”From the Depths I call to You” - Psalm 130

  • Rav Elchanan Samet

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

 

A.        Introduction

 

This short psalm, familiar to most of us, is connected to the festivals of the month of Tishrei in various ways, depending on communal custom. Sefardim recite it at the end of their recitation of selichot during Elul and the Ten Days of Repentance, and on Yom Kippur this is one of the ten psalms about repentance that they add into pesukei de-zimra.[1] Apparently inspired by the Sefardic custom, Psalm 130 was adopted by Ashkenazic communities for recitation after “Yishtabach” during the Ten Days of Repentance from Rosh Ha-shana through Yom Kippur.[2]

 

The connection between this psalm and the month of Elul and the Days of Awe is made explicit in three of its verses. In verses 3-4 we read, “If You remember sins, O God, who can stand before You? For forgiveness is with You, that You may be feared.” Verse 8 states, “And He will redeem Israel from all of their sins.”

 

In this shiur, we will examine this psalm in its entirety, with the aim of understanding its meaning and the development of its ideas as a single organic whole. To this end, an explanation of the words and verses will not suffice; we must approach the psalm as an entire poem whose message arises from its composition, i.e., from the cumulative effect of its parts and the relationships between them.[3] Once we have clarified the significance of the various parts of the psalm, we shall come back to the question of how its meaning as a whole (and not just of the individual verses within it) is appropriate to the themes and experiences of Elul and the Days of Awe.

 

B.           Reconstruction of the lyrical form of the psalms

 

The chapters of Sefer Tehillim, known as mizmorim (psalms), are written in poetic form, which differs from prose. The poems, or songs, of the Torah, such as the “Song of the Sea” and Ha’azinu, emphasize hemistiches (short lines) and caesurae (pauses or breaks), and thus the overall poetic structure, in their written form. Concerning the other poetry in Tanakh, we have no established tradition that they should be written in poetic form, and therefore they appear in most editions of Tanakh as prose.

 

The form in which a poem is written is not an extraneous to its content; rather, it is a most important factor influencing the way in which the poem enters the reader’s consciousness. Just as the message of the poem is conveyed through its letters and words, without which there can be no communication between the poet and the reader or listener, so, too, the division into hemistiches which accumulate into verses is one of the essential elements of the poem’s transmission. For this reason, many poets have devoted special effort to the graphic appearance of their works.

 

Although poems that are written in prose form do not cease to be poetry,[4] the prosaic appearance of the text presents an obstacle to the reader, since it prevents him from perceiving and absorbing the poem in the manner that the poet intended it.

 

It may be assumed that when the chapters of Tehillim were recited as song, their poetic form was preserved: each hemistich was recited independently and caesurae were carefully emphasized, thus delineating the structure.

 

Hence, anyone in our times seeking to study Sefer Tehillim must, first and foremost, overcome the obstacle represented by the form in which the psalms appear in the great majority of Tanakh editions; he must restore their poetical form by rewriting them in the same way that poems are (still) written today – as alternating hemistiches and caesurae. However, recreating the original form requires the reader to exercise some degree of exegetical discretion, and there may well be considerations in favor of and against different possible renderings of each psalm.

 

Thus, rewriting the psalm as a poem represents the beginning of its interpretation. At the same time, it creates the basis for our analysis of the psalm in a way that will clarify its structure and its message.

 

How are we to delimit stanzas in each psalm? Our answer in this regard applies to those mizmorim which, like the one we shall be analyzing below, are comprised of only a few dozen words (less than ten verses). Examples include all of the “shirei ha-ma’alot” (with the exception of chapter 132), along with many others. It is possible that in longer psalms, comprising hundreds of words in dozens of verses, the definition of a stanza must be altered somewhat.

 

A stanza in a short psalm is made up of at least two (and usually no more than four or five) lines, which share a common subject or central idea. In general, a stanza is also characterized by key words that convey its idea, and which do not appear in the adjacent stanzas. Such words may occur more than once in a stanza.

 

Obviously, we are not dealing with an exact science, and there may well be some doubts or disagreements in applying this definition of a stanza. However, the presentation below of the psalm under discussion will demonstrate that sometimes the division is a simple matter that raises no special difficulty.

 

Here, then, is our psalm divided into short lines, gathered in turn in four stanzas. Further on I shall discuss the rationale for this division.

 

C.        The psalm as a poem

 

(1) A song of ascents

 

a.            From the depths I cry out to you, O God.

(2) My Lord, hear my voice

Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.

b.            (3) If You, Lord, were to mark sins

My God – who could stand?

(4) But with You is forgiveness

In order that You may be feared.

c.            (5) I wait for the Lord; my soul waits

               and for His word I hope.

               (6) My soul (waits) for my God

(more) than those who watch for morning, (more than) watchmen for morning.

d.            (7) Israel – have hope in the Lord,

               for with God is kindness

               and great redemption is with Him.

              

(8) And He will redeem Israel from all of their sins.

 

Our psalm consists of four stanzas, each three or four lines long, and a concluding verse. We shall first discuss the division into stanzas and then elaborate on the concluding verse – both in our specific psalm and in Sefer Tehillim in general.

 

Stanza a: The worshipper pleads with God to hear his cry from the depths.

The principal words here are “call” and “voice” (twice), and correspondingly, “hear” and “attentiveness."

 

Stanza b: God forgives man’s sins.

This stanza is built around the contrast between “marking” sins and their results, and forgiveness and its results. (In reality, no such contrast exists: “If You were to mark sins… But with You is forgiveness.") The primary words in this stanza are the contrasting pair, “sins” – “forgiveness."

 

Stanza c: The worshipper waits for God and for His word.

