From trouble deep I cry to thee,
Lord God, hear thou my crying;
Thy gracious ear, oh, turn to me,
Open it to my sighing.
For if thou mean’st to look upon
The wrong and evil that is done,
Who, Lord, can stand before thee?
Martin Luther (after [bible]Psalm 130[/bible])
Translation by George MacDonald
There’s no reason to think that what was true for the Psalmist, true for the people of Israel ascending to Jerusalem annually, true for the Prophets, true for the Apostles, true for the martyrs of the early church, and true for Martin Luther won’t be true for us today. Crying from “out of the depths” means that the one who cries is actually in the depths. That may sound rather simplistic but it’s a key part of the Psalm. These aren’t imaginary depths, pretend floods, phantom boogeymen or fantasy villains; they are real, they are deep and they are hard. Think of the picture used in [bible]Psalm 69[/bible]: being overcome by deep waters, gasping for breath, going under, drowning. The singer is pleading for mercy out of a very real sense of impending doom.
If a singer doesn’t cry out from the depths, the rescue seems a bit tarnished. If a friend picks me up from the airport in Houston, it’s not really a rescue in the truest sense of the word; I wasn’t really in severe need. On the other hand, if I am hiding in an airport locker in Baghdad or Beirut, whoever rescues me from that situation deserves great praise! The Psalm and Luther’s hymn after it are a confession of faith in and trust for deliverance from the Lord. Not just deliverance from oppression from outside of ourselves – we sing for deliverance from the world, the devil and the flesh. We sing out of hope not only for temporal deliverance, but also for final and ultimate deliverance from sin. The hope is great because the need is great. Even in the depths of woe, we wait and hope for the Lord (as the Psalm says twice so we won’t forget), “more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.”
Johann Sebastian Bach is not just one of the most brilliant and talented men to ever compose music, he was also a faithful Christian and devoted Church musician. His St. Matthew Passion serves not only as a masterful setting of the account of Matthew’s Gospel but also as a theological commentary on sin and our need for a savior. In his compositions of church music, Bach frequently used Lutheran chorales as the basis for cantatas. “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir” (BWV 38) is one of these. Not only did Bach use Luther’s Psalm 130 setting and melody as the basis for his cantata but he chose complimentary texts to further illumine the hymn for his listeners. Sandwiched in between choral and small ensemble cries for help and confessions of hope, Bach includes this aria for tenor:
I hear, in the midst of my sorrows,
a word of comfort spoken by my Jesus.
Therefore, o troubled conscience,
Trust in Your God’s goodness,
His word lasts and does not fail,
His comfort will never depart from you!
That’s why we can sing with Luther and the Psalmist and generations of believers who have gone before us:
“His promised mercy is my fort,
My comfort and my sweet support;
I wait for it with patience.
Our Shepherd, good and true is he,
Who will at last his Israel free
From all their sin and sorrow.”