In our study of Psalm 130, we have seen that the psalmist uses various poetic devices like metaphor and repetition to create a picture of what true repentance should feel like–desperate need for forgiveness from sin. This is the primary function of stanza 1 (vss. 1-2) and 3 (vss.5-6) of this song of repentance.
But in the middle of those two stanzas of desperation and waiting, the second stanza of this song, verse 3–4, reveals both the reason the psalmist’s sin leaves him in a condition of desperation and the solution to his situation.
And here again, he doesn’t just tell us, he shows us artistically through a metaphor: “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” He creates a picture of God here as a judge who is sitting on his bench keeping record of each and every sin that we commit, and justice requires that punishment be served for each offence. If God were to operate in such a way, no one would be able to stand.
Again, that psalmist is not just telling us this. He is not just telling us that we deserve punishment from God for our sin. He is showing us this reality artistically because he wants us to feel the weight of our sin. The psalmist knows that true repentance is not only an intellectual assent to the reality of our sinfulness. There are plenty of people who intellectually recognize that they are sinners, but this intellectual recognition alone is not repentance. True repentance necessarily involves a change of heart. As Luther said, true repentance requires that we feel the misery of our sin and that we come to abhor our sin. That is the heart reaction the psalmist wants us to have, and that is what makes this song so powerful.
Yet for a child of God there is a solution to our desperate condition: “But with you there is forgiveness.” Here is the gospel. Here is grace. But it is not cheap grace. It is grace that should cause us to rightly fear God. That why this song writer doesn’t just focus on God’s love or God’s goodness or God’s kindness. He first brings us down, he shows us the desperation of our condition, and then he creates a stark contrast to our sin with God’s great forgiveness.
The psalmist clearly tells us his goal at the end of the verse: “that you may be feared.” The psalmist knows that God’s people are often tempted to take God’s grace for granted; we are often tempted to see God’s grace as cheap and fail to recognize what it cost for God to forgive his people. We often grow comfortable in our sin because we think that since we are God’s people, and he has made unconditional promises to us, then we no longer need to repent; we no longer need to confess our sin. We no longer need to fear God.
But the psalmist wants us to fear God because we are sinners and because in God there is forgiveness. This is why the psalmist spends so much time in this song creating an artistic picture of our desperate condition in sin and the just punishment we deserve, because it is only when we truly feel the weight of our condition without God that true repentance can occur. It is only when we turn away from our sin in disgust and cry out to God that we truly repent. And it is only when we truly repent in this way that we can have full confidence and hope in the grace and mercy and forgiveness of God.