Psalm 130 is part of a series of Psalms, Psalms 120-134, that are called the Psalms of Ascent. This collection of Psalms was recorded and used for pilgrims who were making pilgrimage to the city of Jerusalem. After their long journey, and when Jerusalem was finally within view, but their journey had not yet ended, the pilgrims would pray Psalms 120-134.
Jerusalem is on a hill, and that in order to enter Jerusalem one literally must go up. This language is not only topographical, but also theological. Just as pilgrims ascend the hilltop to Jerusalem from the plains below, pilgrims journey upwards towards Zion, the city where God’s glory dwells, moving closer to God’s presence.
Psalm 130 gives voice to the reality of this theological and topographical ascent. The Psalmist begins out of the depths, a place of lower elevation, a place of spiritual, emotional, and psychological distress. We do not know exactly what the cause of distress was, but suffice it to say, the Psalmist is in distress and even agony. There is longing, aching, and a great sense of need. The Psalmist turns to God for relief, for deliverance, for protection, and for hope. The Psalmist turns to God for salvation.
Though this Psalm begins “in the depths” it does not stay there for long, in fact the Psalmist only cries out to God in anguish for two of the Psalm’s eight verses. Soon the Psalmist’s voice of despair is transformed into a voice of gratitude, hope, and praise. Somewhere in the midst of the Psalmist’s pain and crying out to God, the Psalmist remembers to whom she is crying out. The Psalmist is crying out to YHWH God, creator of Heaven and Earth, Almighty Sovereign Lord, great heavenly father and divine comforting mother, redeemer of Israel, and the one who wipes away all sins.
The Psalmist begins to move out of the depths by reflecting on who God is and what God has done for her, and for all the people of God. Specifically, the Psalmist ascends from the depths by reflecting on three gifts from God. First, the Psalmist ascends from despair as she remembers God’s forgiveness. God has forgiven all of her sins, but not only all of her sins, God has forgiven all of the sins of God’s people Israel. The Psalmist’s pain is transformed into joy as she recalls that God does not keep a record of sin; all sin is eradicated by the great eraser of God’s faithful love and grace. The remembrance of God’s forgiveness is like a hot air balloon that lifts her out of her despair; in light of God’s forgiveness of sin whatever is causing her distress is given perspective. Yes, her despair may hurt now, but it is not eternal.
Second, the Psalmist ascends from the depths by reflecting on the God-given-gift of spiritual community. Notice the pronouns in Psalm 130, or more specifically, the evolution of single pronouns (I, me) to plural pronouns (we, us), and proper nouns (Israel). The Psalmist begins by thinking about her pain and her despair, she moves to thinking about her forgiveness, but then her perspective broadens, she remembers she is not alone. She is neither alone in her despair nor in her redemption. She is a member of a community who experiences the same suffering, and rejoices in the same salvation. Not just she, but all of Israel — the entire community of God’s people across time and space, across tribe, tongue, and nation — is forgiven and heirs of God’s grace. The Psalmist’s community perspective is transformative. She is not alone; she has community with God. She is not alone; she has community with others.
We are not alone. We have the gift of God’s abiding presence, and we have the gift of one another. God has given us the gift of spiritual friendship so we do not have to suffer alone or laugh alone. Together, with one another, we can both endure the suffering that comes, and we can also celebrate mightily that we share in the same spiritual destiny — the forgiveness of sin.
Third, and finally, the Psalmist ascends out of the depths as she recalls God’s past faithfulness. As she is mired in the muck and mud of present despair, perhaps stuck in thinking that her life will never get any better, she is buoyed out of the depths by reflecting on all the ways in her past God has “shown up” and saved her. These stories are collective, part of the communal history of her community of faith: God’s covenant to Abraham; God’s protection of Joseph; Israel’s Exodus from Egypt. These stories are also deeply personal, as she recall the times in which God broke into her life in her past and answered her prayers.
Like the Psalmist, as we remember God’s faithfulness in the past, we are led into the present action of waiting, and waiting, as the Psalmist helps us see, allows us to rise from despair. Waiting does not sound like something that will help us ascend from the “depths.” In fact, waiting sounds rather like it should leave is in the depths of emotional and spiritual despair longer. But the Psalmist reveals to us that waiting is the present action associated with reflecting on God’s deliverance in our past. Waiting is the space in the present moment in which our memory of God’s faithfulness in the past meets our certain hope of God’s deliverance in our future. Because God has acted for our deliverance in the past, we are certain that God will not abandon us in the present depths. The question is not if God will come and rescue us, but when. As we wait, we become people who strain our eyes to the horizon watching expectantly for the sign that God has arrived (finally) to save us. As we wait, we exist in the sure and certain knowledge that God will come. We are certain God will save us. We will not wait in vain.
As we wait in the depths of our fear, anxiety, distress, loneliness, and sickness caused by COVID-19, let us cling to Psalm 130 as our life preserver. We shall overcome. God will come, and is coming now. Salvation is nearer to us now then when we first believed. This pandemic will be over soon. People will be healed, societies, and civilizations will be put back together. Invaluable lessons will be learned for future pandemics. The people of the earth will experience softer hearts because of this experience of suffering. Those who have passed away have passed on into glory where there is no pain, sickness, or death. Those who grieve are embraced by the loving, compassionate arms of Jesus right now. All will be well. God will come and save us. God has done so in the past. God will do so again. Out of the depths we will ascend. Hope in the Lord. Keep your eyes on the horizon.