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Prayer for the week

05 October 2012

Fleur Dorrell commends a famous psalm about hope


Prayer for the week

Out of the depths I cry to you,
O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive to my voice in supplication.
If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, Lord, who can stand?
But with you is forgiveness, that you may be revered.
I trust in the Lord; my soul trusts in His word.
My soul waits for the Lord more than sentinels wait for the dawn.
More than sentinels wait for the dawn, let Israel wait for the Lord,
For with the Lord is kindness and with him is plenteous redemption;
And he will redeem Israel from all their iniquities. 

 Psalm 130, De Profundis

THIS psalm speaks of God's offer of forgiveness through grace, quite separate from our need to earn it. It is known as De Profundis, from the Latin for the first four words, and has been set to music by numerous composers including Bach, Handel, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and, in our time, Rutter; it has also inspired many writers, including C. S. Lewis, Christina Rossetti, and Oscar Wilde.

The psalm follows a formula of lament, confession of sin, waiting for the Lord, and confidence in redemption. It is penitential, starting at the lowest depths of despair and progressing steadily upwards until, at the end, there is a sense of encouragement and complete trust in God. It is known as a "song of ascents", the title given to Psalms 120 to 134 because their verses climb from the abyss of depression to the high ground of hope.

The author pleads his case not only before Yahweh, but also before Israel. The psalm switches from talking to Yahweh to talking about Yahweh to talking to Israel about waiting for redemption from Yahweh. We move from a personal to a collective response.

The Psalmist starts by crying out from "the depths", which could be a reference to the sea. For ancient Israelites, the sea symbolised mystery, terror, and death, because it could not be mastered by humanity. The Psalmist uses this metaphor to suggest that he is overwhelmed by his problems, as if he were drowning. The depths in which he suffers have separated him from his God, causing him to cry out from rejection and loneliness.

This sense of alienation arouses our compassion. We feel his anguish and dependence on God. The next verse, referring to human sinfulness ("If you, O Lord, mark iniquities . . ."), is a rhetorical device. The Psalmist realises that if God were to monitor our sins, no one would be good enough to stand before him. The idea of God's recording sins is not unique to this psalm: it is found in Deuteronomy 32.34; 1 Kings 17.8; Job 7.20; and Hosea 13.12.

The real question here is what we do when we realise we are in the depths. The Psalmist urges us to wait patiently for God's help. Often, we do not wait long enough, or make proper time to be with God and listen to him. Yet this is what we have to do.

We are not waiting because God is too busy with other things and other people, but because we are not ready to be in his presence and hear him. Rather, it is God who is waiting for us. One meaning of the Hebrew word translated here as "wait" is "to bind together", like a strong rope. We have to bind ourselves together with God. We have to allow ourselves to become one with God - to reach the point where we can hardly tell where we finish and God begins.

Another interpretation of the word "depths" points towards its ultimate meaning, to indicate either space or profundity. Here, the depths of our thoughts and experiences are the depths of our sense of meaning in life. Naturally, we want answers, but the search for such answers requires listening rather than questioning. Our problem is that we often want and wait for things in the assumption that the results will be to our advantage.

We need to listen to God's quiet voice to gain a sense of his perspective and priorities. Our time is of waiting, but not waiting for more time or a different time. We wait for that which is eternal: we wait to be ready for God.

Fleur Dorrell is a former head of faith and policy at the Mothers' Union, and the author of The Promise of Christmas (BRF, 2007) and The Promise of Easter (BRF, 2010).



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