The Mercy of God (Psalm 130:1-8)

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When I left recently to visit family in the United States, my plan was to return and continue our study in Leviticus 25 where I had left off. While I was in the States, however, I received word of the death of a church member, who had been in a coma for some 240 days with an undiagnosed condition. He left behind him a young wife and three young children. When I received the news, I knew that it would not be pastorally appropriate to return and preach about the matter of debt relief from Leviticus 25.

I considered preaching a message from the book of Job, but that also didn’t sit quite right with me. I was working through several passages before I decided to look at our psalm of the week, which happened that week of be Psalm 130. As I read the psalm I realised how wonderfully it spoke to the situation that we faced as a church that very week.

This psalm expresses the fact that we are always dependent upon God for His mercy. When I read the first line of the psalm—“Out of the depths I have cried to You, O LORD”—I immediately thought about the trials that we often face in life. But as I studied the psalm I realised with great joy that it is actually about the gospel, and about the hope that is available in times of trial and heartache because of the gospel. It is a cry of desperation of a man who felt the desperation of his sinfulness, but who experienced the mercy of God and was reminded of God’s great redemption, which gave him great hope. I was reminded personally, once again, that the gospel is a message of hope, and a message for real life. That is the message of Psalm 130.

In this study, I want to share four reflections from this psalm about the mercy of God and about how the gospel gives us hope in our time of need.

The Sinner’s Problem

In vv. 1-2 the psalmist expresses something of the sinner’s problem: “Out of the depths I have cried to You, O LORD; Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.”

Psalm 130 is one of the Psalms of Ascent.1 They are given this name, we are told, because these were psalms that were sung by Jewish pilgrims as they made their way up to Jerusalem. Because Jerusalem was on Mount Zion, one always travelled up to Jerusalem. As pilgrims ascended to the holy city for the Jewish festivals, they would sing these psalms.

But perhaps it is also appropriate to refer to these psalms as Psalms of Ascent in a metaphorical manner. It is interesting that the general feel of these psalms begins with the writer in a place of despair, but as the psalm progresses the writer looks to the grace of God and ascends from his place of despair to a place of hope.

For example, the very first Psalm of Ascent begins with these words: “In my distress I cried to the LORD, and He heard me” (Psalm 120:1). The writer was at a point of descent, but in his time of need he cried to the Lord and the Lord heard him. So began his ascent to a place of faith and hope. This pattern is repeated in Psalm 130. The psalm begins with the writer experiencing a particular problem, but as he recounts his problem in the light of God’s mercy he ascends from desperation to hope in God because of the gospel.

The psalmist begins, “Out of the depths I have cried to you, O LORD.” The word translated “depths” is a strong one, which speaks of being “unsearchably deep.” The Greek equivalent of this word is used in Romans 11:33, where Paul speaks of “the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God” being “unsearchable.” The fact is, we are sometimes confused at the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God. It is as if the psalmist was at a point of confusion. He could not understand what God was doing in his life through his trial.

We are not told the precise nature of the writer’s depths. We are unaware of the precise trial that he faced, but clearly it was one in which he could not understand what God was doing. He was drowning in despair. Jonah used the same word in the belly of the whale when he said, “The deep closed around me” (Jonah 2:5). Like Jonah, this writer felt as if he was drowning in the deep waters of despair. He was overwhelmed by his misery as he knew what awaited him apart from the mercy of God.

Have you ever been there? Have you ever come to a point of absolute hopelessness, in which it appears that the waves and the billows of life are just overtaking you? Have you experienced a time of severe distress? If you have been there—if you are there—there is hope in this psalm!

As long as we live in a sin-cursed world, we will find ourselves at time in great pain. The broken world in which we live ensures that we will experience pain. It matters not where you are in the world, or even what stage of life you are in, pain is a reality is our sin-cursed world. Life is painful. How will we get through that?

The psalmist shows us how to respond when we find ourselves in “the depths”: “I have cried to You, O LORD.”

Here, the word translated “LORD” (as evidenced by its rendering in all caps) is the Hebrew name Yahweh. This is God’s personal name, revealed to His chosen people. When the psalmist was in great pain, drowning in the depths of despair, he cried to Yahweh, the I AM THAT I AM, the sovereign Lord of all.

