When I was eight years old, my family and I went to a lake for an afternoon of summer enjoyment. I had yet to learn how to swim, so I decided to see how far out I could wade into the water safely. I walked out to where the water came up to my waist, then my abdomen, then my shoulders.
Feeling confident and brave, I pushed out farther. The water came to my chin. “I can go farther,” I thought. Thus, I found myself standing on tippy-toes, head tilted back, with my neck extended upwards and the water resting just below my nostrils.
Having reached my limit, I attempted to walk back to the shore, but by this point, the pulse of the ocean held me in place. The tide pushed against me, and I needed all my strength to stand in place.
Furthermore, because I stood on tippy-toes, I couldn’t gain any solid footing by which I could begin journeying to safety. It felt as if at any moment the water would overtake me and push me out into the deep abyss. It took roughly one second for utter panic to set in.
Psalm 130 begins with the phrase, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord, hear my voice.” The image is of someone submerged in deep waters, the waves overwhelming and terrifying. “The depths” suggests that the psalmist finds himself in life-threatening danger, where he must use all his strength and fortitude to stand upright in faith.
Have you ever experienced being in the depths? Are you experiencing something like that today? We are in the depths whenever we feel overwhelmed by some situation or struggle.
It is a time when we feel that, at any moment, everything we fight against will ultimately take us over. Make no mistake; this is a frightening and scary place to be.
The good news, however, is that the depths will not overtake us. This is the truth revealed in Psalm 130. While Psalm 130 articulates the uncomfortable reality of being in the depths, it also speaks a message of hope.
Despite how life-threatening the depths may seem, as people of faith, we can trust in God’s provision for us. We are people of hope.
This hope is articulated through three distinct words.
1. The Word of Forgiveness
Although the specific context of Psalm 130 is unknown, it seems that the psalmist is concerned over his sinfulness. The weight of his sinfulness causes him to fear that he is rejected by God.
In utter despair, he cries out, “Hear my cry for mercy!” (130:1). Feeling terrifyingly far from God and lacking any recourse within himself to change his situation, the psalmist casts himself on God’s mercy and grace.
Yet even here, he knows that he can never merit divine favor. Thus, he speaks an uncomfortable truth, “If you O Lord kept a record of sins, who could stand?” (130:3).
The first three verses of the psalm, therefore, articulate a state of anxiety, fear, and self-condemnation.
Happily, however, the psalm does not end after verse 3! Into this state of despair and fear comes the proclamation of forgiveness.
We can never earn forgiveness. If we lived under a religious system of checks and balances, where the spiritual bad is weighed against the spiritual good, the scales would never tip in our favor.
When placed against the holiness and righteousness that God deserves, none of us ever do enough to earn our place in God’s kingdom. Yet forgiveness isn’t based on our perfection but on God’s.
God’s response to our sinfulness is to forgive. Thus, while psalm 130 doesn’t sugar-coat the reality of sin, it does present us with God’s response to it. The very next verse declares God’s answer to the psalmist’s cry.
It reads, “With you there is forgiveness, so that you are revered” (130:4). God’s nature is to forgive. Thus, we need not fear being far from God because God is never far from us.
The psalm makes clear that there is forgiveness for all who turn to the Lord. Even when we feel in the depths, we can trust God’s forgiving grace.
2. The Word of Mercy
Does God’s forgiveness mean that our situation will change instantaneously? Of course not. The life of faith often contains seasons of waiting. When we find ourselves in the depths, we may have to wade in those waters for a time.
Yet this doesn’t mean that we are abandoned. Like a night watchman waiting for the dawn, we simply lack the capacity to see all that God is working for us.
Thus, Psalm 130 presents us with the call of hope, “Hope in the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy.” Just as forgiveness is fundamental to God’s nature and identity, so is mercy.
The Hebrew word for mercy is chesed. Chesed describes God’s willful love expressed in God coming to us to meet our needs. God stoops down and enters the frailty and messiness of our lives.
Mercy means that God’s steadfast and eternal love meets us in the very depths from which we cry. Ultimately, we see this uniquely in Jesus. Jesus enters the place of darkness, the place of death, to bring healing and life to us all.
The beauty of chesed is that God’s loving mercy for you is not about you. God’s mercy is about who God is.
Mercy is a foundation of God’s own identity, not to be denied or discarded. Charles Spurgeon once observed that “our comfort lies not in that which is with us, but that which is with our God.”
When we feel in the depths, we can trust in the Lord’s work of mercy even if we don’t see it at this moment. Eventually, God’s mercy will be revealed in our lives.
3. The Word of Redemption
Psalm 130 ends with the word of redemption. The psalmist writes, “Let Israel hope in the Lord for with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption, and God shall redeem Israel from all iniquity” (130:7-8).
No matter how overwhelming the depths of sin may seem, there is nothing stronger than God’s redemptive power in our lives. Nothing can overtake God’s loving desire to work restoration and new life in us.
We often think that redemption is merely about our entrance into heaven. Yet if we look at scripture, we see that redemption is always about our present-day lives. God’s redemption frees us to live free in the light and love of God. God is in the business of new life, always.
When I was struggling with the ocean depths, it felt like I would never work my way out. Yet my father, seeing my plight, swooped into the water, scooped me up, and carried me to shore. In my father’s arms, I was safe.
This is redemption. Redemption promises you that the depths will not overtake you. Redemption speaks the hope-filled word that, at some point, the Lord who watches over you will scoop you from the depths and rescue you.
Forgiveness, mercy, and redemption are the words that God speaks over us. More than pleasant phrases to give us comfort, these words describe the truth of who God is. God is forgiving. God is merciful. God is redemptive.
Despite whatever depths we face at times, can we allow these words to give us hope?
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The Reverend Dr. Kyle Norman is the Rector of St. Paul’s Cathedral, located in Kamloops BC, Canada. He holds a doctorate in Spiritual formation and is a sought-after writer, speaker, and retreat leader. His writing can be found at Christianity.com, crosswalk.com, ibelieve.com, Renovare Canada, and many others. He also maintains his own blog revkylenorman.ca. He has 20 years of pastoral experience, and his ministry focuses on helping people overcome times of spiritual discouragement.