Ps 130:1 A song of ascents. Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD;

This is one of the seven penitential psalms (Psa 6; 32; 38; 51; 102; 130; 143), and also one of the ‘Songs of Ascents’.  It contains both personal and corporate elements.

It was one of Luther’s favourites, the others being Psalms 32, 51, 143.  He called these the ‘Pauline Psalms’ because they so clearly taught salvation by God’s grace.  The present psalm formed the basis of one of his greatest Psalm-hymns, written in 1524. Upon his death, in February, 1546, it was sung by thousands who thronged and wept around the bier.

Richard Hooker was found meditating on this psalm in his dying moments.

On the afternoon of May 24th, 1738, John Wesley attended St Paul’s Cathedral and heard this psalm sung as an anthem. This evidently played an important part in preparing him for what happened that same evening, when in a room in Aldersgate Street his heart was ‘strangely warmed’. (Journal, Vol I, 101f)

Spurgeon notes that in this psalm we hear of the pearl of redemption, vv7f, and adds that the Psalmist might not have found it if he had not been cast into the depths, for ‘pearls lie deep’.

‘This Psalm, perhaps more than any other, is marked by its mountains: depth; prayer; conviction; light; hope; waiting; watching; longing; confidence; assurance; universal happiness and joy…Just as the barometer marks the rising of the weather, so does this Psalm, sentence by sentence, record the progress of the soul. And you may test yourself by it, as by a rule or measure, and ask yourself at each line, “Have I reached to this? Have I reached to this?” and so take your spiritual gauge.’ (James Vaughan, quoted by Spurgeon)

Out of the depths – these words form a fitting title to the psalm since, as Kidner points out, they suit not only its starting-point but also its progress: ‘There is a steady climb towards assurance, and at the end there is encouragement for the many from the experience of the one.’

Matthew Henry recalls cries out of the depths: ‘Jeremiah’s out of the dungeon, Daniel’s out of the den, and Jonah’s out of the fish’s belly.’

To be in ‘the depths’ is to be drowning in despair, overwhelmed by trouble, threatened by death, trapped in despondency.  It is to be lost and helpless.  And these are depths not only of personal guilt, but of being caught up in ‘the flood of wrong and its consequences that sweeps life along and from which there is no escape apart from a liberating, rescuing redemption’ (Mays).

There is a sense of near-despair in these words. The picture is of one drowning, cf Ps 18:16; 42:7; 69:1-2; 88:7; 124:3; Isa 51:10.

‘Self-help is no answer to the depths of distress, however useful it may be in the shallows of self-pity.’ (Kidner)

‘To cry out of the depths hath many considerable circumstances to move God to hear: it acknowledged his infinite power when no distance can hinder his assistance; it presents our own faith when no extremity can weaken our hope; it magnifies God’s goodness when he, the Most High, regards the most low; it expresseth our own earnestness, seeing crying out of the depths must needs be a deep cry; and if each of these singly, and by itself, be motive sufficient to move God to hear, how strong must be the motive needs be when they are all united?’ (Sir Richard Baker)

‘Those that are farthest cast down are not farthest from God, but are nearest unto him. God is near to a contrite heart, and it is the proper seat where his Spirit dwelleth, Isa 66:2. And thus God dealeth with us, as men do with such houses that they are minded to build sumptuously and on high: for then they dig dee grounds for the foundations. Thus God purposeth to make a fair show of Daniel, and the three children in Babel; of Joseph in Egypt, of David in Israel; he first threw them into the deep waters of affliction. Daniel is cast into the den of lions; the three children are thrown into the fiery furnace; Joseph is imprisoned; David exiled. Yet all those he exalted and made glorious temples to himself…When, therefore, we are troubled by heavy sickness or poverty, or oppressed by the tyranny of men, let us make profit and use thereof, considering that God hath cast his best children into such dangers for their profit; and it is better to be in deep dangers praying, than on high mountains of vanity playing’ (Archibald Symson).

