Psalm 130: Out of the depths

‘Out of the depths I cry to you O God.’ (1)

Another song of ascent, Psalm 130 is also the sixth of seven penitential psalms. The idea of ascent might capture the imagination more powerfully than that of the penitent but it’s 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), love (7) and redemption for Israel (read ‘the people’; 7, 8).

According to Thomas Hobbes in ‘The Leviathan’,(1651), life in many places has often been ‘nasty, brutish and short’. He added ‘solitary and poor’ for good measure. Peole fight, wars arise over land, resources or power grabs. Ordinary people suffer the consequences. When things fall apart like that, community rulers try new ways of patching them up and preventing recurrence.

Book of Alliances, Schwyz Cantonal Library, Switzerland

Illustration : Book of Alliances, Schwyz Cantonal Library The charter shown below is one such attempt. This page of a 16th century Book of Alliances of Schwyz, in the middle of Switzerland, is a transcript of an earlier treaty between confederations or cantons, the Sempach Charter of 10 July 1393. This document sought peace by agreeing that military force would only be used in defence against external threat not between the valley communities. Amongst other things, it laid down rules of engagement:

Feuds are prohibited between the confederates and unity should reign in all military campaigns. The proceeds of war must be divided, monasteries and women spared. Plundering is only permitted after victory.

All well and good — as long as you are the victor! On the whole, however, treaties don’t have a great track record. They look good but are often ignored in the interests of expediency, greed or control. The celebrated Magna Carta, whose 800th anniversary has now slipped by, left an important marker for human rights. But the treaty itself was much repealed within a few decades. No wonder the writers of the psalms were doubtful about trusting in princes (Psalm 118) or great armies (Psalm 33). This psalm provides quite a different focus. The people cry from the depths:

Hear my voice! … For there is hope of steadfast love and forgiveness. (2-4)

During the pandemic you could be excused for feeling that, along with all humanity, you are sinking into the depths of the unknown. Psalm 130 is timely. 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

This 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.

Whales off Bribie
Whales emerge from the deep off Bribie Island

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 God
    more than those who watch for the morning,
    more than those who watch for the morning.

v.6

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.

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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.

Fragment of a psalm by Praetorius

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:

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

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.