Commentary on Psalm 130
In Psalm 130, the writer calls out to God from the depths of human suffering, hoping for, expecting, and insisting on God’s hearing.
The psalmist has every confidence that God will hear and respond to every cry of pain, because mercy, the writer insists, is who God is.
The lament of Psalm 130 is familiar to our hearing and our living. The psalmist cries out to God from “the depths” (verse 1), from the darkest abyss of human suffering. That abyss takes different shapes in individual and communal human life, but we all have had or will have some experience of it, and not always tangentially.
Grief, depression, illness, poverty, abuse — any of these experiences, and so many more, can plunge us into a darkness so deep that it can feel almost like death. That the abyss, the pit, the deep, is so centrally and universally a part of human life is reflected in the Psalms’ repeated reference to it, as in 16:10, 40:2, and 69:2. Augustine, in his exposition on this psalm, likened the abyss to the belly of the whale in which Jonah was trapped: Jonah’s abyss was deep in the water, in the yawning center of the whale’s body, tangled in the “very entrails of the beast.”1
In verses 1 and 2, that cry is a demand to be heard, an insistence that God listen to the voice of torment: “Pay attention to my suffering, and for heaven’s sake, have mercy on me!” Often such a demand issues from a sense of God’s absence in the depths. Pain, whether physical, psychological, spiritual, or some combination, can be so isolating that we feel abandoned to our misery, even by God.
But the careful structure of Psalm 130 indicates that the demand here issues not from a sense of abandonment but from a certainty that God will hear. The writer cries out from the sure conviction that God cares. Verse 5 states that the psalmist trusts in the promises that God has made and waits for their fulfillment, and twice in verse six the psalmist describes his or her soul as waiting for the Lord “more than those who watch for the morning.” This phrase may refer to those who, after a night of prayer, receive confirmation of God’s redemption with the new light of dawn. The psalmist is asserting that he or she lives with even greater certainty of God’s attention than these.
Is this the pious boasting of a holier-than-thou jerk, eager to show us up in the faithfulness department? Actually, this text is a careful statement about God’s character, not the psalmist’s, and the key to this understanding is found in verses 3 and 4. “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.”
The psalmist is not asserting the power of God’s judgment or even the extent of human sin, as these verses are often read. The writer is telling us that God is not the kind of God under whose judgment the sinner withers. Rather, “there is forgiveness with God,” as verse 6 states. Forgiveness, in other words, is who God is. This Psalm is about the very character of God, which remains steadfast even in the abyss. God is not to be feared because of the wrath of God’s judgment, but God is revered because “with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem” (verse 7). God’s unchanging love is the essence of who God is, and God’s power is precisely the power to redeem.
It is this God, the writer argues, the God who is mercy and love, who will redeem the people. In similar laments, like Psalm 25:6, the psalmist must call upon God to remember God’s mercy. Not here. He the writer calls on us to remember that God is mercy. We need this reminder especially in the depths of misery. Augustine says that Jonah’s prayer, uttered from the depths of the whale’s body, was not contained by that body. Jonah’s prayer “penetrated all things, it burst through all things, it reached the ears of God.”
Even the prayer that issues from the utter abandonment of human suffering reaches God’s ears, is heard and answered by the God whose very being is love. What’s more, Augustine continues, that love not only hears, but becomes a companion who leads us on our way.2 God hears the cry from the abyss, meets us in the depth of our pain, and accompanies us in and through it, sharing in our suffering and leading us toward the light of God’s redemption.
The sad truth is that human beings can be downright unmade in the depths. The deepest suffering not only can tear at our flesh and our hearts, it can strip us of all that makes us who we are, such that we feel that our very selves are lost. To someone in this state, whose stolen self is unable to issue the prayer for God’s hearing, what does Psalm 130 offer?
Together with the gentle companionship of others who have known suffering and redemption, the words of Psalm 130 can be a healing balm to the shattered soul, offering assurance of God’s endless mercy, and of the divine companionship that will remake all that is broken. Psalm 130 issues a calling to the assembled to claim for each and all of us the vast mercy of God and to companion one another through and out of the myriad abysses we each and all encounter.
1 Augustine, Exposition on the Book of Psalms, Psalm 130, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf108.ii.CXXX.html.