There are many ‘depths’ into which we can sink: poverty, ill-health, sorrow, depression, and so on. But the worst is sin. Sometimes, the fall is gradual, the descent imperceptible. At other times it is precipitous. Either was, it leads to a gaping bottomless pit, with no human way of escape.

Psa 130:2 O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.

O Lord, hear my voice – The psalmist does not presume upon God’s care and attentiveness.  He makes a deliberate effort to gain a hearing.

Ps 130:3 If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?

The reason for the Psalmist’s distress becomes apparent. It is not illness, homesickness, or persecution. It is sin.

‘The idea is, If God should thus look with a scrutinizing eye; if he should try to see all that he could see; if he should suffer nothing to escape his observation; if he should deal with us exactly as we are; if he should overlook nothing, forgive nothing, we could have no hope.’ (Barnes)

Here, as Broyles says, we are stripped of any pretention that we are ‘all right’ before God.  But if this is unflattering to our human pride, it is also relieves us of the pressure to be something that we are not.  We stand alongside all the rest of humanity in not having love God supremely, or our neighbour as ourself.  Sin is universal, as Psa 143:2 also testifies.  None can stand before God and plead, “Not guilty”.  ‘With us there is iniquity, and therefore it is well for us that with him there is forgiveness.’ (MHC)

There is here a vivid awareness of the sinfulness of sin. ‘No man ever dreaded or hated sin excessively. Every sigh and groan from earth or hell, every cry, wrung from distress or consciences, is the fruit of sin. Sin has digged every grave, built every prison, even hell itself.’ (Plumer)

The imagery is that of a court of law. The judge is seated at the bench; the accused is standing at the bar; the witnesses are arrayed, ready to give their evidence. Every transgression of the law is noted. The evidence is copious and overwhelming. The judge writes everything down. It is all true, and there is no defence, no escape. How many of us could stand a trial of this kind?

Yet, how many would presume to present themselves before the eternal Judge clothed in the rags of their own righteousness! But none can plead sufficient morality, goodness or religion to show themselves guiltless before God. Salvation by works is impossible. All would be utterly ruined, if there were no mercy.

But doesn’t the Lord keep a record of sins? To be sure, he knows all our sins. To be sure, there is coming a day when the Lord will call men to account for their sins. Lord, turn a blind eye to my iniquities, but hear my cry from the depths! O my God, keep a record, not of what I have done, but of what you have done for me!

Spurgeon: ‘Truly, he does record all our transgressions; but as yet he does not act upon the record, but lays it aside till another day.’

Ps 130:4 But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.

This, together with the previous verse, summarises the entire theme of Scripture: sin and salvation, justice and mercy, repentance and forgiveness.

‘The idea is, not that pardon produces fear or terror,—for the very reverse is true,—but that God, by forgiving the sinner, brings him to reverence him, to worship him, to serve him:—that is, the sinner is truly reconciled to God, and becomes a sincere worshipper.’ (Barnes)

‘Never any that dealt with him found him implacable, but easy to be entreated, and swift to show mercy.’ (MHC)

Therefore you are feared – This verse makes it clear that God does not simply overlook sin.  Forgiveness is a ‘big deal’, and leads not only to a sense of joy and peace but also to reverent awe.

John Owen preached and published a series of discourses on this psalm, nearly 3/4 of which were occupied with v4. A young man, seeking spiritual guidance, came to him. “Young man, pray, in what manner do you think to go to God?” The answer came, “Through the Mediator, sir.” Owen replied, “That is easily said, but I assure you, it is another thing to go to God through the Mediator than many who make use of the expression are aware of. I myself preached Christ some years, when I had but very little, if any, experimental acquaintance with access to God through Christ; until the Lord was pleased to visit me with some affliction, whereby I was brought to the mouth of the grave, and under which my soul was oppressed with horror and darkness; but God graciously relieved my spirit by a powerful application of Psalm 130, verse 4…from whence I received special instruction, peace and comfort in drawing near to God through the Mediator, and preached thereupon immediately after my recovery.’

