chanuka on the midrashic level, even though this is certainly not the intention of the heading, according to its plain sense.[17]

 

A difficulty arises, however, when we examine more carefully the first source cited above from tractate Soferim: It doesn't say there: "On Chanuka – 'A Psalm. A song at the dedication of the house,'" as one might have expected, but rather: "On Chanuka – 'I will extol You, O Lord.'" It seems, therefore, that the connection between our psalm and Chanuka stems from the body of the psalm, and not from its heading.

 

This also follows from the passage from Midrash Tehilim cited above: the midrash interprets the body of the psalm as referring to the Greek exile, to the decrees of Antiochus and the deliverance brought by the Chashmonaim, but the heading it interprets in different contexts: "'A psalm' – regarding the first Temple in the days of Shlomo; 'a song' – regarding the building of the second Temple in the days of Ezra."

 

It is possible then that the tradition that connects our psalm to Chanuka, that is reflected in tractate Soferim and the other sources cited above, and that finds practical expression to this very day, gives expression to an ancient tradition, according to which our psalm was chosen as a thanksgiving psalm already by the Chashmonaim themselves.

 

Why did Matityahu's sons choose our psalm as a tool for expressing their joy over their rescue and victory? Surely the psalms of Hallel (113-118) were chosen for a purpose of this sort already in ancient times!

 

Without a doubt, the Chashmonaim also recited Hallel in accordance with the early enactment; this is noted in various sources and has been preserved as a mitzva for all generations. At the same time, however, they searched the book of Tehilim for a psalm that uniquely expresses what they had experienced in their war and in their victory.

 

The fact that Psalm 30 is a thanksgiving psalm of an individual did not interfere with its adoption as a national psalm of thanksgiving, for the reasons that we brought in the first section of this study in note 15: the individual can serve as the mouthpiece of all of Israel. On the other hand, they may have found in our psalm unique expression of the speed of the rescue from the jaws of death, of the changing of mourning into gladness and dancing. Thus they may have viewed our psalm as fitting for the feeling of their sudden rise from political and religious servitude to national and religious emancipation.[18]

 

They might also have had another reason: Those who remained faithful to the Torah in the generation of Matityahu and his sons and all those who joined them were called "Chasidim," "pious ones." Our psalm says, "Sing praise to the Lord, O you His pious ones," and thus the second Temple "Chasidim" may have understood this as a call that was directed at them, and therefore they adopted the psalm to express their gratitude for their victory. This is explicitly stated in the passage from Midrash Tehilim cited above: "'Sing praise to the Lord, O you His pious ones' – these are the sons of Matityahu."

 

This conjecture, that it was the Chashmonaim who chose our psalm as their psalm of thanksgiving, might shed light on the testimony offered by the mishna in Bikkurim (3:4) that when the people bringing bikkurim (first-fruits) entered the Temple courtyard, "the Levites opened with a song: 'I will extol You, O Lord, for You have lifted me up, and You have not made my enemies rejoice over me.'" What is the connection between Psalm 30 and the bringing of bikkurim?

 

The mitzva of reciting the biblical passage connected to bikkurim (Devarim 26:1-11) falls upon the person bringing bikkurim when he stands in the Temple courtyard with his first-fruits. This mitzva obligates him to thank God for the acts of lovingkindness that He performed for him and his forefathers, for having taking them out of Egypt and giving them this land; these acts of lovingkindness are what made it possible for him to stand now in the Temple courtyard with his basket of first-fruits.

 

In the last third of the second Temple period, following the victories of the Chashmonaim and their purification of the Temple, and after the people of Israel merited national liberation and the establishment of a state and a kingdom, the need was felt to add to the "mikra bikkurim" passage an expression of thanksgiving for these latest acts of Divine lovingkindness. And since one is not to add to what the Torah commanded the person bringing bikkurim to recite, the levitical choir fulfilled this need with their singing of psalm 30 which had already been chosen as the psalm of thanksgiving for the victories of the Chashmonaim.[19]

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 



[1] This phenomenon is found in other psalms of thanksgiving, where space is given to an account of the trouble and to the psalmist's prayer in his time of need in the manner of "resurrecting the past": in 9:14-15 (out of 21 verses); in 40:14-18 (out of 18 verses). But only in psalm 41 does the psalmist's prayer in his hour of trouble seize about half of the psalm (5-11) as in our psalm, and there, too, we must inquire into the reason for this. In the rest of the thanksgiving psalms in the book of Tehilim, the reference to the past is made in the framework of the verses of thanksgiving themselves, from the perspective of after the rescue.

