Arthur Lampitt was driving his tan Ford Thunderbird to work one July morning in 1963 when he was involved in a car accident so bad that he was reported as dead on the local radio station. It had been raining and his car tires need replacing — in fact, he’d tried to get them replaced the previous afternoon, but the tire shop was too busy to service his car. When it rained on the way to work and his car hit a large puddle on a curve, he hydroplaned. Then when he saw a truck coming towards him from the oncoming lane, he tried to accelerate to get to the other side of the road before hitting the truck. He didn’t make it and the truck hit him head-on. He suffered a broken hip, several broken ribs, and was in traction for 10 days before surgeons could operate on him.
He survived, and recovered to live a normal life. Then more than 50 years later, while he was moving concrete blocks on his property, a piece of metal began to protrude through his skin. Doctors initially thought it was a surgical instrument from a previous surgery. When he underwent a 45-minute procedure to remove the object, it turned out not to be a surgical tool, but the turn signal lever from his wrecked Thunderbird. Evidently during the accident he’d put his arm up to shield his eyes and during the impact the lever was forced into his arm, where it stayed those five decades.
All that time, and he was blissfully unaware and ignorant of his situation. As odd (and kind of creepy) as that story is, the extra metal in his arm apparently it didn’t do him any harm. It’s a unique story that ended well. But being unaware isn’t always good for us. In fact, the follower of God must always be aware of some things, and one of those things is sin. We may not like to talk about our sin. We may prefer to ignore and be ignorant of our sin, but awareness of our sin can be a great blessing for the believer, and that is what the opening verses of Psalm 130 teach us.
This song is known as an individual lament, so it reflects the meditation of an individual worshipper who is aware of his sin as he’s going to worship. This sin produces grief and lament in the worshipper, which is what we particularly want to notice from verses 1-2.
The Sinner’s Circumstance
We do not know the circumstances of this unnamed writer, but when he refers to being in the depths (v. 1), it refers to someone who is in deep despair. He is in a precarious situation and has hit a spiritual bottom — he is in a “sea of despair.” Given that he later confesses his sin (v. 3), it seems clear that his situation is the result of some sin or series of sins. His circumstance is not unlike Jonah’s situation in the belly of the fish (Jonah 2:2, 5). He not only has sinned, but that he is in the depths indicates a sense of alienation from the Lord. His despair is not just that he has lost some position or possession, but that his sin has left him alienated from God.
This is the nature of sin. It is not only “wrong,” but it intrudes on our fellowship with God. Sin — even ongoing sin — cannot make one lose salvation, but it can invite the discipline of the Lord (Heb. 12:4-11), disrupting our familial fellowship with God. He is still our eternal Father, but we are not enjoying the intimacy of communion with Him. We are holding onto something that He hates and with loving discipline, and He will work to produce our repentance, even at great cost to us (Ps. 32:1ff).
We can expect heartache, sorrow, loneliness, and the penetrating pangs of a guilty conscience when we sin. Our sin is not only an objective violation of God’s commands, but our sin will produce the experience of turmoil, grief, and what might be commonly called depression. This is the very kind of sickness that James says will always be healed by confession and prayer (Js. 5:13-15). When you have a counselee that is overwhelmed with grief and even inconsolable sorrow and depression, it is worth probing to see if he is in the depths because of some unrevealed sin. Ask questions with patience, grace, and care (1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Tim. 2:25-26), but ask questions that lead the counselee to turn to God for help.
The Sinner’s Hope
Because he is in such a desperate situation, the worshipping psalmist does the one and only logical thing to do: I have cried to you, O Lord (v. 1). In fact, the sense is that he has called out to the Lord and he is continuing to do so. He sees himself as being utterly dependent on the Lord He has tried “self-help,” and it hasn’t worked. God is the only one who can help him.
