< June 10, 2012 >

Commentary on Psalm 130

 

Psalm 130, best known by its Latin incipit De Profundis, "Out of the Depths," has inspired church musicians for centuries, usually in the context of a Requiem Mass.

One need only mention Johan Sebastian Bach's magnificent cantata Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (BWV 131) inspired by Luther's 1523 paraphrase, Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, for corroboration.  A cursory check, however, reveals that no fewer than thirty-six other works by major composers such as Mozart, Handel, Mendelssohn, and Schoenberg could also be cited. 

Psalm 130 has obviously played a major role in the Catholic and evangelical piety of the Western Church. But what accounts for this popularity? One reason may be its association with a sub-group of the Psalter known since the days of Augustine (354--439 CE) as the Penitential Psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143). These psalms often express deep sorrow for sin and ask God for help and forgiveness. Psalm 130 encourages fervent prayer to God (verse 1) the source of forgiveness to those who wait for the Lord (verses 4--6).

Our psalm is also part of a collection of psalms known as the "Songs of Ascents" (Psalms 120-134). Though this is the clearest example of a collection in the Psalter, due to their common superscription "a song of (Psalm 121: "for") ascents," and the only one that includes the constitutive psalms in a self-contained unit, the function of the collection as a whole continues to baffle interpreters. Not that proposals are in short supply! These range from a prayer book for devotional use on pilgrimages to the three prescribed annual festivals, to liturgical usage at specific Jewish festivals such as Booths, and the Mishnah's suggestion of assigning one of the fifteen psalms to each of the fifteen steps in the Jerusalem temple (Ezekiel 40:26, 31) where the Levites supposedly sang their praises.

Then again, perhaps the "steps" refer to a poetic trope found often in these psalms, the staircase, terraced, or step-like repetition of words from previous verses (in our psalm "my soul waits" appears in verses 5 and 6; "I hope/O Israel hope" appears in verses 5 and 7; "those who watch for the morning" appears in verse 6b; and "redeem" appears in verses 7 and 8; the trope also appears in Psalm 121--123; 126--127; 129--130; 133). Others, noticing that in addition to "ascent," or "step" ma'alah can also refer to the exiles' journey back from captivity in Babylon (Ezra 2:1; 7:9), have drawn plausible connections to the exiles returning to Jerusalem.

The genre of Psalm 130 is also a question mark. The basic problem is that no one genre is clearly represented. Usually, one distinguishes between the very similar individual lament and the song of thanksgiving by verb "tense." The lament employs verbal forms that indicate a description of present distress and a prayer for relief. The song of thanksgiving, however, relates the same event(s) with verbal forms that recall the distress as a past event followed by a report of answered prayer. But the 1st person common singular perfect verbs in verses 1 and 5 ("cry" and "wait") are ambiguous in Hebrew. If they are translated as present tense in English, as in the New Revised Standard Version, we have a lament. If they are construed as past tense in English, as in the KJV, we have a song of thanksgiving.

Further complicating matters, important aspects of both genres are missing. Unusually for a lament, the psalm fails to actually ask for anything besides God's attention; and it is just as strange in a song of thanksgiving not to relate the divinely answered prayer, since that is what is being acknowledged and testified to in the community. Nevertheless, the most common designation, individual lament, is probably best, and is represented in verses 1-2 if they are read as a present tense prayer or petition for help, and one takes seriously the Qina (3+2, or lament) meter that punctuates the psalm.

Apart from these matters, however, the structure of the psalm is fairly straightforward falling into four two-line sections: An Appeal for Yahweh's Attention (1-2); Trust in Yahweh's Desire to Forgive (3-4); Hopeful Expectation (5-6); and Address to the Community (7-8). Following the initial appeal in verses 1-2, a concentric pattern stitches the psalm together and argues for the originality of verses 7-8 against those who would omit them: 

A "Iniquities" (3) 
  B "For ("But," NRSV) with you" (4)
    C "my soul waits" (5)
    C' "my soul waits" (6)
  B' "For with the Lord" (7)
A' "Iniquities" (8).

At its simplest level the psalm begins with a poignant, though very general, appeal to be heard by the Lord (verses 1-2). Elsewhere in the Psalms, "depths," the most memorable aspect of Psalm 130, only appears in another lament, Psalm 69:2, 14. The metaphorical nature of this term allows it to convey a great deal of emotion while at the same time remaining non-specific enough that contemporary sufferers can appropriate this classic address to God for themselves. The psalm then moves to a poetic affirmation of God's readiness to forgive couched in the form of a rhetorical question (verse 3).

It is usually best to take rhetorical questions in Hebrew as expressions of absolute confidence.1 The theological basis for such confidence is proclaimed in verse 4 along with the divine motivation, "that you (Yahweh) may be revered." This confidence in God stirs the psalmist to express his eager anticipation of God's response (verse 5-6). Finally, moved by his own sense of 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).


1Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, ed. E. Kautsch, trans. A. E. Cowley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1922) 150e