Yesterday I had the opportunity to preach at the church in Baton Rouge where I was a member during college, and where I interned before coming to seminary. God used this church tremendously in my life to shape who I am today, so it was a wonderful privilege to visit with them and serve them with the Word. Below is a transcript of the sermon on Psalm 130.
As I was preparing to preach this psalm, I was torn about how to begin. On the one hand, I know that I, and I know that many of you, lead fairly comfortable lives, on the whole. We do not struggle day to day to find food, we do not worry about our personal safety, we enjoy good health, strong relationships, stable jobs. We are not, by many descriptions, people who are in the depths. And so I think there can be a danger for us as we read a prayer like Psalm 130 that we allow it to slide past us without engaging our hearts, because at the moment we are relatively prosperous, and we don’t feel keenly our need as the Psalmist feels his need.
But on the other hand, I know that in a congregation this size, there are people in the room, some of you brothers and sisters, who are very much in the depths. Maybe you wake up each morning aching with the pain of chronic illness, or suffer each night with the pangs of loneliness and disconnection that no amount of Netflix and twitter can soothe. Perhaps you have experienced the death of a loved one, or the betrayal and abandonment of a spouse. Perhaps you are in the depths as a result of your own actions--trapped in a cycle of sin and shame with no apparent exit. Or perhaps you are in the dark well of depression from which it seems not even the cries of your soul can escape.
Or perhaps you find yourself in the depths for no specific reason you can point to. Perhaps you find yourself filled with the nameless sorrow of a creation that longs for redemption. Andrew Peterson is an author and a musician, and he wrote a little prayer titled, “A liturgy for those who weep without knowing why.” Listen to these opening lines of that prayer:
Even in our own hearts we bear the mark of all that is broken. What is best in this world has been bashed and battered and trodden down what was meant to be the substance has become the brittle shell, haunted by the ghosts of a glory so long crumbled that only its rubble is remembered now. Is it any wonder that we should weep sometimes, without knowing why? It might be anything. And then again, it might be everything.
Friends, the world is out of joint. This psalm is meant to remind us that things are not yet as they should be, and not yet as they will be. So whether you came to worship this morning standing in the heights, or lying deep in the depths of woe, Psalm 130 is a prayer for you. It is a prayer for you in the heights to be reminded that this world is still burdened under the curse of sin and longing for redemption. And it is a prayer for you in the depths to be encouraged and strengthened in hope for every little redemption that happens in this life, and for that great redemption that will happen when Christ returns in glory to judge the living and the dead--when his kingdom shall have no end.
So I want to encourage you to join me this morning, wherever you are, and let’s unpack this psalm together and turn it over in our minds and massage it into our hearts so that we might be armed and prepared for days and nights in the depths, and strengthened to endure in hope.
Look with me if you will at your bibles. You’ll see that Psalm 130 divides fairly evenly into four pairs of two verses each, and these pairs cover the essential shifts of the movement of the Psalm. These movements form a pattern of hopeful prayer for us to move from petition and plea, to being reminded of God’s character, to hoping and longing for his Word, and finally to looking eagerly with all the people of God for his full redemption.
So look with me again at verses 1-2.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!
I think it is helpful that the Psalmist does not tell us his specific situation--all we know from the text of scripture is that he is in the depths. And finding himself in the depths the Psalmist does the only thing he can do--he cries out to God from the depths of his trouble.
Friends, this is the response of a heart of faith when faced with adversity. So frequently in our prosperity and our comfort our hearts are cold and our prayer-lives are barren. We do not feel keenly our need and so we do not pray. John Calvin, in a sermon on this Psalm, says, “While we enjoy peace and prosperity we are cold in prayer, because our hearts are in a state of infatuated security.” When we are prosperous we are infatuated with the size of our bank accounts and our salaries, or the excellence of our reputations, or the enjoyment of our relationships or our health or any number of other good things. This infatuation blinds our eyes and numbs our hearts to the reality of our deep need at every moment for God’s gracious favor.
But what we lose sight of in our prosperity becomes imminently obvious when we are cast into the depths. In the depths our illusion of self sufficiency is quickly driven away and we come face to face with our own need for divine deliverance. And so with the Psalmist we begin to cry out.
