Theme: A Profound Psalm
In this week’s lessons, we see that forgiveness comes to all who genuinely repent of their sin, which leads to godly living.
Scripture: Psalm 130:1-8
People who have read extensively on the psalms notice that writers tend to get shorter in their treatments as they get toward the end of the Psalter. They write many pages on the earlier psalms, less for those in the middle and few for those at the end. I do not know why this should be—perhaps because they get of tired of writing or run out of things to say, but I have noticed it. Ever since leaving Psalm 119, the longest in the Psalter, I have found that other writers’ treatments of the psalms have been briefer.
But only until now! Psalm 130 is a profound psalm, and because it is a profound psalm, it has been profoundly treated. John Owen alone has a study that runs to 323 pages, nearly three-fourths of which deals with verse 4: “But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.”1
There is a reason for these extensive treatments, of course, and it is, quite simply, that this psalm has been blessed to many of God’s people down through history and has been greatly loved by them as a result. It has been blessed because it contains a penetrating statement of the gospel.
Most of us know the story of John Wesley’s conversion on the evening of May 24, 1738, when he attended a meeting in a little nonconformist chapel on Aldersgate Street in London, and heard someone reading from the introduction to Martin Luther’s work on Romans. It was the occasion when he described his heart as being “strangely warmed.” What is not so well known is that on the afternoon of that same day Wesley attended a vesper service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, in the course of which Psalm 130 was sung as an anthem. Wesley was greatly moved by the anthem, and it became one of the means God used to open his heart to the gospel of salvation by the grace of God apart from any works of human righteousness.2
In telling about Wesley, I have mentioned Martin Luther. How about Luther? Luther loved Psalm 130. He called it one of the “Pauline Psalms” (the others are Psalms 32, 51 and 143) because of its offer of forgiveness by grace apart from human works. In fact, it is one of the best expositions of the way of salvation by grace on the basis of Christ’s atonement in the Old Testament. Luther wrote a fine exposition of this psalm, as well as a hymn based on it. The hymn begins,
From depths of woe I raise to thee
The voice of lamentation; Lord, turn a gracious ear to me
And hear my supplication: If thou iniquities dost mark,
Our secret sins and miseries dark,
O who shall stand before thee?
Psalm 130 is a penitential psalm, the sixth of seven.3 It starts in the lowest depths of despair, but it progresses steadily upward until, as Derek Kidner writes, “at the end there is encouragement for the many from the experience of the one.”4 In this sense Psalm 130 is itself a literal Song of Ascents, for it climbs from the abyss of depression to the high ground of steadfast hope. We see this in the progression of each of the psalm’s four stanzas, dealing in turn with sorrow over sin, forgiveness, faith in God and testimony.
1A “Prefatory Note” explains Owen’s special interest in this psalm. There was a time early in his public life when he became sick and nearly died. “My soul,” he said, “was oppressed with horror and darkness; but God graciously relieved my spirit by a powerful application of Psalm 130:4, ‘But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared’ [KJV], from whence I received special instruction, peace and comfort in drawing near to God through the Mediator, and preached thereupon immediately after my recovery” (John Owen, “Prefatory Note” to “A Practical Exposition upon Psalm 130” in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Gold, vol. 6 [Edinburgh and Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), p. 324). The exposition we have is probably the substance of the preaching to which he refers.
2Rowland E. Prothero, The Psalms in Human Life (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1904), p. 304; Herbert Lockyer, Sr., Psalms: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1993), p. 667.
3Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143.
4Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150: A Commentary on Books III-V of the Psalms (Leicester, England, and Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1975), p. 446.
What does Psalm 130 contain that has been a blessing to many people?
Review the role the psalm played in John Wesley’s conversion.
Why did Luther call this a Pauline psalm?
Reflection: Are there any verses or hymns that spoke to you in a special way in your conversion? What was it about them that impacted you?
For Further Study: James Boice’s sermons on the Psalms are marked by careful explanation of the text, meaningful application, and thoughtful illustrations. If you would like your own copy of his three-volume study on all 150 psalms, it is available from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals at 25% off the regular price.