The important words here are the synonymous verbs “k-v-h” (twice) and “y-ch-l," both meaning “to wait/hope," the noun “nefesh” (soul), and the expression shomerim la-boker (“watch for the morning/watchmen for the morning”) which is repeated. I shall discuss this repetition later on, in the detailed analysis of each stanza.

 

Stanza d: an appeal to Israel to wait for and hope in God, and the reason.

The first line of this stanza is an elaboration of the previous stanza. There, the worshipper declared his hope for God’s word; here, he commands Israel that they, too, should place their hope in God. The important words in this stanza are to be found in the justification for the command: “kindness” and “redemption." They parallel one another, in two different lines, and the parallel also includes the unusual expression, “with” God. (In stanza b. there is a similar expression – “with You is forgiveness.")

 

Let us now consider the four stanzas as a whole: is there any other basis for dividing the psalm into these four stanzas, other than the elements of content and style mentioned above?

 

First, it is immediately apparent that in each stanza God’s Names appear twice: there is some form of the Name Y-H-V-H, and there is the Name “A-donai." (The conclusion of the psalm, in verse 8, is distinct from the stanzas in this respect: there is no mention here of God’s Name; the pronoun “He” is a substitute.)

 

Second, if we look at the length of each stanza, we see that the first and fourth consist of three lines, while the second and third consist of four. However, a word-count (in the Hebrew) reveals that they are almost identical in length: stanzas a. and d. consist of 11 words each; stanzas b. and c. consist of 12 words each.

 

Obviously, these two issues are not incidental; they serve to reinforce the division of the psalm as set forth above.

 

Let us now discuss the phenomenon of the “conclusion” in Sefer Tehillim, and the considerations that lead us to define verse 8 as the conclusion of our psalm, lying outside of the four-stanza structure.

 

D.        The “conclusion”

 

As we know, the heading of a psalm (“mizmor le-David”; “shir la-ma’alot," etc.) is not an integral part of it – even when the heading testifies to its author or to the circumstances surrounding its composition. Such headings are part of the editing of Sefer Tehillim, and their language, which differs from the language of the psalms, testifies to this.

 

There are some psalms where the conclusion is likewise not part of the body of the text, but here the matter is more complex. In a small number of instances, the conclusion is not connected at all to the body of the psalm, but is rather a part of the editing of Sefer Tehillim. Examples include the four psalms that conclude, respectively, the first four “books” that comprise Sefer Tehillim.[5]

 

There are other psalms in which the closing words are meant to conclude the psalm that precedes them, but the conclusion is still not connected in any way to the content of the psalm or to its structure. The purpose of such conclusions is, usually, to bring the psalm to a close on a positive, optimistic note. It is possible that these conclusions – or at least some of them – likewise belong to the editing of Sefer Tehillim.

 

In contrast, there are “conclusions” which clearly “belong” to the psalms that precede them, and which for various reasons are chosen by the author as the closing verse.[6] Let us illustrate this concept by considering two examples.

 

Psalm 25 follows an alphabetical construction. After verse 21, which begins with the letter “tav," there follows a conclusion: “God – redeem Israel from all of their enemies.” This verse is clearly not part of the alphabetical structure, and its content likewise differs from the rest of the psalm: all of the preceding verses are spoken by an individual worshipper who makes requests for himself, with no mention of all of Israel. It may be for this very reason that this concluding verse is appended.[7]

 

Psalm 34 is also alphabetical, and there, too, following what should seemingly be the final verse (22), we find this conclusion: “God redeems the soul of His servants, and all who trust in Him will not be condemned.” Despite the similarity between this conclusion and the one discussed above (both speaking of God’s redemption), the concluding verse of psalm 34 does seem to be connected to the body of the text, in terms of both content and style.[8] Apparently, this was appended by the author in order to avoid ending the psalm with verse 24, which speaks of the wicked and their punishment.

 

The attentive reader will no doubt have noted the similarity between the concluding verse of our psalm – “and He will redeem (yifdeh) Israel from all of their sins," and the two concluding verses discussed above. To what extent, then, is this conclusion connected to the body of the psalm?

 

The connection is a strong and clear one. Almost every word of this psalm has already appeared previously in the psalm, especially in verse 4:

 

“and He” – the pronoun refers to God, mentioned twice in verse 4.

“will redeem” – “and great redemption is with Him”

Israel” – “Israel – have hope”

“from all of their sins” – “if You, God, were to mark sins

 

We may then ask why this concluding verse is not integrated as part of verse 4, where it seems to belong. The answer is that there are two significant differences between the two.

 

First, while in verse 4 the appeal to Israel is in the form of a command in the second person: “Israel, have hope," verse 8 speaks of Israel in the third person – “from all of their sins” (in the Hebrew, “Israel” is treated in the singular – “from all of his sins”).

 

Second, verse 8 is formulated in the future: “He will redeem," and in this respect it is distinct from the rest of the psalm, in which the psalmist describes his situation in the present, as he is offering his prayer.[9]

 

These two factors suffice to prove that the conclusion of the psalm is not part of the very clearly defined structure of the psalm with its four stanzas. On the other hand, it is clear that this conclusion is not extraneous to the psalm; rather it is intimately bound to it, serving to round out its main idea.

 

What, then, is the role of the conclusion? I shall discuss this in my analysis of each different part of the psalm. After explaining the need for the conclusion and the reason for the differences noted above between it and the preceding verses, my claim as to the role of verse 8 as a conclusion to the four stanzas of the psalm will be greatly strengthened.

 

E.        The two halves of the psalm

 

(1)       A song of ascents

 

a.         From the depths I cry out to you, O God.

(2) My Lord, hear my voice

Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.

