As we continue our Lenten journey up to Mt. Calvary, the Lectionary puts a perfect Psalm before us on this Fifth Sunday of Lent. We’re getting close to our destination, but here the path takes a severe dip, sort of like a saddle on a mountain just before the summit. This Song of Ascents takes us into the depths, one more time (cf. Psalm 32, where we began our climb). Psalm 130 seems to suggest that before we can enter into the full experience of God’s grace in Christ, we must experience the depths of sin and its attendant chaos once again.
Traditionally called “De Profundis” (Latin for its opening words, “out of the depths”), Psalm 130 has a remarkable history in the life of the church. For centuries it has been recited daily in both the Western and Eastern churches, in part because it captures the agony of any child of God who has ever been in the depths of existence. More than that, it is, as Martin Luther said, “a proper master and doctor of Scripture,” because it teaches the basic truths of the Gospel. James Luther Mays sums up what Luther meant when he writes that Psalm 130 is “a succinct but powerful expression of the theme that is at the heart of Scripture: the human predicament and its dependence on divine grace.”
Consisting of four couplets, each with a different intent (petition, statement, confession, and exhortation), the Psalm is mostly a private conversation with and about Yahweh. But like so many of the Psalms, it ends with an important turn to the community of Israel. Rarely do we find in the Psalms the kind of privatized religion so prevalent in Western churches. What happens to me in my experience of sin and grace has crucial implications for the larger church, so I must speak to my brothers and sisters about what my experience means for them.
Though we are headed to the heights, we find ourselves at the beginning of Psalm 130 in the very depths. What are these depths and how did we get here? Most scholars hear these words as a reference to the depths of the sea, as in Psalm 69. The verses that immediately follow (verses 3 and 4) suggest that we fell into the depths of watery chaos because of our sins.
The other lectionary readings for today give credence to that reading of verses 1 and 2. Ezekiel 37 pictures the hopeless situation of exiled Israel as a valley of dry bones, where God’s people say, “Our hope is gone; we are cut off.” Using similar imagery, Romans 8:6-11 contrasts the deadness of those who live according to the flesh with the new life given to our bodies by the Spirit. And John 11:1-45 is the famous story of Jesus raising the long dead Lazarus from the tomb.
If we combine those texts with Psalm 130, it makes sense to say that the Psalmist is talking about being caught in what Martin Luther called “the flood of mortal ills prevailing….” (“A Mighty Fortress”) The many troubles of life are simply overwhelming. The Psalmist feels in danger of drowning in that flood of mortal ills. He cannot save himself. All he can do is cry out to God for mercy, like the Publican in Jesus parable (Luke 18:13).
Thankfully, that is the one cry to which God’s ear is specially tuned, the one prayer God always hears and answers. In his commentary on this Psalm, Walter Brueggemann puts it in his usual inimitable way. “From where should the ruler of reality be addressed? One might think it would be from a posture of obedience, or at least from a situation of prosperity and success, indicating conformity to the blessed order of creation. One ought to address the king suitably dressed, properly positioned, with a disciplined well modulated voice. But this Psalm is the miserable cry of a nobody from nowhere.” He further notes that this cry from the depths “echoes the cry of Exodus 2:23-25 with which our history of faith began.”
I noted above that the Psalmist’s plunge into the depths might be attributed to his sin, since verses 3 and 4 are precisely about sin. But we cannot say that the Psalmist wallows in his sin. In fact, he is convinced that God wouldn’t want him to do that. I shouldn’t dwell on my sin, because God doesn’t do that. He puts it negatively at first. “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sin, O Lord, who could stand?” If God watched over our lives like the legendary Santa Claus (who “knows when we’ve been bad or good”), then we would all be swept away by his holy wrath against sin.
Of course, God does know about all our sins, but the Psalmist says that Yahweh forgives what he knows. “With you there is forgiveness….” There are multiple ways to think about the effect of forgiveness, but the Psalmist here chooses an image any prisoner or debtor can appreciate. Forgiveness expunges our record, so that there is no record of our crimes. Forgiveness cancels our debts, so that the books of our lives are clean. No wonder Luther loved this Psalm. While it is completely honest about the depths of sins (“if you kept a record of sin, who could stand?”), it is crystal clear about the grace of God for sinners (“but with you there is forgiveness”). That is gospel.
