The 130th Psalm has sometimes been called the “funeral psalm” because of its poignant expression of deep sorrow. When Luther was asked his opinion on which were the best Psalms, he replied, Psalms 32, 51 and 130 – three of the seven penitential psalms. He called these three the “Pauline psalms” because, like Paul’s epistles, they lay out the realities of the depths of human sin, the abundance of God’s grace, and Christ’s complete redemption.
Luther lectured on Psalm 130 in 1617 and again in 1541 at the end of his teaching career. We’ll try to capture his thoughts from his 1517 and 1541 commentaries.
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!
Luther writes, “These are noble, passionate and very profound words of a truly penitent heart that is most deeply moved in its distress. (LW 14) He wants to say “I am most vigorously attacked and anxious because I see my sins. I discover the frightening wrath of God. The fear of eternal death has come upon me. Whether I look inside myself or outside, I find no help or counsel.”
What Luther goes on to describe comes closest to what we would call ‘depression’ – a feeling of utter inability and helplessness to lift oneself up – sometimes even to get up out of bed. We talk of ‘being down in the dumps’ and by this, we mean that we are suffocating emotionally and spiritually. In fact, the Hebrew word for ‘depths,’ has the meaning of drowning in water.
Luther sees the psalmist as one who is drowning, not in water but in the guilt of his sins. He writes, “This is the great fear and need in which the psalmist found himself trapped. It is the weight and a burden that pressured him. He did not know how he could possibly be relieved of it.”
“For other tribulations and heartaches that afflict believers can be overcome by patience, as when our honor, money and goods are in danger. You can also fairly easily overcome the obvious sins of the flesh into which youth are constantly falling. In this, you can find comfort.”
“But if these hard knocks come and the hounds from hell surround us so that you cannot experience or find anything, but that you are cast away and alienated from God, then this is hard to overcome and break out of. But those who feel this kind of affliction have this example of David encountering and suffering the same. For such people, this affliction is even heavier when they believe they suffer all alone.”
“So let us learn that almost all of the great saints ALSO suffered this way and were frightened and brought right to death by the law and their sins. David calls out and cries as if he were utterly in hell, ‘Out of the depths I cry, Lord, unto you.’”
“This kind of crying is nothing but a strong and earnest longing for God’s grace, which does not arise in a person unless he sees in what depth he is lying.”
“But we must not be allowed to stay here with only the comfort that we are not alone. We should also learn here by the example of these same saints also stuck in such a hell, HOW THEY TURNED FROM SUCH HEARTACHE. He did not doubt. Rather, he called and cried out. For he knew that a definite hope of help and comfort was yet at hand. You also should believe and act this way in your sorrow.”
“You must neither understand nor accept your affliction as if you will be utterly sunk and ruined in your sorrow and heartache. Rather, if you are led into the depths, you should know that you have the kind of God and Lord who will save you again and make you well. If your soul is full of grief and sorrow, then you should at the same time wait on the one who helps and on the comfort of the one who has called you, for a broken spirit is the sacrifice that He is pleased to have. A broken and contrite heart he will not despise. Rather, he wants to rescue the person in need and the one whose spirit is broken.”
“But if one is stuck in such heartache and sorrow, there is yet a great and priceless comfort that other pious Christian people want to have with them. For God has ordered THE CHRISTIAN CONGREGATION that one should comfort and pray for one another.”
“So if a person hears of a brother or sister with this terror, he knows that this DID NOT occur so he would be ruined but so that he should be encouraged when he is reminded of grace and receives the same with thanksgiving.”
“But if we are not able to find such words of comfort from our brothers and sisters in the congregation, then we must do what David does here. We call and cry to God and pray this psalm with David in which his great fear and need are revealed.”
“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness, therefore you are to be feared?”
Luther definitively answers the Psalm’s question with a clear, “No one!” If King David couldn’t stand before God, then neither can we.
“What good would it do me if everyone were gracious to me and overlooked and forgave me all of my sins, but God marked and retained them? By the same token however, what does it matter if everyone heaps sins upon me and holds them against me, as long as God forgives and pays no attention to them?”
“But here we are to give consideration to the severe judgment of God, who cannot and will not let even one sin go unpunished. Whoever does not fear God, does not cry out; and whoever does not cry out, finds no grace.”
“So, fear of the judgment of God must always exist in the right kind of person because of the old Adam, whom God hates and resists. Also, along with this fear, there must also be hope for grace because of God’s mercy for the sake of the new man who agrees with the judgment of God. So you see how fear and hope go hand in hand. Just as the judgment of God produces fear, so fear results in crying out, and the cry brings mercy.”
