How Pilgrims Praise: Psalms of Ascent: Singing the Blues

Sermon by Derek Thomas on April 30, 2006

Psalms 130:1-8

Now turn with me, if you would, to Psalm 130, what is for me a favorite Psalm. And that, of course, says a whole lot about me, I suppose, that one of my favorite Psalms begins “Out of the depths….”

As it happens, as I was driving down here this evening, John Rutter’s Requiem was playing on the radio. And the second part of John Rutter’s Requiem is a version of Psalm 130, Dei Profundus, and it begins in a low, low cello sound, so very appropriate for the words that then the choir begins to sing: “Out of the depths,” or “Out of the deep,” I think, in the version that they were singing. But that very, very low, growling sound of the cello–and Nancy, I was thinking of you as I was driving down this evening. Some of you might also be very familiar with Mozart’s wonderful motet of Dei Profundus, which is the Latin rendition of course of the opening words of Psalm 130 as Jerome rendered these opening words of this ascent psalm.

Well, let’s come before God in prayer and ask for His blessing.

Our Father in heaven, we thank You now for this wonderful book, and we don’t take it for granted, this wonderful opportunity twice, and with Sunday School, three times on the Lord’s Day to be fed from Your word; to be instructed, to be nourished and helped, and guided and directed, rebuked and challenged. And we pray especially tonight, as we come to this extraordinary Psalm, that by Your Spirit You would come down and fill us and help us to read, and mark, and learn, and inwardly digest for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Hear now God’s word:

“A Song of Ascents.

“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.

If You, Lord, should mark iniquities,

O Lord, who could stand?

But there is forgiveness with You,

That You may be feared.

“I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait,

And in His word do I hope.

My soul waits for the Lord

More than the watchmen for the morning;

Indeed, more than the watchmen for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord;

For with the Lord there is lovingkindness,

And with Him is abundant redemption.

And He will redeem Israel

From all his iniquities.”

Amen. And may God bless to us the reading of His holy and inerrant word.

John Wesley, after graduating from Oxford and following the death of his father, Samuel Wesley, served, as you will recall, as a missionary in the state of Georgia for several years. And what he discovered, of course, during those years was that he wasn’t converted. He was a missionary, but he wasn’t converted. He was still dead in trespasses and in sins. And it is well known that in May of 1738, in Aldersgate in London, in a reading of Luther’s Commentary on Romans (actually they were just reading, as I recall, the preface to Luther’s Commentary on Romans) that Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed.

Well, what is not so well known is that that afternoon John Wesley had gone to St. Paul’s Cathedral, and there he heard the choir sing an anthem, and it was Dei Profundus, Psalm 130, “Out of the Depths.” And you can see the hand of God preparing the soul of John Wesley for those sweet words of justification to which this psalm alludes, and which the preface of Luther’s Commentary on Romans sealed for him that evening in May of 1738.

He had read that morning in his New Testament, Mark 12:34: “Thou art not far from the kingdom of God.” And there is this Psalm, Psalm 130, being used of God in the conversion of John Wesley.

It’s one of the ascent Psalms — these Psalms 120-134. All fifteen of these Psalms bear the superscription “A Song of Ascents” or “A Song of Degrees.” And there are various explanations as to what that superscription might mean, but one of the more interesting ones (and it’s the one that I’ve gone with now for some time) is that these were a collection of Psalms that were brought together because in some way they describe a journey from (Psalm 120) Meshech and Kedar. These are places in North Africa and on the edge of the Black Sea, far, far away from Jerusalem, and they describe a journey of the people of God — the exiled and the diaspora Jews, the ones who had now gone to various parts of the known world — and they’re making their way to Jerusalem. They’re making their way to the city of God to celebrate one of the stated feasts and festivals, like Pentecost and Passover, Tabernacles, and so on.

And here in Psalm 130 we have a description of the psalmist, perhaps in the very courts of the temple in Jerusalem, and he’s describing perhaps on the eve of Passover as his soul has been prepared in much the same way that we would prepare our souls for the Lord’s Supper, by reminding ourselves of our sinfulness in order that the sweetness of the grace that is propounded and placarded at the Lord’s Supper, that the sweetness of that might be all the sweeter.

And so he begins, “Out of the depths….”

