Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134
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Vincent Van Gogh, 'Starry Night over the Rhone' (1888), oil on canvas, 28 x 36 in., Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
There are times in our lives when we reach the bottom. Not just depression, though -- that can be a reality. But here the psalmist is dealing with iniquity and guilt. There are times when the magnitude of our sins overwhelms us. And that's where we find the psalmist here -- pleading "out of the depths" for mercy.
If we're looking for a category for this psalm, we would probably call it a lament over sin -- some would call it a penitential psalm. But it ends with hope and confidence in the Lord.
"A Song of Ascents.
1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!
2 O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!
3 If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
4 But with you there is forgiveness,
that you may be feared.
5 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
6 my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.
7 O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
8 And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities." (Psalm 130:1-8, ESV)
The psalm begins with a cry, a cry from far away.
"1 Out of the depths130 I cry to you, O LORD!
2 O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!" (Psalm 130:1-2)
"Depths" would refer to deep waters, if he meant it literally. Water so deep that he would sink down to the bottom. That's what he's feeling. So he cries for help. Notice the poetic way that this cry is repeated three times in different ways -- probably to emphasize his urgency:
It becomes clear that his agony is over guilt and sin.
"If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?" (Psalm 130:3)
The word translated "iniquities" (ESV, NRSV, KJV), "sins" (NIV) comes from a root that means "bend, twist, distort," which describes sin rather well.133 These aren't just good faith mistakes or missteps, but twisted, crooked behaviors contrary to God's righteousness.
The psalmist isn't trying to avoid responsibility for sin, but is thankful that God's way isn't to "mark" (ESV, NRSV, KJV) or "keep a record of" (NIV) our sins. He takes no pleasure in keeping track of the depths of our guilt.134 It grieves him as much as it does us. But if God did keep score, there would be no truly righteous person left standing.135
Those who come to the Lord often shed their most obvious sins fairly rapidly. But then the paths diverge. Some come to believe that they are pretty righteous -- except for occasional lapses, of course. But those who seek a deeper walk, find that the closer they walk to the Lord, the more they're aware of the more subtle, but deadly, sins of the heart -- and begin to call out for cleansing.
The truth is that none of us is sin-free -- not in this life. Oh, the Lord is working to cleanse and reform our hearts (that's called sanctification), but there's always more to do, as the Scripture testifies:
"No one living is righteous before you." (Psalm 143:2b)
"Surely there is not a righteous man on earth
who does good and never sins." (Ecclesiastes 7:20)
"All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned -- every one -- to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all." (Isaiah 53:6)
"All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23)
"If we say we have no sin,
we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us....
If we say we have not sinned,
we make him a liar, and his word is not in us." (1 John 1:8, 10)
The unhappy truth is that we all sin, but the happy flip-side is that our God is a God who desires to forgive.
"But with you there is forgiveness,136
that you may be feared." (Psalm 130:4)
Some have caricatured the God of the Old Testament as angry and punitive, in contrast with the God of the New Testament who is loving and forgiving. Those who do this haven't read the Old Testament very carefully -- nor the New, for that matter.
From the time of Moses, Yahweh reveals himself as a forgiving God.
"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...." (Exodus 34:6-7a)
Indeed, this basic truth is repeated again and again -- at least twelve times -- throughout the Old Testament.137 This loving, forgiving heart reaches its apex in sending Jesus to the cross to die for our sins (John 3:16). And not just ours, but the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).
Psalm 130:4 concludes with a puzzling statement:
"With you there is forgiveness,
that you may be feared." (Psalm 130:4)
As we saw on Day 9 (Psalm 128:1), "feared" can be translated in the sense of "revere."138 So the verse would be interpreted, "with you there is forgiveness so that you might be revered and honored for your amazing grace."
But I wonder if the idea of "fear" doesn't take us a bit further here. Certainly, God is a forgiving God, but his self-revelation that we looked at in Exodus 34:6-7 concludes with the phrase, "but who will by no means clear the guilty...."139 God's forgiveness is pure grace, not a right that provides us a free pass to sin as we please. The Apostle John assures us that "the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin," but conditions it upon confession, heart repentance.
"If we confess our sins,
he is faithful and just
to forgive us our sins
and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9)
God's forgiveness creates in us an awe, reverence, and deep appreciation as well as a realization that his forgiveness is undeserved. Given entirely from his grace, it must not be taken for granted or trifled with.
