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A History of Psalm 130 in Music: Part 1

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series

"A History of Psalm 130 in Music"

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Sometimes we really don’t appreciate the continuity of the Christian tradition, especially in that there is, by and large, an approach to the music of worship that can be traced back to ancient Israel itself and its psalmody.

Over the next several weeks, I want to trace how a particular psalm, Psalm 130, has been used in the corporate worship of Christians for thousands of years. And, what is remarkable, is that despite the fact that radically different eras and peoples have approached this Psalm, and despite the varying settings, that we can, in another sense, see remarkably clearly the similarity within the varying developments in time. In other words, for those who grasp the meaning of the Psalm, there is a real sense of common appreciation for its themes, and that appreciation is seen in how the text is paraphrased and set to music. It is almost as if the Psalm text itself has a regulating effect on the composers and poets who have picked it up. Whether Jewish, Lutheran, Genevan, Gregorian, or Anglican, the music employed is strangely similar despite the variations.

And yet this continuity is accomplished without remaining stagnant or immutable. There is development as different traditions use the Psalm for their different purposes.

The Psalm itself, a “song of ascents” perhaps sung by pilgrims on their way to worship in Jerusalem, is striking in its desperate cry for mercy to God concerning sins, and it would do us well to begin by working briefly through the Psalm.

Psalm 130

A Song of degrees.

1Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD.

2Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.

3If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?

4But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.

5I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope.

6My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning.

7Let Israel hope in the LORD: for with the LORD there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.

8And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

Surely, here is the “gospel” in the Old Testament. The Psalmist cries “out of the depths,” as if drowning in an ocean with no one to help. But his cry is to the Lord [יְהוָֽה], who alone can rescue him. In the second verse, the addressee shifts from ‘the LORD’ [יְהוָֽה] to ‘the Lord’ [אֲדֹנָי֮]. He begs the Lord to listen to, “to hear” [cf. Deut 6:4] his cry. He reiterates this in the parallel line (2b), using anthropomorphic language, asking God not to “ignore” or “overlook” him. In verse 2, which anticipates the confession of sin in the following verse, I can’t but wonder if there is, in beseeching the Lord to hear, a faint echo of his own neglected duty in hearing the Lord’s law that led to the sin in the first place. God must hear us because we failed to hear him in the first place.1 But here the hearing is more than a mere acknowledgment of the prayer that has been made, but a request that God would answer it.

Verse 3 clearly shows the reason for the humble supplication of the Psalmist: he is overwhelmed by his sin, and knows that God is aware of all his transgressions. There is no question that God is aware of all our sins, and that there is a kind of “tally” that he has of all our transgressions. And this is surely an overwhelming thought, that the God who will judge the world, who will not leave evildoers unpunished, is aware of all our iniquities. Nothing we do can blot these sins away. All our tears and cries and promises of repentance cannot take them away. God keeps them all. And therefore we cannot stand before God in this state (Cf. Psa 1:5). But verse 4 allows the ray of light to shine through this gloom: “But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.” With God there is not only a marking of iniquity, but the hope of forgiveness. And this forgiveness is so condescending, so loving and merciful, that the LORD who keeps all our sins and the Lord who judges sinners, is the same Lord that kindly forgives our sins, that it leads to profound fear [תִּוָּרֵֽא]. No, not unbridled happiness (see my post from a couple weeks ago), but sober, joyful fear.2 The God who mercifully forgives remains our sovereign God and Lord even after the pardon has been granted; if anything, the pardon he bestows deepens our sense of awe.

But this pardon is not only a promised blessing in the present, but a thing in which to hope. So the Psalmist speaks of waiting for the covenant-keeping LORD in verse 5, and of hoping in his word. Perhaps the Psalmist has in mind the promises of the New Covenant in Deut 30:3 or even in the words of Jeremiah 31:34 (and elsewhere), the promise of a future day when the Lord will wipe away all the sins of Israel and bring about all the promises he had made to them. After all, the only basis we have for any inkling that sins will be forgiven is in the word of God. And these promises pointed to Jesus Christ, the ‘Word made flesh’ who would come to appease God’s wrath for not only the nation of Israel, but the whole world. So the Psalmist anticipated–looked for–hoped in–the provision of this Lamb of God who in the future would come to bring forgiveness, being himself the ransom for all men. He speaks again of this hope in verse 6, saying it surpasses even that of night watchmen who earnestly watch the Eastern sky for first rays of light and a new day. And while we as Christians ourselves look back to this dying Jesus Christ for forgiveness of sins, we too look forward in hope of God finishing his new creation in us in the age to come.

So the Psalmist calls all his brethren to hope with him in the Lord, the one alone in whom lies forgiveness and mercy. The word translated “mercy” in the King James is chesed [הַחֶ֑סֶד], a reference to God’s covenant keeping love. In the Lord, he adds, there is plentiful redemption [פְדֽוּת], or “great power to redeem” (JPS). God alone is worthy of being our hope, and so it is only fitting for us to call one another to continue to hope in this Lord. He concludes with making explicit the promise of what the Lord will do, the basis of the hope: “And he shall redeem [יִפְדֶּ֣ה] Israel from all his iniquities.” The Redeemer of Israel is Jesus Christ, the Lord God incarnate, who will cleanse Israel and the world from all their sins through his propitiatory death on the cross (Luke 1:68; Titus 2:14). The Lord’s redemption of his people from Egypt points to an ultimate redemption of his people in the forgiveness of their sins and the establishment of the kingdom of his Son, the son of David, where righteousness will flood the earth.

So we have here a Psalm of deep lament for sin, fear of God, and hope for a future redemption. We’ll begin next week looking at how this text has been set to music, especially in more ancient times.

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About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).

  1. There is among American evangelicals a strange tendency to take God’s promises so for granted that we do not ask him to keep them anymore. The Psalmist, no doubt, is confident the Lord can and will hear him. But this does not restrain him from begging the Lord to show mercy and hear him anyway. It seems to me that it has also been the practice of devout Christians in times past to ask God to keep what he has promised. One might even compare the number of times in the Acts of the Apostles (as only one example) that the early Christians prayed for God to do what he had promised. Jesus himself taught us to pray to God that his kingdom will come (is there any doubt this will happen?) and that our sins would be forgiven. As surely as we must have strong confidence in God that he will keep his promises, this should never move us to take those promises for granted or fail to ask the Lord again and again to keep those promises to us. This is the surest way to pray in accordance with God’s will. []
  2. John Gill: “. . . was there no forgiveness of sin, there would be no more fear of God among men than there is among devils, for whom there is no forgiveness; there might be dread and trembling, as among them, but no godly fear.” []