“David turns from doubt to CONFIDENCE AND HOPE in divine mercy. “But with you there is forgiveness…” he says. If we look on our sins nothing is possible. But you should not judge by turning your eyes only to your sins, but also to the mercy seat, on the forgiveness of sins.”
“So, even though we cannot deny that we are sinners, yet we nevertheless also believe in the forgiveness of sins and do not deny it…”
“BUT BEWARE, this can also say to you and remind you, ‘I surely believe that God is merciful. But my sins make me unworthy of God’s being moved to pity me. David, Peter and Paul could hope for forgiveness for their sins, but I am SUCH a sinful person that I cannot hope that way.’ You should drive such horrid thoughts from your mind and flee from them.”
“You can and may think much more like this, ‘Even though I am a sinner, the forgiveness of sins also belongs to me. For those same people are also not great examples of piety or righteousness but are rather called ‘poor miserable sinners.’ Rather I turn to my dear Lord God, who announces forgiveness to me and all sinners. He invites us to hope, trust and believe, and so forth.”
“Here David present us with the sum of the whole Christian teaching and the bright sun which enlightens the whole Christian congregation. So when this teaching is established, then the church, the congregation of God, also stands. But if it should fall, then at the same time, the congregation and everything is leveled to the ground. That is the reason why I carry this teaching so heavily. Satan applies himself whole heartedly to rip this confession of Christian righteousness and the forgiveness of sins from hearts and eyes. I know, for I have experienced it.”
“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning,
More than watchmen for the morning.”
Luther here presses once again on the contradictory nature of God’s way compared to our ways.
“God deals strangely with His children. He blesses them with contradictory and disharmonious things, for HOPE AND DESPAIR are opposites. Yet His children must hope in the face of despair; for FEAR is nothing else than the beginning of despair and HOPE is the beginning of recovery. And these two things, DIRECT OPPOSITES BY NATURE, must be in us, because in us two natures are opposed to each other, the old man and the new man. The old man must fear, despair, and perish; the new man must hope, be raised up, and stand.”
“So when the psalmist says, ‘I wait for the Lord,’ he means that in his crying and cross-bearing he did not retreat or despair; nor did he trust in his own merits and good works. He trusts in God’s grace alone, and he waits for God to help him when it pleases Him.”
“Now there are some who want to set the goal, appoint the hour and measure, and prescribe to God how they are to be helped. And if they do not experience this, they despair or seek help elsewhere. The do not WAIT FOR THE LORD. God is supposed to wait for them, be ready at once, and help exactly as they themselves have designed.”
“Those who wait for the Lord however, ask for mercy; but they leave it to God’s gracious will when, how, where, and by what means He helps them. They have no doubt about His aid, but they do not give it a name. The let God christen and name it, even if it is delayed immeasurably long.”
“And in His word I put my hope.” “That means, upon His pledge and promise.” Therefore God does not forsake him who’s waiting and hoping of based on God’s own word, for God cannot fail Himself.
“One must wait for the Lord from one morning to the next, namely, constantly, steadily, like a watchman waiting for the sun to rise. In the morning all work begins, while it ends in the evening and rests during the night. Once you have begun to trust in God, do not stop. Let the evening and the night pass; just remain watchful until morning comes again. For the new man, whose occupation is nothing but waiting for the Lord, should not give up as the old man does.”
“O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities.”
“To be sure, this is A GOLDEN VERSE that is worthy of learning and contemplating thoroughly. He exhorts all people to depend upon the sure hope of God’s mercy and to persist in that hope. For it is the use and the fruit of faith to make the heart firm and sure that DEATH IS CONQUERED BY THE DEATH OF THE LORD CHRIST. Death is taken away through grace and the forgiveness of sins, and the law is lifted off our backs.”
“For to know God ARIGHT is to recognize that with Him there is nothing but kindness and mercy. But those who feel that God is angry and unmerciful do not know Him aright. Therefore they flee from Him and do not wait for Him.”
“But if this confidence of God’s grace with us and on us were perfect, then a believing heart could nevermore be sorrowful or afflicted. But he knows the battle of the conscience. If the heart now and then begins to totter, it doubts the mercy of God when surrounded by misery and trouble. This is why David exhorts Israel to PERSEVERE IN FORGIVENESS after it had welcomed it and not to let her confidence in mercy be taken away.”
In conclusion, Luther writes, “We should not judge and make opinions out of our FEELINGS AND PERCEPTIONS nor out of the tribulation in which we find ourselves. Rather, we follow the Word of God and know definitely that everything that the Word teaches us is true and that such things belong to faith, not to experience.”