Psalm 130 - Hoping for Forgiveness
TEXT (Hebrew text at end)
1. A Song of Ascents.
From the depths I call You, O LORD,
2. O Lord, hear my voice; let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy.
3. If You keep account1 of sins, O LORD,2 Lord, who could endure?
4. For forgiveness is Yours, so that You may be held in awe.
5. I hope,3 LORD; my soul hopes3; I await His word.
6. My soul—for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, watchmen4 for the morning.
7. O Israel, wait for the LORD, for with the LORD is loving kindness and with Him, great redemption,
8. and He will redeem
from all its sins. Israel
1. Same root as “watchmen,” verse 6.
2. Uses brief, poetic form of LORD.
3. Or “call(s),” but not same word as “call” in verse 1.
4. Second “watchmen” can also be read as verb, “watching.”
A confrontation with the chasmic divide between the human and the divine, Psalm 130 interweaves doubt and assurance, individual and community, outburst and silence, distress and optimism. This psalm, a reflection on forgiveness in a world seemingly separated from God by sin, has merited widespread appreciation. It was one of the ancient Church’s penitential psalms and is part of the modern liturgy for the Jewish High Holidays. It has been called “one of the most popular and moving of prayers” (Meltzer) and “one of the gems of the Psalter” (IB).
As any reading of this literature might be influenced by present religious commitments, Psalm 130 should be reviewed carefully, so as to appreciate its complexities. I discuss aspects of the psalm’s content, structure, and terminology, and reflect on later religious readings in the “Additional Comment.”
Aspects of Content: Forgiveness
Psalm 130’s speaker is caught in a web of sin and calls out desperately to God. The psalm reports neither the specific request nor God’s response. The psalm focuses on sin itself, not on resultant suffering. The term “sin” encloses the speaker’s thoughts about his own and his people’s longings (vv. 3–8), as if all is trapped in a closed bubble of transgression.
“Forgiveness,” on the other hand, is uniquely a quality of the Divine in the Bible. It is a late term, the noun appearing only here and in Nehemiah 9:17 and Daniel 9:9, although the verb is found in many texts, but always implying forgiveness by God. The sin/forgiveness chasm would seem to require communication, and it is here that Psalm 130 is most ironic, for verses 2 and 5 describe a life in which there is longing for, but no certainty of, that communication in either direction.
One should also note the final verb, “redeem,” which implies extraction from some unfortunate, encompassing situation. This reinforces the emphasis on sin as an ongoing burden as opposed to a stress on overcoming certain misdeeds.
The role played by the people, introduced in the last two verses, is less than clear. Does the speaker turn to them for their sakes (to share good news) or for himself, in his angst, to share and reinforce his desperate hope? Further, did he share his own anxieties as articulated in verses 5 and 6, or did his address to the people begin with verse 7? If the former was the case, why would he have expected them to accept his advice, and if the latter, why did he hide his internal rumblings?
Structure and Progression
The structures of Psalm 130 only increase the sense of bewilderment facing the speaker, for they lead to different readings. On one hand, the psalm is easily divided after verse 2, the opening desperation that his “voice” (a repeated term) be heard set against the rest of the psalm, which is, again, a reflection on “sin” as it plays out in the lives of the speaker, Israel, and God.
The psalm, however, can be read as four pairs of verses, as the repetitions indicate (“voice” in the first pair; “hope,” “soul.” “watchmen,” “morning,” in the third pair; and “
” and “redeem” in the fourth pair). These, in turn, are often combined by commentators either into an ABAB structure (“A” emphasizing the speaker; “B” efforts at convincing: first God and then the people) or into two halves (desperation followed by expectation). Israel
It is no surprise, therefore, that various readings of the psalm as a whole are radically different. Some see the poem progressing to ever greater levels of assurance, as reflected most clearly in the last line. There is, however, an exactly opposite suggested progression, for the psalm begins as dialogue between the speaker and God, but subsequently references to God in the second person give way to the third person, and then the speaker as “I” disappears, leaving the end as a reflection from afar, and on a national rather than a personal level. The third possibility is that the picture is static, reflecting the first division noted (vv. 1–2; vv. 3–8), which depicts respectively a call and an enclosed world within which it takes place, without assurance of any kind of successful communication.
