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Psalm 130

This psalm is beautiful and somewhat familiar. Here in Ordinary Time 2021, it is also particularly timely. One of the first things to note about this psalm is that it is one of the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134) – that collection of Hebrew songs that the pilgrims would sing together as they made the “upward” journey to Jerusalem (one always ascends to Mount Zion – not just geographically, but also theologically/ doxologically). As the eleventh song in the collection, one can almost sense the weariness of the pilgrims on their journey and the need to pray “out of the depths!”

Before we deal with the text as a lament psalm, its liturgical context as a response to the Old Testament reading in 2 Samuel, and the possible approaches to preaching, let’s take a look at some of the significant words in this beautiful poem. First, the word translated “depths” (Hebrew: qm[) means “to sink” (in the simple Qal stem) or “to make deep” (in the causative Hiphil stem). A cognate noun is valley – a geographical location with metaphorical significance. The plural “depths” typically functions as “an emblem of distress”[1] To cry out “from the depths” is to pray in desperation from a situation of pain, grief, anguish, misery, suffering and sorrow. This is my first point of contact with the text, for our world in these days is experiencing much “distress.”

Other words are significant because of their repetition: Hebrew lAq means both “voice” and “sound” in verse 2. We find the word “watch, keep, protect” as the work of God (who keeps no record of wrongs, verse 3) and of faithful protectors of Jerusalem (watchmen, verse 6). “Iniquities” are mentioned in verse 3 (God does not keep these), and verse 8 (instead, God redeems Israel from these). Certainly “redemption” is an important term to consider (verses 7 and 8). And it is quite striking to note how often the Hebrew word “Adonai” occurs (not the divine name, which is also pronounced as ADONAI). “Adonai” speaks of Israel’s God as master, lord, owner (verses 2, 3, and 6).

But the most important linguistic terms in this text are the two Hebrew synonyms hwq and lxy. I like to translate these words as “to wait in hope” and usually use “hope” for the first term and “wait” for the second. The concept is not a passive do-nothing-ness, but an active confidence and hope that the present “distressful” circumstances do not and will not have the final word. We may be living in the depths at this present moment (which reminds me of Jonah as he descended to the “roots of the mountains, the deepest part of the sea – Jonah 2:7), but the assurance of God’s faithfulness gives us energy to wait, to hold on, to endure, until God’s help finally arrives.

Psalm 130 belongs to the “lament” genre, and while all the classic elements of this form may not be present, the song follows the lament form in significant ways. First we have a cry for help – a bold, daring act of faith that summons God to the conversation and calls God to account. There is direct address to the covenant God: “From the depths I cry out to you, ADONAI (the divine name)!” (verse 1). In verse two, and typical of the lament form, the covenant partner orders God to act – “Listen!” is in the imperative mode and that mode carries through to the phrase “Incline your ears!” Remember, in this covenant relationship, the sovereign One should be the order-giver, but Israel’s faith is remarkably bold in the way God’s people address their Lord in times of need.

One of the things that is a bit different about this lament is that we are given no specifics about the distress. A classic lament, like Psalm 3, will name the problem quite specifically: “Many are my foes, many are rising up against me, many are saying about me, ‘No help for him in God.’” The editors of the Psalms have provided us a very specific reason for the prayer in Psalm 3 – David was fleeing from Absalom. His troubles were “many, many, many” and he declares that clearly in the lament. Not so in Psalm 130. We do not know what has evoked this cry for help that comes from the depths. Were there dangers or setbacks on the pilgrimage to Zion? We will return to this question as we move toward the sermon.

Now the characteristic turn, the song of trust, occurs in verses 3-4. The Psalmist remembers that God is not a keeper of iniquities, but a God who forgives. Interestingly, God does this so that we might fear God – a posture of faith and love that, for the biblical writers is the beginning of wisdom and blessing. This faithful act of remembrance leads to the assurance of faith that is also a key element in the lament form: “I hope in ADONAI, my soul hopes! And toward his word I wait in hope. My soul is (bound to) my Lord (Adonai) like watchmen to the morning, yes, like watchmen to the morning. Put your hope (that waits) in ADONAI, O Israel, for with ADONAI is both (the) covenant loyalty (dsx) and (the) abundance (hbr); with him is redemption (hdP). He will redeem Israel from all her iniquities.” (verses 5-8). The lament has done its proper work, moving us from petition to praise, from concern to confidence, from distress to deliverance.

Perhaps the most significant word of this Psalm is found in the cry for help in verse 2: “Let your ears be attentive to the sound of my supplication!” This word, supplication, derives from the Hebrew root !nx, which means “to be gracious” and its noun is grace or graciousness. Israel’s core confession says that God is “gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in covenant faithfulness (hbr and dsx – two words that occur in Psalm 130:7). In her distress, Israel offers to God a bold appeal for grace – a supplication, that is based on God’s abundant love and faithfulness to the covenant.

So how do we begin to preach this passage when the situation of distress is so enigmatic? Here the lectionary provides helpful guidance. The Old Testament reading, to which this psalm is a response, is from 2 Samuel 18. This is the story that shows the depth of Absalom’s rebellion against his father, King David, a rebellion that leads to Absalom’s death on the battlefield. When David hears of his son’s demise, even though he had become David’s enemy, the King is overwhelmed with sadness and grief. And David is isolated and alone in his grief. The servants of David are rejoicing because the death of Absalom is a moment of victory for them – so David weeps alone. When I think of what it means to cry out from the depths, what better story than this to speak to people who have suffered so much loss and isolation over this past year. No wonder we are encouraged, to cry out for grace, when we find ourselves “in the depths.”

While the psalms are poetic and not narrative, a narrative sermon form would truly reveal to a congregation how to implement the lament form as an act of faithful prayer in times of deep need, suffering, and loss. One could utilize Paul Scott Wilson’s Four Pages narrative approach to unpack the truth of this Psalm. Start with Trouble in the World. Imagine a family who has been opposed (for whatever reason) to receiving the Covid vaccine. The husband contracts Covid and dies, causing his wife to not only grieve her loss, but to become a vocal advocate of the vaccine. This new stance alienates most of her friends and she finds herself alone in the depths. This is Trouble in the World.

Now enter into the story of David and Absalom in 2 Samuel 18. Unpack the back story of enmity that begins in chapter 13 and culminates with this tragic story of death, grief, and isolation. The correlation between our experience and the experience of David is clear. We have connected the Trouble in the World with the Trouble in the Text.

Now we turn to Psalm 130 to find the grace in the text. The trouble is there – we cry “out of the depths” and make a bold appeal for grace – God, do something! Listen! Incline your ears to my supplication! Work through the lament form, remembering who God is, not a keeper of wrongs, but a gracious God of abundant, faithful covenant love – a God who forgives and redeems. And with confidence, we now wait on God to act, in sure and certain hope that God is faithful and will provide. This is Grace in the Text.

Our final sermonic move is Grace in the World – an invitation to the listeners, who have hopefully found themselves in this story, to follow the lament pattern: crying out to God from the depths with a bold appeal for grace, remembering the faithfulness and character of God, and holding on to hope, trusting in the God who redeems while patiently waiting for God to work in God’s good time and God’s good way. What is true for the Old Testament people of God is true for us today. Thanks be to God!

[1] TWOT (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament), Number 1644e, Logos Bible Software.