I want to note also in these first two verses the vibrancy and the urgency with which the psalmist cries out. This is not a one-time prayer. This is ongoing, present reality--he is even now praying to God, crying out. And he is using bold language--“Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!” Can God’s ears not be attentive? Can he be deaf to our cry? Of course not, but it often seems that way. Allen Ross, in his commentary on the Psalms, says it is almost as though the Psalmist wants the LORD to lean over to hear better. Lean over, God! Cup your hand around your ear and listen to the anguish of my soul as I pour out my heart before you. This is vivid, urgent language. And the Psalmist desires not only to be heard, but to have an answer from the LORD. He is perplexed in his suffering and he longs for a word from the Lord to bring relief.
I know that some of you in this room have experienced just this type of crying out to God, maybe even this week. Christian brother or sister, if that is you, I want you to be encouraged. God’s Word is not unfamiliar with your cries. God your Father hears your prayers and he even gives shape to them in his scriptures with psalms like this one. So as you find yourself in the depths, begin to allow this psalm to shape your prayers. Do not hesitate to cry out to God. His ear is not deaf to your prayer and his arm is not too short to save.
Now the natural next question to ask is this: on what basis does the Psalmist make such a bold and anguished cry before the Lord? We find the answer in the next section, verses 3-4. Look with me again at your bibles:
If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.
These two verses strike directly at the deepest fear that comes from being in the depths: the fear that ultimately, God has removed his favor from us. The answer to the rhetorical question of verse three is “no one.” If God in his holiness held our sins against us, not one of us could stand even for a moment. With this single question the Psalmist indicts the entire human race before the bar of divine justice. It doesn’t matter how pious you are or nice you are. It doesn’t matter if you were born in the bible belt and your parents are Christians and you go to church. It doesn’t matter if you give away a lot of money or serve a lot of people. If the Lord marked your sins against you, you would not stand even for a moment. If the Lord held our sins against us according to the righteous requirement of the law, we would be like chaff that the wind drives away.
But friends here is the good news, and here is the news that gives the Psalmist confidence to cry out to the Lord: with the Lord there is forgiveness, so that he may be feared.
As the Psalmist prays, he is preaching to himself and reminding himself even in the depths what the constant character of God is. You can almost picture him as he prays rehearsing the divine name from Exodus 34, where the Lord reveals his name to Moses, “The LORD, the LORD--a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty.”
The character of God gives confidence even in the depths. And so as the psalmist prays he reminds himself of the divine character--he preaches to himself what he knows of God’s mercy so that he might be encouraged even in the depths to have hope. Friends, this is the biblical pattern of how to pray in the depths. This is how to encourage your soul.
Consider also Lamentations chapter 3, the passage that has prompted one of the most beloved hymns of the Christian faith. The author of Lamentations is utterly crushed by the suffering he has endured. He prays to the Lord, “Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases. His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning--great is your faithfulness.”
The biblical pattern of prayer--in Psalm 130, in Lamentations 3, and in many other places--is that as we pray in the depths we need to remind ourselves of the character of God. Reminding ourselves in general of God’s character helps us to look in hope for a specific resolution to our problem, an answer from God to redeem us and pull us up from the depths. And that brings us to the third movement of this Psalm.
Look again with me at your bibles at verses 5-6.
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope. My soul waits for the LORD more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.
Note that with these verses the author has shifted from addressing the Lord directly in his prayer, to addressing the listening congregation. Having been reminded of the character of God and his offer of forgiveness and kindness to those who trust in him, the psalmist sets his steady hopes and his longings on a word to come from the Lord.
Two things I think we need to observe in this third movement of the Psalm. First, observe the continued urgency of the Psalmist’s longing for an answer from the Lord. He has not yet received a reply to his pleas and petitions from verses 1-2. But the character of his God has calmed his fears. In the intervening verses something has changed about his prayer. As he has reminded himself of God’s character he has now begun to be able to look upward with hope. He still prays with urgency and waits for the Lord with all of his being--his soul waits for the Lord. But he waits now with a specific expectation of a word of redemption.
Second, consider what word the Psalmist is waiting for. Is he now setting his hope generally in the revealed Word of God? Or is he longing for a specific Word; a specific statement of God’s redemptive work to him? I think the answer is the latter. The psalmist longs to hear a specific word spoken to him to assure him of God’s favor and forgiveness. If you can, try to picture the worship-context of this psalm. It is part of the cycle of psalms we call the Songs of Ascent, which were used in Israelite tradition for those traveling up to Jerusalem for religious festivals. You can imagine an ancient brother traveling the road to Jerusalem, bringing an offering for sin and longing for that moment when the offering is made and the priest can assure him on the basis of the promises of YHWH that his sins are forgiven--not because the blood of a bull is magical, but because the LORD is gracious and merciful and forgives sins.
