Next to Psalm 51, Psalm 130 is likely the most well-known penitential psalm. It is certainly a psalm worthy of deep meditation, particularly for its poetic embodiment of a heart of confession.
A Song of Ascents.
1 Out of the depths I have cried to you, O Lord;
2 Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications.
3 If You, Lord, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
4 But there is forgiveness with you,
that you may be feared.
5 I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I do hope.
6 My soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning—
yes, more than those who watch for the morning.
7 O Israel, hope in the Lord;
for with the Lord there is mercy,
and with him is abundant redemption.
8 And he shall redeem Israel
from all his iniquities.
This is an artistic composition—a song—that allows us to enter experientially what the author experienced as he repented of his sin and trusted in God. Because it is God’s Word, it does so in such a way that what we experience in the art is a God-centered interpretation of that experience—it is exactly what God wants us to experience when we draw near to him in repentance. That’s the power of a song of repentance. A good song of repentance can help us to know experientially what true repentance should be like, not only through what the song says, but also through what the song does artistically.
The psalm has four stanzas, each progressively expressing true repentance. In the first stanza, verses 1–2, the psalmist begins with a cry of desperation. He is expressing his deep need for God. He finds himself in a desperate situation, and so he cries aloud to the only one who can help him. He begs God for help; he begs God for mercy.
So what is the terrible situation in which the psalmist finds himself? He tells us in the second stanza, beginning with verse 3. The situation out of which he cries to the Lord for mercy is that he is a sinner, fully deserving of judgment from God. He knows that if the Lord would take note of his sinful condition, he would not be able to stand under the just wrath of a holy God. And so he confesses his sinful condition before the Lord; he confesses that he would not stand if God would mark his iniquities; he confesses that he deserves God’s wrath.
Yet the stanza does not stop there. In the second half of this stanza, in verse 4, the psalmist proclaims that despite his sinfulness, despite the fact that he would not be able to stand under the just judgment of God, in God there is forgiveness. God does show mercy to those who approach him in this way, with hearts of repentance and faith.
And so, in the third stanza, verses 5–6, the psalmist rests in the realization and simply trusts in the Lord; he places his hope in God—steadfast confidence in God’s ability and willingness to forgive sin.
Yet this is not simply an expression of individual repentance; this psalm is meant to be used in the context of the community of God’s people. As the opening inscription indicates, Psalm 130 is a “Song of Ascents.” That is, it was a psalm sung as the Jews traveled toward Jerusalem for one of the three major feasts, Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Not only that, portions of Psalm 130 were included as part of Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple. Second Chronicles 6:40–42 is composed from verses 2 and 8 of Psalm 130. This shows that Psalm 130 is not just an expression of personal repentance, it is meant to be used in the context of the corporate worship of God’s people.
And this point is made clear in the final stanza of the psalm, verses 7–8. After crying out to the Lord for mercy, after confessing his sin and finding hope and assurance in the forgiveness promised to him by God, the psalmist turns his attention to the corporate body. He admonishes the whole congregation, “Hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is abundant redemption. And he shall redeem Israel from his iniquities.”
You see, this penitential psalm is not the cry of someone who is without hope. This is not a cry like the prophets of Baal as they limped around the altar shouting, “Baal, we cry to thee!” This is not the cry of a helpless individual pleading for mercy from a distant, unconcerned despot of a deity. This is a cry for mercy from someone who has already been promised mercy. This is a cry for help from someone who knows that with the Lord there is steadfast love. This is a gospel song.
When Martin Luther was asked what his favorite psalms were, he answered that his favorite psalms were the “Pauline Psalms.” And when he was asked which psalms those were, he answered Psalm 32, Psalm 51, Psalm 130, and Psalm 143. Four penitential psalms—four songs of repentance. Luther said that he believed that these four penitential psalms contained truths that best reflected the gospel as Paul articulated it in his New Testament epistles. These songs clearly express and form within us the reality of our sin, God’s judgment of sin, and the forgiveness that is possible for those who repent and believe, forgiveness that is based upon the sacrificial atonement of the Son of God.
Psalm 130 is a gospel song.