Study Guide: Psalm 130

The superscription of Psalm 130 reads “A Psalm of Ascent.” The Psalms of Ascent are a group of Psalms (120-134) that were sung when Jews who lived in far-flung places returned to Jerusalem to celebrate one of the major festivals

The Psalms of Ascent, so described because Jerusalem was set upon a hill (which, of course, signified that it was an ‘elevated’ place of great significance)

Many of those Jews who lived in the boondocks were common people, peasants if you will. They were far away from seats of power and wealth. As a result, many of the Psalms of Ascent are concerned with matters that touched their everyday lives.

In a sense, you can think of the Ascent Psalms as the Psalms of Pilgrims and Sojourners who sing about many things on their way Home.

Psalm 134 

The Psalm consists of Four Stanzas:

Stanza 1 (vss. 1-2) – The Petition

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord;
   O Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
   to my cry for mercy.”

This stanza contains a couple of structural features:

The first structural feature is a chiasm:
“I cry to you, O Lord:
O Lord:  hear my voice.

Do you see how the first phrase is parallel to the last phrase?
Do you see how the repetition of ‘O Lord’ occurs in the first line at the end while the second one occurs in the second line at the beginning?

The second strutural feature is an inclusio:  (a.k.a. ‘ring device’)
line 1: I cry to you…
Line 2: hear my voice.
Line3: let your ears be attentive
Line 4: I cry for mercy. 

(Inclusio is a literary device in Hebrew scripture. A section is bracketed (or bookended) by the same or similar phrase.)

“The Depths’ is a significant image in Scripture.  Before we get too deep (ahem!),  let’s think a little about how an image like that functions.   Of course, to think of ‘the Depths’ is to evoke the image of the sea.  But, the word is not simply about the place you or I might visit in the summertime.   The writers found references to the sea to be a useful metaphor. 

What is a metaphor?  

Well, a metaphor is a word that refers to a thing in particular (the sea = the Atlantic Ocean) and something with which we are familiar. However, as a metaphor, the word conveys far more information than that big span of water we see from the beach.   There are aspects of the sea- many hidden- that serve as good analogies to something far more abstract, SIN.  

One of the major influences on how I think about things was an anthropologist named Gregory Bateson.   Bateson’s vast mind ran across many disciplines but one of his major interests was to find what he called “the pattern that connects.”   In a way, Bateson’s whole project was to work against the tendency of modern science to break things down into smaller and smaller parts (analysis). Instead, he tried to do science by bringing things together (synthesis). 

So, as a result, he came to believe that once Nature (Bateson was an atheist) found a pattern that worked, it repeated that pattern across many domains.  e.g.  He often brought totally unrelated things into the classroom: e.g. a model spinal cord, an aerial shot of a major river, and a picture of a tree.

He would ask his students: “what do these things hold in common?”  

Students would puzzle over that until Bateson told them:  “They all consist of stems and branches.”

The river and its tributaries…the spinal cord with its branching spinal nerves…the tree whose trunk branched into to limbs.   Stems and branches are a pattern that connects many things.   That phenomenon is one of his patterns that connect. (Incidentally, he also noticed redundancy in nature.  A tree’s form is stems and branches but, at least in terms of its inner parts, so are the leaves on the tree.  The pattern repeats itself from trunk to limb to leaf.)

Well, as a result of that Bateson, came up with what he called the Syllogism in Grass.  It was basically a METAPHOR GENERATOR.   Here’s how it goes:

Men die. 
Grass dies. 
Men are grass. 

Now, a good logician will tell you that’s nonsense as far as analytic logic goes.  BUT,  Bateson’s point was not to be a good logician with his Syllogism in Grass.  His point was to find the patterns that connect and to develop a little metaphor generator. 

Now clearly, men are NOT grass in the sense that they are green and short.  But, men are grass in another way. 

What do men and grass have in common?  They both die.  So, in that sense men ARE indeed grass…which, by the way, the Bible confirms in several ways. 