Notice that three times in verses 1-2, 3, and 5-6 the psalmist alternates two names for God: Yahweh and Adonai. Yahweh refers to the covenantal name of God, who promised to be the God of His chosen people, Israel; He is the loyal God who will care for His people. Adonai is the One who is Lord, sovereign, and master. The psalmist is appealing to God on the basis of both relationships: he is asking God to be loyal to remember His promises to His people, acknowledging that God is master, and that the psalmist is the servant who has no claim on God. In fact, he has been an unfaithful and unprofitable servant who can only appeal to the grace of his Master. So that is what he does.
We see this appeal to God’s grace several times in vv. 1-2:
- I have cried to You (v. 1)
- Hear my voice (v. 2a)
- Let Your ears be attentive (v. 2b)
To those, add the phrase, the voice of my supplications (v. 2c), which usually refers to a request for favor. This also is an appeal to God for His mercy — “please don’t give me what I deserve” (e.g., Dan. 9:3, 17-18, 23). The psalmist doesn’t believe that God has lost an ability to hear, but he is saying that he is utterly and completely dependent on God for help. He sees himself as being unworthy; these verses indicate how significant his doubts and concerns about his spiritual situation are.
All four of these appeals indicate the worshipper’s dependence on God and that God is not obligated to respond. If God answers, it is only because of His grace. Where else will the sinner go, but to God’s grace?
Whether our counselee has engaged in sin (v. 3) — even an ongoing pattern of sin — or is simply overwhelmed with the pressures of life, his hope is to go to God. He needs regular meditation on the faithful character of God to fill his mind. Rather than constantly musing on his troubles, he needs to feast his mind on the provision of God, who is full of lovingkindness (cf. Ps. 136). Rather than grumbling and complaining, he needs to ask from God in persistent faith (Lk . 18:1-8) and joyful expectation (Phil. 4:1-7). Help your despairing counselee to learn to meditate on the truth, to speak truth in his heart (Ps. 15:2), and to pray with genuine dependence on the Lord.
The Sinner’s Transformation
In the opening verses of Psalm 130, we have a model of what it means to lament or be grieved over our sin. How do we know if someone is (or if we are) repentant for sin? This section offers a picture:
- The one who is grieved does not defend himself. Instead, he willingly acknowledges his guilt.
- The one who is grieved does not attempt to do damage control for his sin; he knows he cannot atone for his sin himself, so he appeals to God’s grace (God is the Master and he will submit to God). This picture is akin to what Jesus spoke of in the initial beatitudes (Mt. 5:3-4) — the person who is repentant for his sin is grieved over his sin and understands his spiritual bankruptcy.
- The one who laments over his sin and is grieved over his sin is not morosely preoccupied with his sin (one sin does not require multiple confessions), but he is humble — he is willing to acknowledge the sin and what it has done to his fellowship with the Lord.
When we or our counselees sin (and we will sin), this is where we must begin: no defensiveness, no damage control, but just a humble appeal to the Lord’s mercy and submission to Him.
The story of John Wesley’s conversion is quite well-known. On May 24, 1738 he heard the reading of Luther’s Preface to the Romans and came to trust in Christ, saying that his heart was “strangely warmed.” What is less well known about that day is that earlier in the afternoon he went to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and heard this psalm sung as an anthem. As a result, he experienced deep conviction of his sin. That conviction was another contributing factor to hearing the good news of the gospel later the same evening.
Like our friend Arthur Lampitt who benefited from learning of the turn signal lever in his arm, Wesley benefited from learning of the sin in his heart. That is true for every believer in Christ. When sin is known, it can be grieved, confessed and forgiven, and restored, so that we are confident of our future both on earth and in eternity. How great that restoration will ultimately be. If your counselee is aware of his sin, he might be tempted to be overwhelmed by grief or discouragement. Encourage him that that God has given that awareness as a step in the process of being restored to Him.
Terry Enns is the pastor of Grace Bible Church in Granbury Texas. He has over twenty years of pastoral counseling experience, and is a certified counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC, formerly NANC). In addition to his preaching and pastoral duties at Grace, Terry maintains an active blog at Words of Grace.