You may be excused for feeling that, along with all humanity, you are sinking into the depths of the unknown. Psalm 130 is timely.
Last week, some readers remarked that the Lectionary choice of Psalm 23 was very relevant and appropriate for these times of unusual distress. This week’s Psalm 130, the sixth Penitential Psalm, may well have been picked just to fit in with Lent. However, it again reflects the global cry for reassurance in these anxious times:
Out of the depths I cry to thee O God. Hear my voice!Psalm 130:1
Psalm 130 is another song of ascent (psalms 120 to 134). While the previous Psalm 129 calls for deliverance of Israel from their enemies, this one asks for forgiveness for Israel’s iniquities.
It’s a statement of the mystery of the human condition, with all its faults and frustrations (to say nothing of covid-19). Remember that calamities, world wars, epidemics and other disasters have swept the world over many centuries.
However, the psalmist is assured of access to grace. The song asks for redemption for Israel, though in the modern context it clearly has a wider application to people of faith.
If you are tempted to think, as many have done over the years, that plague and tempest are punishment for our sins, your anxiety is not shared by the psalmist. Sure, humankind is guilty of egregious wickedness on many fronts. However, such superstition belongs back in the dark ages and the dated (BCE) eye-for-an-eye mentality. Psalm 130 tells us that, if God were to pay vengeful attention to our failings, who could stand? (v. 3) But it goes on to assure us that divine forgiveness and love prevail throughout and that we must, in trying circumstances, be patient:
my soul waits for Godv.6
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
Fifth century theologian Augustine of Hippo in his commentaries connects this watch for the dawning with the resurrection of Jesus in the morning of the third day, and the consequent establishment of a new age of love and hope. An integrated view of the whole of scripture like this is valuable, as we noted in last week’s post on Psalm 23.
However, the psalm must ultimately stand on its own, particularly in view of the acceptance and use of the psalter in all three major Abrahamic religions, not just Christianity. In Judaism, it is said to be one of the psalms traditionally recited “in times of communal distress”. So the song can be beautiful and comforting to readers within the Jewish and Islamic faiths, as to those of other beliefs or none who presently watch for the renewal of a healthier and safer world.
Verse 1 delivers such a strong image that it features prominently in many of the songs and antiphons associated with Psalm 130:
- In Psalms For All Seasons, for instance, six of seven suggested music options are titled in terms of a cry from the deep. (The first by the way, 130A, goes back to one by Martin Luther in 1524.)
- In the hymn book, Together in Song No 81 begins the verses the same way but chooses the theme of mercy and redemption for the antiphon. It’s quite a nice setting and should not be overlooked, though while we are all confined to socially-distanced barracks, you probably will not have the music version of the hymn book which contains the tune for the verses. You can always make it up for yourself.
- Sinead O’Connor’s Out of the depths is a fine choice — but only in a version which uses the text of the psalm. Her opening lines from verses 1 and 2 make a good responsive refrain:
Out of the depths I cry to thee O Lord; don’t let my cries for mercy be ignored
[Woden UC members: word-sheet and MP3 available on request.]
Classical settings abound for the enthusiastic listener. Michael Praetorius alone wrote more than ten motets drawing on this text.
JS Bach, Josquin des Prez, Lassus, Sweelinck, Tallis, Wesley, Weelkes … the list of rich pickings by such wonderful composers goes on. Lassus, for example, wrote extended settings for all the penitential psalms including De profundis, writing a separate motet of a page or two for each verse. Wikipedia has this to say:
The final piece in the collection, his setting of the De profundis (Psalm 129/130), is considered by many scholars to be one of the high-water marks of Renaissance polyphony, ranking alongside the two settings of the same text by Josquin des Prez.
Again, many of these composers were obviously captivated by the imagery of those first few verses, imagining what ‘Out of the depths’ might really look like in their times. The psalmist’s cry for help three thousand years ago takes on a new flavour according to both global and personal situation of the day. For most of us this year, both of these situations are uncharted territory. Patience, says the psalmist, is assisted by an element of a quiet trust:
Wait for God, with whom is great mercy and the power of redemption.vv.7, 8