 

b.         (3) If You were to mark sins, Lord,

My God – who could stand?

(4) But with You is forgiveness

In order that You may be feared.

 

c.         (5) I wait for the Lord; my soul waits

            and for His word I hope.

            (6) My soul (waits) for my God

(more) than those who watch for morning, (more than) watchmen for morning.

 

d.         (7) Israel – have hope in the Lord,

            for with God is kindness

            and great redemption is with Him.

 

(8) And He will redeem Israel from all of their sins.

 

 

With the psalm now in front of us in the form of a poem, let us see whether its four stanzas are based on some structural principle.

 

In my parasha shiurim on the VBM, I have demonstrated that many biblical literary units are divided into two halves of similar length, indicating to the reader that they should be viewed as parallels; this often sheds light on the significance of the literary unit as a whole. This literary principle applies to almost all of the literary genres that appear in Tanakh, including many of the psalms.

 

Is our psalm composed of two equal halves?

 

The transition from one half of a literary unit to the other is usually some sort of dramatic change.[10] In a narrative unit, this usually takes the form of prominent turning-point in the plot. In a psalm it is more difficult to identify this change, since it takes place not in some external event (as in a narrative) but rather in the psalmist’s own inner world.

 

Can we point to some “dramatic turning point” in our case? Since the psalm as a whole deals with the relationship between man and God, the turning point must be sought in this realm. Obviously, it must be as objectively clear as possible, and not dependent on the subjective interpretation of the reader.

 

Such a turning point does indeed exist. In the first two stanzas the worshipper addresses God in the second person: “I call out to you”; “Hear," “Your ears," “if You were to mark," “with You," “that You may be feared." At the beginning of the third stanza there is a clear change, and the worshipper now speaks about God, in the third person: “I wait for the Lord” (not “for You, Lord”); “With God is kindness / and great redemption is with Him."[11]

 

What is the meaning of this transition between the second and third person in relation to God – a transition that serves to define the two halves of our psalm?[12]

 

At this point we shall analyze and explain the psalm, stanza by stanza, so as to clarify the connection between the stanzas and the progression of the psalm’s main idea from one stanza to the next, and from the first half to the second.

 

F.         The first stanza

 

“From the depths I cry out to You, O God” – The expression “from the depths” (mi-ma’amakim) is fairly unusual; what is its significance?

 

Similar expressions are to be found in only three other places in Tanakh:

 

- Yishayahu 51:10 – “Is it not you (God’s arm) that dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep,

Making the depths of the sea (ma’amakei yam) a pathway for the ransomed to pass.”

- Yechezkel 27:34 – “Now you (Tzor) are broken by the seas, in the depths of the waters (be-ma’amakei mayim);

Your wares and all of your company have fallen in your midst.”

- Tehillim 69:2-3 – “Save me, O God, for the waters have come as far as my soul. I sink in deep mire, with nowhere to stand;

I have entered deep waters (be-ma’amakei yam), and the flood has washed over me…

(15) Deliver from the mire, and let me not sink

Let me be delivered from those who hate me and from the deep waters (u-mi-ma’amakei mayim).”

 

In the first two sources (Yishayahu and Yechezkel), the “deep waters” are meant literally. In Tehillim, on the other hand, “deep water” is a metaphor for the situation of the worshipper, surrounded by many enemies and filled with a sense that unless God intervenes quickly, the metaphorical water - which has already “come as far as my soul”[13] – will wash over him and he will drown.

 

It is therefore not unreasonable to assume that in our case, too, the expression “from the depths” connotes “deep water,”[14] and that this is a metaphor for the dire straits in which the worshipper finds himself. He feels that he is about to drown; thus, God’s aid is a vital and immediate need. All of the terror that a person feels as the floodwaters are rising and his life is in danger is expressed in the metaphor of “from the depths." Hence the urgency and the desperation of the psalmist’s cry: “Hear my voice; let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications."

 

In stanza a. we must also consider the expression, “hear my voice." Throughout Tanakh, the expression “lishmo’a be-kol” (literally, “listening to a voice”) means obeying; doing as the speaker says (much as the English term “listening” can have a connotation of obedience). In our case, this interpretation makes no sense. The worshipper has not yet asked anything specific concerning which he seeks an actual response from God. Clearly, his request at this stage is merely that God hear to his desperate cry and not ignore him. This is confirmed by the parallel:

 

“hear”

“my voice” (be-koli)

“let Your ears be attentive”

“to the voice of my supplications”

(le-kol tachanunai)

 

Why, then, does the psalmist ask, “shema be-koli," rather than “shema le-koli," which would make the parallel more exact, or even just “shema koli”?

 

There seems to be special significance to this. There are times when hearing the words of one who is crying out is not enough. One has to listen to that which is expressed not through words, but through the voice itself.

 

A person who is in deep water and feels that his life is slipping away cannot spare many words. He asks of God that He hear in his voice the tone of urgency; the sound of his desperation and helplessness.

 

In light of all of the above, we arrive at a more fundamental question that arises from stanza a: what is it that has caused the worshipper to feel that he is in deep water, close to drowning, and to appeal to God with such desperation?[15] The answer would seem to lie in stanza b.

 

G.        The second stanza

 

“If You, Lord, were to mark sins” – (The Hebrew here is in the future tense: “If You… (will) mark sins… who will (be able to) stand."

 

The word “tishmor” may be understood as meaning “to remember," but its more usual meaning is “to keep," “to maintain." In other words: “If You, Lord, will maintain sins in existence, not permitting them to be erased."

