Keeping score of wrongs and extracting a price for them later is one of the ways of wrecking a relationship, as Shylock discovered to his cost. It’s certainly a good job God doesn’t take this approach with us or we would be in a sorry mess – a truth memorialised in Psalm 130. The writer cries ‘out of the depths’ for salvation, and the later references to forgiveness, redemption and mercy suggest that these are the ‘depths’ of sin and guilt. The burden of moral guilt can be every bit as painful as physical pain, for it brings in tow an aching of the soul. If God would not release us from that debt – if He were perpetually to keep score, tallying up and ‘marking’ our iniquities – then our straits would be dire.
Scorekeeping and playing tit-for-tat are the easiest things in the world and entirely natural responses to being wronged, but what sets God apart, and, in the words of this psalm, singles Him out to be ‘feared’ (hardly the choice of word we would have expected!) is that He does not mark iniquities and hold grudges but rather is powerful to forgive sins. If showing forgiveness is at all perceived as ‘soft’ or that it is the mark of a pushover then psalm 130 turns this on its head and says that God is to be feared precisely because of His forgiving nature. How awesome such a God!
- [A Song of degrees.]
Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD.
- Lord, hear my voice:
Let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.
- If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities,
O Lord, who shall stand?
- But there is forgiveness with thee,
That thou mayest be feared.
- I wait for the LORD,
My soul doth wait,
And in his word do I hope.
- My soul waiteth for the Lord
More than they that watch for the morning:
I say, more than they that watch for the morning.
- Let Israel hope in the LORD:
For with the LORD there is mercy,
And with him is plenteous redemption.
- And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.
As is often the case in the Songs of Degrees there is both a personal and community dimension to the psalm, the writer using his own experience of God’s grace to lead his people to the same wonderful realisation. The depths from which he personally has cried and been raised in the first stanza form a lesson for all of us about God’s forgiveness. His patient waiting for God in the second stanza sets an example for the community of Israel to similarly wait for the redemption of God.
The first stanza opens with a plea for his personal deliverance but quickly opens out from the pit of sin into an understanding of what human nature is like (we are all sinners and God would have thick black marks in indelible ink against all of us if that were His approach). From there it builds into an understanding of what God is like: that His essential character is to be forgiving. This is why the psalmist can trust that God will hear and save him; his faith is based on God’s character, not on his own personal performance or worth.
Waiting for an answer
The second stanza is all about waiting (highlighted in bold in the psalm text: ‘I wait, I wait, I hope, I wait; they watch, they watch, let Israel hope’). God’s verdict, His answer, His ‘word’ (v5; cf also v3, could the ‘standing’ in that verse refer to someone waiting for a judgment be be passed?) is awaited not in fear, but in eager expectation rooted in a right understanding of what sort of God we are dealing with. At first sight the passage seems to have similarities with a modern courtroom scene in which the accused rises in court to hear the verdict of the jury or the pronouncement of a sentence from the judge. And yet it is not like that at all. There is no fear about what might happen or what the verdict might be; rather there is a rising in respect at the presence of God, a ‘fear of the Lord’ which arises out of appreciation and awe at His character. We do not need to worry when we are caught short by sin because He is a forgiving God who hears us not only when we are good but when we have been bad as well.
The nature of the waiting is quantified by comparing it with ‘those who watch for the morning’. This is a probably a reference to the night watch, eagerly looking for the first sign of dawn to proclaim the dangers and uncertainties of the night to be over. For all of us, but for a watchman especially, the end of the night watch captures the hope portended by a new day, and also (perhaps not least) the fact that the night shift having ended, the watcher will be able to go and finally get some rest! The psalmist’s waiting transcends all this: he is more in need, more eager, more hopeful, more alert, more expectant. And all to hear the word of redemption which God will speak.
The good news is that all this doesn’t just apply to the psalmist as a special case; rather it is illustrative of how God would always like to work with men and women if only they prepare their hearts to allow it. The psalmist opens it out now to his whole community: ‘let Israel … He shall redeem Israel’. The word ‘forgiveness’ in the first stanza set the tone but it was only used once; now the words ‘mercy, plenteous redemption’ (what a wonderful phrase!) and ‘redeem’ are piled together in quick succession as a reminder to us all that God wants to be this way with all of us. His salvation is comprehensive (‘He shall redeem Israel from all His iniquities’), and therefore we should hope in Him.