But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you. Psalm 130:4
We’ve been exploring Psalm 130 several weeks now. And this verse, verse four, is the hinge, the apex of this song of lament. This is the part where things begin to shift in the text. We’ve gone from crying out from the depths with God hearing us, to knowing that God is merciful and doesn’t keep a record of our sins. Today, we finally get to the part where God forgives us. And forgiveness seems to be the pivotal part of any story where things turn around, where lives feel lighter, where transformation truly happens. Forgiveness is the thing that changes everything, that changes us, whether we receive it or whether we give it.
But, forgiveness is often difficult, isn’t it? In the Gregg house, if someone makes a mistake or mistreats a member of the family, we apologize. But simple apologies won’t redeem the relationship alone. No, we not only say “I’m sorry” but we also respond to the apology when we’re ready by saying “I forgive you.” And sometimes it takes a little bit of time to get there. It isn’t enough to simply give lip service to the injured party, like “I accept your apology” or “it’s ok.” No, we try really hard to get to a point of forgiveness because forgiveness repairs relationships. Forgiveness transforms relationships. Forgiveness strengthens relationships. Forgiveness is what sets us free as a family to serve one another and love one another in meaningful and life-giving ways.
“But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” In today’s fourth verse of Psalm 130, we see several English translations. The New Revised Standard Version, which is thought to be the most academically accurate to the original language, says, “But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.” The New International Version has a slightly different translation that draws me in a little more. It says, “But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.”
The original Hebrew word for this phrase, “you may be revered,” is closely related to fear. This fear and awe of God is not meant to scare us into submission, but to emphasize the power of God over all of creation. If God desired, God could judge us, ignore us, or destroy us. God, in God’s power, can do whatever God wishes. And if that is true, then God could choose to be this omnipotent, other-worldly presence that doesn’t need us or desire to be in relationship with us at all.
But the Psalmist understands God’s presence differently. The Psalmist is clear that after crying from the pits of despair and shouting from the depths, that God hears us, is full of mercy, and provides forgiveness. Forgiveness keeps God and humanity in relationship, connected in love and mutuality. Like members of my family knowing that a simple apology doesn’t strengthen a bond, forgiveness is what truly transforms us to serve God and to serve others. For, you see, when transformation occurs, we don’t simply go back to the way things were. No, we are changed. And once we are personally changed, we are then called to change the world.
Dr. Nancy DeClaisse-Walford, an Old Testament scholar at McAfee School of Theology, gives us some background to this part of Psalm 130. She says that since “God provides forgiveness… God is to ‘be revered.’ The Hebrew root of ‘revered’ is yara’. A number of translations render the word as ‘feared.’ Fear is a good translation of the word. But in today’s culture, the idea of fear is usually connected with the basic human instincts to run, defend, or retaliate. The Hebrew root yirah encompasses a larger meaning of ‘awe, reverent respect, honor.’ It appears in the Hebrew Bible as a synonym for ‘love, cling to’ and ‘serve.’ At its root, the word denotes obedience to the divine will.”
Did you catch that? This word of fear is not meant to keep us stuck and cowering. This reverent encounter with God’s forgiveness is to bring us closer to the divine, to remind us of God’s love, to cling to the one who created us, to receive God’s love and then respond and serve. Fear isn’t meant to debilitate us. The forgiveness of God releases us to thrive in our relationships and to be free to serve and love God and others.
So, I think there is more to this text, more to forgiveness than fear. Do you remember our theme for Advent and Christmas? “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight?” Although fear is a part of our lives, so is hope. And that’s just it, God has set us free from fear. Fear does not have to control us like we see it gripping our nation, our political rhetoric, our religious communities. Forgiveness brings us through the fear. Forgiveness is larger than fear. Forgiveness equips us to boldly serve others and be ambassadors to God’s desire for connection. Forgiveness isn’t meant to scare the hell out of us, it is meant to love heaven into us. Forgiveness frees us to not only serve God but to take care of one another, love one another, and forgive one another.
The word translated “forgiveness” in this verse of Psalm 130 is a special word for forgiveness that is only used in the Bible where God is forgiving us. This use of the word forgiveness is not the same word for you and I, as humans, forgiving each other. This text is speaking of divine forgiveness. In fact, this part is often translated as “the forgiveness” – “with you, Lord, is ‘the forgiveness.’” In other words, this is the real thing. This is true and transformational forgiveness. This is the forgiveness that matters so much that it transforms and changes us. Although human forgiveness is important, without God’s forgiveness, we are unable to serve the world, to change the world in love and reformation.