When we are in severe distress, we will cry to someone. The question is, to whom? The psalmist understood that there was a God who is in control of everything, and he cried to the sovereign one. We are sometimes tempted to view the sovereignty of God tritely, but we ought never to do so. He is absolutely sovereign. He is in control of everything. That means that, when we undergo severe distress, God is in control.

I recently spent two-and-a-half weeks travelling with my eldest daughter and my eleven-month old granddaughter. It was for the most part a wonderful experience—except the actual flying part. It’s been a long time since I have flown with a baby!

I have travelled a lot in my life, and my family will tell you that, over time, I have developed what they fondly refer to as my “travel face.” As the only man in a family of seven, I have always been responsible during times of travel for luggage, passports and tickets, and it has often proven a stressful process. Knowing how stressful it can be, I usually become very focused at an airport, and evidently this shows visibly on my face in such a way that my family can immediately tell. My daughter confirmed for me during our trip that I have not lost this travel face.

This particular trip was not without its hiccups. Most notably, some mechanical problems on our return trip left us facing the possibility of missing a connecting flight in Washington, DC. By the time we arrived in Washington, it was clear that we would have enough time, but we hurried through the airport to our terminal nevertheless. I was carrying an assortment of luggage (including a nappy bag and a stuffed animal!), and my arms were getting increasingly tired. When we arrived at the check-in to confirm our boarding passes, the attendant informed us that she could not find my granddaughter on the manifest. As she continued checking with no luck, I breathed deeply and, with my travel face, reflected on the sovereignty of God.

The fact is, God’s sovereignty extends to flight manifests. The absolute sovereignty of God is a comforting doctrine. And I am happy to report that my granddaughter returned safely with my daughter and I to South Africa!

I realise that this example does not compare to the sorrow that many reading this may feel. It does not compare to the sorrow experienced by the young family in our church that recently lost its husband and father. But I would say to that family, and to anyone else currently drowning in despair, we can cry in our depths to the sovereign Lord of all. For 240 days, the Lord was in control while a young husband and father lay comatose in a hospital bed. God knew what He was doing, and when he took that young man’s life He did so sovereignly.

It is a common experience in the psalms for a writer to cry to the Lord. It ought to be a common experience for us to.

The psalmist continues, “Lord, hear my voice!” Here, the word translated “Lord” is a different one. It is the word adonai, which speaks of the Lord as a master. The psalmist is not arrogantly demanding that the Lord hear him; he is pleading with God to listen to his cry.

The writer continues, “Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.” The word “supplications” translates a word that speaks of “deep desires.” As we will see in a moment, there was no hint of self-righteousness in this prayer. He did not blame God for his circumstances. He had simply been humbled by the pains of life to cry out to God in humility: “Please hear me.”

One reason that God ordains trials in our life is to teach us to turn to Him in humility. We cannot self-righteously blame God for what He ordains in our lives, for at any moment we are better off than we actually deserve. Our writer realised that he was a sinner in need of God’s mercy, and He cried to God for it.

The Saviour’s Pardon

Verses 3-4 point us to the Saviour’s pardon: “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared.”

These verses tie the entire psalm together. The writer was in a great trial and had been humbled to cry to God for mercy. It is possible, though not certain, that the mention of iniquities here suggests that the author’s hardship was a result of his sin. Regardless, it is significant that, rather than blaming God for his situation, the author accepted personal responsibility. He realised that, whatever depths he was in, he deserved them.

We need to be careful that, when problems come into our life, we do not accuse God of wrongdoing. We have no right to be angry with God when suffering strikes. We must not respond self-righteously when we suffer, thinking that what we are experiencing is somehow unfair. As Kevin de Young preached in our church recently, we must wear the glasses of grace rather than the spectacles of fairness. The simple fact is, anything better than eternal hell is grace and mercy.

