Sunday, 7 May 2017
Crying to God (Psalm 130)
Psalm 130 is regarded as one of seven penitential psalms (they are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143). This does not mean that other psalms do not have expressions of repentance. However, many psalms have a particular focus and these ones are concerned with penitence.
As with many other psalms (such as Psalm 23), this psalm has had a profound influence in the lives of prominent Christians and we can read about how they used it. The Church Father Augustine, when he was dying, had the penitential psalms written on the walls of his room so that he could read them as he prepared to leave this world.
This year is the 500th anniversary of the commencement of the Reformation when Martin Luther nailed his 95 statements to the church door in Wittenberg. We could ask many questions to such a giant of a man, but for the moment we could ask, ‘Tell us some of your favourite passages of the Bible?’ One of them was the penitential psalms – he called Pauline psalms. And he wrote a hymn based on Psalm 130.
Probably most of us have read Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. We may be aware of the unusual experiences he went through when God convicted him of his sins. He did not know it at the time, but as with all who become physicians of the soul he had to discover his own need of spiritual healing in a deep way. During the long months of searching that he was led through by the Heavenly Doctor, one of the biblical passages that helped Bunyan was Psalm 130, especially verses 3 and 4.
Sometimes we like to know the verses of the Bible that were used in the conversions of other people. In John Wesley’s case, we may have heard how his heart was strangely warmed as he listened to a man reading from Luther’s commentary on Romans on the evening of May 24th, 1738. Wesley, although a religious enthusiast at the time, was searching for peace with God. Earlier on that day of his conversion, he had attended church where the reading for the day was Psalm 130, and listening to the psalm gave Wesley hope of salvation.
We do not know who the author of Psalm 130 was or when it was written. Obviously, the author was going through a time of inner distress because of his sins. While we do not know the author or the personal circumstances, we do know that the psalm was selected as one of the psalms of ascent that were used by Israelites when they participated in the annual feasts that were held in Jerusalem three times a year. This means that the psalm was regarded as suitable for those who saw themselves as pilgrims who lived away from the city of God and as worshippers who gathered to meet with God.
Matthew Henry points out that the psalm does not mention any external circumstances, whether personal or public. Instead its focus is on what the author found within himself. For some reason, he was in the depths. This is a very graphic picture, the spiritual equivalent of the situation that Jonah found himself in when he was thrown overboard. Maybe we find ourselves in such a situation of inner disturbance that we cannot connect to anything specific. Yet the distress could be a sign that God is speaking to our souls.
The first feature of the psalm is that it contains a cry for mercy. There is no suggestion that the individual has committed a public sin or an isolated action that requires a special focus. Instead, he is in a state of inner turmoil because he knows that he is a sinner.
To know one is a sinner is a privilege. Some may think that is a strange statement initially. Yet it is a privilege because it is an indication that God has instructed the individual about himself. God can teach an individual in a variety of ways, but usually he uses two methods. One is that he gets the person to think about the ten commandments and the other is that he gets the person to think about Jesus. In those ways of teaching, God reveals to the sinner that he is very imperfect. The sinner has made this great discovery because God has taken the time to teach him.
The cry also reminds us that the individual who has received the great privilege of divine instruction speaks back to the Teacher. We call this verbal response prayer. The prayer is earnest, personal and specific. We can see that it is earnest in that it is a cry. A cry is not the same as a chat. It is also a plea, and pleas are connected to strong emotions.
Moreover, there is a very personal element in this type of prayer. Sometimes we can pray together about issues and at other times we pray about things that we cannot share with others. Praying about personal sin is a very private activity between a soul and God.
Further, the sinner has been taught by God to ask him for mercy. We can deduce that mercy indicates a recognition that God is a sovereign who has the authority to respond in more than one way to wrong actions. He can either judge the sinner or he can show mercy to the sinner.
Consolation (vv. 3-4)
The psalmist asks us to imagine God taking note of our sins in the sense of writing them down. Imagine him having a sheet with your name on it, and on which is written the ten commandments. How many marks would he would put against the first commandment? Then think about marks against all the commandments. We know that it would have to be a very large sheet of paper to contain all the marks.
