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Psalm 30: The God Who Restores

 

(address given at Knox Presbyterian Church, Toronto, 21 July2004)

Psalm 30: The God Who Restores

 

I: — Prosperity: is it bane or blessing? Scripture speaks with one mind: prosperity is blessing. Abundance is good. Scarcity, on the other hand, is evil. Poverty is a curse. The Messianic Age will see the end of poverty and the conditions that promote poverty; it will see as well the end of the consequences of poverty; namely, the shrivelling of the human good that occurs in the wake of distress and destitution.

God, who is good himself, fashions a creation that is only good itself. God’s creation is fashioned so as to bring forth everything needed to sustain the creaturely good; sustain it, enhance it, magnify it. Only in the wake of the Fall does scarcity occur. Such scarcity is a blight in nature that leaves its victims blighted humanly.

For this reason our Lord Jesus Christ, everywhere in his earthly ministry, overturns the evil one’s molestation of the creation. He restores those who have been victimized by a creation that hasn’t fostered the human good God intends for them. It’s no wonder, then, that Jesus feeds hungry people. He knows that hunger is more than a physical problem. Hunger warps people’s thinking quickly and pervasively; hunger distorts the human psyche hideously. Famine is a horror, scripture recognizes, that could scarcely be more horrible.

How horrible? And what horror does it work in the human heart? We are told [2nd Kings 6:25 ] that because of a military siege there was a great famine in Samaria . People were scrambling to eat the head of a dead donkey or a handful of bird poop. Two women, out of their minds on account of their hunger, made a pact with each other: “Today we’ll eat your baby; tomorrow, we’ll eat mine.” Whereupon they boiled an infant and ate it.

Silly romantics may sentimentalize poverty, but as I learned a long time ago, they can romanticize poverty just because they’ve never been poor themselves. No poor person has ever thought poverty glorious.

When our Lord commands us to pray, “Give us today our daily bread,” no doubt there are many layers of meaning to his pronouncement. But in our haste to find many subtle layers we shouldn’t overlook the most obvious meaning: “daily bread” means exactly what it says: bread, the physical sustenance we need, and without which we can’t do anything else; can’t work, can’t think, can’t worship, can’t pray. To be sure, we don’t live by bread alone; just as surely, without bread we don’t live at all.

Jesus unlocks paralysed limbs. He comes upon a woman who’s been bent double for eighteen years. For two decades the horizon of her life has been filled with dirty feet. What kind of a perspective on God’s good creation is that? Jesus doesn’t speculate blasphemously about “God’s will.” He knows that her condition contradicts God’s will. Angrily he hisses, “Satan has done this.” And then he frees her as she lives henceforth in the abundance of her restoration. Deprivation is bane. Prosperity is blessing.

 

II: — And yet prosperity, paradoxically, is the occasion of temptation. Prosperity readily gives rise to spiritual complacency. Having pleaded with God for daily bread, and having been granted daily bread, we are preoccupied now with bread, cake and cream puffs as we cease to pray at all. We become spiritually indifferent, complacent, even presumptuous. Prosperity quickly finds prosperous people gloating in their fancied superiority. The psalmist knew this. In Ps. 30:6 he recalls that he became prosperous even as he confesses to us, “I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’”

“What arrogance,” we say; “What folly. ‘I shall never be moved.’” Plainly the psalmist thought himself invulnerable. “I’ve got it made. I’ve arrived. And now I’m untouchable, impregnable. I couldn’t be toppled in view of the security my prosperity provides me.”

In the entire history of the church I think there are few people who consistently reminded each other of the dangers of prosperity as much as the Seventeenth Century Puritans did. They were uncommonly prosperous people. They sensed their uncommon vulnerability. They knew they had to keep before them the danger their prosperity brought them.

The Puritans had judiciously distanced themselves from other Christian traditions that idealized poverty. They knew, for instance, that poverty is never spiritually meritorious. They never thought poverty to be an instrument of sanctity. They were aware that scarcity, so far from promoting sanctity, more frequently fostered envy, bitterness, hopelessness. The Puritans believed that God commanded work and blessed it. They regarded gainful employment as a form of stewardship.