 

“My God – who could stand?” – “mi ya’amod” means, idiomatically, “who could endure?" However, it may also be understood in the literal sense - “who can stand” – as a continuation of the metaphor of drowning in the depths of the sea. The drowning man’s demise begins at the moment when he no longer feels the ground under his feet.

 

Further support for this connection between “not standing” and drowning in “the deep waters” can be found in Tehillim 69:3 –

 

“I sink in deep mire, with nowhere to stand;

I have entered deep waters, and the flood has washed over me.”

 

In any event, what this stanza teaches us is that the “depths” in which the worshipper finds himself, and from whence he called to God, are a metaphor for his sins. He feels himself sinking into them and almost losing the possibility of existing because of them. His desperate cry to God is that He save him from them through forgiveness, since “with You is forgiveness."

 

The expression “with You is forgiveness” is worthy of our attention. The worshipper does not assert, “You will forgive” (as a contrast to “if you will mark sins”). Forgiveness here is not depicted as an action performed by God, but rather as an independent entity that exists “with Him” – i.e., as one of His attributes. This description of forgiveness expresses the psalmist’s confidence that it will come to be: as an act, forgiveness may take place or it may not; as one of God’s attributes, it will unquestionably be manifest.

 

Stanza b. is built on the contrast between its first two and last two lines. In the first two lines we still hear about the distress and the urgent appeal of stanza a: “Who can stand?!” These lines also explain retroactively the source of the distress and the threat to the worshipper who is calling out from the depths: his sins.

 

Nevertheless, these two lines already hint to a slight easing of the situation. Stanza b. opens with the conditional “if," suggesting that God does not necessarily preserve man’s sins. Furthermore, the possibility of sins being kept and of man consequently being unable to “stand” (exist) is not expressed by the psalmist in the first person. He does not say, “If you keep my sins, I will not be able to stand." He speaks in terms of all of humanity, as a general truth. And this truth eases his personal distress, as expressed in stanza a.

 

The final two lines of stanza b. brighten the horizon considerably. “For (indeed) with You is forgiveness”: “You do not keep and preserve man’s sins. Certainly, then, my cry from the depths will be heard, and there is hope of being saved from these depths through forgiveness, which is one of Your attributes.” It would seem that the danger of drowning has passed, and the ground under his feet is a little firmer.

 

Let us now contrast the two halves of stanza b. with each other:

 

If You will keep sins, Lord

For with You is forgiveness

My God, who could stand

in order that You may be

feared

 

The contrast between the two parts in the first line is clear. But is there also a contrast in the lower line, between the results for man of the two possible courses of action mentioned in connection with God?

 

“In order that You may be feared” – first of all, we need to explain the logic of this conclusion. Does God’s forgiveness of man’s sins lead to fear of God? Would it not seem that the opposite is the case?

 

Indeed, the possibility does exist that forgiveness may lead a person to improper results; therefore, “One who says, ‘I shall sin and then repent, and then sin and repent’ – he will not manage to truly repent” (Mishna Yoma 8:9). However, for a person who is genuinely repentant and who awaits God’s forgiveness – his fear of God will certainly increase when he achieves the longed-for forgiveness, since “in the place where the penitents stand, even the completely righteous do not stand” (Berakhot 34b). True repentance uplifts a person, instilling in him both a closer relationship with God and greater fear of Him than he experienced prior to his sin.

 

To return to our question, what is the contrast between “who could stand” and “in order that You may be feared”? This is the contrast between death, on one hand, and a life of closeness to God and fear of Him, on the other. “Who could stand” means, “who could exist." The preservation of man’s sins would mean his destruction. Forgiveness, on the other hand, not only allows him to “stand," but also imbues his life with meaning and fear of God.

 

This idea, of death being the opposite of a life of closeness to God, and God therefore desiring life rather than death, is expressed in several places in Sefer Tehillim. To cite just one example:

 

(30:10) “What profit is there in my blood when I go down to the pit?

Shall dust then praise You? Shall it declare Your truth?”

 

In summary, we may say that the great distress which the worshipper suffered in stanza a. is eased somewhat once he has given thought, in stanza b., to the well-known truth that “with God is forgiveness." Now he is certain that God has indeed heard his voice and has listened to his supplications.

 

H.        Third stanza

 

Why does the psalmist now suddenly start speaking about God, in the third person? And how does stanza c. continue the ideas expressed previously?

 

In order to answer these questions, we need to clarify what it is that the worshipper is “waiting” and “hoping” for. “Kiviti Hashem” means “I wait for God," as further on in this stanza, “my soul (waits) for God” (la-[A]donay). However, the absence of the ‘lammed’ indicates that the waiting is for God Himself, i.e., for His revelation.

 

In the second line, the worshipper declares, “for His word I hope." What is this word? Considering what has already been said in the previous stanzas, the answer seems clear: the word that the psalmist longs to hear is God’s declaration, “salachti” (I have forgiven). However, he is not content for God’s word to reach him in some indirect manner; what he wants is for God Himself to appear on the horizon of his life, with His direct, redeeming word – “salachti."

 

Now we can understand why the psalmist is speaking of God in the third person. It is appropriate by virtue of the content of this stanza: if a person is anxiously awaiting God’s appearance, waiting to hear His word, then until this happens God is “hidden” from him. Continuing to address God in the second person, as in the previous stanzas, would contradict the very message that this stanza is trying to convey!

 

Nafshi la-Adoshem” means “My soul hopes and waits for God." This interpretation is supported by the preceding two lines, and especially the first line, where the psalmist declares, “my soul waits."

