Saturday, June 2, 2012

Psalm 130 from the depths to the heights of God's Grace (Songs From The Road PArt 4: Psalms of Ascent

Psalm 130 is a psalm of ascent it is another song from the dog eared pilgrim’s song book, as they journey from exile back to Jerusalem, as they come to one of the three great religious festivals at the temple. It is a song from the road, a song for all of us on that upward journey in life following Jesus. It takes us from the depth of human suffering to the heights of God Grace, and gives us hope as we traverse a dark landscape waiting for the dawning of a new day; hope in the certainty of God’s redeeming power. 

It is a penitential psalm, a psalm that deals with sin and forgiveness. Martin Luther calls it the most Pauline of Psalms, a proper master and doctor of scripture, God forgives sin, God redeems and restores, Shown in Israel’s return from exile and hope of full restoration, experienced by us in the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the future hope for the church and world.

Psalm 130 is a psalm in four parts, its best seen as a conversation, maybe it was read on the eleventh step of the temple antiphony to accentuate the two voices in that conversation, the voice of personal experience in verses 1 and 2, and 5 and 6, and the voice of theological insight in verse 3 and 4, and 7 and 8: The reality of human existence and in response the reality of God’s character combine to give us hope. Let’s enter this conversation this journey.

The psalm has come to be known as De Profundis latin forOut of the depths’ its first phrase which is followed by a repetitious cry to God. That God would hear, that God would act.

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
2 Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.

The repetition accentuates the distress that the psalmist finds themself in. the depth are a vivid metaphor for trouble and suffering in life. Being tossed round on the waves of life, Walter Brueggemann identifies this as a psalm of disorientation, when the world seems totally up the wrong way. Like you’d gone out to Piha on a calm day and gone out in the water only to be surprised by a giant swell, picked up and rolled over and over, not knowing which way is up. Distress grief, sickness, difficulties, aloneness, pain are all caught up for us in that image.

 It is honest about the way things are, life is full of trouble and suffering, it’s the human experience even for the believer, and the person of faith; the depths and suffering are part of our experience.  Some people think that Christians have missed the fall and we’ve gone hang-gliding instead and soar on some sort of spirit wind above it all, that’s not the case is it? We live in a time when everyone’s goal is to be perpetually healthy and constantly happy, but the psalmist is honest about life, there is suffering. Yes there are joys in life as well but it does not try and hide suffering away and put on a brave face on it, or jump quickly to an answer, rather it gives suffering a sense of dignity, its real it can’t simply be swept aside or papered over, its real and it needs a real God not just a sugar coated placebo deity to band aid over it. Out of the depths I cry.

We don’t know the circumstance that the psalm is written from, but the reference to sin in verse three shows us that wrongdoing is at the centre of the psalmist’s trouble and suffering. It may be personal wrongdoing, psalm 51 is a penitential psalm from David’s life we know it’s context David’s adultery with Bathsheba and its trouble, the death of the resulting child.  Or as a result of the sins of Israel, in its present context this could easy be  seen as the exile, Psalm 42 uses images of the depth of the sea and the raging torrents of a flood to speak about the suffering related to being taken away to captivity in Babylon. It could be from the fallen nature of the world, while Gods work starts with creation the biblical narrative moves quickly to the effect of sin on the world. Much of the wisdom literature like the book of Job wrestles with the question why do good people suffer.

But even here in the depth we discover that we are not away from God. The depths are not the bottom the psalmist encounters God. AS Eugene Peterson says “Suffering never constitutes the bottom line God is at the foundation and God is at the boundaries. God sees the hurt, maimed, wanting and lest. God woos the rebellious and confused.” The Psalm now moves to contemplate God.

The voice changes, the psalm moves from being in the first person, crying out to God, to the second person talking  to  God.

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
4 But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

From the depth troubled by sin the Psalmist is comforted by the very real nature of God. God is not some sort of cosmic policeman, a cosmic jailer intent on making sure everyone pays for what they have done wrong; this is a penitential psalm not a penitentiary psalm. We can have this false image of God making us pay making us suffer, but the psalmist sees through that to the reality of Gods character, that God is about grace. God is about forgiveness and reconciliation. Building a bridge for us to return. In the words of Isaiah those who live in darkness have seen a great light. God may have sent them in to exile as a result of their constant wrongdoing, just as he said he would, but just as he said he would he has bought them back. It wasn’t about punishment rather it was to correct them. God sent his son Jesus Christ into the world not to judge the world but that all who would believe may be forgiven their sins and have eternal life. As we read in 1 John 1:1-2:2 God is light there is no dark side waiting to pounce. If we confess our sins God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins. God is at work to restore the fallen mess (my computer keeps telling me there isn’t a word called fallnness so fallen mess is a good substitute) and brokenness of the world. God is not blind to our suffering he is working to bring an end to that. When Israel came back from their Babylonian captivity there was an expectation that it would be complete right then and there, we may look for that with the inauguration of the Kingdom of God in Christ’s coming, but there is still suffering and trouble, we will have to wait for its future consummation. There is forgiveness now but we will have to wait for all the results of sin to be swept away.