Yet they were never naïve concerning wealth. On the contrary they knew that prosperity brought temptation as little else did. John Robinson (widely known for his aphorism, “God has yet more truth and light to bring forth from his holy Word”) wrote, “Both poverty and riches have their temptations. And of the two states the temptations of riches are the more dangerous.” The Puritans recognized an inverse relationship between wealth and godliness: the more prosperous people became the less zealous they were for God.

The Puritans saw three great dangers in prosperity. (i) In prosperous people there is a tendency for wealth to replace God as the object of ultimate devotion. (ii) Prosperity leads people to rely on themselves instead of on God. (iii) Prosperity is lethal because addictive: prosperity generates an appetite that prosperity can never satisfy. In other words, prosperity, so far from satisfying people, leaves them profoundly discontented. At the same time it fosters a mood of self-sufficiency and invulnerability. Exclaimed the psalmist, “I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’”

One hundred years after the Puritan era John Wesley rode forth. Wesley picked up where his Puritan foreparents had left off. (I want to say in passing that there is much, much more Puritanism in Wesley than most Wesleyans are aware of.) But whereas the Puritans had been careful and cautious concerning prosperity, Wesley was scathing. He was scathing because he had to witness first-hand over and over how prosperity sapped his people’s spiritual ardour and attenuated their kingdom-commitment and turned sacrifice into selfism.

Here’s what Wesley saw.

Stage one. His people had been drunken and dissolute, impoverished and suffering from all the ills that poverty brings.

Stage two. His people had heard the gospel and had abandoned themselves to Jesus Christ as the Holy Spirit torched them. Now they were sober. Because they were sober they were employable. Because they were industrious they profited. Because they no longer gambled away money or boozed it away or whored it away or simply frittered it they accumulated money. As their bank account swelled their social position rose. Wesley and his people agreed with the psalmist in Ps. 30:6: “By thy favour (what greater favour is there than the gospel?) thou hast established me as a strong mountain.” In other words, like the psalmist their new-found strength and stability came from the gospel, came from God’s favour.

Stage three.   As their social position rose their spiritual zeal fell. Now they were indifferent to matters of the kingdom. They no longer made any sacrifice for the cause of Jesus Christ. They no longer inconvenienced themselves in assisting the suffering neighbour. They gave up their pursuit of holiness.

Wesley’s frustration drove him near-mad. He was frustrated inasmuch as his people had prospered on account of the gospel. But then their new-found abundance blunted their spiritual hunger. Whereas Wesley had said to them, “Earn all you can; save all you can; give all you can,” he now lamented that his people were very good at the first two and woefully deficient at the third. In his frustration he wrote nine tracts, each one sharper than the one before.

In 1781, at the age of 78, Wesley addressed this issue yet again. He noted that when his people had been drunken and dissolute they had an appetite for vulgarity. Now they had a taste for refinement. This taste for refinement Wesley called “genteel sensuality.” There was nothing gross or lurid about it; on the contrary it was the soul of social sophistication. Whereas at one time they had lacked bread, now they were discussing the merits of caviar. Whereas at one time they had stupefied themselves on gin, now they were comparing notes on flavours of tea (tea was frightfully expensive in Eighteenth Century England and was sipped by the socially elevated.) Wesley noted that spiritual inertia invariably accompanied a taste for refinement.

Then, in his 1781 “scorcher,” he put his finger on something I have read nowhere else. He traced a horrifying process:

-as we become more affluent we assume greater self-importance;

-as we assume greater self-importance we become more easily affronted (in other words, snobbishness invariably gives rise to touchiness 😉

-as we are more easily affronted we are more prone to revenge.

In other words, prosperity magnifies our self-importance; and this increases our touchiness; and this renders us cruelly vindictive.

“As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’’ “I’m a mean-spirited, super-sensitive snob who can’t be shaken. Just try shaking me.”

