Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 9, 2024

Psalm 130 Commentary

Psalm 130 may be called a song of “ascents” but it begins with a descent into the depths of despair and desperation.  Traditionally this poem has been tagged with the Latin phrase de profundis as those are the first two words of this psalm in the Latin Vulgate translation of the original Hebrew.  But what is the nature of the depths from which the psalmist cries out?  Well, unlike some similar psalms, this one does not appear to involve the attacks of various enemies nor does this appear to stem from a period of physical travail or pain or sickness.

Instead the balance of this short psalm makes it clear this is a place of spiritual depths as the writer feels the burdensome weight of his own sins.  He recognizes that his sinfulness in general and the specific sinful acts he could detail have opened up a yawning chasm of separation between himself and the God of Israel.  What he is crying out for is a word of forgiveness, a word of restoration, and thus a word of hope.  In all candor the psalmist makes it clear that he knows that like every person, he does have a record of sins, a kind of spiritual rap sheet detailing past misdeeds.

Yet his hope comes from the idea that God is not keeping such a running logbook of our sins because instead God is busy forgiving us on a rolling basis.  And that is the strong foundation upon which we build lives of service and honor and worship to God.  Take away that foundation and all we could ever do is cower in fear as we wait for the divine hammer to fall deservedly on us.  What this psalmist waits for instead is that reassuring word of grace that God has redeemed us, God has blotted out our sins, God has—as another part of Scripture says—removed our sins from us as far as the east is from the west.

And so he waits.  Like watchmen who endure a dark and moonless night, so he watches for that first blush of light on the far horizon that signals the start of a new day’s dawning.  He even repeats that line for added emphasis.  Here is a writer who is desperate for us readers to feel his anticipation.  At the end of the poem he then widens out his focus from his own personal sins and failings that need God’s forgiveness to the larger collective sinfulness of all Israel.  But then the plea is for all Israel to do what he has tried to do: put their hope in God alone who is standing by eager to forgive us over and again.

Again, this is a fairly short poem clocking in at only 8 brief verses.  But perhaps we could ponder a bit how striking this psalm is, how very nearly counter-cultural it is, how perhaps it is even somewhat contrary to how some church-going folks think and talk.  Some of us recall that starting in the 1980s when the so-called “seeker sensitive” movement began in many churches one of the first things that got downsized in some congregations was talk about sin.  Since a lot of folks seem to have a certain caricature of Christians as dour Puritanical types of people who are forever wagging bony fingers in people’s faces condemning them for their sins, it would perhaps be best to avoid any hint of that by all-but eliminating talk of sin from public worship services.  Sin is a downer.  Best perhaps to let it fade into the background of most worship services and also sermons.

Even in places where this was not a conscious decision made by pastors or other worship leaders, it seems that de facto traditional ecclesiastical rhetoric on sin has been largely eclipsed.  As someone who preaches at lots of different congregations, I can attest that in more places than you might expect, there is no dedicated part of the worship service week after week that gets labeled with something like “Confession and Assurance.”  Oh, talk of being redeemed from our sins comes up in many songs in those congregations and occasionally the person offering the pastoral or congregational prayer will include some lines of confession in seeking God’s forgiveness.  But even in traditions that once had robust liturgical moments to focus on the need to plead for forgiveness, that formal element of worship has disappeared.

Then there is the movement described by Christian Smith of moral therapeutic deism in which there appears to be a belief that God is not paying all that much attention to our lives or to our sins.  Instead it’s enough to expect God to reward us with a life in heaven if we’re simply nice and kind people—or at least nicer and kinder than some other folks we may encounter out and about in society.

In the face of all that and more, it is properly bracing to encounter a psalm that takes sin so seriously that it brings the psalmist down into the depths of desperation.  His awareness of sin is so acute that there is nothing for which he longs for and looks for more than a word of restoring grace from God.  And rather than treat a psalm like this as though it were some relic of a bygone age, we could better let something like Psalm 130 school us in seeing our lives clear-eyed and honestly.  Because in the end such a view of sin is in fact not a downer.  Psalm 130 may come from the depths but it does not remain there.  It is filled instead with hope and even with no small amount of anticipated joy because God is faithful and listens to us when we cry out for forgiveness.

Indeed, it would appear based on Psalm 130 that the only mistake we can make as the people of God is to fail to heed the psalm’s closing exhortation to put all our hope for redeeming grace and restoration in God alone.  Because such an honest assessment is the key that unlocks the storehouses of divine grace.

Illustration Idea

Those of us who live in the modern world where there is such a thing as “light pollution” due to the number of outdoor lights along roads, in shopping mall parking lots, etc. cannot imagine perhaps what a truly dark night might feel like.  Even on those relatively rare occasions when we are able to be far away from any outdoor nighttime lighting, we generally revel in the experience because it is thrilling to be able to see more stars in the night sky than we perhaps have ever seen before.  It’s nice to be in a truly dark place to see the beauty of the heavens.

But if you were a watchman standing a post in such a totally dark place in a world devoid of artificial lights and such, then that would be a very different and even threatening circumstance.  It is a well-known fact that an enemy can use the cover of darkness to their advantage.  So for those who are in that situation, it is hard to imagine how eager the yearning must be for the eastern horizon to begin pinking up.  When you are a night watchman, that dawn is both a welcome sign that you survived a could-be perilous night and that for another day at least your shift is over!  As imagery goes, the use of this in Psalm 130 is pretty powerful and clever.

Note: If you are seeking a commentary on Psalm 138 for this week in the lectionary, the CEP website has one here:


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