He sent from above, he took me, he drew me out of many waters.
~ Psalm 18:16
Let thine ear now be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayest hear the prayer of thy servant, which I pray before thee now, day and night, for the children of Israel thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee: both I and my father’s house have sinned.
~ Nehemiah 1:6
The Forgiveness of Sin: A Practical Exposition Upon Psalm 130:1-2, by John Owen.
VERSES FIRST AND SECOND
1. The present state of the soul under consideration is included in that expression, “Out of the depths.” Some of the ancients, as Chrysostom, suppose this expression to relate unto the depths of the heart of the psalmist: Τί ἐστιν ἐυ βαθἐων· not from the mouth or tongue only, ἀλλʼ ἀπὀ καρδίας βαθυτάτης,—”but from the depth and bottom of the heart;” ἐξ αὐτῶν τῆς διανοίας τῶν βάθρων, “from the deepest recesses of the mind.”
And, indeed, the word is used to express the depths of the hearts of men, but utterly in another sense: Ps. 64:6, “The heart is deep.”
But the obvious sense of the place, and the constant use of the word, , ָע ַמק will not admit of this interpretation: “E profundis;” from “profundus fuit,” is ַמֲצַמִקּים in the plural number, “profunditates,” or “depths.” It is commonly used for valleys, or any deep places whatever, but especially of waters. Valleys and deep places, because of their darkness and solitariness, are accounted places of horror, helplessness, and trouble: Ps. 23:4, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death;” that is, in the extremity of danger and trouble.
The moral use of the word, as expressing the state and condition of the souls of men, is metaphorical. These depths, then, are difficulties or pressures, attended with fear, horror, danger, and trouble.
And they are of two sorts:—
1. Providential, in respect of outward distresses, calamities, and afflictions: Ps. 69:1, 2, “Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto my soul. I stick in the mire of the deep, and there is no standing. I am come, ְבַמֲצַמֵבּי־ַמיִס, into the depths of waters, and the flood overflows me.” It is trouble, and the extremity of it, that the psalmist complains of, and which he thus expresseth. He was brought by it into a condition like unto a man ready to be drowned, being cast into the bottom of deep and miry waters, where he had no firm foundation to stand upon, nor ability to come out; as he farther explains himself, verse 15.
2. There are internal depths,—depths of conscience upon the account of sin: Ps. 88:6, “Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps.” What he intends by this expression, the psalmist declares in the next words, verse 7, “Thy wrath lieth hard upon me.” Sense of God’s wrath upon his conscience upon the account of sin, was the deep he was cast into. So, verse 15, speaking of the same matter, saith he, “I suffer thy terrors;” and verse 16, “Thy fierce wrath goeth over me;” which he calls water, waves, and deeps, according to the metaphor before opened.
And these are the deeps that are here principally intended. “Clamat sub molibus et fluctibus iniquitatem suarum,” says Austin on the place;—”He cries out under the weight and waves of his sins.”
This the ensuing psalm makes evident. Desiring to be delivered from these depths out of which he cried, he deals with God wholly about mercy and forgiveness; and it is sin alone from which forgiveness is a deliverance. The doctrine, also, that he preacheth upon his delivery is that of mercy, grace, and redemption, as is manifest from the close of the psalm; and what we have deliverance by is most upon our hearts when we are delivered.
It is true, indeed, that these deeps do oftentimes concur; as David speaks, “Deep calleth unto deep,” Ps. 42:7. The deeps of affliction awaken the conscience to a deep sense of sin. But sin is the disease, affliction only a symptom of it: and in attending a cure, the disease itself is principally to be heeded; the symptom will follow or depart of itself.
Many interpreters think that this was now David’s condition. By great trouble and distress he was greatly minded of sin; and we must not, therefore, wholly pass over that intendment of the word, though we are chiefly to respect that which he himself, in this address unto God, did principally regard.
This, in general, is the state and condition of the soul managed in this psalm, and is as the key to the ensuing discourse, or the hinge on which it turns. As to my intendment from the psalm, that which ariseth from hence may be comprised in these two propositions:—
1. Gracious souls, after much communion with God, may be brought into inextricable depths and entanglements on the account of sin; for such the psalmist here expresseth his own condition to have been, and such he was.