 

Now we arrive at the puzzling repetition, “mi-shomrim la-boker, shomrim la-boker." Of all the interpretations that have been proposed, the one that seems most appropriate is that of Prof. Y. Blau, cited by Amos Chakham in his Da’at Mikra commentary on our verse (p. 480, n. 7):

 

In Y. Blau’s view, the first ‘shomrim’ is meant as a noun, and the second – as a verb. What the verse means is, “My hope in God is stronger than the hope of the (night) watchmen (shomrim) for the morning, as they await (shomrim) the coming of the morning.

 

The first occurrence, then, refers to the night-watchmen who are guarding the city until dawn. The verb “sh-m-r” is interpreted to mean anticipation or waiting by Rashi in his commentary on Bereishit 37:11:

 

“But his father waited with (shamar et) the matter” – meaning, “he waited in anticipation to see when it would happen.” Likewise (Yishayahu 26:2), anticipates faith” (shomer emunim), and (Iyov 14:16), “Do you not await (tishmor) my sin.”

 

Why does the psalmist specifically choose night watchmen[16] – a fairly uncommon profession – to illustrate the anticipation of the end of their work, with the dawn?

 

A model of a person working regular hours is presented in Tehillim 104:23, “Man goes out to his work and to his labor until evening” – i.e., he works all day. Hence, he anticipates the coming of evening; it is then that he will rest, and if he is day-laborer, he will also receive his wages (Devarim 24:15). Indeed, Iyov describes the laborer’s anticipation of the evening:

 

Has a man not hard service upon the earth,

And are his days not like the days of a hired laborer?

As the servant awaits the shadow, and as a hired laborer waits for (the wages of) his work…. (Iyov 7:1-2)

 

Why, then, does the psalmist choose to depict night watchmen?

 

A laborer’s anticipation, throughout the day, for the arrival of evening is a normal, common matter. It is quite unlike the night-watchman’s anticipation of the dawn. The night-watchman carries out his job while he is surrounded by darkness and uncertainty, with a great responsibility resting on his shoulders. Guard duty at night is a job performed during hours when a person is tired, and it is accompanied by anxiety and a tense anticipation of the dawn, which brings daylight and confidence, and delivers the watchman from his stressful job.[17]

 

The comparison that is drawn here between the psalmist’s hope for God’s appearance and the anticipation of the night-watchmen for the dawn, teaches us several things:

-   While waiting and hoping for God he is as emotionally stressed and insecure as the night watchmen.

-   God is “hidden” from him, leaving him “in the dark."

-   His hoping for God’s appearance is accompanied by great stress, and he counts the minutes until it is over.

-   God’s appearance and His word are like the dawn that comes after a dark night.

-   The worshipper would like to believe that God’s appearance is as assured and certain as is the dawn.

 

All of this rich evocation of his hope in God and his anticipation of His word is expressed in four words, which are actually two words that are repeated: “mi-shomrim la-boker shomrim la-boker." All that the night-watchmen experience and feel is brought to life – and made even more vivid and powerful simply by means of the prefixed letter “mem” (mi-shomrim) – “more than those who watch…."

 

In the space of twelve Hebrew words, of which four are really two that are repeated, this third stanza expresses the anticipation of God’s appearance in perhaps the most powerful form in all of the Tanakh.

 

I.          The fourth stanza

 

If in the preceding stanza the psalmist compared his waiting for God’s word to the anticipation of the dawn on the part of the night watchmen, thereby alluding to the distress and suffering involved in this hope, in the fourth stanza any allusion to darkness and suffering is banished. Here, the waiting for God is accompanied by an awareness that “with God is kindness, and great redemption is with Him." This being the case, His positive response to man’s appeal is assured and certain.

 

What are the kindness and redemption that are “with” God? The kindness, obviously, refers to the kindness of forgiveness (“for with You is forgiveness”), and “redemption” refers to His redeeming man from his sins, as we read in the conclusion of the psalm: “And He will redeem Israel from all of their sins."

 

What has brought about this change of atmosphere? The answer to this question will become clear after we discuss another important matter pertaining to the fourth stanza.

 

The command to Israel, at the beginning of this stanza (“Israel – hope in God!”) comes as a surprise. The first three stanzas of this psalm are stamped with the individual personality who stands before God, waiting and hoping for Him. Why does the psalmist now set aside this intimate atmosphere in favor of an appeal to Israel? And where has Israel even been mentioned thus far?

 

We detected a somewhat similar phenomenon earlier on in the first half of the psalm, in the transition between the first and the second stanzas: the first stanza is characterized by personal, intimate experience, while in the second stanza the “I” of the speaker retreats, making no further reference to himself in the first person. This is the result of the worshipper having brought to mind a general truth which applies not only to him personally, but to God’s relationship with all of mankind, including himself. This general truth eases the distress that was voiced in the first stanza.

 

In the third stanza, the worshipper is deeply and intensively hoping for God’s appearance and awaiting His word. Is God’s appearance a certainty? Will the worshipper hear God’s word, “salachti”? He would like to believe so, but it would seem that it is not so certain; hence the hints of distress and suffering in this stanza.

 

At this point the worshipper reminds himself that what applies to him personally is not the same as what applies to Israel as a nation. With regard to the nation, there is no doubt as to God’s positive response, bestowing His kindness of forgiveness and redemption from sins.

 

Hence the appeal to Israel at the beginning of the fourth stanza: “Israel – have hope in the Lord” – as I have hope in Him. But your help, Israel, will certainly be granted a positive response, because with regard to you collectively, “With God is kindness, and great redemption is with Him.”

 

From this point forward, the individual worshipper is included amongst all of Israel, and his own waiting and hoping becomes part of theirs. His confidence in God’s response to them now includes himself; hence the change in atmosphere in this stanza.