Sometimes we can get to thinking that God won't hear our prayer because we've sinned. Hope is lost. But then God's grace comes flowing out. He is a God of forgiveness who removes our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). For in him there is forgiveness that we might hold him in awe.
So now, with renewed faith, we wait expectantly for the answer to our prayer.
Verse 5 introduces a curious word: "wait." But it means more than to remain in place in readiness for something. The Hebrew word means, "to look for with eager expectation." The psalmist gives an example of this kind of expectant waiting when he says, "more than watchmen for the morning."
In ancient Israel, the larger towns were fortified with walls. The gate was closed at evening, and, as we saw on Day 8 (Psalm 127:1b), watchmen142 were placed on the walls or in the streets to watch for any kind of attack or criminal activity. It was boring work. I can imagine many a sleepy watchman telling himself, "Only an hour more till dawn and then I can go home and sleep." For them it wasn't a matter of wondering whether morning would come, but how soon.
It's that kind of sure expectation that the psalmist is talking about here, in a word, "faith." Instead of waiting for the dawn, we wait for the fulfillment of his promises. "In his word I hope."143 We expectantly wait for God to bring to pass his promises on our behalf, for our family, for our nation, for our world.
The writer of Hebrews exhorts us in a similar way to wait patiently and expectantly for the fulfillment of God's promises.
"For you have need of endurance,
so that when you have done the will of God
you may receive what is promised." (Hebrews 10:36)
Kelso Carter wrote a beloved hymn describing this kind of hopeful perseverance, waiting for God's promises to be fulfilled. Verse 2 goes,
"Standing on the promises that cannot fail,
When the howling storms of doubt and fear assail,
By the living Word of God I shall prevail, Standing on the promises of God.
Standing, standing, standing on the promises of God my Savior.
Standing, standing, standing on the promises of God."144
"7 O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
8 And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities."145 (Psalm 130:7-8)
Up to this point, the psalmist seems to be talking about his own sins, his own forgiveness from God, and his own faithful waiting for the promises to be fulfilled. But the psalm concludes with a call to Israel as a nation to hope146 in the Lord, to wait expectantly for his salvation. It is a communal exhortation and a communal promise.
He offers two bedrock assurances about Yahweh's character.
1. Steadfast love. "Steadfast love" (ESV, NRSV) "unfailing love" (NIV), "mercy" (KJV), "lovingkindness" (NASB), "faithful love" (NJB) is ḥesed, which essentially means "unremitting love within a covenant relationship, even when one party fails or is unfaithful to the covenant." It's a lot like the idea of "grace" in the New Testament.147
2. Plentiful redemption. Redemption is a commercial word used in the context of slavery. The related verb means, "to achieve the transfer of ownership from one to another through payment of a price or an equivalent substitute."148 God redeems his people from slavery in Egypt and then gives them their own land to dwell in (Deuteronomy 15:15). Jesus redeems us from our sins. But by its very nature the idea of redemption is not without cost. In the case of Christ's redemption on the cross, we are ransomed , "not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot" (1 Peter 1:18-19).
Jesus asks the question, "What can a man give in return for his soul?" (Mark 8:37). The answer is: There is nothing we have of such great value as that. But it was done for us by the One who gave his all to set us free -- Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Because of Yahweh's character of steadfast love and redemption -- not just redemption, but "plenteous redemption" -- we have assurance that "he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities" (Psalm 130:7-8). He saves us as individuals, and he redeems the people of God.
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Thank you, Father, that "in you is forgiveness," that you hold the solution to our sin and guilt. We trust you, Lord. We trust in your steadfast love. We await your mighty acts -- both in our lives now, as you see fit, and at the end of the age, when you wrap up everything in the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.
Day 11 Meditation (Psalm 130). How does knowing that God forgives us affect our lives? Our faith? How does knowing God forgives us affect our willingness to forgive others? How is your "expectancy level"? How is your hope? How is your faith? http://www.joyfulheart.com/forums/topic/1910-11-waiting/
 "Depths" is maʿamaqqîm, "deep, depths," from the verb, ʿāmōq, "be deep, make deep." It can be used of literal waters, as well as figuratively, as here (Ronald B. Allen, TWOT #1644e).
 "Cry" is the very common qārāʾ, "call, call out," the enunciation of a specific vocable or message (Leonard J. Coppes, TWOT #2063).
