IN TIMES LIKE THESE
A sermon on Psalm 130
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
March 29, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Hear again the opening verses of Psalm 130:
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!
My guess is that those words express the way that many of us have been feeling over the last several weeks. Our lives have been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic in ways that we probably never imagined months ago. I know that mine has…
All of our lives—to a greater or lesser extent—have had to be adjusted and changed to navigate our way in the current crisis. The pandemic dominates the news with daily media updates on where the latest outbreak has occurred, how many people have been infected with it, and what new restrictions have been mandated by the government to combat it. In the midst of all of this, one thing is abundantly clear: People are living in fear. People are scared. People are in pain.
As of this writing, it has been reported that fully 25% of the American workforce has either been laid off or furloughed. That is the highest rate of unemployment that our nation has witnessed since the days of The Great Depression almost a century ago. More than 2000 Americans have already died as a result of the deadly virus. And there are those who are telling us that the worst is yet to come in the coming weeks. People wonder aloud what is going to happen next and when we will be able to come out on the other side of this pandemic. And they wonder if they or their loved ones could be the next to fall victim to the virus.
This is an unprecented time. Schools have been called off for the rest of the academic year. Businesses have been ordered to close their doors until further notice. Travel has been severely restricted. Theaters and entertainment establishments have cancelled performances. Due to the governor’s restrictions of no more than ten people meeting together, we as a church have been unable to worship during the last three Sundays. And it appears that we will be unable to resume meeting for the foreseeable future as well. Instead, people are being told to “shelter at home” as much as possible to try to contain the spread of the disease. And whenever they have to leave their homes, they are told to practice social distancing in every location. Most people that I have talked to are only going to work—if they are still able to do so—and to go to the grocery store. Little else…
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But once we arrive at the store, we are greeted by the sight of bare grocery shelves and empty meat cases. And perhaps the scariest part of all? No one is able to predict how long we can expect this to go on…how long this time of restrictions, and quarantine, and caution will be the new normal… It is nothing like anything else that I have experienced in my lifetime. And I would guess that many of you could say the same thing…It makes us to cry out with the psalmist, “Out of the depths I cry to you. O Lord…”
The psalmist begins his lament by calling out to God “from out of the depths.” In the Old Testament, the depths are always symbolic of trouble and of chaos. For example, Genesis 1 tells us that Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the deep. At that time, the scriptures tell us that the earth was formless and empty. And it was out of this chaos that the Spirit of God moved over the face of the deep and creation of the earth as we have come to know it was initiated. In the same way, the psalmist is crying out to God from the confusion and chaos that washes over him. He is struggling to keep his head above water.
There is an interesting aspect of this passage that I want to point out. It is something that is not apparent in our English translations. There are two different words that are translated as the word “Lord” in Psalm 130. And they give us two different depictions of who God is.
In verse one, the psalmist says, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” This first word translated as “Lord” is the word Jehovah or Yahweh. It is the sacred name of God that speaks of his greatness…his “Otherness.” In the first phrase of verse one, the psalmist is addressing the transcendent God, the One who is all-powerful, all-knowing, Maker of heaven and earth, the Ancient of Days, the One who is “perfect in power, in love and purity.” The God who is mystery…beyond all our imaginings…
But that’s not all. From there, the psalmist goes on talking to God and says, “Lord, hear my voice!” But there is a difference in the two Hebrew words used. The word translated as “Lord” in this instance is the word Adonai. This word is much more personal. It is a title of respect, and honor, and courtesy. It is more akin to how we might address someone as “Sir” or “Your Honor” in our day. Whereas Jehovah is the holy name that is reserved only for God, Adonai was a part of everyday speech of the ancient people of Israel. Though it recognizes that God is in charge, it is a word that invokes a measure of familiarity on the part of the speaker. And throughout Psalm 130, these two names for God are used back and forth almost interchangeably…
Taken together, these two words point to the nature of the God we worship. The God that is Yahweh or Jehovah is one who is far beyond us. He is the Lord of millions of galaxies—whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are far above our thoughts. As much as we try, this is a God beyond complete understanding with our finite human capabilities. He stands outside of time and space and—indeed—is the Master of both in ways that we cannot even begin to comprehend…
And yet, the psalmist also calls God Adonai. This lets us know that this incredible, inscrutable God has also chosen to draw near to us. In Old Testament days, he drew near to the people of Israel by
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making a covenant with them…by giving them the law…by leading them out of the slavery of Egypt into the glorious freedom that they would find in the Promised Land. It describes a God who hears and knows their sufferings and is fully able to act on their behalf. It describes a God who keeps his promises…
For us, this same God—this same Adonai—has come to us in his son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He hears and understands our griefs. He knows our pain and he is not without the power to intervene and to do whatever it takes to accomplish his will for us. He has drawn near to us in Christ, as 2 Corinthians 5:19 tells us, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. The name Adonai lets us know that God is not insensitive to our struggles—that he is not deaf to our cries for help in the midst of our sorrows. Instead he is fully aware of what is going on in our lives—and in our nation. And he will deliver in his time and in his way…whatever the situation may be…
What is it that the psalmist is pleading to the Lord for deliverance from? In the various psalms, sometimes the psalmist is crying out to God for healing from a disease. Other times, the psalmist is crying out to God and begging to be rescued from his enemies.1 But neither disease nor enemies are the kinds of things troubling the psalmist in Psalm 130. Instead, he tells us that he is being consumed by his own sense of sin and how it impacts his relationship to God. He writes in verse three, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.” This is an important truth in the life of the Spirit: The closer to the Lord that we are, the more keenly aware we are of the sin that plagues our lives.
