Psalm 130 is famous for its opening words, “out of the depths,” from which came the name by which this Psalm has been known for centuries, “De Profundis.” It is one of the Psalms of Ascent that Jewish pilgrims allegedly sang as they made their way up to the Temple for one of their annual festivals. And it is a Psalm of Ascent in its message, “for it climbs from the abyss of depression to the high ground of steadfast hope” (Boice).
Further, it is one of the 7 Penitential Psalms in the Psalter. It was a particular favorite of Martin Luther because he thought it clearly expressed the gospel of justification by faith alone. Indeed, he called it a “Pauline Psalm,” an Old Testament foreshadowing of passages like Romans 5:1-2. Thus, this should be a Psalm that is easy to preach for any child of the Reformation. It is a cry for mercy uttered by someone with a keen sense of sin who also has full assurance that there is “forgiveness” and “full redemption” from “all our sins” because of the Lord’s “unfailing love.”
However, a sermon on this text might be a hard sell with some of your listeners because they don’t have a keen sense of sin. As my colleague Dr. Ron Nydam has powerfully argued, today’s younger generation is not plagued with guilt like older ones were. Their great felt need is a sense of disconnectedness, of not belonging, because of the fractured families from which so many of them come. For them, there is no objective law against which one might rebel, so there is no real guilt. There are only psychological guilt feelings, to which the appropriate response should be psychotherapy, not a wholehearted cry for mercy like we hear in Psalm 130.
So if you decide to preach on this Song of Ascent, you will be working uphill against the tilt of much contemporary culture. That doesn’t mean you should choose another text. Indeed, this lack of guilt is a problem that needs to be addressed, and Psalm 130 is a great platform from which to speak, in hopes of arousing and then assuaging that guilt. Just be aware that for some of your listeners, Psalm 130 is speaking a foreign language.
One way to bridge the language gap is to carefully explore the language of Psalm 130, particularly the opening verses. This cry “out of the depths” will resonate with nearly everyone; who hasn’t been down in the pits? The question is, what are the depths from which the Psalmist cries? Are these the depths of depression, or the depths caused by the threats of enemies, or the depths into which we sink when we feel alone? The other Old Testament reading for today (II Samuel 1) tells the story of David’s sorrow upon the deaths of his mentor/enemy, Saul, and his dearest friend, Jonathan. That sense of loss is a depth well known to the disconnected generation of which I wrote earlier.
What’s more, the mere fact that the Psalmist cries out to God from the depths says something important about prayer. Walter Brueggemann asks a telling question. From where should we address God—from a position of obedience, from a situation of prosperity and success, suitably dressed, properly positioned, with a deep well- modulated voice? No, says Psalm 130, we can address God from the depths of our lives, when we are a mess and we can only scream for mercy. As Brueggemann puts it, this is “the miserable cry of a nobody from nowhere.” That’s an important message for those who don’t identify with the issue of guilt. This is not the prayer of some plaster saint, the kind of “holy Joe” that turns unbelievers away from the church.
Further, it is important to point to the word “mercy.” The Psalmist is not asking for something he deserves. This is not a prayer for those who think they have done just fine, thank you. This is a cry from the depths of need. Of course, we need mercy for many situations in life. The Gospel reading for today (Mark 5) tells the stories of a woman who has been bleeding for years and of a father whose little girl is dying (and then dies). We need mercy in such situations. Even the most hardened person has at least whispered, “Lord, have mercy,” as the pain of life overwhelms.
But this Psalm is a cry for mercy wrung from a person who is overwhelmed by a sense of sin and guilt, and who is convinced that God cares about such sin. Indeed, he imagines a God hunched over an accounting ledger tallying up sins with a sharp pencil. But then he says, “Not! Thank God, not!” Because if God did keep a record of sins, who could stand in God’s presence? That’s a rhetorical question to which the obvious answer is, no one. Other Psalms make it clear that access to God’s presence depends on having “clean hands and a pure heart” and so much more (e.g., Psalm 24). Few of us meet those requirements; indeed, Romans 3:10-12 say that no one does. So, if God kept a record of sin, no one could stand in God’s presence. We would all be banished forever to the depths.
But wait! Doesn’t God keep a record? Doesn’t God have a set of books in which are written all the things we have ever done, whether good or evil? Isn’t there a “book of life” in which are recorded the names of all those who will live forever? It’s hard to know what to make of those kinds of ideas and the Scripture on which they are allegedly based. What we can say for sure, based on Psalm 130 and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is that every one of the sins that might be recorded in “the books” are forgiven. Think of a register of debts across every one of which is stamped the word “Forgiven,” or “Cancelled,” or “Paid in Full.”
That is the central message of Psalm 130 and the Gospel it summarizes. There may be sin in us, but “with you there is forgiveness.” Note the wording of verse 4 very carefully. That introductory “but” is the great “Gospel but” we meet everywhere in Scripture. In fact, as I have said often in these Sermon Commentaries, the Gospel can be summarized in those two words, “but God.” In response to all of our sins, there is this merciful “but.”
