Out of the depths I cry to you, LORD;
LORD, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.
If you, LORD, kept a record of sins,
LORD, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.
I remember walking out of a college lecture hall and saying to a friend about the material just presented: “That was deep!” In the years since I have come to understand that “deep” has two meanings. There is the depth of God’s Word and the depth out of which the afflicted cry to God. Every line in today’s psalm is deep, breaking away from surface thoughts towards the depths of God and our being.
The psalm begins with the psalmist in deep over his head, in life’s deep waters (see Psalm 69:1-2, 14-15). He does not specify the nature of his affliction, comparing it only to death by drowning. Going down for the third time, he cries out to God.
The context of the entire psalm suggests that the “depths” refer to trouble because of sin. It is from life’s depths that he cries to God for salvation: “LORD, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.” The psalmist believes that God is with him in the depths.
Rather than focusing on a specific sin, the psalmist focuses on the character of God to forgive. He knows that even the holes we dig for ourselves are not too deep to silence cries to the God whose nature is to forgive. He has come to understand that if God gave us what we deserve then none of us could stand.
Theologian Karl Barth said that of all the words in the Bible one of the greatest is the word “but”. With the one word “but”, God turns everything around: “But with you there is forgiveness…” This is very much like Ephesians 2:4-5, where the apostle Paul, after telling how we were “dead in our sins”, writes: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.” The grace of God in our lives means that God “does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10). God has removed our sins from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12).
With feet planted firmly in God’s grace the psalmist’s next line might catch us by surprise: “But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” His words remind us why it is that we revere God and serve Him. It is because we know we are so graciously and generously forgiven. It is the knowledge that God has not “kept a record of sins” that is the starting point and foundation of the Christian life. It is not fear of punishment, guilt, or threat of judgment that motivates us. The psalmist sets right any legalistic notion that it is by reverencing and serving God that we are forgiven. Rather, we revere and serve God because He has so generously forgiven us.
Remarkably, as we grow in awareness of God’s gracious forgiveness so we grow in awareness of where we need His healing. As our hearts become comfortable and at ease with God we actually invite Him to show us where we are broken. I find helpful the following words by pastor and theologian Eugene Peterson:
In the Christian life our primary task isn’t to avoid sin, which is impossible anyway, but to recognize sin. The fact is that we’re sinners. But there’s an enormous amount of self-deception in sin…So we’re trained to become sin-watchers, after the analogy of birdwatchers; we go looking for sin with a certain sense of anticipation and delight, for each discovery brings us to the brink of grace. (Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians)
May our meditations on this psalm lead us deeper and deeper into the depths of God’s Word and the depths of ourselves!
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