Luke 5 tells the story of the calling of the first disciples. In Luke’s telling, Jesus calls out to Simon Peter as Simon is returning from a fruitless night of fishing. Simon and his men had been fishing all night long and had not had any luck. Jesus told them to go out a little deeper into the water and then to let down their nets once more. When they did so, we are told that they caught so many fish that they had to call for help. And even then, both boats were overloaded and on the verge of sinking. When he saw this, Simon Peter fell down at Jesus’ feet and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.” Simon Peter recognized that he was in the presence of the Divine. And upon realizing that, he suddenly became keenly aware of his unworthiness and his sinfulness…
Such has always happened to the great followers of Jesus through the centuries. One of the most striking stories is that of John Bunyan.
John Bunyan was a 17th Century British Baptist preacher. But if you recognize the name, it is probably because you came across it in an English literature class in high school or college. Bunyan is best known today as the author of the book The Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the great works of English literature.
1 See Psalm 102 and Psalm 140 for examples of these kinds of individual laments about sickness and his enemies.
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Bunyan was the pastor of a Baptist congregation that met in defiance of the government’s ban on any religious gatherings outside of the Church of England. He refused to submit to this form of religious persecution. Eventually in late 1660, he was arrested while preaching and sentenced to twelve years in the Bedford jail.
Bedford jail was like all English jails of the time. Historian George Willison describes it like this:
[It was] a stink hole, foul and filthy almost beyond belief. The stench was so nauseating and overpowering that those coming to visit doused their handkerchiefs with turpentine and held them tight against the nose. There were no sanitary facilities except the most primitive. The only source of water was a hand pump in the middle of the prison yard. The food was meager, monotonous and unwholesome. Prisons were frequently swept by the dread jail fever, which often carried off half the inmates. A long jail sentence of the time usually amounted to a death sentence.2
While he was serving his sentence in that awful place, Bunyan wrote an autobiography that was an account of this conversion experience. (He would also write the bulk of The Pilgrim’s Progress during another, shorter time in prison…) For one who was suffering so much for doing what he believed the Lord wanted him to do, he titled this book Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. In that book, he described his spiritual condition like this:
In this discourse of mine, you may see much; much I say, of the grace of God towards me: I thank God, I can count it much; for it was above my sins and Satan’s temptations too. I can remember my fears and doubts, and sad months, with comfort…Oh! The remembrance of my great sins, of my great temptations, and of my great fear of perishing forever! They bring afresh into my mind, the remembrance of my great help, my great supports from heaven, and the great grace that God extended to such a wretch as I.3
Bunyan was no doubt suffering terribly under the conditions of his imprisonment. How could he NOT? Yet as he cried to the Lord out the depths, it was not to bemoan his condition or to complain about the unfair way he had been treated. NO—just like the psalmist, he was calling out to God due to the weight of his sin that had been burdening him. He still felt the pain that his sin had caused him in the life of the Spirit. It was the remembrance of his sin that plagued his soul…
But the psalmist is hopeful that he will not need to cry out to God from the depths indefinitely. He believes that God is ready and willing to free him of his guilt and rescue him from the depths of despair in which he finds himself.
2 George F. Willison, “Life and Background,” Cliff’s Notes on Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (Linden, NE: Cliff’s Notes, Inc., 1968), 11.
3 John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. 1666. (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1907), 14.
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And so it is with us. God is ready and willing to free us from the depths which attempt to pull us under…the dangerous riptide lashing at our feet, threatening to carry us out into the ocean and to pull us under its waves. It is true whether the trouble be illness…enemies…or the sin which so easily besets us. With God, there is help. With God, there is healing…to get through whatever crisis that life throws at us…
We close today with a hymn that we sing from time to time. It really encapsulates the meaning of Psalm 130:3, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.” Read through the words—or sing them softly to yourself—and rest in the assurance that “with the Lord, there is steadfast love, and with him there is great power to redeem.” (Psalm 130:7)
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His Justice,
Which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner,
And more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Savior;
There is healing in His blood.
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of one’s mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more simple,
We could take Him at His word;
And our lives would be more loving
In the likeness of the Lord.4
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
4 Words by Frederick William Faber (1854). #25 Hymns for Worship and Celebration (Waco, TX: Word Music Publishing Co., 1986).
IN TIMES LIKE THESE