Joy Comes Through the Mourning
Why Sorrow Must Give Way to Gladness
Message by David Mathis
Here we are, in mid-July, in what has amounted, for many of us, to be the strangest and most unnerving year of our lives. Think back to just February. How much has seemed to change in so short a span?
Psalm 30 has a word that we need to hear in 2020 as a prosperous and prideful generation that is being humbled. Verses 6–7:
As for me, I said in my prosperity,
“I shall never be moved.”
By your favor, O Lord,
you made my mountain stand strong;
you hid your face;
I was dismayed.
As for us, how many of us would have thought (or assumed) in our prosperity, just a few months ago, “We shall never be moved”? The global economy will never tank with such little notice. March Madness will never be canceled. Or the NBA season, or MLB (for sure, not the NFL and college football). We shall never be moved.
A policeman would never put his knee on a man’s neck for eight minutes, while bystanders captured it on video. Riots would never erupt in such a peaceful and tolerant city as Minneapolis and damage a thousand buildings, and cause more destruction than any other riots since 1992 in Los Angeles. We shall never be moved.
Surely, our healthcare system and our law enforcement and our economy are the best in the world and will not be challenged to the very core in a matter of weeks. We shall never we moved.
Yet we have been moved. By God’s favor, our mountain may stand strong. But when he chooses to hide his face, it crumbles overnight.
One question that Psalm 30 raises for us in 2020 is: How should we as Christians think about earthly prosperity? How many of us now, looking back just a few months, would say life seemed better then, easier then, more comfortable then, more prosperous then? How many of us have felt health and financial and civic anxieties and full-blown fears we have never felt so acutely? Perhaps some of us sail carelessly on with few changes. But many of us here in July of 2020 are not living in the same felt sense of prosperity we took for granted as recently as March.
From Prosperity, to the Pit, to Praise
Psalm 30 is what many have called a psalm of thanks. David, the psalmist, stands on the other side of some great distress and thanks God for rescuing him from a close encounter with death. Perhaps not unlike what many are experiencing right now in ICUs and elsewhere around the world, with or without ventilators to keep them breathing. David almost died, and he cried out to God for help, and God rescued him, and now David writes the psalm to thank God and to draw others into thanks with him.
Last summer when we turned to Psalm 6, we talked about three major types of psalms: (1) psalms of praise (orientation) when all seems well with the world; (2) psalms of lament (disorientation) when some danger threatens, and the psalmist cries out for mercy or justice; and (3) psalms of thanks (reorientation) that renew praise to God on the other side of the threat and his deliverance.
Psalm 30 may thank God for a specific rescue in a particular instance in David’s life, but it also may reflect back on a whole life, or season of life. We don’t know how literal or figurative it is when David says in verse 2, “You have healed me” — and that’s by design. The psalm is meant to draw others into worship, for all sorts of healings and rescues, not just David’s.
This psalm also has an interesting “flashback” (we might call it) in verses 6–10. It begins in the present (verses 1–3), then draws others in to worship (verse 4), and grounds the praise in the timeless nature of God (verse 5), then flashes back to David’s time of trouble, when he was in the pit and how he prayed for help (verses 6–10), and then ends with enhanced praise in verses 11–12.
One way we might summarize the coherence or flow of the psalm is to say it moves in David’s life from prosperity, to the pit, to praise. So, let’s follow that arc and see what the psalm has to teach us about each stage.
1. Earthly prosperity is a gift, and a test (verses 6–7).
Now we come back to the question about how Christians should think about our seasons of seeming prosperity in this age. The answer is not simple, but it is accessible. Verses 6–7 give us two truths here for how we should think about earthly prosperity:
On the one hand, earthly prosperity is “from God.” Verse 7: “You made my mountain stand strong.” God made David prosperous. It was a gift — not the ultimate gift, but a real, tangible blessing, fragile as earthly prosperity can be. Which means David should not have grown prideful about his seeming strength, but humble. And what would humility in his prosperity have looked like? Gratitude. He should have thanked God for what he had (as should we), rather than slowly swelling to being prideful about it.
On the other hand, God’s temporal favor in this age is not an expression of his enduring favor. Verse 7: “You hid your face.” David was God’s anointed, and yet God’s making David prosperous for a season was not a final word about God’s favor on David. In fact, because God did favor David, he tested him; he humbled him. David almost lost everything, on the brink of death itself.