How many people would pass the test and have no marks against their name? The answer to that question is, ‘No one apart from Jesus.’ He was the only person who kept God’s law perfectly from the heart. In his case, the marks beside the commandments would be for how many times he had kept them. Again, there would be a very large sheet, full of evidence of perfection.
The good thing that the sinner knows is that the Lord would rather do something else than only have a record of the person’s sins. The preferred activity is that he would rather forgive the sinner. How did the author of the psalm know that God preferred to forgive sinners? Because he had provided an elaborate arrangement of sacrifices for dealing with their sins and had provided written explanations of what those sacrifices could achieve. In a far higher way, he has done the same for us in that he has provided his Son as the perfect sacrifice for sin and has given us the Bible which contains explanations of the benefits of his sacrifice.
The outcome of forgiveness is that the pardoned sinner reverences God. Probably, at one time, when he first discovered that he was a sinner, he became frightened of God. He was terrified by the thought of appearing before such a God, who knew all the sins the individual had committed. Having discovered that the Lord is also a God of mercy, the individual has another perspective about the Lord. His respect for the Lord is now an expression of love for the God of sovereign grace who had condescended to pardon him.
Of course, this recognition has its solemn side. To continue to rebel against the God of mercy is worse than rebelling against him before we discovered that he was merciful. Having an education in this sense is a very serious thing. Our knowledge should affect our behaviour. Knowing God can punish sin may lead to certain external responses. Knowing God has a way of pardoning sinners and embracing it results in the sinner resolving to serve the Lord with gladness. He now sees something incredibly attractive in God. He knows why the psalmist says about God that his tender mercy is above all his other works.
Communion (vv. 5-6)
When the psalmist says that he is waiting, he is expressing expectancy. His sense of anticipation is strengthened by his illustration of the watchmen on a city wall looking for the first signs of dawn. Of course, it would be possible for someone to have a strong hope without any basis. This is not the way that the psalmist’s soul is. Instead his outlook is based on something very certain, which is the word of God.
When we consider the time of the psalmist’s life, we realise that what he had of the Word of God was a lot less than we have. Still, what he had gave him strong hope and we see here the sufficiency of the Bible for spiritual sustenance. All he would have had would be the five books of Moses and maybe the books of Joshua and Judges and Ruth. Where would he have found help for his need for forgiveness?
Perhaps he thought of the experiences of Jacob when he met with God and was forgiven his sins. Or maybe his mind went to the way that Moses was given insight into the character of the God of mercy (Exod. 33). Although those incidents had taken place long before he wrote his psalm, he discovered that looking at such accounts, whether he looked at them or at others, that the Bible is a living book.
And now his own experience functions as the Word of God for us. Who can tell how many people have been blessed by reading about and singing of this man’s experience? His story is for us part of the expanded sufficiency of the living Book. The fact is we have many examples and many promises in the Bible to encourage us to expect mercy from the God who sent his Son as the Saviour of sinners.
We should note that the psalmist moves on from the consideration of what the Bible says to real contact with the pardoning God. Would God have denied to the psalmist the mercy that he longed for? Of course not. How long does it take for grace to come from heaven to the heart of a penitent sinner? Quicker than the blink of an eye! Living faith in the living God of the living Word receives freely from the heavenly storehouse. Jesus loves to have contact with those who desire his coming.
Community (vv. 7-8)
The outcome is that the psalmist speaks with confidence to others of the people of God. His experience is the same as theirs because they all belong to the redeemed people of God. He reminds his friends, and others, that the Lord can be relied upon. What marks the Lord, says the psalmist, is his covenant commitments, his determination to rescue the people that he loves.
There is a surprising statement in verse 8. We would imagine that an Israelite, when speaking of divine redemption, would look back to what his nation had experienced at the Exodus. But the Exodus had not delivered anyone from their sins. Something greater was needed, and the psalmist predicted that it would happen eventually. We know what he predicted, which was the coming of Jesus to the cross of Calvary. There, plenteous redemption was provided for sinners like the psalmist, and for us.