Psalm 130 – Wait, Watch, Hope
Psalm 130 has played a major role in Catholic piety. It has inspired church musicians for centuries. No fewer than thirty-six works by major composers such as Mozart, Handel, Mendelssohn, and Schoenberg have been attributed to this psalm which is best known by its Latin incipit ‘De Profundis’ or translated into English as, “out of the depths.”
Psalm 130 is one of the seven penitential psalms; the others being psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. These psalms often express deep sorrow for sin and ask God for help and forgiveness. The superscription (that which is found in your Bible just before the first verse and appears as a title) calls this a ‘song of ascents’ These psalms may have been sung by pilgrims ascending the road to Jerusalem (which was on a mountain) for the three great festivals or it is possible that the Levites may have sung these psalms as they ascended the fifteen steps to the temple.
Psalm 130 is a prayer for help at a time of deep personal need. Grief, depression, illness, poverty, abuse; any of these experiences, and so many more, can plunge us into a darkness so deep that it can feel almost like death. While this is an individual’s prayer it also serves also as an invitation to the community of believers to hope in the promise of redemption.
The psalm begins with a cry to the Lord from the depths (Hebrew: ma‘amaggiym). The word ma‘amaggiym is used for deep mud that mires one’s feet (Psalm 69:2) and deep waters that overwhelm the sailor and his cargo ( as in Ezekiel 27:34). These images are helpful here, because the psalmist is writing, not about mud or water, but about something (we know not what) that has overwhelmed him.
It is the psalmist voice that dominates the first two verse when he uses the words, ‘I cry’, ‘MY supplication’, ‘ MY voice. There is a sense of desperation, for the psalmist pleads to God to be ‘attentive to the voice of my supplication’. Yet at once we can also see that this cry comes from a deep relationship and from a sense of confidence. Notice that the Psalm has the word ‘YAHWEH’ written in your text as ‘LORD’(all capitals) and the word ‘Adonai’, which is a title for God, also found in your text, written as ‘Lord’ ( L is capital while the rest are small letters). The familiarity with God prompts the psalmist to keep switching, four times in the psalm, from the holy name of God to his title as Adonai.
This familiarity of the psalmist with God, reiterates his confidence that God will hear and respond to every cry of pain that stems from the relationship he shares with God. He knows that God is merciful; in fact he insists on proclaiming this characteristic of God. It’s like when you approach a person, you know their character, you know if they will and can do something for you. You will only approach them when you know your plea will be heard. The psalmist knows the character of God not from a book but from a personal relationship with him. This is what the psalm encourages us to do too, to build that relationship with God.
This psalm is therefore a careful statement about God’s character and not the psalmist’s. Key to this understanding is found in verses 3 and 4. “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered. Rhetorical questions in Hebrew, as in this case, are taken as an expression of confidence. While God does mark our sin, God also forgives and the psalmist knows this first hand.
There are many who claim God’s forgiveness per functionary, as though it is a given and one that is lack lustre because it appears as being freely offered. That is far from the truth. God’s forgiveness cannot be taken for granted nor is it something that you get ipso facto by baptism. To claim this forgiveness of God you first need to be in a relationship with him and experience it first-hand.
Now, having experienced that forgiveness, the psalmist encourages the community (and us) to bring that which is troubling them to the Lord in the certain hope that they will find a gracious, loving God, intent on their redemption (verses 7-8).The careful structure of Psalm 130 indicates that the cry to God issues not from a sense of abandonment but from a certainty that God will hear. Forgiveness, in other words, is who God is. This Psalm is about the very character of God, which remains steadfast even in the abyss.
Psalm 130 can be a healing balm to the shattered soul, offering assurance of God’s endless mercy, and of the divine companionship that will remake all that is broken. It fits beautifully into the spirit of the Lenten season, in which the worshiping community, and indeed the world, waits, waits, and watches (longingly) for the God who comes to us as a human being, to die, in order to work life out of death. And that is great power to redeem indeed.