 

One of Rav Soloveitchik’s essays on teshuva – “The Individual and the Community” – addresses precisely this point: the difference between the individual and the collective when it comes to atonement for sins and God’s positive response to man who stands before Him.[18] To quote just a few lines from this complex and wonderful essay:[19]

 

“The difference between individual and communal confession is tremendous. When the individual confesses he does so from a state of insecurity, depression and despair in the wake of sin. For what assurance has he that he will be acquitted of his sins? ... In contrast, Knesset Israel… confesses out of a sense of confidence and even rejoicing for it does so in the presence of a loyal ally, before its most beloved one.”[20]

 

J.         Conclusion of the psalm

 

It is very important to note that the intense hope for God’s appearance and for His redemptive word is not fulfilled within the body of the psalm; it remains open. This in no way implies that God’s response is not assured. After the fourth stanza it is certain, but nevertheless it is not described within the body of the psalm. This is not a deficiency, but rather integral to the psalmist’s intention.

 

There were periods of Jewish history when the hope for God’s word, uttering “salachti," was answered with an explicit prophecy declaring, “I have forgiven as you have spoken." There were other periods, when prophecy had already ceased and a crimson thread served the purpose of expressing God’s direct response to Israel, albeit in a silent and indirect way.[21] For most of our history, however, neither the nation as a whole nor individuals received a response in the form of prophecy or through the evidence of the crimson thread. Throughout this time, there was no dimming of the hope in the heart of either the individual or the Jewish people as a whole for the appearance of God and the sound of His word. Along with this hope there was a certainty that God would response positively to the hope and waiting of Israel, and of each individual comprising the nation. However, we have not merited a clear and explicit response. Our psalm therefore gives expression to the experience of these many generations.[22]

 

The conclusion of the psalm, at verse 8, is meant to alleviate somewhat the sense of deficiency that arises from the body of the psalm with regard to God’s response. It is difficult, as it were, to come to terms with the psalmist’s call to Israel, in stanza four, which remains suspended in the air. The reader asks himself, “Did God’s kindness appear to Israel? Did He redeem them from their sins?”

 

Had the psalm included another stanza, providing a description of God’s response, as something happening in the present – as the psalm is being uttered – then the special purpose of our psalm, as described above, would be damaged. The conclusion is a sort of compromise: there is no description of God’s actual response, but it is promised for the future: “He will redeem Israel from all of their sins."

 

This distancing of the conclusion from the body of the psalm, in terms of the redemption that God will bring to Israel, is also a distancing from the body of the speaker, the psalmist: it is no longer the speaker whose words have been issuing throughout the psalm, since that speaker had addressed Israel in the second person: “Israel, have hope…”! In the conclusion, the psalmist is a sort of narrator, who speaks about Israel in the third person, and whose task is to finish off what the worshipper did not say – what could not have been said: that the certainty expressed by the worshipper in the fourth stanza, as to God’s positive response to Israel, is indeed going to happen.

 

K.        Structure of the psalm – comparing the two halves

 

Thus far we have discussed the different stanzas comprising the psalm, each addressing the same (internal) event, and the way in which each stanza continues the previous one. We may now ask whether the psalm as a whole is structured in such a way as to convey a layer of meaning that our analysis of each stanza has not yet apprehended.

 

In section E. of this study, I elaborated on the distinction between the two equal halves of the psalm: in the first half (first and second stanzas) the worshipper addresses God in the second person, while in the second half (third and fourth stanzas) he speaks about Him in the third person. We discussed the reason for this transition in section H., which focused on the third stanza. We also noted, in section E., that the clear division of a unit of biblical text into two halves encourages the reader to look at the two halves in parallel, as this provides an overall picture of the structure of the unit and its main message.

 

What sort of relationship do the two halves of our psalm bear to one another? Unquestionably, we are faced with a direct parallel, where the first stanza corresponds to the third, and the second to the fourth. Let us once again review the psalm as a whole, this time emphasizing not only its poetical quality (as we did in section c.), but also the structure – i.e., the parallels between its stanzas and its two component halves. On the basis of this visual parallel we will then go on to discuss the details:[23]

 

A song of ascents

 

a. From the depths I cry out to you, O God.

My Lord, hear my voice

Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.

 

c. I wait for the Lord; my soul waits

and for His word I hope.

My soul (waits) for my God

(more) than those who watch for morning (more than) watch for morning.

 

b. If You were to mark sins, Lord,

My God – who could stand?

But with You is forgiveness

In order that You may be feared.

 

d. Israel – have hope in the Lord,

for with God is kindness

and great redemption is with Him.

 

And He will redeem Israel from all of their sins.

 

First and third stanzas:

 

The parallel between the first and third stanzas is essentially one of content:[24] both express an intense hope for a connection between the worshipper and God, and in both cases this hope arises from the distress in which the worshipper finds himself. In the first stanza this distress is expressed in the metaphor of “the depths,” while in the third stanza it takes the form of the night-watchmen who are anxiously awaiting the dawn.

 

Despite the similarity of content, however, each stanza is the opposite of the other in terms of the sort of connection between man and God that is being sought. In the first stanza, the direction of the desired relationship is bottom-up: man voices his supplication and asks that God hear his desperate call from the depths. In the third stanza, the worshipper seeks the opposite, “top down” connection. Man waits and hopes for God’s word (His response) and for His appearance in his gloomy reality. God’s appearance is as eagerly awaited by the worshipper as is the dawn by the night-watchmen.

 

There is therefore a progression from one stanza to the other: The worshipper who awaits God’s word (in the third stanza) assumes that his own “word” – his call from the depths (in the first stanza) has been heard; he now awaits God’s answer.