It’s important to note that God’s mercy and forgiveness; God’s grace is given as a reason to fear and serve the Lord in verse 4. We often get it the wrong way round, we thing we fear God so we then do what he likes, maybe we are used to the big stick, but God’s grace and kindness is always seen as the foundation for relationship. The Ten Commandments and the Sinai covenant are based on God’s grace, rescuing Israel from Egypt, Gods invitation for all who believe in Christ to be the sons and daughters of God is based on Jesus sacrifice for our sins. God calls us to love him and so keep his commands not out of fear of some tyrant. Walter Brueggemann sums this up by saying  ‘there is forgiveness and from it everything else flows it is the first fact of the new life, of the new age’

Then we move back to the psalmist experience in v 5 and 6.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
6 I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.

The psalmist still finds himself journeying through the depth, sojourning in a dark landscape, but his posture has changed: From wailing to waiting, from despair to hope, from fettting to trust.  Knowing the character of God knowing God’s forgiveness and grace means the Psalmist can wait for God to act. Again this part of the psalm is full of repetition; it shows the extent of that change. We often think of waiting as a passive thing. I’m not a very passive waiter, Kris dropped me off at the church here one Saturday on her way to work and I had to grab the bus home. I waited 25 minutes for one to come past. I knew it was coming, I knew what time it was coming but I checked my watch every minute or so just to see if it was due. Waiting in the bible is also not a passive thing. To wait on the LORD is to live trusting in God. The dawn will come. Later in the year we are going to look at Jesus teaching on the end times. In the Olivette discourse Jesus gives us a good understandings of what it means to wait. In a series of parables, this isn’t a spoiler by the way, he says to wait is to keep loving each other, to wait is to be filled with the oil of the spirit, keep our spiritual life growing, to wait is to invest our talents and gifts in the Kingdom of God, to wait is to care for the lost and the least. To serve the God whose grace we have experienced and who will make all things new. The psalmist says he is like the watchman, going about his task in the sure knowledge that the sun will soon rise.

The psalm then finishes with a call for people wait and to put their hope in the character of God.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
8 He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins.

The psalmist has found his hope in God’s presence and now encourages others to find the same comfort he has found. From this side of the cross and the empty tomb we see this psalm having it fulfilment it Jesus. The seed of the hope that enables us to live and follow is Gods character, Gods unfailing love. Again in 1 John 1 we see that forgiveness from sin is not dependant on what we do but we are forgiven because God is faithful and just. The image in these verses of redemption is a word we often use, it means to buy someone back from slavery, they had a debt they could not pay so had been sold into slavery, or were in bondage and a kind kinsman would pay their debt, but there is more than that, this image full redemption does not mean just buying back but restoring to the way it was as well. In Israel the idea of the year of jubilee was that all land would be returned to its original owners, the wealth would be shared, the means of producing wealth would be shared to use more modern ideas. Theologically not only would debt be forgiven but we and the world we live in will be restored to health and wholeness. This is what Christ has done for us, and we along with Israel are called to put our hope in Christ, he has forgiven us, paid the price for our sin and is working by his spirit to bring all things together under him. We can trust God to bring transformation. We don’t know when that will be completed, it is our future hope, but we can trust God to do it, even here in the depth.  Charles Spurgeon so eloquently puts it like this “the one who cries out in the depth will sing in the heights.”

So the psalmist would call us to put our hope in the LORD. To wait and watch and see what God will do. The depths are real, suffering is real but the bottom is not the bottom, we find underneath us the everlasting arms. It is in the depths perhaps we can find the deep truth about God’s grace. The psalmist met God in the depths, and it changed things. We can too. The psalmist encountered the true gracious nature of God and we can too. It changed his wailing into waiting his despair to trust, he will do the same for us.  Put your hope in the Lord.

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