This is surprising. We might have expected, ‘But with you there is justice; therefore you are feared’; or else, ‘But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are loved’.

It is not the terrors and threatenings of the Lord that motivate us to serve him. It is his grace and mercy. The ‘fear of the Lord’ which these lead to stands for the totality of godly piety.

The experience of true forgiveness is a liberating thing; but this is not a liberty to go and sin again, as often as we please, but a liberty to love and serve and reverence God. See Rom 6:15.

This divine forgiveness, this smile of God, binds us to God with a beautiful fear: fear of worldliness; fear of slumber; fear of error; fear of failing to please him; fear of grieving his Spirit. Let then, God’s forgiving love drive away our sins, replacing them with a pure holiness of heart and life.

Following Boice, we may summarise as follows:-

  1. God’s forgiveness is all-encompassing.  It is not for this sin or that sin, but for all sin.  Forgiveness extends to the many sins, and not just to the few; to the most terrible, and not just to the relatively slight.
  2. God’s forgiveness is for now.  Note the present tense: “There is forgiveness”.  We do not have to wait anxiously for the verdict in the last day. Forgiveness can be known this very moment.
  3. God’s forgiveness is for those who ask for it.  The psalmist confesses his sin, and does not seek to hide it.  He pleads God’s mercy, and now his own supposed goodness.  He prays for it without pretence.
  4. God’s forgiveness leads to godly living.  ‘There is forgiveness with you, that you may be feared’ – this fear includes love, reverence, and obedience.  In fact, these are the outcomes that will provide the test of whether we have truly repented and have truly been forgiven.  Boice says, ‘Those who have been forgiven are softened and humbled and overwhelmed by God’s mercy, and they determine never to sin against such a great and fearful goodness. They do sin, but in their deepest hearts they do not want to, and when they do they hurry back to God for deliverance.’

Psa 130:5 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope.

I wait for the Lord – See how this posture of waiting is stressed, both in this verse and in the verse following.  It is clear that forgiveness stems from God’s gracious action, and it is our part to patiently wait for it and gratefully receive it.  He it is who must restore us to a right relationship with himself.

The psalmist appears to have been waiting for the word of forgiveness from the prophet or priest (cf. 2 Sam 12:12-15).  By the time we reach v7, that word has evidently been heard.  ‘In the NT believers do not have to wait for a specific word from the Lord, for the word stands once and for all that if we confess our sins He is both faithful and righteous to forgive (1 Jn 1:9).’ (Apologetics Study Bible)

Psa 130:6 My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Watchmen wait for the morning with great longing, but also with great assurance.

‘Every one who has been afflicted will feel the force of this; every one who has been under conviction of sin, and who has felt himself in danger of suffering the wrath of God, will remember how anxiously he longed for mercy, for light, for peace, for some indication, even the most faint, like the first ray which breaks in the east, that his soul would find mercy and peace.’ (Barnes)

Psa 130:7 O Israel, put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.

With him is full redemption – Boice recalls the ‘felicitous’ translation of Coverdale: ‘plenteous redemption’, which was retained in the AV and RSV.

‘Applying this, as we may, to the work of the Saviour, we may feel that the redemption which is in him is adequate to the wants of a world, and that although numberless millions have been saved by it, yet that it is still as rich, as full, and as free as it was in the beginning;—as the ocean, though from the beginning of the world it has supplied the materials for rain and dew to water the hills, the vales, the continents, and the islands, is still full; as the light of the sun, though for thousands of ages it has poured its light on the planets, and on all the vast space between itself and those orbs, and has sent out its light into the vast regions beyond, still shines with undiminished splendour, and pours its floods of day and of glory on all those worlds.’ (Barnes)

Psa 130:8 He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.