The structures, reflecting ambiguity, reinforce the content, a living portrait of a speaker confronting sin and the perceived barriers between himself and forgiveness.
There are several striking turns of phrase. The opening “depths” appears in the Bible as a psychological reference, as the depths of the sea and as a metaphor for death. All three feed into the present metaphor, which may offer an ironic reflection to this use of “Song of Ascents.” (This is uncertain, for we do not know if the title was attached to the original work.)
One interpretation of the phrase “Song of Ascents” is that it refers to anadiplosis, the use of a series of repetitions intertwined to hold a poem together, much like a set of chains. In Psalm 130 these terms would be: “voice,” “sin,” “keep account/watchmen” (sh-m-r, see note 1), “hope,” “wait,” “soul,” “morning,” “
,” and “redeem.” Israel
Verse 6 is magnificently multivalent. The metaphor, “more than watchmen for the morning,” which is not preceded by an adjective or verb, might bring to mind various aspects (some mutually exclusive) of the wait at night (terror, quiet, peacefulness, anxiety, cold, fear, impatience), and it is unclear whether the morning is its own metaphor (possibilities: an end to all of the above, assured change, light as happiness, the relief at the end of the work shift, the ability to finally rest, and so on) or not. Although dawn will always come, at the moment of guarding it would seem that it is the night that occupies the watchmen.
Verses 5 and 6, as Bar Yosef notes, break the repetition pattern of two stichs per verse and move into three, with constant repetition and, as noted, an implied or missing verb or adjective. This may reflect an intense desperation.
Finally, I again note the divine quality “forgiveness.” Much ink has flowed in theological musing over verse 4, for, as many interpreters have pointed out, there would be a logic to the opposite statement—that God, to engender fear, should not be forgiving. “Fear” of God, however, is always best translated “awe,” and whatever the pre-biblical history of the term, in the Bible it is synonymous with “love of God,” an appropriate response to an inherent quality of forgiveness.
An Irreducible Psalm
The caution that one should not reduce poetry to “messages” certainly holds for Psalm 130. Trapped, desperate, seeking, believing, the speaker appears with all these challenging contradictions that reflect life itself. He presents no certainty, but lives in his hope, and it is there that the reader encounters him. His reaffirming statement to others at the end does not undo this complexity, but rather increases it.
* * * * * * *
Given that sin, repentance, and forgiveness remain central concerns of both the Jewish and Christian heritages, a word of caution (not heeded by a number of commentators) is in order. Psalm 130 does not lead directly either to a God pledged to forgive sins in light of repentance or to a God Who overcame sin through His own sacrifice. The psalm can be integrated into such theological positions, but it does not state them. (It does, of course, imply a necessity of human-divine connection for forgiveness to take place.) All such debates should be left for other forums, and Psalm 130 should be appreciated for the heart-rending, open, and challenging portrait that it is.
The author of these essays is Rabbi
Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love ( Jerusalem : Jerusalem Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at firstname.lastname@example.org
(א) שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת מִמַּעֲמַקִּים קְרָאתִיךָ יְהֹוָה:
(ב) אֲדֹנָי שִׁמְעָה בְקוֹלִי תִּהְיֶינָה אָזְנֶיךָ קַשֻּׁבוֹת לְקוֹל תַּחֲנוּנָי:
(ג) אִם עֲוֹנוֹת תִּשְׁמָר יָהּ אֲדֹנָי מִי יַעֲמֹד:
(ד) כִּי עִמְּךָ הַסְּלִיחָה לְמַעַן תִּוָּרֵא:
(ה) קִוִּיתִי יְהֹוָה קִוְּתָה נַפְשִׁי וְלִדְבָרוֹ הוֹחָלְתִּי:
(ו) נַפְשִׁי לַאדֹנָי מִשֹּׁמְרִים לַבֹּקֶר שֹׁמְרִים לַבֹּקֶר:
(ז) יַחֵל יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל יְהֹוָה כִּי עִם יְהֹוָה הַחֶסֶד וְהַרְבֵּה עִמּוֹ פְדוּת:
(ח) וְהוּא יִפְדֶּה אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִכֹּל עֲוֹנֹתָיו: