Bible Commentary: Psalm 130

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Psalm 130

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Though Psalm 130 begins in the depths of despair, it rises, as the second song of ascents in the fourth set of three, to a primary focus of confident hope and trust in God--in His faithfulness to forgive and redeem. In its acknowledgment of sin and need for forgiveness, the song is classed as a penitential psalm. "Its placement following a psalm of imprecation (Psalm 129) is fitting. After all, a person might take such joy [or comfort] in the destruction of the wicked that he or she no longer would consider his or her own heart before the Lord" ( Nelson Study Bible, note on Psalm 130). The pilgrims may have sung this psalm in the manner of a group confessional, seeking God's forgiveness in preparation for keeping the Feast of Tabernacles. In this sense, it would seem related to the Day of Atonement, concerned with humbling oneself and seeking reconciliation with God just before the joyful celebration of Tabernacles.

The psalm opens with the picture of one who is drowning in sorrow over his sins, calling to God for help, referring to Him throughout as both "Lord" (Yhwh, Eternal One) and "Lord" (Master). The psalmist knows that he, representative of all God's people, has failed in obedience to the Master. Yet he also knows that God has made provision for this failure.

Verse 3 rhetorically asks who could stand if God were to mark iniquities--that is, if a running tally of our sins was His means of judging us. The answer is none of us--for all have sinned (Romans 3:23) and the ultimate penalty of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Ezra expressed wonder at God's people standing in His presence despite their sins: "O Lord God of Israel, you are righteous, for we are left as a remnant, as it is this day [though deserving of complete destruction]. Here we are before You, in our guilt, though no one can stand before you because of this!" (Ezra 9:15). This is possible because God, in His love for humanity, instituted an alternate means of satisfying justice, whereby mercy could be granted instead. This alternate means was the sacrifice of Jesus Christ--who bore the penalty of our sins in His suffering and crucifixion--foreshadowed in the sacrificial system of ancient Israel.

The psalmist looks to God for forgiveness (Psalm 130:4), knowing that God is willing to forgive (see Exodus 34:7). It is instructive to note that God offers forgiveness that He "may be feared" (Psalm 130:4). This does not mean that God's forgiveness is something to be feared. Solomon similarly prayed in his prayer at the dedication of the temple for God to forgive His people when they repented "so they will fear you all the time they live in the land you gave our fathers" (1 Kings 8:40). The point is that God's willingness to forgive is what encourages people to enter into a relationship with Him--to committing their lives to obeying Him from then on in proper fear. We should especially consider that forgiveness is not intended to lead to careless abandon but to careful obedience. God does not offer a cheap grace where He continually forgives us without real repentance. He requires a change of life, though this too is possible only through Him.

Confident in God's forgiveness, the psalmist waits in assured hope of God's promises (Psalm 130:5)--hopes and watches even more than "watchmen wait for the morning" (verse 6, NIV). The psalmist may refer here to guards who watched over the city at night--who looked forward to their shift ending and getting some rest. Others suggest that the watchers were Levite priests observing the first signs of dawn to begin preparation for the morning sacrifices. Perhaps the figure concerns longing for the darkness of night to end with the dawning of day--as representative of longing for some present trial brought on by sin to end or of Israel's national history of trials to end with the dawning of the coming day of God.

In verse 7 the psalm exhorts the nation to the same confident hope: "O Israel, hope in the Lord" --words also found in the conclusion of the next psalm (Psalm 131:3), serving to link these songs. For with God, Psalm 130:7 continues, there is hesed--steadfast, loyal love and mercy. He had done so much to redeem them already--delivering them from Egypt, giving them a land, rescuing them from enemies time and again. God would redeem them in an ultimate sense in time to come--from their sins and its consequences through the Messiah, who would die for their sins and rescue them from all foes, physical and spiritual (see verses 7-8). This redemption was on the minds of pilgrims as they made their way to God's feasts--just as it should be on our minds today.