Living through the Dark Night of the Soul

Recently, I was asked to lead devotions for a small group.  I chose Psalm 130, but as I prepared the devotion, I became increasingly unhappy with the translation in the Bible I was using.  It didn’t quite seem to make sense.  So I decided to make my own translation.  Here it is, along with comments about the meanings of words and the flow of the psalm.

           

Psalm 130

1. A Song of Ascents
    Out of the depths, I cry to you, Yahweh.
2. My master, may you become aware of my voice!
    May you pay attention to my pleas!
3 If it be faults that you watched out for, Yahweh,
    my master, who would survive?
4. So it is certain that your purpose is reconciliation
    For this reason you are to be held in awe.
5 I wait for Yahweh,
    my whole being waits,
    I make myself hold out for his response.
6 my whole being … for my master
    more than those who keep watch for the morning,
    those who keep watch for the morning.
7 O God’s people, hold out for Yahweh!
    because with Yahweh is continual love,
    and in abundance with him is liberation.
8 He is the one who liberates God’s people from all its faults.

Comments

1. A Song of Ascents
Many Psalms begin with a superscription, often printed in italics in translations.  As a rule, the meaning of the superscription is lost in the mists of time and so it is wisest just to ignore them.  We do not know the background to Songs of Ascents, Psalms 120-134 – when they were sung, how they were performed, etc.

Out of the depths, I cry to you, Yahweh.
In the ancient Hebrew worldview of a flat, layered universe, the depths were as far from God as one could get.  The psalmist is in a bad place.  In the Christian spiritual tradition, such a place is often called the dark night of the soul.

The Hebrew Bible uses several different words to refer to God.  “Yahweh” is the proper name for God, and is often translated “lord.” However, the actual Hebrew word for “lord, master” also occurs in this psalm in verses 2 and 6, so I decided to avoid using the same English word for both.  I wonder what the use of “master” implies in this psalm.  Is it that a way of indicating loyal allegiance or faith, despite the circumstances?  

2. My master, may you become aware of my voice! / May you pay attention to my pleas!
Hebrew poetry is based on parallel lines.  At first glance, the two lines appear to be saying the same thing.  On closer inspection, we can see that there is a subtle change from one to the next.  In the case of verse 2, the first line expresses hope that God, who is so far away in the heights of heaven, will notice a faint sound coming from the depths.  The second focuses this more, asking that God, having noticed, pays attention and makes out what the noise is – desperate pleas from the psalmist (compare Exodus 3:7-8).  It is a bit like when we hear a noise, and then decide whether to investigate or let it go.  (Phew!  Look how many words I used to explain just a handful in our psalm!  Hebrew poetry is very compressed.)

This verse is based on the assumption that God, no matter how far away, can and will hear.  Otherwise there is no point in crying out.  The psalmist assumes that a relationship with God still exists.           

The first two verses set up the emotional tone of the psalm, one of desperation.  Oddly enough, this is followed in verses 3 and 4 by a logical argument.  In those verses, it is as if the psalmist is debating with God, or reminding God of something.  Or perhaps turning to logic is a means of self-encouragement.  A person in the dark night feels the emotional connection to God has been lost.  Faith becomes sheer stubbornness, loyalty, or intellectual willpower. 

3. If it be faults that you watched out for, Yahweh, / my master, who would survive?
If there is still a relationship, then God still cares, but about what?  Faults or life? 

What do you think “faults” are?  Are they breaches of the rules? Or anything that goes against God’s intentions for humans and the world?  The word in Hebrew also carries connotations of negative consequences (requital) inherent in this behaviour. 

A Hebrew word can have a range of meanings. Often this range does not correspond exactly to one word in English.  In verse 3, the word I translated “watched out for” also refers to actions like keeping sheep, guarding or preserving things, or even devoting oneself to something. 

In verse 3, the psalmist considers God’s response to human behaviour in terms of a hypothetical, “If God was like this, then this would be the consequence.”   

The psalmist is reasoning: “If faults were the things that God treasured (more than anything else, including me), then no person would be left standing, that is, alive (because people will slip up, as surely as day follows night).” 

Here’s another way of looking at it.  The psalmist came from a culture of balanced reciprocity, that is, any deed required an equal response in return.  An error required a penalty and humans will always make mistakes….  

