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Psalm 130

Psalm 130 is a fitting psalm to accompany the theme of restoration/resurrection in the Old Testament and Gospel readings today. It speaks of a cry from the depths, the darkest place, seeking forgiveness (v. 3) and redemption (v. 7).

The psalm is part of a collection (Psalms 120-134) identified within the Psalter as the ‘songs of Ascents’. They have the common superscription ‘a song of ascents’. Just what that means is debatable. It could be related to the use of the verb ‘to go up’, in regard to the exiles returning to Jerusalem (Ezra 2:1; 7:9). It could indicate the collection is related to pilgrimage in general. Alternatively, the Mishnah implies a liturgical function seeing one psalm sung on each of the fifteen steps between the women’s court and the court of Israel in the Jerusalem temple complex. The collection has traditionally been used in the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles) recalling the wilderness wanderings.

The unity of the collection lies in their common superscription as well as in repeated themes throughout the collection. A number of repeated phrases helps bind the collection together. Among these is the clause: ‘O Israel, hope in Yahweh’ (Pss 130:7; 131:3). Psalm 130 is a lament in unknown circumstances.

There is a constant stress on reliance upon Yahweh and on Zion as the place of blessing in the collection and it is particularly evident in Psalm 130. The psalmist is aware that their only hope is in Yahweh’s word (v. 5) and they wait diligently for Yahweh. He calls Israel in turn to hope in Yahweh who has steadfast love and the power to redeem (vv. 7-8). The psalm is entirely based on the conviction that this one to whom the psalmist cries, ever so feebly, or from whom no guilt and shame can be hidden or disguised, is able to redeem. The input of the Old Testament reading and the Gospel for the day is to say that such is the case even in the midst of deathly circumstances.

The language of the psalm is vivid. The psalmist cries for help ‘out of the depths’. Just what ‘depths’ are referred to – emotional, psychological, physical, or social – is not clear. The psalm, like many others, lends itself to all such contexts. But no matter how deep this place is, the psalmist has a confidence that Yahweh can indeed hear. Even such pits as we dig for ourselves, our iniquities as the psalmist puts it, are not deep enough to hide our cries from Yahweh’s ears because Yahweh is one who is not only powerful to redeem but whose nature is to forgive (v. 4) and to maintain steadfast love as we are later told in v. 7.

The psalmist, speaks in the end of ‘waiting’ for Yahweh. In Hebrew the word ‘to wait’ is also the one translated ‘to hope’. ‘Waiting’ is an intimate part of hope in this context. And this is what the psalmist also urges on Israel, the whole people. This God who is powerful to redeem is nevertheless not one to be manipulated, or coerced, or bribed. This is one who acts in their own time and for whom we must wait. But such waiting is not without confidence. The psalmist compares their own waiting to that of the sentinel who watches for the morning (v. 6) and underlines this comparison by repetition of the line. The image is not all that clear but we can imaginatively reconstruct it. Maybe it concerns simply the town watchman who acts as guardian at night and tells of the coming of the dawn so that those who sleep can do so in safety and readiness for the new day and its chores. Alternatively, it could evoke an image of a time of war when the sentinel keeps lookout for the attack of the enemy as dawn approaches when there is sufficient light. The imagery is meant to evoke a sense of vigilance and care, whichever imaginative line we take. Our hoping and waiting for the Lord should never be a time of inactivity, or just sitting around thinking nothing much is happening right now. Our hope is active and positive. It is never reactive and ‘down time’. Moreover, the image of the watcher for the morning underlines an element of certainty and confidence. Whatever the morning may bring in our imaginations, it will come. The psalmist suggests that hope in the Lord, waiting for the lord, is never in vain, even in deathly circumstances.

Suggestions for use of the psalm in worship:

The opening verses of the psalm could be used as a congregational refrain in the prayers of the people with some suitable adaptation:

Out of the depths (the earth/people/the church/those in need etc.) cry to you, O LORD.
Lord, hear (their) voice!
Verses 3-4, modified slightly, would make a very useful beginning to the declaration of forgiveness:
If the LORD should mark iniquities, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with the Lord,
And so I declare to you, ‘Your sins are forgiven!’
Let us revere the Lord. Amen
Finally, v. 7 would make a suitable start to the final blessing:
O people of God, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
great power to redeem,
And blessing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Be with you now and forever.
Old Testament Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14

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