Psalm 130: From the Depths

Read Psalm 130.

“Out of the depths I cry out to you, LORD” (Psalm 130:1). With the exception of deep-sea divers, submariners, and the prophet Jonah, most of us don’t really know what it means to cry out to God from the depths—at least not the actual depths of the ocean. In fact when we read these words, our first and natural instinct is to translate them as metaphor without another thought.

But before we do that, it might be worth pausing for a moment to consider the scene the psalmist has given to us. The Hebrew word rendered “depths” normally refers to the salty, blue deep of the ocean. For the people of ancient Israel, it was a place of utter despair. For any poor soul trapped in the grasp of the sea, there was no hope. They were as good as dead. There was no coming back from that.

I mentioned Jonah as an example of one who prayed from beneath the sea. He did so from inside “a huge fish” (Jonah 1:17). This monster of the deep, whether scientists today would classify it as a proper fish or as a whale, was not in the business of swallowing people whole and then regurgitating near the shore, a sort of gruesome ferry transport. To be eaten by a great beast of the sea like this was death. Perhaps that’s why Jonah prayed, “From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry” (2:3).

Of course, in the end, the mega-fish did lose its lunch. Jonah washed up on the shore, no doubt soggy and in need of a serious bath. He was given a new life by the mercy and kindness of God.

Back in Psalm 130, “the depths” are a good deal dryer than what Jonah experienced. Still, the imagery of being lost at sea, with all the hopelessness of going under, is a vivid picture of the psalmist’s emotional state. He’s writing what he feels. And like Jonah before him, he looks to God 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” (vv. 3–4).

Unlike Jonah, however, the psalmist’s experience in the depths seems to last more than three days. He says, “I will wait for the LORD, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope” (v. 5).

You may have experienced a bit of this waiting in the depths yourself. I know I have. There are times in life when the pressure has felt like the weight of the sea on my shoulders. Surrounded by darkness, I couldn’t breathe, and I could not reach the surface. And the worst part was, in the moment there seemed to be no end in sight. But thankfully our God is in the business of bringing people back from the depths.

When Jesus was asked for a sign, He said, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:39–40).

The people listening should have connected the dots. They knew that after three days inside of the fish, the Lord delivered Jonah from the depths. He walked away, alive and well. Jesus, too, would be delivered, not merely from His tomb, but from death itself.

We celebrate Easter—Resurrection Sunday—as the most important day in all of history. It’s the day when life shattered death, when good put its boot on the throat of evil, and when every sin-twisted barb in this world began to come undone. Everything changed at Easter.

For those who know Jesus, there has been another resurrection as well; we were dead in our sins, but now we’ve been given new life in His name (Romans 6:4). That doesn’t mean we’ll never again feel the depths of despair in this world, but it does mean that, like the psalmist before us, we can have confidence that our story will not end there.

To modern readers, the book of Jonah sometimes seems too fanciful to be true. Even some Bible scholars speculate that perhaps it should be read as more of a parable than an account of true events. While we should strive to read any given text the way its original audience would have, we should never declare a passage of the Bible too miraculous to be true. Nothing is impossible for God! In fact, the story of resurrection God is writing in the lives of those who know Jesus makes Jonah’s fish story seem rather boring.

In the depths, remember this: hope lives, because Jesus lives. Rescue is coming.

What is this all about?

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