Fifth Sunday in Lent (A)

Once while leading a study tour of the Middle East, my group visited the chapel of the Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem.

April 10, 2011

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Commentary on Psalm 130

Once while leading a study tour of the Middle East, my group visited the chapel of the Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem.

The attraction of the chapel was a set of stained-glass windows created by the artist Marc Chegal. The windows are set within a domed ceiling so as to direct the worshipper heavenward. As we gazed at the windows, however, a member of our group noticed another feature of the chapel. Directly below the windows the floor was sunken, and in the middle of the depressed area was a pulpit. Curious about this design, we asked about this architectural feature. The hospital representative explained, “The floor beneath the windows was made this way because we believe all prayer should be offered ‘out of the depths.'”

This explanation about the design of the chapel at the Hadassah hospital gave a nod, of course, to Psalm 130. This psalm is best known for its first line, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord” (verse 1). Because of this evocative opening Psalm 130 is often identified as the prototypical lament. It expresses both the key components of lament (complaint and petition) and the proper stance before God from which to pray.

The identification of authentic prayer offered “out of the depths” is instructive because it reminds us of the key role petition and complaint play in biblical prayer. Nevertheless, the church in North America today seems to have largely lost its appreciation for lament. The neglect of complaint and petition, lament’s characteristic features, has serious theological consequences. Walter Brueggemann identifies the problem with the current devaluation of lament as “the loss of genuine covenant interaction.”1

Lament is a form of speech that allows the worshipper to complain about injustice and to call on God to hear the cries of those who suffer, as did our biblical forbears. Because lament is offered to one in covenant relationship, however, lament also is praise, and a very important expression of praise at that. It gives evidence of faith worked out in the midst of hardship, hurt, and loss. Perhaps this is the reason the editors of the Psalter labeled the book “praises” even though it is dominated by the lament genre.

Psalm 130 also deserves attention for its detailed development and nuances of language. The psalm develops in four divisions. Verses 1 and 2 open the psalm with the most basic petition. After identifying the location “out of the depths,” the psalmist pleads, “Lord, hear my voice,”(verse 2). This cry to God carries an implicit statement of confidence and faith. The psalmist believes God is present in “the depths.” 

Verses 3 and 4 suggest the psalmist is in the depths of life because of his or her own sinfulness. But the psalmist makes no specific confession. There is not even an outright admission of guilt or transgression. Rather, the psalmist focuses on the character of God who forgives (verse 4). The psalmist refers to iniquities in order to declare that God does not count them, or else no one would be acceptable (verse 3). The preacher may find in this section, however, an opportunity to address the notion that all human beings live under the pall of sinfulness. Proper awareness of that fact is crucial to right prayer and right relationship to God. By not naming specific iniquities the psalmist gives no explicit opening to moralize or deal with petty matters. Instead, he or she points us to that most fundamental failure we share with the rest of the human race.

The final two portions of Psalm 130 contain complementary statements about waiting for and hoping in the Lord (verses 5-6, 7-8). Verses 5-6 are cast as the confession of the psalmist: “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope” (verse 5). To wait in the sense mentioned here is to live expectantly, with awareness of how God has acted in the past and with keen anticipation of what God is about to do. Waiting is thus the opposite of despair and hopelessness. Verse 6 restates this waiting with a poignant metaphor. Waiting for the Lord is like the work of the anxious watchman on the city wall who, fearing the attack of an enemy, finds relief in the arrival of dawn. The certainty of the coming light makes clear that the waiting is not delusional or unrealistic. Such is the nature of the psalmist’s waiting for the Lord.

Verses 7 and 8 turn from personal confession to public charge: “O Israel, hope in the Lord” (verse 7a). The word “iniquities” appears here again, thus linking the psalmist’s recognition of sinfulness with Israel’s failures as God’s people. But in the call for Israel to hope in God two new words appear. The first is “steadfast love.”  This word for this in Hebrew is one of the most important theological words in the Psalms. It signifies God’s faithfulness to God’s promises, even when such faithfulness seems to be missing. The second word is “redeem.” This word speaks of God as a kinsman who buys a relative out of debt, slavery, or some such desperate circumstance. In this case, the promise is that God will purchase Israel out of the self-inflicted wounds of its own iniquity.

The psalm that follows Psalm 130 ends with the same charge to “hope in the Lord” (131:3). This may mean either that the two psalms were placed together because of the final charge or that the final charge was added (perhaps to Psalm 130) to draw them closer thematically. Regardless of how and why this pairing took place, it is worth noting that the prayer from the depths in Psalm 130 is modeled further in Psalm 131. Psalm 131 exemplifies the kind of humility and reliance on God called forth in Psalm 130.    

1 “The Costly Loss of Lament,” JSOT 36 (1986), 60.