An Examination of Psalm 130
Psalm 130 (NET Bible)
130:1 From the deep water I cry out to you, O LORD.
130:2 O sovereign Master, listen to me! Pay attention to my plea for mercy!
130:3 If you, O LORD, were to keep track of sins,
O sovereign Master, who could stand before you?
130:4 But you are willing to forgive, so that you might be honored.
130:5 I rely on the LORD, I rely on him with my whole being;
I wait for his assuring word.
130:6 I yearn for the sovereign Master, more than watchmen do for the morning,
yes, more than watchmen do for the morning.
130:7 O Israel, hope in the LORD, for the LORD exhibits loyal love,
and is more than willing to deliver.
130:8 He will deliver Israel from all the consequences of their sins.
Psalm 130 is an unnamed psalm in the Hebrew psalter composed by a penitential Israelite. The church has made great use of the psalms, and included this psalm as one of its seven penitential psalms.1 This paper will explore the background, type, literary structure, and key words of this psalm for the purpose of exegesis and devotion.
Unlike some Psalms that indicate some historical situation from which they were composed, Psalm 130 has no such superscription. We are not given any hint as to the historical situation prompting the psalmist's composition. This is not of much concern, however, because knowledge of the psalmist's historical situation could only enhance our understanding of the reason for the psalmist's plight; it does not affect the meaning of the text.
One internal clue as to the dating of this psalm may be found in the author's mention of "Israel." This term is used 63 times in 40 different psalms. All psalms except 71, 89, 98-99, 105-106, 114,2 115, 118, 121, 125, 128-130, 135, 136,3 147-149 are attributed to David, Solomon, or Asaph, all of whom lived during the time of the united kingdom known as "Israel." The majority of Psalms that make mention of Israel, then, are prior to the divided monarchy. The psalmist may have lived during this time. It could also be the case, however, that the psalmist composed it during the time of the divided monarch, before the destruction of the nation of Israel in 722 BC by Assyria. The date may never be known with any certainty, and it is not particularly relevant for a proper interpretation of the psalm.
It is difficult to determine the cultural background of the psalm without knowing the historical background, including the identity of the author and the date of composition. The most that can be said is that an Israelite probably composed this psalm sometime between 1000BC to 722BC. As an Israelite living during this time his culture would reflect the Mosaic Law. As a Semitic individual he would have viewed society holistically, not individually. This would explain why he exhorts Israel to wait until the Lord redeems Israel as a nation from their sins (130:8).
The perfect verbs in v.1b and 5 make determining the type of psalm difficult. They could be interpreted as either past or present tenses. If they are to be interpreted as past tenses the psalm becomes a psalm of thanksgiving, praising God for His mercy and forgiveness already shown to the psalmist. Within this scheme v. 1b would introduce a previous complaint that is cited in vs. 2-4, but resolved. Verses 5-6 would be the psalmist's testimony of the Lord's mercy, while vs. 7-8 serve as an exhortation to others to hope for the same redemption extended to the psalmist.4
Against such a view is the fact that there is no direct statement of the Lord's deliverance in the psalm. It is always anticipated, but never said to have been received. In light of such it is doubtful that the perfects should be translated as past tense, and thus doubtful that this is a psalm of thanksgiving.
Most scholars classify this psalm as an individual lament, including C. Westermann Kraus, C.H. Cornill, G. Fohrer, M. Dahood, et al. Lament psalms follow a general pattern: 1. God is addressed with a cry for help; 2. A poetic description of the crisis is given; 3. An affirmation of trust is given; 4. A series of petitions are made; 5. An additional argument is given to appeal to God's concern, a confession is made, or a protest of innocence is given; 6. Vows of praise are made if the Lord answers the prayer; 7. The psalmist gives an assurance of having his prayer heard and expresses confidence that the Lord will respond.5
Psalm 130 fits some of these categories, but not all. Verses 1-2 clearly call on the Lord for help. Verse 3 expresses the psalmist's crisis-he is in need of forgiveness. Verses 4-6 form a long expression of trust in the Lord. After this the psalm does not follow the flow of a typical individual lament psalm. There is no further petitions, an appeal to God's concern, or a vow of praise. We only find an exhortation to the nation of Israel and a final affirmation of trust; nevertheless, the psalm exhibits the characteristics of the individual lament more so than any other psalm-type.
The structure of the psalm is a quadruple set of couplets. It could be diagrammed as follows:
A. Lament (1-2)
B. Confession of sin (3-4)
A1. Waiting for the Lord (5-6)
B1. Confidence in Redemption (5-6)6
The psalm switches from talking to YHWH (1-4) to talking about YHWH (5-6) to talking to Israel about waiting for redemption from YHWH (7-8). These shifts are clear and important to note. The author not only pleads his case before YHWH, but also before Israel.
