This psalm is another song of ascent (psalms 120 to 134). It’s also the sixth of seven penitential psalms: not that it matters greatly, as the idea of ascent captures the imagination more powerfully. 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. The first verses, if you have not already looked it up, get right to it. In Sinead’s version:
Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord; don’t let my cries for mercy be ignored.
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 upon God ‘more than those who watch for the morning’, trusting that divine power will bless with hope (v. 5), love (v. 7) and redemption for Israel (read ‘the people’; vv. 7, 8). Turn up this text next time you are in the doldrums.
Life in many places has often been pretty rough over the years; people fight, wars arise over land, resources or power grabs. Days are very dark for ordinary people feeling the consequences of conflict. When things fall apart like that, community rulers try new ways of patching them up and preventing recurrence.
The charter shown here is one such attempt. It’s a page of a 16th century Book of Alliances of Schwyz, in the middle of Switzerland, 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 conduct:
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. At such times, the common people suffer again and again. (The celebrated Magna Carta, whose 800th anniversary slipped by recently, 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 But the treaty itself was much repealed within a few decades.)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 peoples’ cry from the depths continues:
Hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications… For there is hope of steadfast love and forgiveness. (verses 2-4)
The tone of the psalm thus encourages confidence in divine forgiveness and help. However, it wisely counsels patience:
My soul waits for God more than those who watch for the morning (v.6)
Verse 1 delivers such a strong image that it features prominently in many of the songs and antiphons associated with Psalm 130:
- In PFAS, for instance, six of seven suggested music options are titled in those words or the idea. (The first by the way, 130A, goes back to one by Martin Luther in 1524.)
- In the hymn book TiS No 81 for Psalm 130 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.
- A favourite version by Sinead O’Connor works well, lending itself to a solo or supported singer presenting words more closely following the psalm text than the Sinead song. Her opening lines quoted above make a good responsive refrain.
Classical settings abound for the enthusiastic choir or quartet. Michael Praetorius alone wrote more than ten motets drawing on this text. JS Bach, Des Prez, Lassus, Sweelinck, Tallis, Wesley, Weelkes … the list of rich pickings goes on. 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. Whatever works.