A young father left behind a young family in our church. In the same week, a close friend of our church, who pastors another church in the city, last his elderly father. Death is a reality of life because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). We all deserve to die. When problems come into our life, we can (if we are not careful) grow very bitter towards God. But that bitterness only comes when we refuse to realise that we are sinners and deserve every bad thing that happens to us. That’s not popular theology today, but it is biblical.

Psalm 130 gives comfort only to those who realise that they deserve condemnation but who, by God’s grace, have received His compassion. As the psalmist said, if God kept a record of our wrongs and justly used that record against us, “who could stand?” The word translated “stand” was used of the priests in the Old Testament who stood before the Lord to minister. They stood as those who were acquitted by God. But if God held us to account for our sin, none of us would stand acquitted before Him. Whatever suffering we face, it is never as bad as we deserve!

The psalmist, realising and acknowledging that he deserved every suffering that took place in his life, nevertheless gloried in the forgiveness available in the gospel: “But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared.” We all deserve far worse than we get, and the only reason we don’t get what we deserve is because there is forgiveness with God. While he understood that he deserved the depth of God’s wrath, the psalmist was able to rejoice in the depth of God’s mercy because he understood forgiveness.

The glory of the gospel is that we do not get what we deserve. The glory of the gospel is that we receive forgiveness. The word translated “forgiveness” is a rare one in the Old Testament. As far as I am aware, it is used only in two other places: Nehemiah 9:17 and Daniel 9:9. In Nehemiah it is translated by the word “pardon,” while in Daniel it is translated, as here, by the word “forgiveness.” The word always describes God’s forgiveness. The psalmist knew that God is a God who pardons, and therefore he could cry to God with hope. Is that not gospel?

The psalmist was a man who was amazed by grace. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), the word here translated “forgiveness” is translated by the same word used in Romans 3 for “propitiation.” The term “propitiation” speaks of God deflecting His wrath from us by placing it on His Son. The psalmist understood the wonderful truth of substitutionary atonement. Knowing that Yahweh is just such a God, he cried to Him for help in his time of need.

The point is simply this: Those who can see that they are in deep distress and actually cry out to God with hope that God will hear are those who have experienced God’s forgiveness. Unbelievers have no basis to cry to God to hear them. But those who have been forgiven by God have every basis to cry out, “Father in heaven, hear me!” What a glorious privilege this is! It was only because he had been forgiven, justified and reconciled to God that the psalmist cried to God for help, knowing that God would hear him in his distress.

My father-in-law is probably the best Christian I have ever known. He recently told me of his perception that there is very little joy amongst most Christians today. The reason, he believes, is because there is very little repentance amongst Christians. I have been pondering that ever since. The truth is, joy is a product of repentance. When David penned his wonderful words of repentance in Psalm 51, he pleaded, “Restore to me the joy of Your salvation” (v. 12). For David, repentance and joy went hand in hand.

While joy and repentance go hand in hand, we will never experience true repentance until we are convinced that we have sinned against a holy God and that we deserve His judgement. But when we understand and embrace the forgiveness that God extends to us, joy is the result.

When the Lord gave Peter and his fellow fisherman a miraculous catch, Peter immediate fell at Jesus feet and cried, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” Interestingly, Jesus did not depart from him, but instead called him: “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” Peter and his fellows immediately “forsook all and followed Him” (Luke 5:1-11).

Those who experience the real closeness and fellowship of God are those who realise that God ought to depart from them. But when they see the availability of forgiveness and embrace that in repentance, there is wonderful joy that follows. There is a wonderful sense that God loves me and I can therefore cry to Him in my distress. The psalmist had such an awareness.

The psalmist ends his thought on what may seem like a strange note: forgiveness is available in order “that You may be feared.”

The word translated “feared” speaks of a fear from an apprehension of danger and a sense of self-weakness. In fact, the term is often associated in the Bible with the matter of trembling. It does not describe a terrifying fear, but a reverent fear. Those who understand God’s forgiveness in the light of what they deserve always strive to live a life of reverence to God. They have a passion to pursue holiness. As Maclaren notes, God’s forgiveness turns sinners into saints. Stated another way, God saves us for our holiness rather than for our happiness.