The psalm also evidences some chiastic patterns. Verses 4-7 could be broken down as follows:
A But you are willing to forgive (4a)
B I rely on the Lord (5a-b)
C More than watchmen (6a)
C1 More than watchmen (6b)
B1 Hope in the Lord (7a)
A1 He is willing to deliver (7b)
The psalm repeats several key words throughout. "Iniquities" are spoken of in verses 3 and 8; "with you" and "for with YHWH" appears in verses 4 and 7; "wait" is repeated twice in verse 5, and once again in verse 6; "my soul" is also repeated in verse 5 and 6. Such repetition in a short psalm is significant indeed. It helps us lay out the psalmist's structure and his emphasis.
The genius of Hebrew poetry is seen in its parallelism of thought, called "parallelism." This verse is an example of a formal parallelism, which really is no parallelism at all in the formal sense of the word. It is the category in which Hebrew scholars put a verse which does not fit into the normal uses of parallel so frequently found in Hebrew poetry.
The psalmist says he cries out from the "depths." This is reference to the depths of the sea. To the ancients the sea symbolized chaos. The psalmist employs this metaphor to suggest that he is engulfed in a chaotic calamity much like one who is engulfed in the depths of the sea.7 The depths in which he is in have separated him from His God, causing him to cry out with a sense of alienation.
This verse, then, introduces us to the plight and alienation of the psalmist, allowing us to feel his sense of pain and anguish, and utter dependence on God.
Here the psalmist employed a synonymous parallel. In the first line he asks the Lord to hear his voice. In the second he asks the Lord to be attentive to the voice of his supplication. The second line is synonymous to the first in thought, merely elaborating on the thought with an abundance of words. The "hear" of the first line is synonymous to the "let your ears be attentive" in the second. "Voice" in line one is elongated to "voice of my supplications" in line two.
Notice that the author asked the Lord to hear his voice. We are so accustomed to speaking this way that it often goes unnoticed that this is a figure of speech. It is a metonymy, or "other name," meaning "words of prayer."
The psalmist also requested that God's "ears" would be attentive to his voice. This is an anthropomorphism, attributing human qualities to God. God is a Spirit, and does not have a body, and thus does not have ears. In poetic language, however, such a device is used, not to communicate something to us about God, but to communicate ourselves to Him.
The psalmist cries out to the Lord to hear his voice, and be attentive to his cry for "mercy." Some translations render this as "supplications." The Hebrew word, tahanoun, refers to a prayer for grace or mercy, so either translation is accurate. The fact that he makes a plea for mercy is indicative of a slave-master relationship.8 Only an inferior would have to request mercy. While a slave-master relationship may sound demeaning to many modern hearers, such was not necessarily the case in the ancient times. Even among slaves there was status. The slave of a king was more prominent than the slave of a farmer. For one to be a slave of the King of Kings would be a great honor indeed!
This verse is a continuation of verse one's cry for help, finishing the first section of the lament. The psalmist acknowledged God as his lord (master), and requested that the Lord would hear his plea for mercy.
This verse is also a formal parallel. Both lines complete one thought, neither of which are synonymous or antithetical to the another. The second line answers the question posed in the first. The statement is a rhetorical device, not intended to be answered. The psalmist realizes that if the Lord were to keep track of sins, no one would be able to stand before Him.
"Mark" is a metaphor. It comes from the Hebrew shamar, meaning "store up." The root idea of this word is "to exercise great care over" something.9 In this case God is exercising great care to store up man's sin. He is compared to an accountant who would store up each sin on a ledger. The idea of God storing up sins is not limited to this psalm. It is also found in such passages as Deuteronomy 32:34; I Kings 17:8; Job 7:20; Hosea 13:12.
"Stand" is a also a metaphor. The idea is to stand before YHWH as though YHWH is on the judgment seat, as the NET Bible makes clear. To be able to stand before YHWH is indicative of righteousness and justification. The idea here is that if God were to keep track of all our sins we would never be able to stand justified before Him. Our sins would incriminate us, humiliating us before the king. There is no one righteous, able to say he has clean hands before God. If God were to reward us according to our works, our judgment would be immeasurable. Thank God for His wonderful grace and mercy that forgives us of our sins!
This verse, as was verse 1 and 3, is a formal parallel. It is a simple purpose clause, indicating why the Lord is willing to forgive. While we know from other parts of Scripture that the Lord forgives us because He loves us and has chosen us, here we find a slightly different reason. The Lord is willing to forgive because it brings Him "honor." Many translations render this as "feared," but to the modern ear this often connotes "to be scared of." This is not the meaning of the Hebrew. The fear spoken of here is reverential fear, or awe of God. It is paying Him the respect that is due Him. When the Lord forgives our sins it produces in us a gratitude and awe of the Almighty, causing our loyal respect for His willingness to erase our debt of sin.
Here we have an instance of repetition wherein the psalmist repeats the fact he was waiting for the Lord. First he indicated that he waited for YHWH, and then further indicated that his soul waited. In the second line "soul" is substituted for "I" and there is no mention of the object of wait; i.e. YHWH. The thought of this verse is continued into the next verse, so more attention will be given it there.