Prosperity in this world is both a gift (for which to thank God) and also a test (in which to renew trust in God, not self). Both prosperity and poverty serve his eternal designs for his people.
And David now confesses in this flashback that he mishandled prosperity. Verse 6: “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’” That is pride talking. Prosperity gave space for David’s pride to swell. He came to think his strength showed he was strong, of his own doing, that he would not be moved. He grew numb to the truth that it was God who made him strong (like a mountain), and that God is able to make mountains crumble at his word, and for our eternal good.
What Psalm 30 shows us is that in this life neither mountain-strength nor God’s hidden face are the final word. The wicked can seem mountain-strong and be prideful; or the righteous can be mountain-strong and be humble; so also the wicked, in the end, will be humbled, and the righteous not only might but will go through seasons where God’s face and favor seem hidden and withdrawn. Earthly prosperity is not a sign of God’s eternal favor; nor is poverty a sign of his disfavor.
If you are in a season of seeming strength and prosperity, the word for you from Psalm 30 is: humble yourself before God now; thank him; realize the fragility of your prosperity; acknowledge his kindness and your unworthiness. Do not say in your prosperity, “I shall never be moved.” Have you seen all the mountains God has crumbled since February?
And if you are in a season where his face seems hidden, don’t take that as God’s final word to you. In Christ, it is not his final word (as we’ll see). We are fragile. Our world is fragile. Our economy is fragile. Our health is fragile. Our peace is fragile. When we are prosperous, God is the giver. And we should humbly thank him and not presume we shall not be moved. And when our mountain does crumble, God has taken it away, and he has eternal purposes for us in it. This is his test to reveal who we really are and purify us for his final favor.
2. The pit is fearsome, and purposeful (verses 3, 8–10).
Now, let’s finish David’s flashback with verses 8–10:
To you, O Lord, I cry,
and to the Lord I plead for mercy:
“What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and be merciful to me!
O Lord, be my helper!”
David tells us how he pled with God when he was desperate and near death.
First, he reasoned with God in verse 9: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” In other words, “God, what good is it to you if I die? I cannot praise you if I lose my body, and mouth, and tongue.”
Verse 9 mentions “the pit,” as does verse 3. Another name for this “pit” is “Sheol.” Look at verse 3: “O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.”
What is this Sheol he mentions? We’ve seen this before in other psalms (6, 9, 16, 18). In Old Testament times, God had not yet revealed as much about the afterlife as he has now. And in particular, he had not yet altered the landscape of the afterlife by raising Jesus from the dead, and bringing righteous souls with him to heaven.
Sheol — or the pit or Hades — was the dark and shadowy place of the dead where the human soul would go once body and soul were torn apart in death. The body dies, and goes into the ground, and the soul/spirit then would wait in Sheol, where a chasm was fixed between the righteous and wicked (Luke 16:26). So, Sheol was a holding place for the souls of the dead, waiting for the final judgment — no bodies to move, or hands to works, or eyes to see, or ears to hear, or mouths to speak.
And David appeals to this. He knows that God made the world for his glory and that he rightly means to be praised (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14), and David begs that God spare his life to preserve his praise. He reasons with God on the basis of God’s glory. Which is a good way to pray.
That’s David’s argument in verse 9, but then in verse 10, no more reasoning — he just pleads for mercy: “Hear, O Lord, and be merciful to me! O Lord, be my helper!” And God does show him mercy. He heals him, rescues him, preserves his life and body and mouth and tongue. And David writes Psalm 30 to sing praise and thanks, and to draw others in to sing with him — and more than just sing.
3. Praise is audible, and bodily (verses 5, 11–12).
In verses 11–12, we come back to the present from the flashback of verses 6–10. David has been rescued, he still has his mouth, and he is using it to ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name. And his praise, on the other side of the pit, is not only audible. It is also bodily — and part of what we might call enhanced praise. Verses 11–12:
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
you have loosed my sackcloth
and clothed me with gladness,
that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!
Here are two things to see in these important, climactic verses. First, sorrow and joy are not equals. In God, and for his people, the sackcloth of sorrow and the garment of gladness are not equal and opposite sides of the coin. Sorrow and joy are asymmetrical for God’s people. Sackcloth always serves gladness. God takes our mourning, and turns it into dancing. That’s the final word. Not the other way around, not in the end. God removes the garment of our weeping and clothes us with joy.