But notice the Psalmist’s surprising response to the Gospel—“therefore, you are feared.” We might expect the Psalm to say, “therefore, you are loved,” or, “therefore we are grateful” or some other positive expression of faith. But, no, it says “feared.” One would think that forgiveness would drive out fear (as I John 4:18 seems to suggest). Clearly, if God did not forgive, everyone would flee him in terror of his punishment (the sense of I John 4:18). But since God does forgive, this fear must be something other than terror. And it is.
Fear is the preferred Old Testament word for a love that goes beyond emotion, a love that leads us to deep worship, profound reverence, high honor, consistent obedience, and unwavering service. From the depths of his sin related chaos, the Psalmist knows that something as profound as forgiveness demands more than a fleeting emotion or a momentary gesture. It demands “my soul, my life, my all.” It demands that Yahweh becomes the very center of my life. All of that is included in the idea of fearing a forgiving God.
Because of who God is, says the Psalmist in the next verses (5 and 6), I will stand here, even in the “flood of mortal ills,” and wait for the Lord. That is remarkable for its honesty and for its hope. The Psalmist honestly admits that even those whose sins are forgiven and who therefore fear the Lord may still flounder in the depths. The saving grace of God is no guarantee that life will be trouble free. Everyone knows that is true. But isn’t it helpful to hear the Bible say it?
And isn’t it even more helpful to hear how we should deal with the continuing crises? If we know that God is good, as evidenced by our forgiveness, we can wait for his goodness to show itself amidst the flood. There are many ways to wait—impatiently, anxiously, fearfully, or despairingly. But the Psalmist says that he will wait with hope. God has promised full redemption (verse 7), after all. And in that “word” we can put our hope.
The Psalmist chooses an interesting image of hope here—not a patient waiting for a doctor’s report, not a family waiting for a serviceman to return home from the Middle East, not a child waiting for the bell to ring at the end of a school day, but a watchman waiting for morning as he patrols a city wall looking out into the darkness for enemies.
We wait for many things in life, but our ultimate hope is in the Lord. That, in fact, is what the Psalmist calls out to us over the years and the miles. “O Israel, put your hope in Yahweh….” Then he gives substance to that hope. It is based on Yahweh’s “unfailing love,” which is the Hebrew word chesed, the fundamental covenant word. Indeed, the Hebrew of verse 7 actually has a definite article in front of chesed, so that it reads “the chesed.” Perhaps the sense is the famous chesed, the actual chesed, the real thing chesed. God can as little leave you in the depths as he can forsake his covenant and stop loving you. Your hope is absolutely secure.
And it is simply wonderful, because with Yahweh is “full redemption.” Most often in the Old Testament, redemption means rescue from some terrible physical situation, like bondage in Egypt or exile in Babylon or drowning in the flood of mortal ills. Here it means deliverance “from all our sins.”
But aren’t we already forgiven, so that the record is clean? Yes, but there is more to sin than guilt, and more to redemption than forgiveness of sins. Just because a criminal has been pardoned doesn’t mean that life will be good. There is still a lifetime of bad behaviors that have become habitual, and a whole network of bad characters to whom he might return upon release, and a host of people who have been hurt by his crimes, and so much more. It is one thing to be forgiven; it is quite another to be completely redeemed from the power, presence, and consequences of sin.
Between having our sinful record erased and becoming a glorious saint, there is a long journey. Here is a promise for those on such a pilgrimage. Whether you are just starting out from your former prison or you are coming close to the summit of sainthood or you are just now experiencing a new depth of trouble, keep waiting on the Lord. Your hope is as secure as his covenant love and as glorious as full redemption from all your sins and their consequences.
One way to help folks picture the threat of “the depths” is to show pictures of recent flooding in the South of the US. Pictures of washed out roads or, even better (worse?), pictures of cars being swept off roads by raging floodwaters, their passengers clinging to their hoods as they wave for help—such pictures will help capture the desperation we all feel when “the flood of mortal ills” threatens to drown us.
People who work in prison ministries are keenly aware that re-entry into normal life is a real difficulty for the incarcerated. Words like recidivism and restorative justice dominate discussions about “returning citizens.” How can they best pay their debt to society and how can we help them to stay out of jail? Full redemption is nearly (completely?) impossible for humans to achieve. Only God can give it through his unfailing love.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 2, 2017
Psalm 130 Commentary