 

III: — And that is exactly what God did. The psalmist couldn’t be moved? What an arrogant, cocksure, self-important fool – as he was soon to admit himself to be.

We do think ourselves Herculean, don’t we. But it takes only a nerve, finer than a hair, pinched between two vertebrae and our arm will dangle uselessly or our leg will drag lamely, all of this accompanied by excruciating pain. We think ourselves impregnable, don’t we. But it only takes a bacterium, too small to be seen with the naked eye, and we are sick unto death. We think ourselves invulnerable, don’t we. But it takes less pressure than we imagine to break us psychologically.

In Ps.30 the psalmist had become ill.   Since he thanks God for healing he must have been ill. And it was when he’d been brought low through his illness that he floundered. No longer did he crow, “I shall never be moved.” Now he was fragmented and was wondering if he could ever be put back together. Wholly vulnerable now, wholly defenceless, he looked in God’s direction, as it were, only to discover that there was no one to be seen. “Thou didst hide thy face.” (Ps.30:7) When his cocksureness had given way to desperation (it had never occurred to him to look to God when he was self-important) and he was floundering he decided he should look to God and find comfort in God’s face, since everywhere in scripture God’s face reflects God’s heart, a heart of mercy. To his horror he looked, and didn’t see God’s face; didn’t see anything – for, he tells us himself, God had hidden his face. If he had been able to voice his desperation in the words of Charles Wesley he could have cried out,

Oh, disclose thy lovely face.

Quicken all my drooping powers.

Gasps my fainting soul for grace

As a thirsty land for showers.

 

If he had had Wesley’s words wherewith to voice his desperation he might have cried out, “Lovely face? I can’t find any face.” “Thou didst hide thy face,” he laments in Ps.30, and then adds, “I was dismayed.”

Dismayed. The English word “dismayed” is derived from the Latin, dis-magare, to be denied all strength. Debilitated, destitute, defenceless. Invulnerable? He is nothing but vulnerable now. Can’t be moved, shaken, jarred or crushed? He’s pulverized now.

The psalmist’s suffering, and only his suffering, has brought him to his senses. His sickness has made him aware of his fragility; more importantly, his sickness and its attendant suffering has made him aware of God’s wrath, God’s judgement upon him. “Thou didst hide thy face.” Until he was sunk in suffering he never cared a whit about God’s face. Now he’d give anything to see God’s face, for if he could see God’s face he’d know God’s heart, know how things stood between him and God, know whether God was going to embrace him or flick him off, know whether God was going to smile upon him or grimace at the mention of his name. And at this moment God’s face is nowhere to be seen. His external affliction (whatever it was that had made him sick, together with the suffering this entailed) is now matched by an internal horror. Looking for God’s face, he sees nothing.

How bad was it? He tells us in verse 3: he had gone all the way down to Sheol, all the way down to the Pit. Sheol is the Hebrew expression for that realm of deadliness, deathliness, vacuity, so grim it couldn’t be grimmer. Sheol, the Pit, is “the pits.” It’s the sphere of icy, isolated bleakness so very icy, isolated and bleak that words can’t speak of it; just to think of it chills one. Sheol is that realm of existence where someone who used to think himself substantial now knows he’s but a shadow, no substance at all. He used to think himself clever; now he knows, if he knows anything for sure, that he knows nothing. He used to face life confidently; now he dreads the dregs of what used to be “life.” When the psalmist had sunk down into Sheol, the Pit, he was aware that he was so very low he couldn’t sink lower. He had hit bottom. His life lacked all brightness, all warmth, all vibrancy. It wasn’t even worth calling “life.” Now the psalmist was so very miserable that he feared he might not die.