John Piper argues that God does, in fact, save us for our happiness, and, in the sense that he argues the case, I agree with him. Piper argues that the happiness/holiness debate can be a false dichotomy, for we are usually happiest when we are holiest. Nevertheless, God’s end goal in salvation is not our happiness, and the truth is, holiness will often be attended by a certain lack of circumstantial happiness. As you pursue holiness, there will be times when you are not happy. There will be times of great sorrow and distress, but the holiness we pursue in this life will one day be met by eternal blessedness.

On the Sunday on which this message was preached in our church, which was the Sunday following the death of the young husband and father mentioned above, one of my fellow pastors prayed during the morning worship pastoral prayer, “Father, we prayed that you would heal Aurelio, and you have healed him.” As a believer, his death issued him into eternal happiness.

The Saints’ Perseverance

In vv. 6-7 the writer speaks of his perseverance: “My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning—yes, more than those who watch for the morning. O Israel, hope in the LORD; for with the LORD there is mercy, and with Him is abundant redemption.”

As we have seen, the psalmist acknowledged that whatever problems he had were deserved, because he was a sinner. However, he also realised that, whatever problems he faced, though they were deserved, were attended by God’s mercy. He had experienced God’s pardon, which had driven him to fear God and pursue holiness. That in turn drove him to a passion to continually wait on the Lord.

When you visit family as I have done recently you have opportunity to visit various restaurants. At a restaurant, you are attended by a waiter. A waiter does not wait around for some form of instruction. A waiter is a server. He takes your order, places it in the kitchen, and returns with your food. He consistently checks up on you to ensure that you have everything you need. A waiter is there to serve. (That is why “waiters” as we know them in South Africa are sometimes known as “servers” elsewhere in the world.)

The “waiting” described in these verses ought to be understood in this sense. In fact, the word used here in the Septuagint is a word that speaks of “perseverance.” It means to wait with effort, to strive and to move forward, or to endure. Because the writer had experienced the glories of the gospel, he could endure whatever awaited him. He could persevere. He could continue to serve the Lord, even if he remained in the depths in which he currently resided.

The term “soul” describes the whole of man. The writer, in his fullness, would wait on the Lord.

The psalmist adds, “And in His word I do hope.” Earlier, he had pleaded with the Lord to hear him; now, he was committing to hear from the Lord through His Word.

When we go through deep struggles and trials, we do well to cry to the Lord to hear us. We do well to plead for deliverance. But once we have done so, it is time to listen to God in His Word. It is time to listen for how the Lord will answer us.

We see, further, that the psalmist’s posture was one of worship. He writes, “My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning—yes, more than those who watch for the morning.”

The word “waits” is italicised in the NKJV, which means that the word is not present in the original. Literally, the phrase reads, “My soul for the Lord.” That is, “My soul is toward Adonai.” The focus of this man’s faith was Yahweh. He was waiting for and worshipping the Lord. With Job, he would cry, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).

When Job underwent severe trials, he responded in a godly manner. “In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong” (Job 1:22). Initially, at least, he worshipped God. Later on, when his friends came to offer him counsel, he began to question the Lord. Eventually, his questioning became accusatory so that he did sin. For a long time, God was silent as Job debated with his friends the cause of his suffering. When God did eventually speak, he took Job to the zoo.

Instead of offering Job a concise answer to his questions, God pointed Job to creation. Could Job understand the deep things of God? Was He there when God created the world? Was He there when God sovereignly appointed the boundaries of the oceans and filled land and water with such marvellous creatures? Would God be answerable to a creature like Job? Job got the point, and repented in dust and ashes. Job realised who God is, and that was enough for him.

The psalmist, similar to Job in the beginning, had a disposition of worship. When Jesus was in Gethsemane on the eve of His crucifixion, He was in great distress. Sweating great drops of blood, He poured His soul out before His Father, crying for escape if it was possible. But His prayer was one of worship. He desired escape if possible, “nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:39-46).