This is the Word that the Psalmist longs to hear in the same way that watchmen looking over a city at night long to see the dawn break on the horizon. Just as the day brings light and security and rest to the watchman so also the word of assurance brings light to the heart and rest to the soul. And I think if we are honest this is the word we long to hear when we are in the depths. As we pray we cry out to God--verses 1-2. And as we cry out to God we remind ourselves of his gracious character--verse 3-4. But having reminded ourselves of his character, we long to hear specifically from his Word that God is for us. We long to hear not just that God is gracious and merciful in general, but that he is gracious and merciful to us--to you and to me.
I want to suggest three ordinary ways that the Lord provides for us to hear this Word so that we can be encouraged as our souls wait for the Lord.
First, We hear this word of specific comfort in the congregation each sunday during the Call to Worship. We heard this beautifully in the Call to Worship this morning: Andrew led us to confession and as we confessed he assured us of the pardon that God our Father offers to his people. Christian, if you are longing for a word from the Lord, take advantage of this weekly element of the worship--hear and believe that if you are trusting in Jesus Christ, then the Lord is for you, no matter how deep in the depths you find yourself.
Second, we hear this word of comfort as we confess sin to one another and assure one another of God’s grace. There are many reasons that we may find ourselves in the depths. But one of the most common reasons for Christians is that we are conscious of the remaining sin in our own hearts and our actions. As the Holy Spirit graciously brings conviction to us for specific sins, it is a sweet comfort to confess those sins to a brother and to hear again the truth of the gospel proclaimed to us. This is a way for everyone in the church to minister to one another. When your conscience is burdened, confess your sins to one another. And when you hear the confession of a fellow Christian, you have the great privilege of serving as the vehicle of God’s word to them, assuring them of the grace of the gospel. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book Life Together, says it this way:
“The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of truth. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother--his own heart is uncertain; his brother’s is sure.”
Friends, when your soul longs and waits for the Word of the Lord, look for that word in the encouragement of your Christian brothers and sisters.
Now a third and final way in the ordinary life of the church that we hear this word of assurance is in the Lord’s Supper. Each week as the church gathers for worship we are invited to come to the Lord’s Table and feast with him. The feast at the Lord’s table each week serves as memorial of his broken body and shed blood, as spiritual meal by which we are strengthened in hope, and as proclamation of a wedding feast to come. Brothers and sisters, when you find yourselves in the depths, come to the table regularly. Come hungry to feast upon the Lord and let his invitation to eat and drink be a word of assurance to your waiting soul.
So in these three movements in the first six verses of this psalm, the psalmist has moved from crying out in the depths, longing for God to answer, to reminding himself of the divine character and faithfulness, to waiting eagerly for a word of assurance and redemption. And finally now in verses 7-8, the Psalmist turns to encourage the congregation of the saints. Look one more time with me at Psalm 130:
O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.
In the day this Psalm was written, as in our day, every redemption is an already and a not-yet-redemption. With the Lord there is steadfast love and with him there is plentiful redemption. With the Lord there is forgiveness that he may be feared. And yet in this life we are still often in the depths. If you’re not in the depths now, you will be one day. And so this final exhortation from the psalmist is meant to encourage us: the Lord’s redemption of all creation will not in the end be incomplete. He will redeem his Israel, his chosen people, from all our iniquities.
The Psalmist saw this redemption and looked forward to it eagerly. But he did not see it as clearly as we do today. In that day the Lord had spoken to his people through the prophets, and the Psalmist trusted the Word in faith. But now in our day, these last days, the Lord has spoken to us by his Son, as we read in the book of Hebrews. The redemption to which the Psalmist looked is accomplished by the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Christian, this gives you good reason to hope in the Lord. You can know that his love is steadfast because he gave it to us in the person of his own Son who was born of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary. You can know that his redemption is plentiful because the blood that was shed for your sins was plenty enough to cover them all. You can look for the Lord to redeem his people from all their iniquities because he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. Let’s pray.