“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!”
These first verses of Psalm 130 are a haunting cry of desperation, coming from a place that I imagine many of us know. “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord.”
This past week I have walked alongside people both dealing with sudden and devastating illness, and people dealing with chronic and agonizing pain. The weight of the world has been heavy on my heart, and Psalm 130 has been one of the places I have turned, because it is one of the places in the Bible where the words match the deepest human emotions.
The Psalms are wonderful, and often the book of the Bible that I turn to first, whether in joy and praise, or, like this week, in sorrow and looking for hope. And I never fail to find help, although it often doesn’t look how I expected.
It’s in the Psalms that we can see words shouted on the page, echoing down through the centuries, that we may not dare to whisper even to ourselves:
- “How long, O Lord?! Will you forget me forever?” from Psalm 13.
- “Wake up, God!” from Psalm 7.
- “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?” from Psalm 10.
- And of course, the well-known cry from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but I find no rest.”
These are real words, cried out to God from the very depths of the Psalmists’ beings.
And so I come to the Psalms for the words that I may not have the courage to say. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord: Listen to me! Don’t be deaf to my cry!”
But the Psalms are not just about crying out at God from the depths of despair. They’re a kind of dialogue, a wrestling, a give-and-take of honesty and confusion. A coming to God with the all the weight of the world on us, the agony of our own sin and despair, and finding in return a new word of hope, and a blessing. Because even if all we have to offer God is our pain or confusion, it is still an offering, and is still precious to him.
The Psalms, more than any other book in the Bible, demonstrate the incredible boldness of coming to the throne of grace with confidence, as the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews encourages us to do. We kneel before him with the gift of our vulnerability and need, with all of our ugliness, and desperation, and pain: trusting that we will not only not be destroyed or rejected, but we will be made
and more alive through the experience.
“On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul,” Psalm 138 says, and we can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that our daring to reach out is heard and honoured.
We may not get the answer we are looking for – and I imagine that most of you know from experience that we often don’t. But we will be changed: changed by our honest wrestling with God, by daring to come into God’s presence at our most vulnerable, or our angriest, or our most desperate, and by finding nothing but love in return.
But the Psalms don’t just offer the way into an honest and raw dialogue with God. They remind us of the nature of God’s character, and the truth of forgiveness. Psalm 130 continues,
“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?
But: there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.”
Sometimes, the depths that we cry out from are holes that we have dug ourselves, and those are often the loneliest and most painful depths of all. Our Genesis reading takes us back into the Garden, at the very point where humanity has turned away for the first time from their loving Creator. It’s the first moment of heartbreak, as the man and woman find themselves wrestling with this brand-new feeling of shame – this sudden, wretched feeling of being vulnerable, of knowing that they have done wrong and that they deserve punishment. And so they try in vain to hide both their physical nakedness and their spiritual shame. It’s one of the saddest, most pitiful moments in the Bible. Humanity, casting itself into the depths and away from God.
“But the Lord God…” (The great American preacher Fleming Rutledge once said whenever you hear “But God” in the Bible, you know there is good news coming, and it’s true here too.) But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” God, instead of turning away from the man and the woman, lost in the depths of their sin, sought them out. “Where are you?”
And then he sent his Son after them into the depths.
Friends, here’s the good news for today, and for all time. No matter why or how you find yourself in the depths, no matter how lost you feel, whether you’re there because you feel you deserve it, or because you’ve simply had the worst misfortunes thrown at you: don’t give up. You’re not there alone, and there is hope. The good, the exciting news of the Christian faith is that Jesus chose to come right down into the depths to be with us: Immanuel, ‘God with us’, right beside us, in whatever we are going through.
And so in verse 5 of Psalm 130 the tone changes.
“I wait for the Lord; my soul waits, and in his word I hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.”
In this place of the depths, where God comes down to us, we are called to hope: and not just to a vague hope that “things will get better”, but to a specific hope, hope in the Lord, in the Word of God, made flesh and sent into the darkness for and with us. It’s a hope based not on circumstances but on what we know about the character of God, revealed through Jesus Christ.
“With the Lord is steadfast love”. Whenever you hear this phrase in the readings, or see it in the Psalms, take a moment and pause, because it’s a phrase worth dwelling on. “Steadfast love” is the translation for a special word in Hebrew, a word that refers to a deeper love than we can understand fully – a love full of mercy and compassion, that goes all the way down to the very core. This is how God regards us unfailingly – with a deep tenderness and compassion for our hurts and our sorrows, a love filled with joy for who we are, and with delight for our own unique personalities. And because this love is his very nature, nothing can ever, ever separate us from it.
I had a conversation with someone this week about crying before God in prayer, and I was reminded of a verse from another beloved Psalm: “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record?” (Ps 56:8) This is how much compassion God feels for you: his eyes are on your face, and he is gently wiping each tear away, collecting it in a bottle. Not one of them escapes his notice. This the steadfast love of the Lord, the love that we can trust.
“And with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.”
The Psalm that started with an agonising cry in the watery depths ends, as so many of the Psalms do, with a promise of redemption. Because this is how the story will end. The story told in Psalm 130 is the glorious story told throughout the Bible, in the Old Testament and the New. It’s the story of Adam and Eve turning away from God’s presence; of God choosing Israel to be the bearers of the promise, and their turning away and choosing other gods. It’s the story of the breaking of covenant, the breaking of relationships and the breaking of hearts. It’s the story of the depths.
And it’s the story of how God came down to join us in the depths, to raise us up with Christ, and to make all things new. It’s a story of redemption, of wrongs made right, of hopes being realised, of nakedness being covered in glory, and of all hurts being healed. “With him is great power to redeem”: and you will not be left out of the redemption.
As we rest for a moment in this hope of redemption, I’ll give the last word to the Psalmists.
“The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Ps 34:18)
“For [you] did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; [you] did not hide [your] face from me, but heard when I cried to [you].” (Ps 22:24)
“I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.” (Ps 40:1-3)
“He reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of mighty waters… He brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me.” (Ps 18:16,19)
“Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises.” (Ps 47:6)
Thanks be to God.