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24 June 2015

A Wondrous Imbalance (4.So.n.Trin. / Pentecost 5)

Psalm 130

Les Riches Heures du duc de Berry, 
Folio 70r - De Profundis.
 (The Musée Condé, Chantilly)

In the 17th century there was a Zen monk named Master Hakuin who was well respected for his work among the people.

A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near Hakuin. One day, without any warning, her parents discovered she was pregnant. This made her parents angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Master Hakuin.

In great anger the parents went to the master. "Is that so?" was all he would say.

After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and everything else the child needed.

A year later the girl could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth - the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fish market.

The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back.

Hakuin willingly yielded the child, saying only: "Is that so?"

Not unlike those of a certain Rabbi Jesus, Master Hakuin's actions fly in the face of all common sense. His curt response “Is that so?” seems to turn upside down every sense of justice:

When he is accused of being responsible for the girl's pregnancy, he gives what amounts to a verbal shrug. And as he is vindicated, and the mortified parents come to apologize and to take back their grandchild, his reaction is the same: “Is that so?”

You may not think so from the story, but Master Hakuin was a wise man. His paradoxical refusal to get angry or to seek justice opens up new ways of thinking about forgiveness.

What enables Hakuin to remain so even-tempered in the face of great injustice is his unconditional regard for others and himself.

The theme of Psalm 130 is forgiveness.

Crying Out to The Lord.
1 From the depths I cry to you, O Lord. / Lord, listen to my voice. 2 Let your ears be attentive / to the voice of my entreaties.

Trusting in The Lord.
If iniquities you keep account of, O Lord, / Lord, who could stand?  4 But there is with you forgiveness / so that you may be revered.

Waiting for The Lord.
5 I am confident in the Lord, my inmost being is confident, / and for his word I wait expectantly. 6 My inmost being (waits expectantly) for the Lord, / more than those watching for the morning, / those watching for the morning.

Call to Trust The Lord.
7 Wait expectantly, O Israel, for the Lord, / for with the Lord is hesed, / and abundantly with him is deliverance. 8 And he will deliver Israel / from all of its iniquities.  (NICOT)

My most recent memory connected with Psalm 130 goes a few years back: singing Cantata 131 by a famous contemporary of Hakuin, J.S. Bach, with the Cornerstone Chorale under its Music Director Richard Stout. 

Even though this work is one of Bach’s earliest cantatas (he composed it as 22 year old organist) and even though it doesn’t have all the formal elements his later cantatas do, I think it’s hauntingly beautiful.  

I distinctly remember being annoyed with the quirky habit of pronouncing “Aus der Tiefe” as “Aus der Tiefe-e”. Yet it seems as though choirs all over the world do it that way, and at least one scholar claims that this pronunciation adds to the “haunting” quality of the “depths” the psalm's first word denotes.

V. 1
מִמַּעֲמַקִּ֖ים קְרָאתִ֣יךָ יְהֹוָה
mim·ma·‘ă·maq·qîm qə·rā·tî·kā Yah·weh
From the depths I cry to you, O Lord.

אֲדֹנָי֮ שִׁמְעָ֪ה בְק֫וֹלִ֥י
’ă·dō·nāy  šim·‘āh  bə·qō·w·lî
Lord, listen to my voice.

The first word in Psalm 130 is מַעֲמַקִּים (maamaqqim) with the preposition "mim" (from) added in front. The word is a plural form of עָמַק (amaq) and means "depths".

The second word, קְרָאתִ֣יךָ, is from the Hebrew root קָרָא (qara; cry, call, shout).

The third word is יְהֹוָה (Yahweh), one of the two words for God used in our psalm. (The other is אֲדֹנָי֮, Adonai, see Line 2).

As you can see above by counting the words, a powerful statement like Line 1 can be done in three words in Hebrew -- the English translation needs nine.

But what are those depths the Psalmist speaks of?

Most commentaries agree that the Psalmist employs here an ancient metaphor for chaos well-known to her contemporaries: the depths of the sea.

She cries "from the depths of the sea" because someone or something makes her feel alienated. As she cries out to Yahweh, we feel her anguish, her sense of abandonment, her sense of deep sadness.

The Message Bible renders V. 1, "Help, God—the bottom has fallen out of my life! Master, hear my cry for help!"

Walter Brueggemann muses about the tone of the Psalmist, reflecting on the fact that in the Songs of Ascents (of which our psalm is part) God is addressed as King:

"From where should the ruler of reality be addressed? One might think it should be from a posture of obedience, or at least from a situation of prosperity and success, indicating conformity to the blessed order of creation. One ought to address the king suitably dressed, properly positioned, with a disciplined, well-modulated voice. But this psalm is the miserable cry of a nobody from nowhere."

He then reminds us of Exodus Chapter 2, the beginning of Israel's liberation story:

The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Ex 2:23b-24)

If you and I heard V. 2 for the first time, this might very well the point where we would worry about our audacious Psalmist: Let your ears be attentive / to the voice of my entreaties

But ... apparently she is not smashed to smithereens, as she presses on in V. 3 with a rhetorical question: If iniquities you keep account of, O Lord, / Lord, who could stand? 

Then we get to the theological center of Psalm 130:

V. 4
כִּֽי  עִמְּךָ֥  הַסְּלִיחָ֑ה
kî-  im·məkā  has·sə·lî·ḥāh;
But there is with you forgiveness,
Denn bei dir ist die Vergebung,

לְ֝מַ֗עַן תִּוָּרֵֽא
lə·ma·‘an  tiw·wā·rê
so that you may be revered.
daß man dich fürchte.

The Hebrew word translated with "forgiveness" is סְלִיחָה (selichah), a seldom-used noun derived from the verb סָלַח (salach; to forgive, pardon, spare).

But there is with you forgiveness so that you may be revered.

Notice the odd pairing of forgiveness with fear/reverence.

Björn Schwenger suggests that we let V. 4 sit on our tongue so we can taste its sweetness.  He then spells out what a lot of people might expect the Psalmist to have said instead: "With you there is judgment and punishment, so that people fear you."

This is a stunning revelation about God: that forgiveness is there before anything else ("ex nihilo" as Brueggemann puts it), and that reverence follows from it.

It can be said, then, that reverence is born in the marvelous experience of God's forgiveness.

A phrase often used by German theologians comes to mind: "die vorauslaufende Gnade Gottes" -- literally "the Grace of God that runs ahead of us". It's God's version of unconditional regard; his love wins out no matter how badly we mess up. What wondrous imbalance indeed.

In his hymn "Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir" (Out of the depths I cry to Thee) Martin Luther perfectly matches the "wondrous  imbalance" proclaimed by the Psalmist:

Ob bei uns ist der Sünden viel,
Bei Gott ist viel mehr Gnade.
[Although our sins are manifold,
God’s mercy is more powerful.]*


*the translation in blank verse is my own.

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