2. The inward root of outward distresses is principally to be attended in all pressing trials;—sin, in afflictions.
Gracious souls may be brought into depths on the account of sin—What those depths are.
BEFORE I proceed at all in the farther opening of the words, they having all of them respect unto the proposition first laid down, I shall explain and confirm the truth contained in it; that so it may be understood what we say, and whereof we do affirm, in the whole process of our discourse.
It is a sad truth that we have proposed unto consideration. He that hears it ought to tremble in himself, that he may rest in the day of trouble. It speaks out the apostle’s advice, Rom. 11:20, “Be not high- minded, but fear;” and that also, 1 Cor. 10:12, “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” When Peter had learned this truth by woeful experience, after all his boldness and frowardness, he gives this counsel to all saints, “That they would pass the time of their sojourning here in fear,” 1 Pet. 1:17; knowing how near, in our greatest peace and serenity, evil and danger may lie at the door.
Some few instances of the many that are left on record, wherein this truth is exemplified, may be mentioned: Gen. 6:9, “Noah was a just man, perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God.” He did so a long season, and that in an evil time, amidst all sorts of temptations, “when all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth,” verse 12. This put an eminency upon his obedience, and doubtless rendered the communion which he had with God, in walking before him, most sweet and precious to him. He was a gracious soul, upon the redoubled testimony of God himself. But we know what befell this holy person. He that shall read the story that is recorded of him, Gen. 9:20–27, will easily grant that he was brought into inextricable distress on the account of sin. His own drunkenness, verse 21, with the consequent of it, gives scandal unto and provokes the unnatural lust of his son, verse 22; and this leads him to the devoting of that son and his posterity unto destruction, verses 24, 25: all which, joined with the sense of God’s just indignation, from whom he had newly received that tremendously miraculous deliverance, must needs overwhelm him with sorrow and anxiety of spirit.
The matter is more clear in David. Under the Old Testament none loved God more than he; none was loved of God more than he. The paths of faith and love wherein he walked are unto the most of us like the way of an eagle in the air,—too high and hard for us. Yet to this very day do the cries of this man after God’s own heart sound in our ears. Sometimes he complains of broken bones, sometimes of drowning depths, sometimes of waves and water-spouts, sometimes of wounds and diseases, sometimes of wrath and the sorrows of hell; everywhere of his sins, the burden and trouble of them. Some of the occasions of his depths, darkness, entanglements, and distresses, we all know. As no man had more grace than he, so none is a greater instance of the power of sin, and the effects of its guilt upon the conscience, than he. But instances of this kind are obvious, and occur to the thoughts of all, so that they need not be repeated. I shall, then, show,—
First, What in particular is intended by the depths and entanglements on the account of sin, whereinto gracious souls, after much communion with God, may be cast.
Secondly, Whence it comes to pass that so they may be, and that oftentimes so they are.
For the first, some or all of these things following do concur to the depths complained of:—
1. Loss of the wonted sense of the love of God, which the soul did formerly enjoy. There is a twofold sense of the love of God, whereof believers in this world may be made partakers. There is the transient acting of the heart by the Holy Ghost with ravishing, unspeakable joys, in apprehension of God’s love, and our relation unto him in Christ. This, or the immediate effect of it, is called “Joy unspeakable and full of glory,” 1 Pet. 1:8. The Holy Ghost shining into the heart, with a clear evidence of the soul’s interest in all gospel mercies, causeth it to leap for joy, to exult and triumph in the Lord, as being for a season carried above all sense and thought of sin, self- temptation, or trouble. But as God gives the bread of his house unto all his children, so these dainties and high cordials he reserveth only for the seasons and persons wherein and to whom he knows them to be needful and useful. Believers may be without this sense of love, and yet be in no depths. A man may be strong and healthy who hath wholesome food, though he never drinks spirits and cordials.
