Psalm 130, 27 June 21

This song of ascent (Psalms 120 to 134), 130 is also the sixth of seven penitential psalms. The inspirational idea of ascent might capture the imagination more powerfully and positively than that of penitence. That depends on the readers’ needs at the time. In Psalm 130 we hear the familiar cry:

Out of the depths I cry to you O God.

In any event, this is a psalm for all seasons. The song is a statement of the mystery not only of the human condition, with all its faults and frustrations, but also of our access to grace.

Arising from the depths surely adds a new dimension to ‘ascent’. The poem recognises that despite our efforts and capacity for good, we will never reach divine standards in behaviour or nature. The psalmist just waits ‘more than those who watch for the morning’, trusting that divine power will bless with hope (5) and love (7).

While the previous Psalm 129 calls for deliverance of Israel from their enemies, this song of ascent asks for forgiveness for Israel’s iniquities and redemption for Israel (read ‘the people’; 7, 8).

Psalm 130 De profundis clamavi, from the Gregorian chant manual Liber Usualis.

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.

Cover of the Alto part book of Psalmi Davidis poenitentiales, 1584 by Orlando de Lasso

An integrated view of the whole of scripture like this is valuable. 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.


On the musical front, many fine composers have been captured by the mere thought of an ascent from the depths. 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 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.

At Woden Valley this Sunday we turn to a simple but haunting song by Sinéad O’Connor entitled, sure enough, Out of the depths. This is a plain vanilla two-chord ballad but our visiting soloist will present the psalm verses (not Sinead’s words) with lyric flow, supported by a few women’s voices.

We support the Celtic feel of the song with a lyre and bodhran.

No didgeridoo for this one, with respectful apologies to our First Nations people who this coming week observe a time of celebration of their ancient cultural heritage in the great South land. If it’s any consolation, the bodhran is not actually Irish; it’s native American from Taos.

Some other modern settings are listed in the main page Psalm 130: Out of the depths.

One of the best of the many recordings of the Lassus settings online is by Collegium Vocale Ghent. It contains all of his complete set, running for over two hours. So to hear Psalm 130, or Psalmus Sextus Pœnitentialis: De profundis clamavi at Te Domine, you have to run forward to 1:53 elapsed time. Meanwhile here is one of the settings by Josquin des Prez, also referred to in the Wikipedia entry, performed by the Hilliard Ensemble:

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