When Christ walked on the earth in the flesh, people possessed by demons, or people afflicted with mental illness if that is your preferred diagnosis, suffered humiliation, ostracism and even physical violence. People with crippling diseases, or blindness or deafness, were considered to have been doomed to that fate through sin. Seeing a blind man on the road one day, Jesus’ disciples inquired of Jesus as to whose sin was responsible for his condition.
Psalm 130 is the kind of prayer those afflicted ones must have prayed often. When they heard that the kingdom of God had come near, it would have inspired hope that God had heard their prayers.
Everybody experiences that kind of hopelessness and despair at some time or other. Life is full of challenges, and everybody goes through days and sometimes weeks when this cry from the pit expresses their concerns.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that we need to remember that Jesus prayed all the Psalms, too. Is it possible that in Gethsemane he prayed the words of this Psalm as he faced the cross? The few recorded words of those hours of prayer let us see a man in anguish, and we know that he pleaded with God to find some other way. The concerns in this psalm prayer mesh tightly with the words we know that Jesus spoke that night. In this prayer, both the anguish of the cross and the triumph of redemption are richly expressed.
This prayer resonates with the universal human experience of feeling overwhelmed and defeated by evil. The lonely, shunned leper of Jesus’ day, the miserable child who can never pass a spelling test, the only mother on the block who has no idea how to get her child to take a nap in the afternoon, the first manager laid off as the company offshores all technical projects, the man who reached for but failed to snag the child who ran into traffic and was struck down while chasing a ball – all these people can pray this prayer psalm and be comforted by the promise that God loves and forgives and redeems and heals his children.
For me, the most poignant phrases in the psalm are the words, “more than those who watch for the morning.” My husband and I cruise aboard a sailboat, and we often make passages longer than 24 hours, which require us to stand lonely watches during the night. When my husband is asleep and I am alone in the cockpit, despite the fact that the night sky is beautiful, I feel much more alone than I feel in broad daylight. If a storm builds up during the daylight hours, I always feel more competent to deal with it than if the storm develops after dark. If I am on watch at 5AM, my eyes constantly stray to the east for the first hint of light at the horizon, and I breathe a sigh of relief when the sky only barely suggests the coming sunrise.
Whether misery results from the supplicant’s terribly bad choice or from human error or from someone else’s bad choice or even from causes that nobody can discover, Psalm 130 mirrors the experience of feeling cast down, thrown down, knocked down by life. It speaks of our fear that even if it wasn’t our fault that we got in this fix, God might not help us because we are sinful. The writer of the psalm talks through the misery and fear, and then looks up. There is hope. There is hope not because he deserves it, but rather because of who God is.
Because God is who he is, Christ died for us.
Because God is who he is, our sins are forgiven.
Because God is who he is, we can always hope in him.
Psalm 130 can be your prayer when things look hopeless.
- Read the psalm exactly as printed in your Bible. Read slowly enough to speak each word distinctly. Listen to what you are reading.
- Read the psalm again and replace every reference to the supplicant with your own name.
I would read it this way:
Out of the depths Katherine cries to you …
If you, O Lord, should mark Katherine’s iniquities …
O Katherine, hope in the Lord! …
It is he who will redeem Katherine from all her iniquities.
Pray this psalm as many times as you need to. Borrow its rich imagery and immerse yourself in its profound hope. Think of Christ praying this prayer, maybe as he faced human suffering and need, maybe as he faced his own suffering on the cross.
Can you make this prayer your prayer? Tell me why, or why not.