[2] Thus we find in psalms 9, 18, 34, and 75.

[3] In thanksgiving psalm 41, the psalmist prays in his time of trouble (v. 5): "I said, Lord, be gracious with me: heal my soul; for I have sinned against you." This, however, is a general confession, that lacks specification of the sin. In psalm 107 (see what we wrote about it in part II of this study, at the end of note 2), the troubles befalling two of the four people who must offer thanksgiving to God are made dependent upon their sins (verses 11-12; 17).

[4] Even had he done this, the meaning of the word "aromimkha" with respect to God would have been figurative. In many biblical verses, the term "elevating" ("le-romem") God is used in the sense of praising or thanking; one of them was brought earlier in this study in connection with the frame of our psalm (Tehilim 118:28): "You are my God, and I will praise You: my God, I will exalt You" (see section V,3).

[5] According to Even Shoshan's concordance, a verb derived from this root appears in one more place, Mishlei 26:7: "dalyu" – but it seems that there the word is derived from "dal" (compare to Bereishit 41:19). He also lists a noun derived from this root in Bamidbar 24:7: "mi-dalyav" – but there the word is equivalent to "dalyotav" – its branches.

[6] "Deep water" is a metaphor for "counsel" (wisdom) lying deep in a man's heart, and hard to reach. A "man of understanding," however, knows how to draw this counsel from the depths of the counselor's heart. The pronominal suffix in the word "yidlena" relates to the word "eitza," but this is because the word "eitza" was already likened to deep water.

[7] Following the explanation of Amos Chakham to this verse.

[8] A "unique metaphor," as opposed to a "trite metaphor," stirs the hearer to turn his attention to the image from which it was taken. In contrast, the use of a trite metaphor has no impact on the hearer, who is accustomed to this usage from everyday talk.

[9] It seems that it is in order to emphasize this effort that the root "dalet-lamed-heh" appears in our psalm – the only time in Scripture – in the pi'el conjugation.

[10] See what is stated about Yosef's being cast into the pit (Bereishit 37:24), "and the pit was empty; there was no water in it" – which, according to its plain sense, means that there was no danger of drowning in the pit. In contrast, see the description of Yirmiyahu's being cast into the pit; even though there too "in the pit there was no water, but only mire, Yirmiyahu sank in the mire," and therefore the prophet's life was in danger (Yirmiyahu 38:6-13).

[11] Tractate Soferim was composed during the Geonic period.

[12] Tractate Soferim might mean that Psalm 30 was sung by the Levites in the Temple during the second Temple period as the daily song of Chanuka, or it might be referring to a later practice observed in the synagogues.

[13] The practice is common among the Sefardic communities and those who follow the rite of the Vilna Gaon.

[14] I am familiar with this practice as a Chassidic custom, but I do not know whether it is more widespread.

[15] The cited passage is not in the printed editions of Midrash Tehilim, and R. S. Buber brings it from a manuscript.

[16] Babylonia, Persia and Greece are three of the four kingdoms to whom Israel became subjugated. What is striking in this midrash is the absence of the fourth kingdom – the kingdom of Rome. This can be understood if we understand that the psalm was perceived as a thanksgiving psalm of the Chashmonaim, and thus it only reaches their time. See also below.

[17] What does our psalm's heading meaning according to the plain sense of the text? The commentators do not provide us with a satisfactory answer to this question. First of all, what is the "house" mentioned in the heading – is it the Temple, or perhaps some other house? According to the first alternative, to which Temple is it referring? And according to the second alternative, to which house is it referring? Second, how is the dedication of this house connected to David? Surely David did not build the Temple, and thus he could not have dedicated it, and if we are dealing with his own house (as argued by the Ibn Ezra) – we do not find in Scripture that this house was dedicated.

Even if we find an answer to the previous problems, how is the dedication of the house – whichever house – connected to the substance of our psalm, an expression of thanksgiving on the part of someone who was delivered from death?

Generations of commentators tried to answer these questions, but were unable to come up with an answer that satisfactorily answers all these questions. In this framework, we cannot review all the answers and the difficulties that they pose. 

[18] Similar consideration on the individual level brought Natan Sharanski to adopt this psalm as a thanksgiving psalm for his sudden liberation, more than two thousand years later (see section I and the beginning of section II).

[19] It is possible that this psalm also served as the song of the day sung by the Levites in the Temple on Chanuka.