That’s how a metaphor works.   It takes something more complicated and throws light upon by comparing it to something less complicated.  

Question:  So, what comes to mind when you think of the sea?   And how might those things compare to life?

Life is unpredictable. 
The Sea is unpredictable.
Life is the Sea. 

For the ancients, the sea was a place of mystery, a place that could change from serene to torrential in a minute.  It was the image of the unexpected, the chaotic; more a place to be feared than to enjoy.  It was the portal to the underworld; deep darkness.  Something that overwhelmed if not kept within its bounds.  (Think: tsunami)  Many a Jewish wife and mother watched their husbands and sons go out into the sea never to return.  It was something that could swallow you up.  And, of course, the sea was where the monsters, like the Leviathan, lived. 

So, the Psalmist:: “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord!”

QUESTION:  In what ways have YOU experienced life as ‘sea-like?’   When have you felt that you were being completely overwhelmed, even fearful that you might go under?   How did you feel at that time?  

As a result of his near drowning the Psalmist ‘cries out,’ begs God to “hear (his) voice”, and to give ‘attention’ to the Psalmist.  

And, for what does he plead?  MERCY!

Question:  Why do you think he pleads specifically for mercy?   After all, who calls out for ‘mercy’ when he is at the point of drowning?  In what do you think the Psalmist is drowning? 

STANZA 2:  (vss 3-4)

“If you, O Lord, kept a record of sin,
      O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is (the) forgiveness;
      therefore, you are feared.”  

In this stanza, the Psalmist distinguishes two ways to think about God, one false and the other true:  God keeps a record of our sins (a lot of people think of God that way!) vs.  God is forgiving.  The first is false.  The second is true. 

“If you, O Lord, kept a record of sin, 
                 O Lord, who could stand?”
  with you,            there is (the) forgiveness:
                                  therefore, you are feared.”

QUESTION:  In what way does this stanza not only express an idea but also serves as a tacit statement of persuasion?  

Note that the word ‘forgiveness’ has a definite article in Hebrew.  

QUESTION:  What does that definite article suggest to you?   
QUESTION:  The word ‘therefore’ suggests that what he is about to say follows upon from what he has just said?   In what way does the statement that ‘with God there is  ‘ the forgiveness’ have to do with the ‘fear’ at the end of the last line?  What does he mean by ‘feared?’

STANZA 3:  (vss 5-6)

“I wait for the Lord, my soul
and in his word, I put my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord, 
    more than the watchmen wait for
        the morning,
   more than the watchmen wait for
       the morning.” 

The word ‘wait’ appears 5 times in the above stanza.  

QUESTION:   How does the use of the literary device of repetition work to emphasize the word ‘wait’.   (This is a great example of how form magnifies content!)  How does that repetition of the word ‘wait’ help you better understand the nature of ‘hope?’ (Line 3?)    What is the basis of the Psalmist’s hope?

QUESTION:   How does repetition serve the metaphor of the waiting watchmen?  This is another metaphor.  Think about how it must have been for the watchmen up on the city walls.  How would you feel if you were in that position?  

STANZA 4: (vss. 7-8)

“O Israel, put your hope in the
     for with the Lord is (the) unfailing
     and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
     from all their sins.”

This stanza represents a shift in the Psalm . Whereas before, the Psalmist is thinking of himself and his being overwhelmed and being in need of mercy.  He now exhorts Israel to continue to hope in the Lord. 

Whereas in stanza 3 hope is grounded in the word, here it is grounded in the character of God, which is revealed to us in the word.  Specifically, hope is grounded in (1) THE unfailing love (hesed) and (2) his full redemption.  

QUESTION:  Why do you suppose “unfailing love” is preceded (in Hebrew) by a definite article? 
QUESTION:  What does the word “redemption” mean?  What is its relationship to the unfailing love and to the practice of hope? 
QUESTION:  What is the nature of the final two lines in the above?