 

IV: — There and then he blurted out, he tells us in verse 8; blurted out to the God whose face he couldn’t apprehend. Perhaps we are unimpressed by his “outblurt” since he wailed, “What profit for you is there in my death? How are you going to gain, God, by my everlasting misery? Is my sentence going to benefit you in any way? What will it do for you to leave me unrestored?” There’s something about the psalmist’s outblurt that irks us just because he appears not to be contrite yet; he appears to be a country mile away from genuine penitence. He says he’s in Sheol; he says he couldn’t be more devastated; he says he couldn’t sink lower, and yet there remains in him that residual pride that still thinks it can bargain with God somehow. He appears not to be like the publican in Luke 18 who can only plead, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” And yet so vast is God’s mercy, so incomprehensible his kindness, that God will accept any and all who turn to him out of any motive at all. William Temple, former archbishop of Canterbury and an acknowledged spiritual giant, used to say that God’s mercy is such astounding mercy that his mercy pardons even those who turn to him out of shabby motives still riddled with self-interest.

On second thought maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on the psalmist, because for sure he has one thing right: “If I go down to the dust (he’s starting to hear “dust to dust”,) will the dust praise thee? Will it tell of thy faithfulness?” What does he have right? He knows that the purpose of life, everyone’s life, is to praise God. The vocation to which all humankind is summoned is the vocation of bearing witness to God’s faithfulness. On the surface the psalmist is saying, “You’ve got to restore me, God, or else your own cause won’t look good and your own purpose will remain unfulfilled. If you restore me then you and I both gain.” On the surface he seems to be saying something as crass as this. More profoundly, however, in his suffering he has recalled what he’d forgotten in his prosperity; namely, that only as he is restored will he be able to do once more what he should never have ceased doing: praising the God who is creator and redeemer, bearing witness to the unimpeachable faithfulness of God, announcing to any and all that there is none like the Holy One of Israel who cherished him the moment he was conceived and will watch over him for ever. The psalmist climaxes his cry to God with the plea, “Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me. O Lord, be thou my helper.”

His change of heart is evident: he is a self-confessed sinner standing in the need of a grace he can never merit. Only God’s undeserved mercy can restore him. Only God’s sovereign kindness can resurrect him. “Nothing in my hand I bring” a hymnwriter was to pen for him centuries later, “Simply to thy cross – mercy – I cling.” “We have no other argument,” sang Charles Wesley, “We have no other plea; it is enough that Jesus died, and that he died ‘for me.’” Regardless of how self-serving the psalmist might sound to us, his outcry, “Be gracious to me,” means “I have nothing to plead, no excuses to make; ‘Nothing in my hand I bring.’”

“O Lord, be thou my helper.” Contrary to what the English might suggest the psalmist isn’t asking for help, assistance, aid. Help is just that: help, boosting, abetting. “Be thou my help” doesn’t mean “Give me a hand and I can do the rest myself.” “Be thou my help” means “I am utterly helpless, and as long as I am helpless my predicament is hopeless.” “Be thou my help” doesn’t mean he needs a hand; it means that like Lazarus his fellow Israelite he needs nothing less than resurrection, resurrection from the dead. After all, he’s in Sheol, isn’t he?

 

IV: — What was the result of his cry to God? The psalmist tells us in the exuberant exclamations that begin and end Psalm 30. The section of the psalm we began with tonight – the blessing and bane of prosperity – is found in the middle of the psalm. This middle part is “book-ended” by his praise and gratitude. Myself, I’m convinced that the horror of his dismay was so very horrible that he dares to think about it only if “book-ends” a recollected dismay with a present awareness, throbbing awareness, of God’s mercy and patience, of God’s effectual restoration. “I will extol thee, O God” (verse 1), “for thou hast drawn me up.” (RSV) More simply, “You lifted me.” (NIV) His imagery here is that of a bucket being drawn up from a well.   To be drawn up from a well is to be delivered from a predicament which we can’t escape by ourselves; it’s also to be delivered from a predicament that threatens to engulf us.

The psalmist knew his prosperity-quickened cocksureness had plunged him into the well. He had only himself to blame. He knew just as surely that while he alone had gotten himself in, he couldn’t get himself out. He had to be drawn out, lifted, as surely as our Lord Jesus Christ had to raise Lazarus from the dead and was himself resurrected from the dead for our sakes. The primary result of the psalmist’s cry is that God reached down into the Pit and lifted him up.