And note that the Psalmist doesn’t say God forgives once in a while, depending on the cosmic weather or on God’s mood. No, this forgiveness is rooted deep in God’s being and guaranteed by God’s covenant promises which are certain because of his “unfailing love (Hebrew hesed).” When Moses asked God for an actual sighting of the invisible God as a kind of definitive proof of God’s good intentions (Exodus 33), God responded by speaking these words that summarize the essence of God’s being. “And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin (Exodus 34:6-7).” If the Bible says that we habitually sin because that’s who we are, it also says that God faithfully forgives sin because that’s who God is.
That sounds like permission to just go ahead and sin the more so that God can do God’s thing. But the next words put the lie to that perpetual heretical response to the Gospel of grace; “therefore, you are feared.” That line has confused generations of readers. You would think it would say, “But with you there is forgiveness; therefore, we have joy and gratitude and love.” But it doesn’t speak of those positive responses; it speaks of fear. What’s up with that?
Well, answers usually point to the range of meanings of the word “fear” in the Bible, from abject terror to reverential awe. That is undoubtedly part of the answer to our questions about forgiveness and fear. Forgiveness means we don’t have to live in terror of punishment, but it should also evoke a reverential awe toward the God who has done this marvelous thing for us. Boice puts it with characteristic eloquence. “Those who have been forgiven are softened and humbled and overwhelmed by God’s mercy, and they are determined never to sin against such a great and fearful goodness.”
That is right, but there’s another way to say it that gets at the heart of the Gospel better. Brueggeman explains it this way. You would think “that forgiveness is the key intent of the transaction, the point on which everything in the future depends. But it is not. Forgiveness is instrumental to the real purpose: ’that thou mayest be feared.’ One might expect the reverse—fearing God should be the ground for forgiveness. But the move goes the other way. The gift goes before obedience.” Or to put in New Testament terms, we are saved by grace precisely so that God could “purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good (Titus 2:14).” If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, it is also the heart of the obedient life.
But again, this fear is nowhere close to that terror of future punishment we always imagine. Instead, this fear leads to hope, hope that things as they are now in the depths are not as they will be in the future. So, says the Psalmist, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope.” What is the Psalmist hoping and waiting for? Not forgiveness! That is given once and for all. The clue lies in verses 7 and 8, where the Psalmist speaks of “full redemption.”
Does that refer to the fact that there is more to salvation than forgiveness? Of course! Once the guilt of sin has been forgiven, there are still the presence of sin and the lingering personal results of sin and the wreckage sin has caused in the world. We might be forgiven by someone, but still be unreconciled to that person because the damage caused by our sin has not yet been healed. Think of a victim of sexual abuse and her long-time abuser; forgiveness will not automatically or perhaps ever lead to living happily with that abuser. (If you think this isn’t biblical, carefully read the way Romans 5 distinguishes justification from reconciliation.)
The Psalmist is waiting for full redemption the way a watchman waits for the morning. Imagine a watchman perched on the city wall peering into the darkness for hours, looking for the approach of a stealthy enemy under cover of night. What a relief when dawn comes and he can see clearly and the danger is over. We are forgiven, but there is much darkness yet in life and in the world, much that threatens to ruin us. So we wait for full redemption, for all to be made well, for Shalom. This is a welcome message for a generation that refuses to simply accept all that is wrong in this world. This is a prayer you can sink your teeth into.
And it is a prayer that invites us to open our mouths and tell our compatriots about God’s unfailing love. In verses 7 and 8, the forgiven, awestruck, hopeful author addresses his fellow Israelis. “O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love…. He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.” Here’s what happened to me. It can happen to you.
This is the kind of experienced based witnessing that can move even the most uncommitted. But the Psalmist roots his experience not in himself, but in God, in his unfailing love. You don’t have to be like me. You only have to cry out to God for mercy and rely on his forgiveness. There is forgiveness for all who ask in the name of the Lord Jesus. No matter where you have wandered, no matter how you have sinned, Yahweh through Jesus will redeem you “from all your sins.”
The unabashed cry for mercy in this Psalm will seem like weakness to those who love William Henley’s classic poem, “Invictus.”
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In this age of 24-hour newsfeeds, we are all keenly aware of all the problems facing our country and world. And we are all very good at blaming someone else for those problems and challenging other people to fix everything. Maybe then we’ll vote for them. Contrast that spirit of blame shifting with the spirit of Psalm 130, and of G.K. Chesterton. A newspaper editorially asked its readers the question, “What is wrong with the world?” Chesterton, the famous and much admired Catholic author, answered that question in a letter to the editor. It read simply, “Dear Sir, I am. Sincerely yours, G.K. Chesterton.”
According to Psalm 130, God is not like Santa Claus. “You better watch out, your better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why. Santa Claus is coming to town. He knows when you’ve been naughty, and he knows when you’ve been nice….” In fact, Santa has a list, and he’s checking it twice. God is more like those “Walmart Santas” who secretly pay off the debts of poor shoppers who have put gifts on layaway. When those debtors arrive at Walmart to make another small payment on their debt, they are overjoyed to hear the good news that someone else has paid it all.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 1, 2018
Psalm 130 Commentary