I was recently reading a book by Philip Ryken called Loving as Jesus Loved, which is a wonderful study of 1 Corinthians 13. At one point, he tells the story of his brother-in-law who, with great gusto, was singing “Have Thine Own Way, Lord.” People started looking at him strangely, and eventually his wife nudged him and told him that he had started singing, “Have mine own way, Lord.” Ryken, who has a good relationship with his brother-in-law, penned the following words, which reflect what our attitude often is:

Have mine own way, Lord! Have mine own way!
Let me be in charge here, at least for today.
I really don’t need You—say what You will;
I’ve got my own plan, Lord; You can just chill!

The writer of Psalm 130 refused to live like that. He understood something about the gospel and God’s forgiveness, and therefore he committed to waiting for the Lord. He could well have written the original lyrics of Adelaide Pollard’s song:

Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way!
Hold o’er my being absolute sway!
Fill with Thy Spirit ’till all shall see
Christ only, always, living in me.

The Promise of the Sovereign

The psalmist closes by rejoicing in the promise of the sovereign Lord: “O Israel, hope in the LORD; for with the LORD there is mercy, and with Him is abundant redemption. And He shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities” (vv. 7-8).

The psalmist worked through the problems he faced and concluded that he actually deserved far worse than he was getting. He understood that he would not stand if the Lord marked his iniquities but rejoiced in the forgiveness that was available in the gospel. He therefore committed to wait for the Lord and serve Him—patiently so. Clearly, as evidenced by his conclusion, this has all brought him to a point of hope. And so he cries to his fellow Israelites: “O Israel, hope in the LORD; for with the LORD there is mercy.”

During my time in the United States, we visited a particular ice cream parlour, which is well-known in the part of the world from which I come. As we sat there eating our ice cream, a little boy, no older than three or four, burst into the parlour. His grandfather was clearly the owner, and as he burst in, he cried with great excitement (and something of a lisp), “Hi Grandpa! We’re here for some ice cream, and this is my friend, Will!” His personality immediately captured the entire room.

There is a sense in which the psalmist is doing the same thing: “Father, I am here for forgiveness, and I’ve brought some friends!” The psalmist had turned evangelist. Those who had been chosen to be a special, loved nation by the sovereign God also needed forgiveness, but they could hope in the Lord. The call to hope in the Lord was not a general call to everybody, but a specific call to the people of God.

If you today, as a child of God, are in some sort of distress, let me echo the words of the psalmist: “Hope in the LORD; for with the LORD there is mercy.”

I have no idea what you are going through. As a believer, you may have just had the worst week of your life. You may be undergoing some severe trial. You may feel like an utter failure because you have caved to sin. You may have failed grievously to wait for the Lord. I may not fully understand your particular situation, but I know that there is mercy with the Lord, and so I would urge you to hope in Him. “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1). Hope in the Lord!

Not only is there mercy with the Lord, but there is also “abundant redemption.” Leviticus 25 (to which we will turn in our next study) speaks about redemption. It speaks of relief from debt and being reconciled to family. It highlights the principle of restoration. The psalmist had found himself in the depths. But as he had cried to God, and in turn heard from His Word, he had experienced forgiveness and “abundant redemption.” God is a God of reconciliation and restoration.

Christian homes can experience relief, reconciliation and restoration because God is a God of “abundant redemption.” Christians who have broken by sin can experience the same because God is a God of “abundant redemption.”

The writer ends with a wonderful promise: “And He shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” That is why Israel should hope in the Lord. And that is the same reason that we should hope in Him. Announcing the birth of Messiah, the angel said to Joseph, “You shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). And when Jesus was born, the prophetess Anna “gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). The focus is not so much on ethnic Israel, but on the true Israel of God: all those whom God chose in Christ from the foundation of the world. To them, the promise is: “No more iniquity!” One day, every believer will be completely healed, for as William Cowper wrote, we are “saved to sin no more.”

There is coming a day when believers will no longer have to cry for forgiveness. It can be wearying to constantly battle sin in the world in which we live. But that is only a temporary reality. One day, every believer will be completely saved to sin no more—not because they deserve it, but because “with the LORD there is mercy, and with Him is abundant redemption.” Praise God for His mercy.

Show 1 footnote

  1. The Psalms of Ascent are Psalms120—134, each of which is titled “A song of ascent.”