Our ongoing study of Psalm 130 reveals that divine forgiveness is an act of God’s mercy that removes the record of sin and despair that each of us deserve. We are not simply sorry for the things we have done, we are brought into relationship and we are changed. And as forgiven people we are equipped to serve. Psalm 103 says, “The Lord is compassionate and gracious … the Lord does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities … as far as the east is from the west, so far has the Lord removed our transgressions from us.” We are assured that God keeps no record of sins, because if so, no one could stand. Hebrews 10:17 says, “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” God has forgiven us with “the” forgiveness, the only forgiveness that God can give. And we are transformed, redeemed, brought into relationship so that we are can share God’s love and forgiveness with the world.
Early English preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon felt the intensity of being in the depths of depression, being in the dungeons of the castle of despair. Yet, once Spurgeon got to this part of Psalm 130 about forgiveness, he felt the transition from being in the depths to being in the strong embrace of God.
Spurgeon spoke of the word “but” at the beginning of this passage. “But with you there is forgiveness.” He said, “But. How significant is that word ‘but’ as if you heard justice clamoring, ‘Let the sinner die,’ and the fiends in hell howling, ‘Cast him down into the fires,’ and conscience shrieking, ‘Let him perish,’ and nature itself groaning beneath his weight, the earth weary with carrying him, and the sun tired with shining upon the traitor, the very air sick with finding breath for one who only spends it in disobedience to God. The man is about to be destroyed, to be swallowed up quick, when suddenly there comes this thrice blessed ‘but’, which stops the reckless course of ruin, puts forth its strong arm bearing a golden shield between the sinner and destruction, and pronounces these words, ‘But… there is forgiveness with God, that he may be feared.’”
When I was a Children’s Minister at South Main Baptist Church in Houston many years ago, I participated in one of their ongoing service trips to Collique, Peru. Dr. Luis Campos is a native Peruvian, cardiac surgeon, and member of South Main. He began a ministry to the forgotten, poverty-stricken people who lived in the mountains outside of the capital city, Lima, as a way to give back to his hometown. Many in the community of Collique didn’t have access to jobs or healthcare or quality food. So, Dr. Campos used his own money, energy, and time to build a community center, after school program, and eventually a clinic where volunteers could come year-round to do medical screenings, provide dental work, and eye exams. Dr. Campos jokes that some surgeons buy a vacation home at the beach, but that he bought a clinic in the mountains.
On our trip to Collique, Amanda and I had just finished an after-school fun program in Spanish with the local kids, when South Main’s Pastor, Steve Wells, approached me and motioned for me to follow him up the mountain. I didn’t have a clue where we were going until we ended up in a one room, corrugated tin house with a stove in one corner and a couple of mattresses in the other. There was a water barrel outside the house with stagnant water. The family that lived there was waiting for the local government to remember them and bring water for their basic drinking and washing needs. Steve wanted to introduce me to a family that would be receiving services from the community center and clinic.
When I stepped inside the home and made a quick assessment, what I noticed was the absence of a floor covering. The floor was the dirt and rock of the mountain. It was cool, matted-down earth. And even though the floor was dirt, it was clear that this dirt floor had been swept “clean.” My understanding of dust and dirt changed that day. The dust and dirt became the place where this Peruvian family survived and, on good days, lived.
I shared this story on Ash Wednesday because I was struck with the intensity of God’s connection with us. That we are all made of the same stuff, the same earth, the same dust. We are all, no matter who we are, loved by God, forgiven by God, heard by God when we cry out. Until we know that we are all in this together, and that everyone deserves care from the Creator, that we all have Psalm 130 singing in our souls, crying for mercy from our own depths, it will always remain difficult to change the world.
The Reverend Benno Pattison, a former colleague in Atlanta, GA said, “There is a human truth embedded in the voice of the psalm, the aggrieved, the marginalized. It is the truth that there is a place in us that speaks in an ineffable tongue, a sighing and groaning, a language of travail that is at once transcendent and imminent, in that it shares the origins, speaks to the mystery of creation itself, of an earth caught in bondage, a creation groaning in travail as the apostle has said, waiting, looking, calling out for redemption, freedom, release.”
The language of God’s love is forgiveness. And Psalm 130 reminds us that God hears us. God hears us from the depths, God gives us mercy, and then God responds by giving us “the” forgiveness that only God can give. And, in turn, God transforms us so that we can serve and transform the world. “But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.”