Psalm 129LXX/130 MT and 116/117; Deuteronomy 30:11-14; Romans 10:6-8, Luke 23:34-46, Mark 14:37, 15:34
In the darkness of Vespers, and from the depths of our hearts, we cry out to God, knowing that the Lord’s Day will follow the night. The third and fourth of the lamplighting Psalms (Psalm 129/130 and Psalm 116/117) are chanted one after the other. We sing them in short bits, and in response with verses that recall the mighty acts of God—the resurrection, the crucifixion, and the establishment of the Church. Throughout this recital of the two Psalms with their antiphonal verses, we directly address our merciful God, repeating several times “for You are good and love mankind.” These two Psalms imprint this truth deeply in our hearts, and indeed extend the good news of God’s clemency and care to the entire world: “Praise the Lord, all you nations, and praise him, all you people.”
Here are the two short psalms, without the responses, in their entirety:
Out of the depths I have cried to you, O LORD!
O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplication!
If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness.
(Because of your Law, because of your Name) I wait for you, LORD;
my soul waits for your Word
My soul hopes in the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
And He will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities.
Praise the LORD, all you Gentiles,
Praise Him, all you peoples,
For His mercy rules over us,
And the truth of the LORD endures forever.
Praise the LORD!
By these Psalms we are invited into an expression of profound worship that is at the same time deeply personal and for the whole Church—indeed, for the whole world. God’s love, mercy, and faithful actions underlie our entire existence and give us hope. Even the language we use for God reminds us of His bond with us—we picture the mighty One with “ears,” just as His incarnation has taught us that He knows what it is to be human. Of colurse, we know by the Lord’s own teaching that we do not need to plead for His attention, for His Spirit is everywhere present and fills all things. Yet our human need and desire for rescue are keen, especially when we find ourselves in dark and deep places, and we have no other who is all-powerful to aid us. This Psalm breathes the same atmosphere as the refrain that we sing in Compline: “O Lord of hosts, have mercy on us, for we have no other help in times of adversity but You!”
Here is the cry of Joseph in prison, of Jonah in the belly of the whale, of the youths in the fiery furnace. And, of course, here also is the cry of Jesus, beginning with the night before His arrest when He asked his disciples to watch and to wait with Him, and ending on the cross when He called out (in the words of Psalm 22) “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”—a cry that ended triumphantly with “It is finished.” Our God is not only one who understands our needs from afar, but who has entered deeply into the human situation, plumbing death and Hades, and pulling us out with Him on the other side. We can be sure that He will hear the voice of our supplications!
We know, too, that much of the darkness and need that we experience come not only because of the general fallen human condition, but because of our own transgressions—even these sins, deliberate and unintended, are redeemed by our merciful God, when we call out to Him. Not only the parent bereaved of a child because of a drunk driver attracts God’s loving-kindness, but that alcoholic killer, too, wracked with helplessness and guilt. Not only the one who seeks to ward off an unexpected attack of cancer comes under His tender gaze, but also the one who has ruined her own health by immoderate or self-destructive living. And so, after calling out from the depths for help, we acknowledge our own role in getting there: “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness.”
Regardless of the reason for our plight, we have no other help but this One who knows all that it is to be human, and never Himself sinned. He is not only the great Rescuer, but also the great Forgiver, caring for our spirits, our bodies, our souls!
And so we wait for Him. Waiting is not easy. So often we want to do something, when there is in fact nothing that we can do in a particular circumstance except to wait. I remember with fondness a moment spent with my mother during her last few years of life. She had, alas, become blind in one eye, and we were waiting for the doctor to attend us in his hospital office for a procedure. She said to me with a smile, “Who said ‘they also serve who only stand and wait’?” I paused, searching my memory bank, and responded, “Milton…. Oh! The poem On His Blindness.” We both dissolved into laughter, to the bemusement of the doctor who had just arrived. There was, of course, an element of dark humor in that exchange, but what John Milton wrote in his seventeenth century poem is true—sometimes waiting is the deepest response that a creature can have before the Almighty and Merciful God whose delight it is to heal and to rescue us.
After all, we learn to wait, to be patient, in the presence of the Great Physician. The one who is drowning must not flail his arms and legs in panic, but relax in the arms of the eternal Lifeguard. When confronted with something that only God can accomplish, the most perfect human action is that of trust and hope. The Psalm, in its various translations, gives different reasons for this hope. One version says we hope because of God’s Law, the first Five Books of the Bible, in which we see how He guided Israel and gave them His truth, Another details God’s Name, mysterious, but expressed fully in the Son, the great existing One, who spoke prior the advent of Jesus, from the bush, saying “I Am who I Am.” And then there is reference to God’s Word, which we know both in the Scriptures, and in the living LORD Himself. Because of the Law, because of His Name, because of His Word, we hope and we wait. That which the ancient rabbis understood as belonging to the Torah, the Law, we Christians understand as perfectly fulfilled in Jesus, the Word of God, the human Name of God, and the One who gives that new law: “love one another as I have loved you.”
In Deuteronomy 30: 11-14, Moses had reminded the Jewish people, who were about to enter the promised Land, of God’s closeness to them:
This commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”
In other words, what God was asking them to do—to love Him and their neighbor—was not too hard a teaching, nor did they have to search to discover it, but it should be stored in their mouths and their hearts. The Apostle Paul goes even a step further. In Romans 10 the apostle takes this assurance of Moses, and applies it especially to Jesus and to the faith and righteousness that He brings to those who believe:
But the righteousness from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faithfulness that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is LORD and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved…. For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same LORD is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved.”
No one has to go up to heaven to find Jesus nor down to Hades—for He alone is the One who rules in Heaven, and who has emptied the Abyss of its prisoners so that we can follow Him into resurrection, and even beyond that, to His place on high. He is the faithful One proclaimed by the apostles, and when we call on Him, for His Name’s sake, we will be rescued in a way that the ancient Hebrews could never have imagined.
For His Name’s sake, we wait, and hope—and He will redeem ALL Israel—everyone who calls on Him—not only from trouble, but from iniquity, or as the Greek has it, “lawless deeds.” We wait for a word from Him, just as the repentant thief heard that word, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” He will remember us in His mighty rule, for each one of us is dear to Him. This is true for those from any background, since “all Israel” includes the redeemed from the nations, who are then called upon to praise the LORD. Throughout this time of Vespers, and throughout this “night” of our life, we watch, anticipating the morning of Sunday celebration, and looking beyond that to the great Morning, when the morning star shall rise in our hearts, and we shall see Him as He is! Waiting together can be demanding, and long—but the Holy Spirit waits with us, teaching us how to hope and to pray. His mercy is great towards us and the Truth of the LORD endures forever.