Again; there is an abiding, dwelling sense of God’s love upon the hearts of the most of those of whom we speak, who have had long communion with God, consisting in a prevailing gospel persuasion that they are accepted with God in Christ: Rom. 5:1, “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God.” I call it a prevailing persuasion, denoting both the opposition that is made unto it by Satan and unbelief, and its efficacy in the conquest thereof. This is the root from whence all that peace and ordinary consolation, which believers in this world are made partakers of, do spring and grow. This is that which quickens and enlivens them unto duty, Ps. 116:12, 13, and is the salt that renders their sacrifices and performances savoury to God and refreshing to themselves. This supports them under their trials, gives them peace, hope, and comfort in life and death: Ps 23:4, “Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” A sense of God’s presence in love is sufficient to rebuke all anxiety and fears in the worst and most dreadful condition; and not only so, but to give in the midst of them solid consolation and joy. So the prophet expresseth it, Hab. 3:17, 18, “Although the fig-tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flocks shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.” And this is that sense of love which the choicest believers may lose on the account of sin. This is one step into their depths. They shall not retain any such gospel apprehension of it as that it should give them rest, peace, or consolation,—that it should influence their souls with delight in duty or supportment in trial; and the nature hereof will be afterward more fully explained.
2. Perplexed thoughtfulness about their great and wretched unkindness towards God is another part of the depths of sin- entangled souls. So David complains: Ps. 77:3, “I remembered God,” saith he, “and was troubled.” How comes the remembrance of God to be unto him a matter of trouble? In other places he professeth that it was all his relief and supportment. How comes it to be an occasion of his trouble? All had not been well between God and him; and whereas formerly, in his remembrance of God, his thoughts were chiefly exercised about his love and kindness, now they were wholly possessed with his own sin and unkindness. This causeth his trouble. Herein lies a share of the entanglements occasioned by sin. Saith such a soul in itself, “Foolish creature, hast thou thus requited the Lord? Is this the return that thou hast made unto him for all his love, his kindness, his consolations, mercies? Is this thy kindness for him, thy love to him? Is this thy kindness to thy friend? Is this thy boasting of him, that thou hadst found so much goodness and excellency in him and his love, that though all men should forsake him, thou never wouldst do so? Are all thy promises, all thy engagements which thou madest unto God, in times of distress, upon prevailing obligations, and mighty impressions of his good Spirit upon thy soul, now come to this, that thou shouldst so foolishly forget, neglect, despise, cast him off? Well! now he is gone; he is withdrawn from thee; and what wilt thou do? Art thou not even ashamed to desire him to return?” They were thoughts of this nature that cut Peter to the heart upon his fall. The soul finds them cruel as death, and strong as the grave. It is bound in the chains of them, and cannot be comforted, Ps. 38:3–6. And herein consists a great part of the depths inquired after: for this consideration excites and puts an edge upon all grieving, straitening, perplexing affections, which are the only means whereby the soul of a man may be inwardly troubled, or trouble itself; such are sorrow and shame, with that self- displicency and revenge wherewith they are attended. And as their reason and object in this case do transcend all other occasions of them, so on no other account do they cause such severe and perplexing reflections on the soul as on this.
3. A revived sense of justly deserved wrath belongs also to these depths. This is as the opening of old wounds. When men have passed through a sense of wrath, and have obtained deliverance and rest through the blood of Christ, to come to their old thoughts again, to be trading afresh with hell, curse, law, and wrath, it is a depth indeed. And this often befalls gracious souls on the account of sin: Ps. 88:7, “Thy wrath lieth hard upon me,” saith Heman. It pressed and crushed him sorely. There is a self-judging as to the desert of wrath, which is consistent with a comforting persuasion of an interest in Christ. This the soul finds sweetness in, as it lies in a subserviency to the exaltation of grace. But in this case, the soul is left under it without that relief. It plungeth itself into the curse of the law and flames of hell, without any cheering supportment from the blood of Christ. This is walking in “the valley of the shadow of death.” The soul converseth with death and what seems to lie in a tendency thereunto. The Lord, also, to increase his perplexities, puts new life and spirit into the law,—gives it a fresh commission, as it were, to take such a one into its custody; and the law will never in this world be wanting unto its duty.