In God, mourning does not have the final say, but morning — joy comes with the morning (verse 5). Mourning gives way to morning. The reason we know this is true for God’s people, and verse 11 celebrates it, is because this is rooted in who God is. Which is what David says in verse 5, at the bottom of Psalm 30 (note the all-important for). God’s people praise him,
For his anger is but for a moment,
and his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
God is not only full of favor. He is not only gracious. He also gets righteously angry. But grace and anger are not equal in revealing who he is. Anger serves favor. Weeping does not have the last word for those who are his, but joy sounds the final note.
How can we say that? Because God is God. This is who God is. Because he has revealed himself as the God of verse 5, we can know that verse 11 will come true: that morning will come, rescue will come, relief will come, joy will sound the final note, no matter our present trouble or distress, if we are his people.
Joy Sounds the Final Note
When we sink the roots of our joy into the very nature and character of God (as verse 5 does), our roots of joy go down as deep as possible. Our joy, come what may, is grounded in who God is as the God of joy, who is infinitely happy. There is no greater foundation, no greater source, no greater reason for stability and security and genuine joy, when our joy is hidden in God himself — that his anger (though real and painful) is but for a moment, and his favor for a lifetime. Weeping may indeed tarry for the night. And it does. Oh, how often it does, for many long nights. But in God, morning is always coming — just a little while longer — and joy comes with the morning, and gets us through the night knowing that more is coming.
And as sure as David could be of this, as we see in verses 5 and 11, we now, in Christ, are even more sure. Even more secure. Even more enduringly stable. Because in a way David could not yet see we have the cross and the resurrection — which is not only another example of joy sounding the last note, but it is the once-and-for-all, objective accomplishment in history that joy will win. Joy will have the last laugh, the final say, sound the last note. As sure as Jesus conquered the grave, so will we.
Which is no promise about earthly prosperity — whether how soon the pandemic ends or whether any fresh and lasting peace is achieved in our city. The present pandemic might turn out far worse than current assessments. The previous riots might prove to be just the beginning of unrest to come. The nature and person of God doesn’t give us earthly assurances that we will have no nights of weeping. But in Christ, God does give us final assurance. The night will end. Morning will come. Joy will be the final note.
Sing with Your Whole Body
Let’s finish, then, with verse 12, which closes the envelope on “extol” from verse 1, and “praise” and “give thanks” from verse 4. This is the second thing to see in verses 11–12. God turns mourning into dancing, David says, “that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.”
“My glory” — what is that? This phrase “my glory” might be one of the most significant in the psalm. Literally, it is poetic for the whole being (Psalm 16:9; 108:1): “that my whole being may sing your praise and not be silent.” In other words, now, on the other side of the pit, David’s praise has been enhanced. He is not just praising with his mouth, but with his whole being. And what did verse 11 mention? Dancing. He doesn’t just say you turned my mourning into joy. Or my mourning into singing. He says dancing. This is whole-being joy.
In other words, the whole person matters for praising God. The mind matters, and the heart matters. The voice matters. Singing matters. Dancing matters. The whole self matters.
Remember David’s argument in verse 9 for not dying was that his voice would not be able to praise. And now his climactic declaration is that he will praise God with his glory, with his whole being: his heart and voice and whole body. He will dance to praise God with his whole being, clothed with gladness. Which, interestingly enough, is what it means to “image” God in the world: not just to think about him, and love him and praise and thank him inwardly and invisibly, but to speak, to tell, to praise, to extol, and to dance, clothed with good works, to project him into the world for others to see and hear the joy we have in him.
Which brings us to the Table.
Joy at the Table
For David, the bringing up of his soul from Sheol, from the pit, was figurative. He was as good as dead. He despaired of life itself. He thought he was a goner. And God brought him up from a near-death experience.
But for David’s greater Son, it was literally true. He died on the cross. His body and soul were torn apart, and his human soul went all the way to the pit. For Friday evening, and all day Saturday, and into Sunday morning, his spirit waited in the pit. And then God drew him up, and spoiled the joy of his enemies, and brought him up all the way, not just from the brink of death, but from death itself.
Because God hid his face on Friday, Joy came with Easter Sunday morning. And because of Jesus, we experience joy — not wrath — as our final note. Clothed with gladness. And so we are as we’re conformed to his image.
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.