Accompanying this event were three collateral results.

[1] The psalmist becomes aware that God’s anger is but for a moment, while his favour is for a lifetime. We mustn’t misread these words and trivialize them, as if the psalmist were saying, “Do you know what I found out? God’s anger is real to be sure, but he’s over it quickly. All we have to do is let him blow off a little steam for a few seconds and we’ll find him as benign as ever. He storms up quickly, but the storm blows over just as quickly.” The psalmist is more profound than this. He means, “God’s favour is his eternal purpose. His anger – real, severe, never to be trifled with; his anger always serves his favour.” In scripture the purpose of God’s anger characteristically is to educate and correct. Luther used to say that God’s anger is his love burning hot. In other words, God’s anger is the expression his love takes when God wants to get our attention and therefore needs to shake us up, all for the sake of correcting us.   This is what the psalmist means by “His anger is but for a moment, his favour for a lifetime.”

With the same force he says, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Weeping is what God quickens in us when we need to repent but see no need to repent, until his anger gives us reason to weep. But weeping is never God’s ultimate purpose for us. He causes us to weep only for the sake of his ultimate purpose: to make our hearts rejoice.

[2] Another collateral result: because God has restored him the psalmist’s enemies haven’t been allowed to gloat over him. He is sure, as is the older testament as a whole, that our ultimate enemies aren’t the people who are hostile to us; our real enemies are those who are hostile to God and who endeavour to subvert his kingdom. Elsewhere the psalmist cries (Psalm 139) “Your enemies are my enemies.” Please note this carefully. The psalmist doesn’t say, “My enemies are your enemies; therefore please clobber them for me.” Instead he knows that real enmity is defined by the kingdom of God . The psalmist’s real enemies are first God’s enemies and are the psalmist’s enemies only because they are God’s enemies.

When the psalmist says that God has drawn him up from the Pit; God’s stabbing him awake, bringing him to his senses and thereby inducing his repentance; God’s doing this prevents God’s enemies from gloating over the fact that they now have the psalmist in their clutches and in fact have captured him forever. In restoring the psalmist, God has defeated God’s own enemies; in defeating his own enemies God has defeated the psalmist’s enemies. The real force of “Thou hast not let my foes rejoice over me” is “In restoring me, O God, you have deprived your enemies of all grounds for snickering and sneering at you. In restoring me you have vindicated yourself. And because you have vindicated yourself, your enemies can’t rejoice at you. And since I am your child, the same enemies, now mine as well, can’t rejoice at me.”

[3] A third collateral result: the psalmist’s restoration gives rise to his elation, and as his elation overflows in thanksgiving and praise the entire community is summoned to thank God and praise God together with the psalmist. To be sure, it’s the psalmist specifically whose prosperity took him down and it’s the psalmist specifically whom God seized and shook and restored. Nevertheless, the entire community should understand that it is as vulnerable as the psalmist was vulnerable. Moreover, the entire community is always in danger of being infected through the sin of one its members. Therefore the psalmist’s repentance and restoration can only have farthest-reaching consequences for the entire community. “Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints [plural – ‘All of you!’], and give thanks to his holy name.”

True faith never claims experiential privilege. True faith never says, “I have been spiritually where you haven’t been, even where you can’t come, and I’ve been admitted to spiritual intimacies and wonders that you know nothing of. Therefore I can glow and you can’t.” True faith, rather, is always aware that any one individual’s engagement with God has profoundest implications for the entire community. Yes, Moses alone ascended Sinai and endured for forty days a visitation from God that was appalling and appealing in equal measure, an immediacy whose intimacy and intensity no vocabulary could ever capture. Nevertheless the Sinai event is pregnant for the entire community. For when Moses descended the mountain the Sinai event (together with the Exodus that preceded it) thereafter became the “root” event in Israel ’s life in which every last Jewish person remains rooted to this day. And when Moses descended the mountain he brought with him the Ten Words without which the subsequent history of the world is unimaginable.