4. So it is certain that your purpose is reconciliation / For this reason you are to be held in awe.
People do continue to live.  People do survive.  Therefore, the hypothetical of verse 3 does not apply.  (More precisely, in the jargon of logic, since the apodosis is false, the contrapositive applies.) God does not treasure faults more than people.  This proves to the psalmist that forgiveness or reconciliation is associated with God. The psalm expresses this confidence in verse 4.  The first part of this verse is just three words: “Surely, with you, forgiveness.”  In other words, reconciliation accompanies God, much like wisdom does (Proverbs 8:22- 35).           

Thus balanced reciprocity does not apply.  This is awesome, mind-blowing, life changing.  God disrupts the assumptions of human culture, for the sake of mercy.  As a consequence, God is to be held in awe.  The Hebrew word here is often translated “to fear.”  In English, that word is almost purely negative.  In Hebrew, it has a positive side to it (Proverbs 1:7). 

5. I wait for Yahweh, / my whole being waits, / I make myself hold out for his response.
Frequently in psalms, frequently there is a change in who is being addressed.  That happens in this psalm.  In verses 1-4, the psalmist is addressing God.  In verses 5-6, it is not clear who is being addressed, but it seems like it is no longer God.  In verses 7-8, the psalmist is talking to the people around, the “congregation.”  It is like a play, where at one point an actor is addressing someone unseen offstage but then turns to speak with the audience. 

How does the psalmist respond to the conclusion that God is interested in reconciliation? That response is in verse 5.  Remember, the psalmist is as far from God as one can get, and in difficult circumstances.  

However, the psalmist is certain that God has heard the pleas and that God will act.  So, the psalmist will wait for God to act.  

There may be a double meaning in the first two lines of this verse.  The word translated by “wait” in the first two lines of verse 5 sometimes also means “call to.”  In this case, “call to” looks back to what the psalmist is doing in verse 2, and “wait” looks forward to the third part of verse 5, where the sense is of forcing oneself to hold on, and to verse 7.  If this is so, the psalm pivots around verse 5, moving from calling to waiting in the certainty that the cry has been heard and will be acted on.  The psalmist knows that the long night will end. 

6. My whole being … for my master / more than those who keep watch for the morning, / more than those who keep watch for the morning.
In fact, the psalmist is committed completely to waiting regardless of time delay or discomfort.  The first line of this verse does not spell out what the psalmist is doing in the meantime (the gap is indicated in the translation by …).  Is it calling out, waiting, hoping or what?  Alternatively, the two words fit the idiom for possession, “My whole being belongs to my master.”           

Have you ever had something important on the calendar in a day or two, something very exciting, like a special event or Christmas?  We say, “I can’t wait for tomorrow.” or “I stayed awake all night in anticipation.”  The psalmist puts this another way, talking about watching for the morning (same word as in verse 2).  Of course, we know that morning will come, always, and we can enjoy the party or whatever is in the diary.  The repetition of this line emphasizes the absolute certainty that dawn will come.  The psalmist is even more certain that God will do something!  

7. O God’s people, hold out for Yahweh! / because with Yahweh is continual love, / and in abundance with him is liberation.
In the closing verses, the psalmist addresses God’s people (literally, Israel).  Although the psalm started out with the personal distress of the psalmist, the change of audience shows that it is a psalm intended for all who cry out to God in the dark night.  On the basis of lived experience, the psalmist offers words of encouragement, as if saying “Be like me, hang in there, because God will act.”         

Over the course of the psalm, there is an intensification of God’s attitude to people.  We move from rejecting the possibility that God “shepherds” faults (verse 3), or in other words, that God has given up on the psalmist, to accepting that reconciliation is part of God’s nature (verse 4), and now to a strong reminder of God’s love (verse 7), not just that reconciliation is with God, but that liberation (deliverance or redemption) is present in abundance.  This abundance is the reason you can be certain God will hear and act. 

8. He is the one who liberates God’s people from all its faults.
The psalm concludes with the very opposite of verse 3.  Far from watching out for and storing up faults as if they were precious, God removes people from the consequences of such things and so gives life to them.  Liberating a person is far more important to God than slavishly ensuring people suffer the consequences of bad actions.           

This psalm affirms that there IS forgiveness and liberation with God, not vengeance and punishment.  What is the process for reconciliation?  The psalmist does not say.  No rules or formulas for repentance are given, only “Cry out to God and wait.  The way forward will come in time” 

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