Reflecting on the Psalms: De Profundis

Prayer, we used to say, is the raising of the mind and heart to God, “the conversation of the mind addressed to God.”

Sep 18, 2021

Confessions by Saint Augustine (photo/Project Gutenberg)

By Msgr James Gnanapiragasam
Prayer, we used to say, is the raising of the mind and heart to God, “the conversation of the mind addressed to God.” St Augustine famously said, “Man is a beggar before God.” However, it is tempting for many that the conversation becomes one-sided when man expresses himself to God begging for his mercy while forgetting to listen to what the Lord has to say. We are so immersed in our own wants that we forget that the Lord also wants to speak to us.

Prayer is basically dialogical. It is Christ who first asks us for a drink and is willing to give living water instead. While we are seeing the psalms in their literary forms, we should realise that the psalms are basically a dialogue with the all Holy One. The Israelites recognised this in their covenant relationship with God and expressed it in their praying the psalms both in the synagogues and in the Temple.

Psalms of Supplication (5) Psalm 129 (130) Week 4 Sunday Evening Prayer 1. This is one of the seven penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143). Though it is an individual lament, some Fathers of the Church argued for its communal character due to Verses 7-8. Like the psalm 51 ‘Miserere’, this psalm is also one of the most popular among the penitential psalms. It is called the ‘De Profundis’ (= Out of the depths), the words which begin this psalm. St Augustine applied this psalm to himself in his Confessions and Luther called it a ‘Pauline Psalm’ because of its theme. The psalmist cries out from the ‘depths’. This word is used rarely in the bible and is compared to the chaotic waters of the ocean where the deadly monsters are. It is the distress of a person who is in dire straits, like Jonah who cried out, “Out of the distress I cried to Yahweh and he answered me, from the belly of Sheol I cried out; you heard my voice,” Jon 2:3. The ‘depths’ are en route to Sheol, the abode of the dead. Psalm 69:3 expresses it another way, “I have sunk into the mud of the deep and there is no foothold. I have entered the waters of the deep and the waves overwhelm me.”

In Verses 3-4, the psalmist confesses his guilt which he cannot hide from God. He begs God not to keep a record of his sins but, rather, to remember the forgiveness that the Lord has always shown to his people. The Lord who made a covenant with his people will always show his tender mercy to the humble and the contrite. Once forgiveness is received then the sinner can fear God – fear in the sense of revere. It is forgiveness that comes first and then only repentance. God does not forgive because man is repentant. Rather, man repents because he has already received the grace of forgiveness.

Verses 5-6 give us the image of the sentinel who watches impatiently for the first light of dawn. The waiting for forgiveness is similar to the waiting for the word of the Lord. Herein is the watchman expecting the light of day because he is afraid of the darkness; Or the priest serving in the temple waiting with eagerness for the time when he can begin his sacrifice. The person who prays this psalm says ‘my soul’ (nephesh = whole being) is waiting expectantly, is longing for an oracle from the Lord that would remove his distress. Forgiveness is a gift from God that brings every other gift in its wake. As such, this is a deeply spiritual psalm.

Verses 7-8 bring the Israelite community into the picture. The priest is addressing the community after reciting the oracle. The people are invited to put their trust in the Lord because the Lord is merciful. They will be rewarded by God who gives the fullness of redemption. The word ‘redemption’ comes from the Latin word meaning ‘to buy back’, just as we redeem our gold from the pawn shop. Some seem to see here a reference to the people suffering in exile and God bringing them back.

With Christ, the idea of redemption would take a complete shift. It is no longer a deliverance from slavery or the exile. It is the total liberation from sin by the blood of the cross. Christ died once and for all for all of human kind. In his suffering he cried out of the depths of distress “aloud and in silent tears”, Heb 5:7. We pray this psalm on a Saturday evening preparing to celebrate the Lord’s Day as pilgrims on our way to the New Jerusalem.

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