Two things I want us especially to see in this Psalm this evening: first of all, a great deep, followed by a great God; and, secondly, a great longing, followed by a great God…

a great deep and a great longing.


I. A great deep, followed by a great God.

It begins with that low, low cello sound: “Out of the depths….” This is a Psalm that sings the blues. This is a Psalm that sounds the plaintive notes of a soul that’s on the very edge of despair. This is not a Psalm that begins in the heights; it’s not a Psalm that begins with praise; it’s not a Psalm that begins with worship: it begins at the reality of where the psalmist finds himself: in the very depths.

You know, that’s one of the things that I think that we miss when we don’t sing the Psalms in the worship of God. Our forefathers, you understand, until 150 years ago, for the first 1800 years, more or less, of the life of the New Testament church and, of course, the life of the Old Testament church before that, sang the Psalms in the public worship of God. Now before you respond to that in any way, shape, or form, one of the things that happens when you don’t sing the Psalms is that you never sing things like this. There are no hymns quite like this. There are hymns that are actually based on Psalms that are like this, like the one we’ve just sung, No, Not Despairingly, or the song that we sang to the accompaniment of the guitar, the well known RUF tune — it’s become perhaps the best known tune in RUF circles. Isn’t that an extraordinary thing? Because the words are some of the most plaintive, melancholy, dark (at least to begin with) words anywhere to be found in the Psalter. And if we never sing these blue notes, if we never sing in the minor key, then we create a false impression of what the Christian life actually looks like, because we sing one thing but we feel another. Because we may be singing I’m H-A-P-P-Y …actually, we never sing I’m H-A-P-P-Y here, you understand, but you get my drift…if we’re always singing upbeat and happy songs that are full of assurance — and I love those songs, as Ligon can tell you; I have a leaning towards those late nineteenth century Moody/Sankey hymns. He rebukes me about it frequently! I love them! But you understand, if that’s all that we sing there’s a disconnect, because by Monday or Tuesday that’s not where we are. On Tuesday morning my soul isn’t singing “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine!” because on Tuesday morning I’m singing “Out of the depths I cry to Thee, O Lord.”

Now, little wonder, I think, that we produce Christians who need therapy, and I mean that seriously. Little wonder that we produce Christians who don’t know how to tie their experience to their worship of God, because unless we’re singing in sincerity the dark sides, the somber sides, the blue notes, then I suspect we’re creating for ourselves spiritual and psychological problems for the very nature of our Christian lives and the way that we live them.

Now you see, the answer of the Bible to some of those experiences of darkness and melancholy is not “read another book,” or not “here’s a program,” or not “here’s another men’s Bible study or a man’s get-together.” But actually, it seems to me that in the providence of God one of the benefits of singing a Psalm like this, Psalm 130, “Out of the depths I cried to You, O Lord” is that it immediately identifies us and connects us to believers in Jesus Christ who have been down this dark road before. You see, Bible Christians are far more realistic than modern twenty-first century Christians often pretend to be. There’s no attempt to hide the pain here. There’s no attempt to camouflage in order to give a certain appearance to the world.

Do you notice something very interesting? He says in verse 2, “Hear my voice”; and then, “Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.” It’s as though the psalmist is saying ‘I want You, Lord, not only to hear my words; I want You to hear my voice. I want You to hear the tone of them. I want You to hear the anguish in my soul. I want You to hear how my soul really feels.’ Because here is a believer who is greatly troubled, and he sounds as though he’s greatly troubled, and he’s crying to the Lord to hear him and to hear the voice of his supplications.

Now these depths, of course, may cover a whole variety of forms and circumstances. We may think tonight of some extreme forms that these depths may take. One thinks of some of those dark nights of the soul passages in the Bible; one thinks of the third chapter of Job, for example. You remember that chapter after Job has said, “The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” You remember in that third chapter he begins to say things like “I wish I’d never been born. I wish that nurse who announced ‘It’s a boy’ had never existed. I wish I had died in my mother’s womb, that she might become my grave forever.” Things like that. You find similar dark thoughts in the eighty-eighth Psalm — we looked at it just a couple of months ago on a Wednesday evening — that Psalm by Heman the Ezrahite — perhaps the darkest, darkest passage in all of the Bible.

