It our discussion of Psalm 130, we have seen that it is a song of repentance, it is a song of corporate worship, and it is a gospel song. But notice the common word in each of these descriptions—this is a song! And because this is a poem that is meant to be sung, we can’t just look at the contents of this psalm. In other words, we can’t treat this psalm just like it is a Pauline epistle. It is a poem! It is a work of art, and so we must take a step further and look at what this poem is doing artistically, and it is in this process that I think we will be able to see best why God intends for us today to express repentance through poetry set to music.
You see, a song like Psalm 130 is not simply an expression of information; the purpose of this song is not simply to tell us we are sinners, that we deserve God’s judgment, but we can find forgiveness in God if we repent and hope in him. The psalm does say that, but as a song—as a work of art—this psalm does more than simply teach us doctrine about sin and forgiveness.
A song allows the author to express aspects of the experience of biblical repentance that are deeper than just didactic words. A song allows the reader to experience for himself the realities of the image that the poet paints in a way that would not be possible if the poet had simply described the experience in a detached fashion.
When we read a poem, we enter the world that the poet artistically created, we walk with him through the experience he relates in the poem, and then we are able to experience for ourselves what the poet wants us to experience.
This is true for all art; it is true for poetry, for music, for literature, for painting. All art pre-interprets experiences. The artist creates a world into which we can enter and experience the message the artist has for us. This is why when we evaluate the meaning of art—like what we sing in worship, for example, we need to evaluate more than just what the art says; we also need to discern what the art does.
So Psalm 130 is an artistic composition—a song—that allows us to enter experientially what the author experienced as he repented of his sin and trusted in God. Because it is God’s Word, it does so in such a way that what we experience in the art is a God-centered interpretation of that experience—it is exactly what God wants us to experience when we draw near to him in repentance. That’s the power of a song of repentance.
Martin Luther’s comments about this very psalm illustrate this point. He said of the opening lines of Psalm 130, “These are noble, passionate, and very profound words of a truly penitent heart that is most deeply moved in its distress. In fact, this cannot be understood except by those who have felt and experienced it. We are all in deep and great misery, but we do not all feel our condition.”
Luther’s right: We do not all feel our need for repentance like we should, and in fact someone who hasn’t felt that need can’t even understand what it’s like. This is where songs of repentance come in. A good song of repentance can help us to know experientially what true repentance should be like, not only through what the song says, but also through what the song does artistically.
So what does Psalm 130 do artistically? Over the next several weeks, I’d like to point out to you what the psalmist does artistically in this song, and in so doing, I hope that you will both experience what true repentance is and also recognize the great value in expressing repentance toward God, not only with basic words, but also through singing in corporate worship.