 

This change and progression have been achieved by virtue of the worshipper’s realization in the second stanza: that God forgives man and does not preserve his sins. Now, fortified with the sense that God has heard his cry from the depths, the worshipper awaits His response; His word – “salachti” (I have forgiven).

 

The essential difference between the first stanza and the third, in terms of the direction of the relationship, also explains why in the first stanza the appeal to God is in the second person. This is characteristic of a person who is in deep distress, oppressed by a sense of God “hiding His face.”[25] In the third stanza, describing the tense anticipation of God’s appearance and of His word, God becomes a “third person” (in Hebrew, literally, “nistar” – hidden). The worshipper is no longer appealing to Him; he speaks of Him and of his hope for God’s appearance.[26]

 

Second and fourth stanzas

 

These stanzas share both a thematic and a stylistic parallel. The unusual expression, “with You is forgiveness,” in the second stanza, reappears twice in the fourth stanza, with similar wording: “For with God is kindness and much redemption is with Him.” This parallel is instructive as to the nature of the kindness that the worshipper and all of Israel are hoping for: the kindness of forgiveness, while the “redemption” referred to here is redemption from sin (as indicated in verse 8). Nevertheless, there is a progression between the second stanza and the fourth: the words “kindness” and “redemption” carry a more positive load and have a broader meaning than what can be attributed to the word “forgiveness.”

 

A further – hidden – parallel between these two stanzas is the fact that the worshipper does not speak about himself, in the first person, as he does in the first and third stanzas. Nevertheless, the voice we hear obviously remains that of the worshipper himself. We know this from his appeal, in these stanzas, to another party: in the second stanza – to God; in the fourth stanza – to Israel.

 

What causes the worshipper to desist from talking about himself in these two stanzas? We come back to the same reasons: these two stanzas are meant to ease the distress in which the worshipper is mired. How does he reassure himself in these two stanzas? In the second and fourth stanzas, the worshipper emerges beyond himself, to a wider world, and thinks about some general truths pertaining to that world. This perspective is reflected in the fact that he no longer speaks about himself.

 

In the second stanza, his distress is relieved when he thinks about how God treats man in general: He does not preserve their sins, but rather forgives them, in order to promote the fear of Him among them. This being so, the worshipper’s cry to God from the depths has certainly been heard, and he now grasps the hope that he will be able to “stand,” and not to sink into those depths.

 

Having internalized this message, the worshipper enters a new state: since God has certainly heard his supplications, he now – in the third stanza – anxiously anticipates God’s positive response. Although this expectation is still tinged with some concern, it is obviously quite unlike the feeling in the first stanza.

 

Later, in the fourth stanza, the worshipper emerges from the confines of his own personal situation and appeals to the nation of Israel. Their hope in God will unquestionably bring God’s positive response, since “kindness is with Him.” This kindness includes the forgiveness referred to in the parallel stanza, as well as something more: it includes God’s illuminating countenance turned to those who wait for Him. And it is this that the worshipper had desired with all of his being, in the third stanza.

 

Thus, although the fourth stanza parallels the second, it expresses a higher degree of certainty with regard to God’s response to those who wait for Him. The progression from the first stanza to the parallel third stanza demands a similar progression between the second stanza and the fourth. The second stanza brings the worshipper to the certain knowledge that God has heard his desperate cry from below; the fourth stanza expresses the same certainty that God will indeed respond from on high to those who wait for Him, and shower them with kindness and redemption. Thus, the fourth stanza brings the psalm to its climax, to the most positive awareness that the worshipper achieves throughout the psalm.

 

Nevertheless, the psalm does not conclude with a description of God’s response; rather, this is left as an axiomatic certainty whose realization lies sometime in the future (as promised in the concluding verse).

 

The psalm therefore reflects a gradual, dramatic process of hope for a two-way relationship between man, who seeks deliverance from his sins, and God, with Whom reside forgiveness, kindness and redemption. This two-way relationship does in fact exist, as described in the psalm, at different levels in the worshipper’s consciousness, but it is not (yet) manifest in the external reality.

 

Psalm 130 is made up of fifty-two words, of which there are only a little more than thirty different words.[27] This brief unit manages to express a powerful, ongoing psychological drama. The tight, economical form of the psalm serves the broad and deep content.

 

L.         Psalm 130 and Yom Kippur

 

Our analysis of this psalm has certainly highlighted its appropriateness to the Yom Kippur experience and the inner process that the worshipper undergoes, from the somber Kol Nidrei until the closing Ne’ila prayer.

 

At the start of this holy day, a person is bent and broken, mired in the depths of his sins. He begs God to listen to his desperate cry.

 

The prayer service inspires and encourages the worshipper: God is waiting for his repentance and will certainly forgive his sins, “For You do not seek the death of one who will die, but rather his return from his (evil) path, that he may live.”

 

As the time for the Ne’ila prayer arrives, and the sense that our prayers have indeed been heard on high grows firm, the synagogue is enveloped in tense anticipation: we await God’s positive response, “I have forgiven as you have spoken.” This answer is not uttered explicitly, but the certainty of its existence accompanies the sounding of the shofar at the conclusion of the day, and it accompanies the congregants to their homes, filled with joy and ready to perform the commandments related to the festival of Sukkot.

 

 


[1] The earliest source for this custom is the Seder R. Amram Gaon. The Goldschmidt edition (p. 165) features a list of psalms enumerated in three variant manuscripts. See also the siddur of Avudraham, morning service for Yom Kippur (R.S. Yerushalmi edition, Avudarham ha-Shalem, p. 286): “The songs are read, as on Shabbat, and after ‘yoshev be-seter elyom’ twelve psalms are added: some of these [are included because they] reflect the theme of the day, while others [are included] because they are psalms of entreaty and supplication that are appropriate to the day”. They are then listed.