The apostle Paul was admitted to the “third heaven,” as he puts it, where heard things “that cannot be told, what man may not utter.” There was vouchsafed to him an “abundance of revelations.” Vouchsafed to him simply for private enjoyment? Never. This intense intimacy with God wasn’t an experiential privilege devoid of significance for anyone else. His admission to the “third heaven” has everything to do with his apostolic commission. His immersion in “what cannot be told” equips him and fortifies him for that apostolic work which is undertaken in the cruciform “weakness” that Paul was stuck with all his life and in the midst of which he had to prove over and over that God’s grace was sufficient for him. Ultimately, of course, it’s the entire Gentile church that joins with Paul in thanking and praising God as surely the entire community joined with the psalmist.

Only Peter, James and John were with Jesus on the mount when they were admitted to wonders and mysteries and ecstasies that no vocabulary can comprehend. But the point wasn’t that they were merely to glow in it as if inwardly lit by a never-failing Duracell battery. Rather by it they were equipped to descend the mountain and immerse themselves in human strife and suffering, not the least of which was a young man whose convulsions deranged him repeatedly, threatened to kill him, and tormented his helpless father.

The psalmist, in Psalm 30, knows that his restoration impels his thanksgiving and praise to God, even as it impels the same response from the entire community. For the psalmist, now restored, is thereafter commissioned a witness to God’s power to restore. And the community, now a witness to the restoration of one of its members, is also commissioned a witness to God’s power to restore.

 

V: — The last point to be made tonight: as we ponder together the theme of restoration, and think particularly of the God who restores, we must probe the relation between restoration and rest. Prior to the Fall of humankind “rest” was rest. God rested on the Sabbath. Even so, prior to the Fall, we mustn’t think that “rest” thereby meant “vegging,” utter inactivity. We are often told (incorrectly) that God created the universe in six days. At the end of day six he was finished creating, with the result that on the seventh day he did nothing. This notion is wrong. The creation story in Genesis one tells us that God finished creating on the seventh day. God finished creating on the Sabbath, not prior to the Sabbath. God completed his work of creating on the seventh day. God climaxed and crowned his work on the seventh day, and for this reason hallowed the Sabbath. In other words “rest” in scripture never means “vegging;” “rest” never means “doing nothing.” “Rest” means “completing, crowning, bringing to fulfilment.”

In the wake of the Fall, however, it isn’t a good creation, unqualifiedly good as good from God’s hand, that is to be completed. In the wake of the Fall a good creation now devastated on account of sin has to be restored. Therefore in the wake of the Fall “rest” means “restoration.” “Rest” is now “fulfilment by way of restoration. “Rest” means a restoration that is essential if the creation’s God-intended fulfilment is to be recovered.

In Matthew 11 Jesus says, “Come unto me all who are weary and worn, sick and tired, frazzled and frantic and fed up; come to me and I will give you rest.” Give us utter inactivity? Give us room to “veg?” “Come to me and I will restore you so that God’s intention for you, the fulfilment of his purpose for you; all of this will be recovered.

In Hebrews 4 we are told, “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” God has promised his people that restoration which is nothing less than the fulfilment of his purpose for us recovered in the wake of our fallen condition. If such restoration is his promise to us and is therefore guaranteed; if this is what we are awaiting, why not anticipate it? Why not begin to live in it and delight in it now?

The psalmist’s suffering brought him to his senses. Now “smartened up,” he sought and was granted that restoration which left him and his congregation rejoicing, praising, singing. Then you and I should pray that God will seize us and shake us until we too come to our senses. For in our prosperity have not you and I said, and said more than once, “I shall never be moved”? And in God’s merciful providence, haven’t we been dismayed? And shouldn’t we now look to God and plead his help?

As we do, we shall find ourselves exclaiming with our 3000 year-old friend, “You have turned my mourning into dancing,” even as we invite the entire congregation to which we belong to join us in the praise and adoration of our great God and Saviour who invariably does all things well.

 

The Reverend Dr. V. Shepherd                                                                                               July 2004