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Psalm 130 is a profound prayer of repentance for the season of Lent.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.
Mankind’s relationship with God was broken by Adam and Eve’s sinful disobedience, and through the atoning death of Jesus and his resurrection, sin-ridden humanity was reconciled to God. Through the shedding of his blood, Jesus removed our condemnation and offered us forgiveness. Yet God calls us to repent of the personal sins and offenses that we commit and that separate us from him. “Guilt must not be allowed to fester in the silence of the soul, poisoning it from within,” writes Pope Benedict XVI in Jesus of Nazareth—Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection. “It needs to be confessed. Through confession we bring it to the light, we place it in Christ’s purifying love (cf. John 3:20-21).”
The fullest meaning of repentance involves a dual choice: to turn away from sin and to turn toward God. When we repent, moved by sorrow and remorse, we show not only a change of heart, mind, and behavior, but a fidelity to God and the desire and intention to set aside sin and live by his commandments and standards. God’s forgiveness is inseparably linked with our repentance: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). This forgiveness brings to fullness in us the work of transformation and healing begun by our repentance.
The Book of Psalms gives us profound words in which to acknowledge our sin before God as well as a way to express the confidence and joy of knowing his steadfast love and forgiveness. Seven psalms are particularly expressive of sorrow for sin (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143) and have been designated by Church tradition since the sixth century as “penitential psalms” or “psalms of confession.” Among them is Psalm 130, called in Latin the De Profundis for its opening words, “Out of the depths.” A heartfelt request for pardon and mercy, it is prayed in the funeral liturgy of the Church and in the Office for the Dead and is frequently repeated in the Liturgy of the Hours. Yet, as Br. Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourette has so insightfully noted, Psalm 130
is above all a prayer that opens new horizons, for it is a prayer that expresses conversion. Conversion is a long and arduous road, a road that demands all the inner energies of our being as we seek to traverse it. Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. The more our cry leaps out from the depths of our misery, the more honest the cry and the more genuine our heart’s attitude. It is then when we find who and what we truly are. (Blessings of the Daily: A Monastic Book of Days)
Although its author is unknown, scholars surmise that Psalm 130 was probably composed during the Babylonian Exile, or perhaps for the day of penance prescribed by the priest Ezra when the Jewish exiles returned to Jerusalem (Ezra 9:5-15). The sufferings and misery that the people had experienced during the exile had brought them to the confession of their guilt and had stirred in their hearts both fresh hope of the Redeemer and confidence in God’s mercy.
The psalmist cries to God from the “depths” of his need and distress, experiencing great spiritual misery for his sins—whatever they may have been. Moved to genuine sorrow, he humbly asks to be heard (Psalm 130:1-2). Yet he is also at the height of confidence as he seeks forgiveness for his transgressions because he trusts in the loving kindness and mercy of the Lord. Certain that he will not be doomed or condemned, he joyfully asserts, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, / Lord, who could stand? / But there is forgiveness with you, / so that you may be revered” (130:3-4). God is unfailing in his love and compassion toward those who have fallen and confess their sin.
Then the psalmist paints a beautiful picture of vibrant hope: “My souls waits for the Lord / more than those who watch for the morning” (Psalm 130:6). The light and warmth of God’s love and forgiveness will shine on him like the rising sun at dawn! Finally, in the closing verses of this psalm which is both a sincere and honest confession of sin and a profound profession of faith, we find once again the Hebrew word hesed—”with the Lord there is steadfast love” (130:7). The psalmist realizes that God’s hesed is the reason that he and his fellow Israelites have been forgiven and redeemed (130:8). (Note that he prays not only on his own behalf but with and on behalf of his community.)
Who of us is not occasionally in the depths, sorely in need of repentance? But through Jesus’ redeeming sacrifice, we have been reborn to hope and can now confess our sins to our Father with confidence that he forgives us.
This article is a selection from The Psalms: Gateway to Prayer, by Jeanne Kun (The Word Among Us Press, 2013). Available at wau.org/books