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Based on the Sermon Series:
Psalms of the Penitent by Rev. John C. Wohlrabe Jr.
Concordia Pulpit Resources: Volume 25, Part 2, Series B, February 22–May 24, 2015
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God created us to work during the day and rest at night. People who work the night shift know that it is very difficult to swap those times. Perhaps the worst night job is a job that requires watchfulness, but no real activity … something that requires you to just wait through the night. The urge to fall asleep can be overwhelming. The night seems to last forever. The morning light becomes incredibly beautiful. This was especially true for the watchman of old who spent the night on top of the city walls peering into the darkness just in case there was danger in the dark. The approaching dawn filled them with joy, for it meant they could relax. The city had passed through another night in safety.
The psalmist who wrote Psalm 130 understood. In verse six, he used this imagery to express the eager anticipation of waiting for the Lord. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. (Psalm 130:6) He repeated the comparison to emphasize how eagerly the child of God waits on the Lord. These words teach us that the penitent waits patiently on the Lord.
Martin Luther once referred to the penitential psalms such Psalm 130 as the “Pauline Psalms.” He explained that these psalms stress the sinfulness of humankind, our total dependence on God’s grace and mercy, and the spiritual nature of redemption. Such psalms agree perfectly with the theology of Paul’s epistles (The Lutheran Study Bible, note for Ps 130, p 976).
The author of Psalm 130 seems to have a familiarity with sailors and the sea. He compares his situation to a victim drowning in the depths of the sea. Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! (Psalm 130:1) The “depths” are not the depths of the soul, but the deep outward and inward distress of sin in which the psalmist has sunk, as in deep waters. Sin sinks us to a depth from which we cannot save ourselves. Sin, both actual sin and original sin, separates us from God. We are by nature spiritually dead in the trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1) Knowledge of this terrible situation moves the penitent psalmist to cry out in sorrow and despair. He knows that self-help and positive thinking cannot rescue him out of these depths. He prays that God’s ears will be turned with strained attention to his urgent plea.
All people are in this terrible, lost condition; yet not all people realize it. Some people are like SCUBA divers suffering from nitrogen narcosis. Nitrogen narcosis is a dangerous condition that can happen to SCUBA divers when the nitrogen from their air supplies builds up in the blood stream. The increase in the nitrogen level will literally make the diver drunk. People in this state don’t realize the danger and they often die before they even know that they are drowning. It’s similar with people of the world who don’t recognize the dangerous condition into which they’ve fallen, deep in the depths of sin, spiritually separated from God. They become intoxicated by the things of the world without seeing the danger that leads to eternal death.
The penitent does recognize this danger and cries out to God. The penitent’s guilt has plunged him into sorrow and despair over sin. Martin Luther writes: “These are noble, passionate, and very profound words of a truly penitent heart that is most deeply moved in its distress. In fact, this cannot be understood except by those who have felt and experienced it. We are all in deep and great misery, but we do not all feel our condition” (AE 14:189).
Through the working of God’s Law, the penitent acknowledges his sin and inability to save himself. He calls out for God’s help. By God’s grace, the penitent trusts that the Lord is merciful and able to help. If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? (Psalm 130:3) Luther writes: “What good would it do if all creatures were gracious to me and disregarded and forgave my sins, but God marked and retained them? And again, what does it matter if all creatures heap sins upon me and hold them against me, as long as God forgives and pays no attention to them?” (AE 14:190).
In spite of his sinful condition, the psalmist does not remain in the depths, for he knows that the Lord is a forgiving God. But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. (Psalm 130:4) Although God has perfect knowledge of our sins, he does not charge them against us, because Christ has paid for them. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, (Romans 3:22b–24)
With God there is forgiveness because of Christ. In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. (2 Corinthians 5:19) Jesus fulfilled God’s Law in every way so that he could be the perfect sacrifice for our sins. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the great exchange. He takes away our sin and replaces it with His righteousness. The psalmist, who lived long before Jesus Christ came, trusted God’s promise to send a Savior who would bring forgiveness. That is the reason he could proclaim, “With you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. (Psalm 130:4)
The psalmist proclaims that the God’s forgiveness should cause us to fear Him. The fear of God that flows from forgiveness is not terror or dread, but reverence, love, and honor for the God who forgives. This penitence and fear includes faith and is worked by God the Holy Spirit through God’s Word: the Word of God connected to water in Baptism and the Word proclaimed, spoken, and read.
The penitent psalmist therefore has two kinds of fear at the same time. There is the fear over sin, a fear of the old sinful nature, which separates us from God and brings us to call out in terror. Yet there is also a fear or respect and hope for a God who the penitent is confident will forgive his sins for the sake of Jesus Christ. Thus, on this side of eternity, there is always a tension and a longing within the penitent. Concerning this, Luther writes: “Therefore the 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. Furthermore, with this fear there must be hope for grace because of the mercy which is favorable to this fear because of the new man, who is an enemy of the old and therefore agrees with the judgment of God. Thus fear and hope go hand in hand. And just as the judgment of God produces fear, so fear results in crying out, and the cry brings mercy” (AE 14:190). The tension in which we live between the old Adam and the new man is part of the penitent’s life on this side of eternity. This shows God is at work within us. If one does not have this tension and struggle within, then one has succumbed to the nitrogen narcosis of the world, the sinful flesh, and the devil.
The struggle of the penitent Christian in this life is a blessing from God. God supports us in this struggle with His Word and Sacraments, which the Holy Spirit uses to strengthen faith and hope. Luther writes: “[God] blesses [His children] with contradictory and disharmonious things, for hope and despair are opposites. Yet His children must hope in 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” (AE 14:191). Through his Word of hope, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, our loving triune God pulls us out of the depths of sin and despair and raises us up. Furthermore, the resurrection of Jesus Christ promises the ultimate deliverance for us—eternal life in the new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:13)
The penitent holds God to his Word: We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28) These words teach us that God works even in suffering and affliction for the good of those who love him. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38–39)
Martin Luther understood this well from his own penitent struggles in life. He writes: “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, if possible, they seek help elsewhere. These do not tarry and wait for the Lord. . . . 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” (AE 14:192).
The penitent not only prays for himself but also invites others to wait patiently in the same hope of the Lord. 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. (Psalm 130:7–8) God’s steadfast love and redemption in Christ is for all. All who join in confessing their sin and confidently waiting on the Lord’s deliverance through Christ are fully and freely forgiven, reconciled to God. We are the redeemed of Israel. The true Israelite, the true penitent, confesses his sin, trusts in God’s deliverance in Christ, and waits patiently on the Lord. Amen
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