Reflections on the Seven Penitential Psalms: Psalm 130

By Graziano Marcheschi, M.A. D.Min

Psalm 130 — Prayer for Pardon and Mercy

Gifted writers from Oscar Wilde to Alfred Lord Tennyson to Dorothy Parker have used the informal title of this psalm, “De profundis,” as the title for one of their works. Those two words—the Latin for “Out of the depths”—and the Psalm they symbolize have come to evoke the sense of despondency and emotional torment that poets often feel more keenly than the rest of us. And yet, who among us is unacquainted with the sentiments communicated here? We most often hear this Psalm at times of mourning, when we bury our dearly departed. In that context, it expresses our earnest prayer for God’s mercy on the deceased, relying on God to toss aside the ledger of the person’s sins and judge instead out of his bountiful compassion.

But for centuries the Church has presented this as a preeminent prayer for sinners who feel the weight of the burden they have brought upon themselves, of those who feel like they’ve sunk to the depths of the sea, a place of chaos and alienation. Imagine yourself engulfed in violent waters, dragged to the bottom amidst swirling eddies of turgid water with nothing to grasp, no light to find your bearings, sinking ever deeper into cold and murky darkness. That is the premise of this brief Psalm which does overtly what all the Penitential Psalms seek to do, invite us to join the psalmist in turning to the Lord to confess our sins and beg his mercy.

But note that the longer half of the Psalm expresses the psalmist’s hope, his stalwart trust in God who is mercy and redemption. The psalmist models the attitude of a sincere penitent: he doesn’t deny or hide his sin; he knows God is more mercy than vengeance; he hopes sincerely that dawn will bring the light of mercy, a word of hope, the healing rain of redemption.  At the Easter Vigil we sing “O happy fault; O necessary sin of Adam” referring to the trespass that brought about the Incarnation and our merciful salvation in Christ. The words “O happy fault” could issue only from the mouth of one who, like the psalmist, understands that where sins abounds, grace and mercy abound the more.

Questions for Reflection

In a letter he wrote from prison, Oscar Wilde quotes these words of Goethe:

‘Who never ate his bread in sorrow,

Who never spent the midnight hours

Weeping and waiting for the morrow,—

He knows you not, ye heavenly powers.’

Do you agree that knowing sorrow is necessary for a full, mature relationship with God?

In what ways has sorrow deepened your own relationship with the Lord?

Can we genuinely repent our sins if we have not truly recognized the darkness they bring into our lives and into the world?

What helps you to find the hope in God’s mercy that the psalmist describes so palpably here?

Lenten Prayer & Reflection Links