This is a poem expressing regret, penitence and a deep desire for forgiveness.
It is often referred to as a penitential psalm. It is also one of the psalms sung in procession; ‘a song of ascent’. For many years it has also been named ‘De profundis’. It is a cry for mercy both on the part of the individual and also for the nation. It expresses a profound conviction that there can be forgiveness, restoration and a new start.
‘The depths’ can be a metaphor for the deepest place within oneself, the core of our being, the heart of who we are. And it can also be a way of speaking about the terrible predicament that we can find ourselves in after tragedy, disaster or a terrible crime. It can be a way of expressing an overwhelming depression. But the psalm moves from this pit of despair towards hope. We do not have to be permanently cut off from all that is good and true, lovely and beautiful. It may take time, waiting for that new day to arrive, the dawn of a new life, but it will come.
Perhaps there is a contrast and a challenge in this psalm against the listing and maintaining of faults and failings which can often characterise our social and legal systems. Even if society will not forgive, at the most important level there can be a recovery of self worth and a confidence that we are loved and cherished.
The understanding of the character of ‘God’ has varied over time. Sometimes the idea of a powerful force might be dominant. El shaddai – the god of hosts, or ‘the kind and compassionate’ is an early name found in the scriptures. El elyon ‘most high’ is another. Elohim carries the meaning of a number of ‘gods’. At some point in their history Israelites stopped speaking the name of their God or having any representations of YHWH. Adonai – אֲדֹנָי֘ – is usually written and spoken instead of LORD – יְהֹוָֽה.
Some gather the idea from the scriptures that god is judgemental and strict, a righteous disciplinarian. Others find faith in a compassionate and loving god. The psalmist believes that god expects truth and integrity, upholding the law and being faithful, but also tempers justice with mercy, and wants the wellbeing of people.
For those who conceive of the universe without god, this psalm can still speak to a condition of feeling guilty, ashamed, or having broken ones own standards and betrayed ones own values. Sometimes it feels important to have own sense of worth affirmed by others. But equally, it is important to be able to find forgiveness of oneself. After the long night, the dawn of hope brings fresh promise.