[2] The custom has its source in the tradition of the Ari (Pri Etz Chaim, Rosh Ha-shana, chapter 7).

[3] Obviously, our discussion of the psalm’s structure will also influence our interpretation of its component words and verses.

[4] For a discussion of the distinction between poetry and text that is not poetry, see Leah Goldberg’s essay, “Chamisha Perakim bi-Yesodot ha-Shira," in “Iyunim," The Jewish Agency, Jerusalem 5717, p. 12.

[5] See the concluding verses of chapters 41, 72, 89, 106.

[6] An example is psalm 27. In my shiur on this psalm, I showed that the concluding verse (14) is placed outside of the structure of the psalm to serve as a didactic conclusion to both parts: http://www.vbm-torah.org/roshandyk/rh72-es.htm.

[7] In siddurim where this psalm appears in the “nefilat apayim” (as in Sefardic and Chabad communities), this concluding verse is further reinforced with the addition of the words, “and He will redeem Israel from all of their sins” – the closing verse of psalm 130. The similarity between the two concluding verses is obvious, and the reason for the addition of the latter is equally clear: psalm 25 concludes with a request, “God – redeem Israel…," while the additional verse expresses the same idea as a promise: “And He will redeem…”.

[8] In terms of content, this verse is similar to others that appear earlier in the psalm and express a similar idea – for example, verse 8: “God’s angel encamps around those who fear Him, and he delivers them.” In terms of style, the concluding verse represents a contrast to the preceding verse: “Those who hate the righteous will be condemned… all who trust in Him will not be condemned.”

[9] Often, in a biblical poem, the tense is clarified by the context: the expression, “mi-ma’amakim keraticha” looks like the past tense, but what it means here is, “I call out to You” – right now, in the present. This is borne out by the imperative form that appears further on: “Hear… let Your ears be…”. Likewise, in verse 5, the expressions kiviti and hochalti (“I wait," “I hope”) are past-tense constructions, but are meant in the present. However, the future tense expressed in verse 8 is indeed a reference to the future, which remains hidden for the time being.

[10] Sometimes the transition begins with what looks like a repetition of the first half; thus, the second half stands as a parallel to the first. This technique is fairly common in Sefer Tehillim.

[11] Note the parallel between the words “with You is forgiveness” (first half; stanza b.), and “with God is kindness and much redemption is with Him” (second half).

[12] We hardly need mention that the two halves are exactly equal: each comprises two stanzas, seven short lines, and twenty-three words.

[13] Here, as in other places in Tanakh, “nefesh” (usually translated as “soul”) actually means “throat”. What the psalmist mean is that if the waters rise any higher, he will no longer be able to breathe, and he will die.

[14]     Our explanation for stanza b. will reinforce this assumption further.

[15]     In psalm 69, for example, it is clear that the psalmist’s sense of drowning reflects the reality of being surrounded by many enemies.

[16] Night watchmen are mentioned in a few places in Tanakh. In Yishayahu 21:11 we find, “Watchman – what of the night?”; in 62:6 – “I have set watchmen upon your walls”. There are two appearances in Shir Ha-shirim: we find – “The watchmen who walk about the city found me” (3:3) - and this comes just after the woman has arisen from her bed in the night (ibid., verse 1). Similarly, also 5:7. The same image is borrowed to describe God in Tehillim 121:4 – “Behold, the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps”.

[17] Anyone who has actually performed guard duty at night, at a time and place of increased security tension, in the dark and with fog greatly limiting one’s vision, will have no trouble understanding the image of the anticipation of the night-watchmen for the morning.

[18] On Repentance, pp. 107-137 (67-98 in the Hebrew).

[19] In the section just prior to this (starting on p. 127 [p. 87 in the Hebrew]), Rav Soloveitchik demonstrates that our prayer service for Yom Kippur includes two forms of vidui (confession) which are very different from one another: the one is recited by the individual in a whisper, in submission, and abject misery; the other is recited by the community, during the repetition of the Amida, in an uplifted mood and with complete confidence that God will accept this teshuva.

[20] The excerpt is from p. 131 (91 Heb.). Rav Soloveitchik goes on to say, “In fact, in certain Jewish communities (I myself heard this in Germany) it is customary for the whole congregation to sing the al chet confession in heart-warming melodies.”

[21] Yoma 39a teaches that up until the time of Shimon ha-Tzaddik, the crimson thread would always turn white, whereas from his time onwards it would sometimes turn white and at other times remain unchanged. For forty years before the destruction of the Temple, the crimson thread failed to turn white.

[22] Obviously, this is not meant as any sort of “dating” of the psalm. The psalms were all written not only for their own time, but also for future generations. In any event, the question of dating the psalms is not an important issue and we shall generally not be addressing it.

[23] There will be some repetition of points that have been noted already, but the overall review will serve to present these points in a new perspective.

[24] It is important also to point out one linguistic parallel: in these two stanzas, and only in these, God’s Name (Y-H-V-H) appears in full (in the first line) and then is exchanged with “A-donay.” In the other two stanzas both Names appear, but with changes in relation to the model set forth here.

[25] I commented on this in the context of the discussion of psalm 27; see section b. of this study and note 4 ad loc.

[26] There is a sort of paradox here: the appeal to God in the second person is actually expressing a sense of distance and of the ‘hiding of God’s face,” while in the more tranquil context (sensing that God has heard and will respond), God is described in the third person. The same phenomenon is to be found in psalm 23 and in psalm 27, and elsewhere, too – because this in fact reflects the human experience.

[27] Some words repeat themselves, while others share a common root.