I think tonight of David Brainerd, that extraordinary man of God who died when he was 29 years of age, and had only been a Christian for seven or eight of those years; who, in the 1730’s and 1740’s, God raised up and caused him to shine like a great candle, like a bright light, and used his testimony in the lives of so many. In December 16, 1744, he writes in his diary – and many of you, I’m sure, are well familiar with The Diary of David Brainerd that Jonathon Edwards put together after the death of David Brainerd, a missionary to the Indians in New England. On the sixteenth of December in 1744, he writes:

“Was so overwhelmed with depression that I knew not how to live. I longed for death exceedingly; my soul was sunk in deep waters.”

Some of those passages in his diary were so dark that Jonathon Edwards didn’t even put them in. He pulled them from the published Diary of David Brainerd.

Now, David Brainerd’s diary was influential in the lives of William Carey and Robert Murray M’Cheyne, and Henry Martyn(the missionary to Persia), and David Livingston, and Andrew Murray. The morning that Jim Elliot, missionary to the Auca Indians died, he wrote in his diary: “Confession of pride…” [Ligon was walking all over us this morning about pride from Ephesians 4, and here’s David Livingston – the very last thing he wrote in his diary was a confession of pride] “…suggested by David Brainerd’s diary yesterday, must become an hourly thing with me.”

Confession of pride…from the depths I cried to Thee, O Lord. You see, I suspect that there’s much of twenty-first century evangelicalism that says a man like that could never be useful in the kingdom of God, and the exact opposite is true, just as God, in the sweetness of His providence, has placed this Psalm in the middle of the canon of Scripture to be a balm to those whose souls are crying out tonight, “Out of the depths to Thee I cried, O Lord…out of the depths.”

Now look at this Psalm a little closer, and the kind of depths I think that the psalmist is reflecting here is the depths that arise because of an overwhelming sense of sin, an overwhelming sense of guilt in the sight and presence of God. You know, here’s one Bible writer who has an introspective conscience. Here’s one Bible writer who is overwhelmed because of iniquity. “If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” He’s thinking about God. He’s perhaps been meditating about the Lord. Perhaps he’s been preparing for Passover and he’s thinking about the holiness of God, the greatness of God, the integrity of His being, the righteousness of all of His ways and attributes, and he thinks of himself as a fallen son of Adam. He thinks of his sin, he thinks of his iniquity, and if he’s brought into the presence of God, who could stand? He fears.

As Ligon began the worship service — at least, the 8:30 worship service this morning with a prayer in which he uttered those words, “We deserve hell.” And here’s the psalmist, he’s overwhelmed by a sense of his sin, and he’s overwhelmed by a sense of his guilt, and he’s longing for the embrace of God and the forgiveness of God, and those sweet words of justification that come from God. And he’s in the depths. He’s in the depths. He’s in a dark, dark, place. It’s the Old Testament equivalent, I think, to what Paul writes in the seventh chapter of Romans: “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” He’s saying, do you see,

“My sins, my sins, my Savior, they take such hold of me.

I am not able to look up, save only, Christ, to Thee.”

In 1668, the Puritan, John Owen…who wrote, by the way, a commentary on Psalm 130…it is a several-hundred-page, as you might expect from John Owen, commentary on these eight verses of Psalm 130. You’ll find them in the back of Volume 6 of his works. But he says in the preface to that commentary on Psalm 130 — he’s talking to a Mr. Richard Davis, and Richard Davis is engaging Owen in a conversation about the state of his soul, and he’s burdened; he’s burdened by sin, and one of the things that John Owen says to him is that he, too, had once found himself knowing about Christ but not knowing Christ experientially; that he knew a lot about Christ, but he hadn’t experienced the grace of Christ. And he was just like the psalmist seems to be expressing here, in the very depths. And he’s crying out of a sense of his sin and out of a sense of his guilt, and out of a sense of his need. He’s looking to God, and with Him there is forgiveness, that He may be feared.

In Luther’s exposition of Psalm 130, which he wrote in 1540 (that is, it was published in 1540), he’s speaking about the doctrine of justification by faith, and he makes that very well known statement that that doctrine (that sweet and precious doctrine that we are justified by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone) is the article of the standing or falling of the church. It’s the article of the standing or falling of the church. And here is this psalmist, and he wants to know justification. He wants to be made right with God. He wants to know ‘How can my troubled soul and my troubled conscience find peace with God?’ and he’s in the depths. He’s in the depths. There’s great deep here, and there’s a great God here, because as he thinks about this God, he says to himself at first, ‘If I’m ever called into Your presence, how can I possibly stand? How can I possibly stand in the presence of One so utterly holy and righteous as You?’