4. Oppressing apprehensions of temporal judgments concur herein also; for God will judge his people. And judgment often begins at the house of God. “Though God,” saith such a one, “should not cast me off for ever,—though he should pardon my iniquities; yet he may so take vengeance of my inventions as to make me feed on gall and wormwood all my days.” Ps. 119:120, saith David, “My flesh trembleth for fear of thee, and I am afraid of thy judgments.” He knows not what the great God may bring upon him; and being full of a sense of the guilt of sin, which is the bottom of this whole condition, every judgment of God is full of terror unto him. Sometimes he thinks God may lay open the filth of his heart, and make him a scandal and a reproach in the world. Ps. 39:8, “O,” saith he, “make me not a reproach of the foolish.” Sometimes he trembles lest God should strike him suddenly with some signal judgment, and take him out of the world in darkness and sorrow: so saith David, “Take me not away in thy wrath.” Sometimes he fears lest he shall be like Jonah, and raise a storm in his family, in the church whereof he is a member, or in the whole nation: “Let them not be ashamed for my sake.” These things make his heart soft, as Job speaks, and to melt within him. When any affliction or public judgment of God is fastened to a quick, living sense of sin in the conscience, it overwhelms the soul, whether it be only justly feared or be actually inflicted; as was the case of Joseph’s brethren in Egypt. The soul is then rolled from one deep to another. Sense of sin casts it on the consideration of its affliction, and affliction turns it back on a sense of sin. So deep calleth unto deep, and all God’s billows go over the soul. And they do each of them make the soul tender, and sharpen its sense unto the other. Affliction softens the soul, so that the sense of sin cuts the deeper, and makes the larger wounds; and the sense of sin weakens the soul, and makes affliction sit the heavier, and so increaseth its burden. In this case, that affliction which a man in his usual state of spiritual peace could have embraced as a sweet pledge of love, is as goads and thorns in his side, depriving him of all rest and quietness; God makes it as thorns and briers, wherewith he will teach stubborn souls their duty, as Gideon did the men of Succoth.
5. There may be added hereunto prevailing fears for a season of being utterly rejected by God, of being found a reprobate at the last day. Jonah seems to conclude so, chap. 2:4, “Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight;”—”I am lost for ever, God will own me no more.” And Heman, Ps. 88:4, 5, “I am counted with them that go down into the pit: free among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, whom thou rememberest no more: and they are cut off from thy hand.” This may reach the soul, until the sorrows of hell encompass it and lay hold upon it; until it be deprived of comfort, peace, rest; until it be a terror to itself, and be ready to choose strangling rather than life. This may befall a gracious soul on the account of sin. But yet because this fights directly against the life of faith, God doth not, unless it be in extraordinary cases, suffer any of his to lie long in this horrible pit, where there is no water, no refreshment. But this often falls out, that even the saints themselves are left for a season to a fearful expectation of judgment and fiery indignation, as to the prevailing apprehension of their minds. And,—
6. God secretly sends his arrows into the soul, that wound and gall it, adding pain, trouble, and disquietness to its disconsolation: Ps. 38:2, “Thine arrows stick fast in me, and thy hand presseth me sore.” Ever and anon in his walking, God shot a sharp piercing arrow, fixing it on his soul, that galled, wounded, and perplexed him, filling him with pain and grievous vexation. These arrows are God’s rebukes: Ps. 39:11, “When thou with rebukes dost correct man for iniquity.” God speaks in his word, and by his Spirit in the conscience, things sharp and bitter to the soul, fastening them so as it cannot shake them out. These Job so mournfully complains of, chap. 6:4. The Lord speaks words with that efficacy, that they pierce the heart quite through; and what the issue then is David declares, Ps. 38:3, “There is no soundness,” saith he, “in my flesh because of thine anger; nor is there any rest in my bones because of my sin.” The whole person is
brought under the power of them, and all health and rest is taken away. And,—
7. Unspiritedness and disability unto duty, in doing or suffering, attend such a condition: Ps. 40:12, “Mine iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up.” His spiritual strength was worn away by sin, so that he was not able to address himself unto any communion with God. The soul now cannot pray with life and power, cannot hear with joy and profit, cannot do good and communicate with cheerfulness and freedom, cannot meditate with delight and heavenly-mindedness, cannot act for God with zeal and liberty, cannot think of suffering with boldness and resolution; but is sick, weak, feeble, and bowed down.
Now, I say, a gracious soul, after much communion with God, may, on the account of sin, by a sense of the guilt of it, be brought into a state and condition wherein some, more, or all of these, with other the like perplexities, may be its portion; and these make up the depths whereof the psalmist here complains. What are the sins, or of what sorts, that ordinarily cast the souls of believers into these depths, shall be afterwards declared.