1 [A Song of Degrees.] Out of the depths have I cried to thee, O Lord. 2 O Lord, hearken to my voice; let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication. 3 If thou, O Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? 4 For with thee is forgiveness: 5 for thy name’s sake have I waited for thee, O Lord, my soul has waited for thy word. 6 My soul has hoped in the Lord; from the morning watch till night. 7 Let Israel hope in the Lord: for with the Lord is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. 8 And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities. (Psalm 129(130) LXE, Brenton)
Prophecy, if prophecy, must tell a story. A large function of the Psalter is to prophesy. The seven penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143) prophesy of Christ: his innocence, the sacrificial nature of his atoning death, his human suffering, his resurrection, and the victory of his people. These portions of the life of Christ are not necessarily presented in chronological order within the penitential psalms. While other psalms speak of Christ’s suffering (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 102, and 143), Psalm 130 speaks from the grave (the depths) without making direct statements of suffering. Rather, the unique element of Psalm 130 is an extreme period of waiting, “For thy name’s sake have I waited for thee, O Lord, my soul has waited for thy word. My soul has hoped in the Lord; from the morning watch till night,” (Psalm 130:5-6 LXE). It is not difficult for faith to hear within these verses the voice of Christ as he waits within the grave for his resurrection.
Further, Psalm 130 contains no direct statements of personal sin or guilt, as do Psalms 38 and 51. Rather, Psalm 130 is a penitential psalm of atonement, due to its discussion of sin and forgiveness without personal confession of any sort. The word forgiveness in verse 4, which is ἱλασμός (il-as-mohss) in Greek, is a relatively rare word in Scripture, although it plays an enormous role in Christian evangelism and doctrine. Arndt and Gingrich (1) define it with two meanings: 1) propitiation or expiation, and 2) a sin-offering. While the major English translations (they are translating from Hebrew, not Greek) have “forgiveness” in verse 4, they use words such as “Day of Atonement” in Leviticus 25:9, “ram of atonement” in Numbers 5:8, “sin-offering” in Ezekiel 44:27, “propitiation” or “atoning sacrifice” in 1 John 2:2, and the same for 1 John 4:10. All of these occurrences in the Greek Septuagint are represented by the word ἱλασμός (il-as-mohss), which is translated as forgiveness in Psalm 130:4 (LXE Brenton) or atonement (NETS, Pietersma). (See footnotes 2 and 3.) Important to our discussion of the seven penitential psalms, this is the only occurrence of this word anywhere in the entire Psalter.
Who will receive the atoning forgiveness of verse 4? Verses 7 and 8 each name Israel. Israel, in the New Testament sense of the word (Romans 11:26), includes all believers, both saints of the Old Testament and saints of the New. What at first glance might seem to be a psalm of personal lament, therefore, is an intercessory prayer for the beneficiaries of Christ’s death. When God answers the Lord’s prayer for resurrection from the grave (verses 1-2 and 5-6 above), then his “unfailing love” (verse 7) and “full redemption” (verse 7) will be magnificently realized, for “He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins” (verse 8).
Comments: For those readers who consult commentaries, you might find that the point of view I present above, namely, that Christ is the subject of this prayer/poem–he is the one who is praying to God his Father from the grave–is underrepresented (4). The thesis of my approach is simple: the Psalter in its first person singular prayers speaks the voice of Christ.
I want to repeat what I wrote in the first post of this series on penitential psalms, “My purpose here is to hold up a road sign to you that says, “Have you tried this pathway through Psalms?” The pathway we will consider is Christ and his cross. Even in the so-called grouping of seven Penitential Psalms, we find Christ ever present and revealed. These psalms are not primarily about experiencing emotions of penitence designed to lead us to repentance. Rather, they are primarily about the life of Jesus Christ during his incarnation. My premise is that Psalms reveal Christ. He is their primary focus. As we see Christ revealed, we also learn about God’s love for us, and that is what makes them important” (The Penitential Psalms: A Fresh Look–New Series).
Premising Christ as speaker in all the penitential psalms at first appears to provide obstacles, the most difficult being what to do with a psalm of pure confession, such as Psalm 51. However, when we consider the seven psalms as a unified whole with the understanding that Christ is speaker throughout (except of course in those places which imply or directly state that God is addressing Christ, Psalm 102), we see that a clear picture of the several elements of the complete gospel emerges:
- Christ’s passion of human suffering (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 102, and 143)
- Christ’s innocence (Psalms 6, 102, and 130)
- the wrath of God upon Christ, the wrath that achieved propitiation (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 102, and 143)
- the persecution of Christ by his enemies (Psalms 6, 38, 102, and 143)
- Christ’s identity as both God and man (Psalm 102)
- Christ’s resurrection (Psalm 102:13)
- Christ’s prayer for his resurrection (Psalm 130)
- end results for Israel (or Zion) and the Church won by Christ in his victory through the cross (51, 102, and 130)
When the reader perceives Christ in their center, the penitential psalms (and the Psalter as a whole) gain a cohesion and sense of meaning that a consideration of each psalm separately does not provide. Also, this viewpoint provides deeper and more certain theological meanings than the isolated concepts of confession and repentance might individually supply. These psalms offer a great hope for the one who reads, a hope placed on the solid ground of the actions of the Son of God, rather than upon the alternative actions of an unnamed sinner with whom the reader must strain to identify. Once again, my purpose here is to hold up a road sign that says, “Have you tried this pathway through Psalms?” My prayer is that as you spend time with the Lord, asking him to reveal his presence to you within the words of Christ as expressed in these seven psalms, that God through his Holy Spirit will answer your heart to the fullest extent.
1 Arndt, William F. and F. Wilbur Gingrich, Editors. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd Edition. Revised and Augmented by F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker from Walter Bauer’s Fifth Edition, 1958. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979.
2 Brenton, Sir Lancelot C. L. The Septuagint Version: Greek and English. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970.
3 Pietersma, Albert, ed. A New English Translation of the Septuagint: The Psalms. Translated by Albert Pietersma. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Available online at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/24-ps-nets.pdf. Accessed April 27, 2018.
4 John Barclay hears only the voice of Christ in Psalm 130. See Barclay, John. The Psalms of David, and the Paraphrases and Hymns: With a Dissertation on the Book of Psalms, and Explanatory Introductions to Each. Edinburgh: James Gall, 1826. Reprinted Digitally by Forgotten Books, registered trademark of FB &c Ltd., London, 2017. Available at http://www.ForgottenBooks.com, 2017. A better quality copy is available at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433068259260;view=1up;seq=205;size=75. Accessed April 11, 2019.