II. But in the second place, there’s a great longing here…a great longing here.

And you see it expressed in verses 5 and 6, and you see that verb that’s repeated three times; and, depending on your translation, some of you will have watchmen and some of you will have watch, or even wait. And if you have watchmen rendered as wait, this verb occurs five times; in the New American it is just three times: “I wait for the Lord…I wait for the Lord….” He’s waiting, do you see, for God to come by His Spirit and give him that assurance that his sins are truly forgiven; that by trusting in the Lord as the psalmist is putting all his faith and hope in the Lord, that God will come. It’s one thing to know that in your head; it’s another thing to feel it in your heart. And what the psalmist is longing for here is not just the cerebral notion and doctrine that God is a God who forgives sinners who come to Him by faith alone, but he wants to feel that. He wants to know that in his heart. “I wait for God. I wait patiently for God. My soul waits.”

And then he says, “I wait more than the watchmen for the morning.” And you get the impression that perhaps the psalmist knew something about that, because he repeats it…not just as though this is a form of poetry, but he says, “More than the watchmen wait for the morning.” I wonder if any of you work nights. Or I wonder if any of you work days, but just occasionally, or perhaps in one period of your life you worked through the night. And if you can enter into that, you can enter into what the psalmist is saying here.

You know, when you work nights, you wait for the dawn to come. You wait for that first light of dawn. These are watchmen in the night. These are perhaps a reference to the temple guards who looked after the place at night in the metropolitan city of Jerusalem of the Old Testament. All kinds of bad things happen at night, and these watchmen are waiting for the dawn, they’re waiting for daylight, they’re waiting for the period when there’s safety. They’re longing for the dawn. I only worked nights, I think, on two occasions in my life — I mean two nights, now — I couldn’t wait for the morning to come! My body clock was all out of sorts. And here is the psalmist, and he’s longing for the dawn to come.

You know, on the 1st of August in 1830, the Proclamation of Emancipation was given to the slaves of the West Indian colonies, and it’s said that of those slaves many of them were true believers. They had been introduced to the gospel. And it’s said that on the 31st of July, they spent the whole night — many of them in churches and in prayer groups, and some of them on the tops of the mountains in the West Indies — waiting for the dawn to come when they would be free.

And here is the psalmist, and he’s saying there is forgiveness with God. This holy, sovereign, righteous God is also a forgiving God. We know that, because He sent His Son into this world. He sent His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. And look at what the psalmist said. Why does God forgive? Because when God comes, He comes with three companions. Companion No. 1 is lovingkindness, or steadfastness in some of your renditions. It’s that wonderful Hebrew word that captures the covenantal nature of God’s faithfulness to His people, that God is a God who makes promise and keeps promise; and that promise which He makes in His Son, He will keep for eternity. Why does He forgive? Because He’s a God of steadfast love. How does He forgive? Because, at the end of verse 7, “with Him is abundant redemption.”

There’s another wonderful Hebrew word that speaks of the redemption price. On the Day of Atonement the price had to be paid for redemption for the emancipation of a slave. Blood had to be shed. A lamb had to be sacrificed. And how does God forgive? By the shed blood of His Son. By sending His Son as our sin bearer and substitute, and imputing and reckoning our sins to His Son, and crediting His Son’s righteousness to our account: that He was made sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be reckoned the righteousness of God in Him. How does God forgive? By redemption price. Steadfast love, redemption, and forgiveness…and forgiveness…and you see it there in verse 8 and again back in verse 3: “With Him there is forgiveness….He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities” because He’s a God who forgives. “But there is forgiveness [verse 4 of Psalm 130], that He may be feared.”

Some of you will know Jonathan Aitken and some of you will not, so let me introduce him to you. Jonathan Aitken was the Defense Procurement Cabinet Minister in the Cabinet of the Prime Minister John Major, who followed Margaret Thatcher in the early ‘90’s. He became the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 1994, and then in 1995, he resigned his office from the conservative government and cabinet post because of a libel case with The Guardian, a very left-wing newspaper. It went to court. The newspaper had accused him of spending a vacation in Paris in a hotel that was paid for by an Arab to whom he had given a defense contract – a naughty thing to do. Jonathan Aitken denied it, went to court, sued the newspaper for libel, and lost the case; and he was sent to prison.