 "Pleas for mercy" (ESV), "cry for mercy" (NIV), "supplications" (NRSV, KJV), is taḥanûn, "supplication (for favor)" (Holladay, p. 389). The verb ḥānan depicts a heartfelt response by someone who has something to give to one who has a need. Always used in the plural taḥănûnîm, "supplications." Similar in general to teḥinnâ, "supplication, mercy," and means a prayer for grace on all but two occasions. Taḥanûn represents a less a formal entreaty (Edwin Yamauchi, TWOT #694g).
 "Iniquities" (ESV, NRSV, KJV), "sins" (NIV) is ʿāwōn, "iniquity, guilt, punishment for guilt, infraction, crooked behavior, perversion, etc." from the verb ʿāwâ, "bend, twist, distort." It denotes both the deed and its consequences, the misdeed and its punishment (Carl Schultz, TWOT #1577a).
 Shāmar, "guard, observe, to exercise great care over." Here it has the idea, "regard, give heed to, truly pay attention to" (TWOT #2414).
 "Stand" is ʿāmad, "stand, remain, endure" (Ronald B. Allen, TWOT #1637).
 "Forgiveness" is selîḥâ, "forgiveness," from sālah, "forgive, pardon" (Walter C. Kaiser, TWOT #1505b).
 Numbers 14:17-19; Deuteronomy 5:10; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:7; 2 Chronicles 30:9; and Psalms 86:15; 103:8-13; 111:4; 112:4; 116:5; and 145:8.
 "Feared" is the Niphal stem of yārēʾ, "fear, be afraid, revere," in the Niphal, passive, "to be feared" (Andrew Bowling, TWOT #907).
 "Guilty" is the noun ḥaṭṭāʾt, "sin," from ḥāṭāʾ, "miss the mark or way, sin" (TWOT 638e).
 "Soul" is nepesh, "soul, heart, life, creature, person, appetite, mind." The original, concrete meaning of the word was probably "to breathe." Nepesh occurs with many verbs denoting "yearning." In its most synthetic use nepesh stands for the entire person (Bruce K. Waltke, TWOT #1395a).
 "Morning" is bōqer, "morning, early" (TWOT #274c).
 "Watchman" is Qal participle of shāmar, "watch, keep, guard, observe, exercise great care over" (TWOT #2414).
 "Hope" in verse 5 is the Hiphil stem of yāḥal, However, yāḥal is used of "expectation, hope" which for the believer is closely linked with "faith, trust" and results in "patient waiting" (Paul R. Gilchrist, TWOT #859).
 "Standing on the Promises," words and music by R. Kelso Carter (1886).
 "Iniquities" is the plural of ʿāwōn that we saw in verse 1.
 "Hope" is yāḥal that we saw in verse 5.
 R. Laird Harris, hesed, TWOT #698. When you consider hesed, you think of a word developed by Paul in the New Testament, "grace," Greek charis -- favor that is extended to a person unilaterally, not on the basis of how well one performs or behaves or reciprocates love.
 "Plentiful redemption" (ESV), "plenteous redemption" (KJV), "full redemption" (NIV), "great power to redeem" (NRSV) is two words, the adverb harbēh, "much, very" (Holladay, p. 83) + pedût, "ransom, redemption" from pādâ, "to achieve the transfer of ownership from one to another through payment of a price or an equivalent substitute." It had to do with the payment of a required sum for the transfer of ownership, a commercial term. God, who had redeemed his people from Egypt, would also deliver them from other difficulties (William B. Coker, TWOT #1734b).
In-depth Bible study books
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- Songs of Ascent (Ps 120-134)
- 1, 2, and 3 John
- 1 Peter
- 2 Peter & Jude
- 1 & 2 Thessalonians
- 1 & 2 Timothy
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- Apostle Paul
- Abraham, Faith of
- Christ Powered Life (Romans 5-8)
- Christmas Incarnation
- Colossians and Philemon
- Conquering Lamb of Revelation
- David, Life of
- Glorious Kingdom, The
- Great Prayers of the Bible
- Holy Spirit, Disciple's Guide
- Jacob, Life of
- Jesus and the Kingdom of God
- JesusWalk: Beginning the Journey
- John's Gospel
- Lamb of God
- Listening for God's Voice
- Lord's Supper
- Luke's Gospel
- Moses the Reluctant Leader
- Names and Titles of God
- Names and Titles of Jesus
- Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
- Resurrection and Easter Faith
- Sermon on the Mount
- Seven Last Words of Christ