Even the most capable biblical scholars find Psalm 130 hard to categorize. After all, it beautifully combines a plea for forgiveness with an expression of trust that contains an element of thanksgiving. However, perhaps it’s precisely that combination of elements that makes it such an eloquent Old Testament expression of the gospel. Martin Luther called Psalm 130 a “proper master and doctor of Scripture,” by which he seemed to mean that it teaches the gospel’s fundamental truths about human sinfulness, God’s grace and the appropriate human response of gratitude. The church father Augustine even supposedly had Psalm 130’s words inscribed on the wall in the bedroom where he lay dying so that he might make its words his own.
Since the psalmist doesn’t identify the particular “depths” into which she has plunged, the Spirit opens Psalm 130’s interpretation to a variety of ills with which worshipers can identify. Her phrase “Out of the depths” may sound like the psalmist feels like she’s praying from the bottom of her own grave. We might even think of it as the cry of someone who’s fallen into the bottom of some kind of deep well, hole or crevice.
Yet as Christopher Breck Reid notes, “depths” refers to any chaotic forces that threaten human life. So perhaps it would be most appropriate to imagine the psalmist feeling as if he’s crying out from the bottom of some deep body of water. We might identify with the psalmist’s plight by imagining ourselves falling out of a boat and sinking to the bottom of a deep lake. Perhaps we might even imagine ourselves wearing some clothing that weighs us down and prevents us from rising back to the surface. In that case, we could only “cry” for help.
However, the “depths” out of which the psalmist cries isn’t some kind of trouble caused by an external threat. The “depths” seems to refer to Israel and the poet’s sins. What threatens not only her emotional but also physical well-being is unfaithfulness to and rebellion against the God who has created her.
The psalmist’s cry offers those who preach and teach Psalm 130 an opportunity to reflect with hearers on their own responses to their sin. Do any people naturally think of individual and corporate sin as plunging them into depths that threaten their well-being? Have we become so cavalier about sin that we no longer view it as a threat to us, except when someone else sins against us? Some modern Christians are reluctant to talk about sin, preferring, instead, to talk about “mistakes that were made” or “errors in judgment.” Psalm 130 offers a wonderful liturgical tool for individual and corporate reflection on and confession of sin’s utter seriousness.
Worshipers who have felt the weight of their own and society’s sins may feel as though neither God nor anyone else can hear us when we plead for help. Yet the psalmist begs God to pay attention to his plea for mercy. He recognizes that he can’t simply pull himself out of sin’s depths by resolving to try harder to be more faithfully obedient. He recognizes he must rely on God to graciously extricate him from the depths to which sin has plunged him.
Yet Psalm 130’s poet also recognizes that she doesn’t deserve to have God hear her cry from the depths. After all, she realizes, if God “kept score” of sin against God like people keep score of slights and offenses against us, she’d remain “out;” she’d die in the depths of her sin.
Even the most faithful worshipers naturally keep careful count of the times others sin against us. Even when we forgive each other, it’s tempting to nurse grudges caused by others’ sins against us. Thankfully, then, God is fundamentally different than us. With God there is no careful record keeping of sin, but “forgiveness.”
Of course, Christians understand the nature of that forgiveness slightly differently than the poet did. The New Testament helps worshipers to recognize that our forgiveness comes at the steep cost of the obedient life and sacrificial death of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Yet even long before Jesus lived, died, rose again from the dead and ascended to the heavenly realm, God showed the psalmist that God is a forgiving God. As a result, in spite of his overwhelming sense of guilt, the psalmist feels the right to cry out to God for help.
She even recognizes she can afford to wait for God to graciously respond. It sometimes seems as though God is a bit slow to rescue us from the depths of our sin. Yet because God is a forgiving God, the psalmist’s knows her wait for the Lord isn’t in vain. She can wait for God’s gracious forgiveness as eagerly as a night watchman waits for the first streaks of dawn to paint the night sky.
Interestingly, Psalm 130’s original language doesn’t make the tense of “wait” clear. So Reid suggests that it would be an interesting exercise for worshipers to ask themselves what difference the tense of “wait” would make for this psalm. If the poet is saying, “I have waited,” we might see this as an affirmation of God’s coming to her in the depths in the past that strengthens her confidence that God will rescue her again.
If the psalmist is saying, “I am waiting,” the poignancy of that wait deepens our sense of her eager expectation that God will again soon rescue her. If the poet is saying, “I will wait,” it’s as if she’s professing that she will wait as long as it takes for God to graciously redeem her.
The psalmist also recognizes that because God is a gracious God, the most appropriate response of worshipers to God is that of fear. This, however, isn’t an abused animal’s cowering fear of a tormentor or a child’s whimpering fear of a a thunderstorm. It’s not appropriate for worshipers to be terrified of God. Rather, the fear of which the poet speaks is that of honor, worship, trust and service. Those who fear God are those who are eager to respond to God’s redemption with their faithful obedience.
However, those who fear the Lord are also those who respond to God’s redemption by calling others to join in faithful obedience. So the psalmist calls Israel to join him in putting her hope not in her own efforts, but in the Lord. Those who’ve been in the depths know they can have no confidence in themselves. Our only hope is the God who graciously forgives.
However, the psalmist also seems to call Israel to join her in waiting for God’s redemption. Perhaps her own experience of having to wait for God’s rescue helps her to recognize how difficult such waiting can be. So returning to verse 3’s theme of “sins,” the poet calls Israel to continue to hope in the Lord whose love never fails and whose redemption triumphs over even the darkest sin. While Psalm 130 reflects a deep awareness of human sin and sinfulness, it also affirms that God’s gracious redemption eventually sweeps away even the most awful iniquities.
On this fifth Sunday after Pentecost in year B, the Lectionary appoints passages that also speak of various “depths.” 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 is the Old Testament reading. Its King David has been plunged into the depths of grief by the death of Saul and Jonathan. The depths of grief also characterizes Mark 5:21-43’s account of Jesus’ interaction with Jairus whose daughter has died. God lifts Jairus from those depths through Jesus’ raising of the girl from death. That account brackets the account of another “raising from the depths,” that of Jesus’ healing of a woman who has bled for twelve years.
Anyone who has ever worked an overnight or “graveyard” shift knows the poignancy of the psalmist’s “wait” (5-6). As the night stretches out what sometimes feels interminably, various “watchmen” will do almost anything to keep themselves awake. Especially if there’s not a lot of work to do besides keep an eye on things, watchmen figuratively if not literally eagerly watch the clock or scan the skies for signs that the morning is dawning and their shift is ending.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 28, 2015
Psalm 130 Commentary