The psalmist declared that his "soul" waited on God. This is an example of a synechdoche wherein one word is related to another word, though unexpressed, in the same genus. This use of the synechdoche is that of the species, wherein the word used is a species for the larger genus; i.e. a narrower sense used to convey a wider meaning. Soul, nepesh, is frequently used in the Hebrew Scriptures to indicate the whole person, not just the immaterial portion of man (Leviticus 7:18, 20; Psalm 86:14, et al).
God's "word" also seems to be a synechdoche, being a reference to His pronouncement of righteousness as judge.
This verse is a beautiful confession of the psalmist's faith. While he cried to the Lord for forgiveness, his cry was a cry of faith. He knew the Lord would show him mercy, but did not know exactly when. He would wait for the Lord's word confirming the extension of His mercy.
It seems that the psalmist had more in mind than forgiveness of sin because one does not have to wait for the Lord's forgiveness. It is likely that the psalmist's sins had caused some temporal difficulties for him that he wished to be delivered from. While the Lord had forgiven him his sin, the Lord had not delivered him from the temporal effects of his sins.
As was mentioned previously, verse five is connected in thought to verse 6. Twice in verse five the psalmist indicated that he was waiting. The first time he said he was waiting, while the second he indicated his soul was waiting. In verse six this thought is picked up again. Here again the psalmist indicated that his soul waited, including once again the reference to the Lord, but now a description of how he waits: more than the watchmen wait for the morning. This is an example of climactic parallelism wherein the thought of the first line is repeated and built upon until the thought reaches its climax in the last line.
This is a beautiful illustration of emblematic parallelism, wherein one thing is compared to a similar thing. The psalmist's patient and anticipatory waiting for the Lord is compared to the watchman's patient and anticipatory waiting for the break of dawn. Just as the dawn is assured to come for the watchmen, so is the Lord's mercy assured to the psalmist.10 It is not a matter of if God will extend mercy, but when God will extend mercy. The mercy will come, we need only wait for it.
In addition to the emblematic parallelism, the psalmist also employs repetition of the parallel for increased effect. It emphasizes the painful watching for the Lord's mercy.11 While the night may be long, joy comes in the morning!
The thought expressed in this verse is that we need to be patient and anticipatory in our waiting for God's display of mercy, and can be assured as its arrival.
Synonymous parallelism is employed here to stress why Israel should hope in the Lord. In the first line YHWH is said to be merciful, while in the second line He is described as having plenteous redemption. Both lines describe the attributes of YHWH.
The psalmist here begins his exhortation to Israel to hope in the Lord. His exhortation grows out of his own personal experience. He has found the Lord to be merciful and full of loyal love in the past, and is assured that the Lord will also exhibit such behavior toward Israel now because He knows the Lord's character.
The final line of this psalm is yet another example of formal parallelism in itself; however, it could also be viewed as synonymous to the last line of verse 7 wherein it was indicated that the Lord is plenteous in redemption. Seeing that the Lord possessed so much redemption the psalmist was assured that He would redeem Israel from its iniquities.
God's forgiveness of Israel's sin is compared to "redemption." The Hebrew word, padah, denotes the transfer of ownership from one owner to another after some form of payment has been made. While at first this term had purely secular meaning, it was imbued with religious significance in the Exodus when Israel was redeemed as God's own people from the hand of Pharaoh. As time went on its meaning broadened to include redemption from many things, including sin and adversity.12 It is most likely that the psalmist is referring to Israel's adversities caused by their sin.
This last expression is the psalmist's final expression of trust in YHWH. He is assured that God will redeem Israel from the consequences of her sins. How does he know? He knows because he has experienced the Lord's deliverance, and because he knows the character of God. This is not only an expression of personal trust in YHWH, but it is an exhortation to Israel to hope in YHWH along with the psalmist, waiting in faithful confidence for the word of the Lord.
Psalm 130 is a beautiful psalm of a penitential believer who is in need of God's mercy. Not only is he fully assured that such will be granted, but he also exhorts his fellow Israelite's to wait for God's redemption, knowing that such will come because of the character of the Lord.
1. The others are Psalm 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 143.
2. In this instance the psalmist is recounting history, telling of when Israel was redeemed out of Egypt. No matter when this psalm was composed we would expect such terminology to be used of God's people because it was a historical reference, not a present reference.
3. In this instance the psalmist is recounting history, telling of when Israel was redeemed out of Egypt. No matter when this psalm was composed we would expect such terminology to be used of God's people because it was a historical reference, not a present reference.
4. Leslie C. Allen, Word Biblical Commentary: Psalm 101-150. Vol. 21. David Hubbard, Glenn Barker, John Watts, eds. (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 193.
5. William Sanford LaSor, David Allan Hubbard, and Frederic Wm. Bush, Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament. 2nd edition. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 437.
6. William A. VanGemeren, The Expositor's Bible Commentary: Psalms-Song of Songs. Vol. 5. Frank Gaebelein, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 800.
7. Allen, 195.
8. VanGemeren, 800.
9. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, under rm;v', as found on BibleWorks, electronic media, 1998.
10. VanGemeren, 801.
11. Franz Delitzsch, Keil and Delitzsch: Biblical Commentary on the Psalms. Francis Bolton, tr. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968), 304.
12. TWOT, under hd'P'.
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