Summary: The proper fear of the LORD is based upon acknowledging God's right to judge as well as His willingness to show mercy.
Out of the Depths (De Profundis)
Psalm 130 has a long liturgical history, first in Israel and then in the church where it is has been put to many musical texts. It is known as “De Profundis” which is part of the Latin text of the first verse. We get the word “profound” from this word, which is a good description for the psalm as it is quite “deep.” This is a remarkable Psalm of repentance before the LORD both on an individual basis as well as for the People of God as a whole. Let us take a deeper look into this remarkable Psalm.
There is no stated author of this Psalm, so it is hard to know when it was written in the history of Israel and what occasioned its’ writing. The good news is that it is not necessary to establish this context. The lack of context opens it for universal application for all times and places.
The Psalmist cries out with the words “Out of the depths, have I cried unto thee, O LORD.” When we realize that the word for “deep” in Hebrew thought, one would think of the abyss or depths of the sea. To think this, then, is not to understand that the Psalmist is introducing a profound thought, but rather expressing deep fear and despair. The Psalmist is deeply troubled and cries out in desperation unto the LORD. He wants assurance from His fears and petitions the LORD for peace of soul. He wants to know that he has been heard.
Verse 3 tells us what the source of His fear is. He fears that He has sinned and offended the LORD. He has done something He knows is wrong in the sight of the LORD. He feels alienated from the LORD. He confesses this fear. He knows that if God is zealous to scrupulously uphold the law and punih every transgression that the Psalmist has no hop at all. In fact, everyone would stand condemned before the LORD. He affirms this truth, but does not stop there. He knows something else about the LORD, that He is merciful. God had revealed His mercy to all Israel on many occasions, even in the midst of His judgments on them for their transgressions. He offered the bronze serpent in His judgment that everyone who believed on the LORD and would look upon the brazen serpent might be saved. This is just one example.
The purpose of God’s mercy is that the LORD might be feared. One might think one should fear a god who shows no mercy and treat the merciful God lightly. This is the way the world thinks. They despise the merciful God of love. Even Christians fall into the trap of taking God’s mercy for granted. They assume there is no such thing as the God who judges. But the Psalmist asserts both. God is both the Judge and the one who shows mercy. This is one of the deep truths of who God is. To see God as just the judge of every transgression leads to hate and terror. Luther once saw God this way and said that He hated this God. The primary emotion of a god like this is hate, not fear.
The balance of judgment and mercy allows us to properly fear God. We are deeply aware of how far short we are of God’s standards. This should drive us to our knees like the Psalmist here. We know we have offended Him. But when we think about the offense, we also are reminded of God’s mercy. We can petition God for forgiveness. This makes the fear of the LORD as a profound respect and awe of God. It is a healthy fear and not a terror.
The LORD is one who can be waited on, a longing to feel the presence of the LORD again. We can not pray to a god who shows no mercy. This would be a god to run as far away from as possible. Like Adam and Eve, we run into the forest from the presence of the LORD and try to cover our transgression with fig leaves. But Adam and Eve in the midst of grievous judgment and curse also found a promise of mercy. Genesis 3:15 is a promise that the curse would one day be reversed by a son of a woman. He would suffer a bruised heel, but the serpent, the Devil, would receive a death wound. Indeed, this promise was fulfilled in Jesus Christ who suffered the feet to be wounded by the nails that fastened Him to the cursed cross. This is the ultimate act of mercy and proves that God is a God who is merciful. Sin was judged in Christ. Jesus from His cross cried out from the depths: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” His deep cried were heard from the Father who raised Him on the third day.