This is a Cabinet Minister. This is a Chuck Colson being sent to prison. He was sentenced to 18 months at the Belmarsh, Her Majesty’s prison, one of the toughest prisons in London. He describes in a book that he has written since then…he was converted, he was converted in prison…seems to be a very genuine conversion. After leaving prison, he went to Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, studied theology, now tours the country, gives talks and lectures and so on at various evangelical churches. He’s written a wonderful, extraordinary book that I’ve been looking at this week, called Psalms for People Under Pressure, and he describes what Psalm 130 means to him.

He describes the first night in prison. You can imagine it…I can’t read some of it in this forum tonight. You can imagine some of the things that were being howled across from one corridor to the other in the small hours of the night, what they would like to do to this ex-cabinet Tory Minister, and it makes for riveting and disturbing and frightening reading. He describes in some detail the terror that filled him, especially as he heard the door of his cell opening in the morning and he wondered quite what would happen to him. Well, later on in the book, he’s there eighteen months, and he describes two weeks before his release:

“There was an incident right at the end of my prison sentence that served as a good illustration of the universality of the appeal in the Psalms. My friends in our prayer (or fellowship) group, as it began to be known, asked me to give a valedictory talk on Psalm 130 two weeks before my release date. The event was advertised on various notice boards. As a result, the attendance swelled beyond the usual Christian suspects. Indeed, there was a general astonishment when just before I got up to speak, we were joined in the prison chapel by no less a personage than The Big Face. Every prison has among its inmates a head honcho called “The Big Face.” The term originally derives from the time when notorious criminals had their faces plastered on “Wanted” posters. Nowadays, it was for the most feared and ferocious prisoner in the jail. Our Big Face was an old style gangland boss, coming towards the end of a lifer’s tariff for a string of revenge killings. As the old Wild West saying has it, he was not a man to go to the well with. His unexpected arrival at our fellowship group made several people distinctly nervous, not least the speaker.

“I began my address by saying that this Psalm had made a great impact on me throughout my prison journey. I had come to believe that it might have a great message for anyone suffering in the depths. I mentioned that it was not only my favorite Psalm, it also happened to be the favorite Psalm of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. The Big Face nodded gravely at this. Towards the end of my exegesis, I noticed that The Big Face was visibly moved. Tears were trickling down his cheeks as he listened in deep concentration. As I finished with a prayer, he joined in with a booming “Amen.” A few moments later, he drew me aside. “John-o,” he said, “That there Psalm was beautiful, real beautiful. Got to me ‘eart, it did. And I want to ask you a favor. Do you think you could come over to my cell on a wind tomorrow night and say your piece over again? I’ve got a couple of me best mates it would mean a real lot to.” I may have looked a little anxious at the prospect of spending an evening in the company of The Big Face and two of his closest associates. Sensing my hesitation, he enlarged his invitation. “And, John-o, to make yourself feel comfortable, why don’t you bring a couple of your mates along with you? I mean, how about bringing those geezers you said liked the Psalm so much? Augustus, and What’s-it, too, if they’re friends of yours in the B-Wing.” Although I was unable to produce Augustine, Calvin, and Luther as my companions, Psalm 130 went down well second time round in The Big Face’s cell. Although this surprised me at the time, the more I’ve come to know the Psalms the less they surprise me in their power to speak to a wide variety of people and situations. How I wish I had discovered their spiritual riches earlier in life.”

Let’s pray together.

Father, we thank You from the very depths of our hearts, burdened as they often are with a sense of sin and unworthiness and guilt. We thank You that there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared. We thank You that in Jesus Christ our sins, though they be red like crimson, are as white as snow. We thank You that with You there is abundant lovingkindness and steadfastness, and we pray tonight that everyone here in this place of worship might know the assurance that this psalmist longed for and waited for. Come down, by Your Spirit, and assure us afresh that in Christ we are Your children: forgiven, on our way to glory. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Please stand and receive the Lord’s benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, be with you all. Amen.

© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.

To view recordings of our entire services, visit our Facebook page.

Print This Post