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Words: Martin Luther (b. Nov. 10, 1483; d. Feb. 18, 1546); translated from German by Catherine Winkworth (b. Sept. 13, 1827; d. July 1, 1878)
Music: Aus Tiefer Not, by Martin Luther
Note: There are a confusing number of English versions of this hymn. Catherine Winkworth herself did two (in 1855 and 1863). These, in turn have been modified by others. The Cyber Hymnal says the words below are Winkworth’s 1863 version, though the lines differ in minor ways from others making that claim. And, as of this writing, the final two stanzas are omitted from the Cyber Hymnal.
Those final two stanzas seem to address Christians as Israel–“Do this, O ye of Israel’s seed–which would be in keeping with Luther’s amillennial position. I do disagree with him on that. We have a spiritual kinship with Abraham as the father of the faithful (Rom. 4:3-5; Gal. 3:6-9), but that does not cancel aspects of God’s covenant with him (and the other covenants made with Israel) that are national and earthly, and are still to be fulfilled.
Conflating Israel and the church required spiritualizing a lot of Bible prophecy about the former, in order to apply it to the church. The church is not Israel, and Israel is not the church. God has His specific program for each, and keeps them separate (Rom. 11:25-29; I Cor. 10:32). To relegate the many promises regarding Israel’s future (e.g. Jer. 31:38-40; Amos 9:13-15), to some spiritual blessing on the church is to rob God’s Word of its plain sense. In Psalm 130:7-8, Luther’s inspiration for this hymn, “Israel” means that earthly nation, not the spiritual body of Christ.
Be these things as they may, there is blessing for us in the hymn. Martin Luther contributed a number of hymns to the early Protestant movement. This one, published in 1524, was called, in German, Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, meaning, “From deep affliction I cry out to You.” Luther called Psalm 130 “a Pauline psalm,” a psalm that reminded him of Paul’s teaching. When Luther was greatly troubled, he would say to those around him, “Come, let us defy the devil and praise God by singing a hymn.” Then he would begin this one. In 1536 it would be sung at his funeral.
Human beings have descended to about four kilometres into the earth–in a gold mine in South Africa–and about eleven kilometres down into the Pacific Ocean. In the latter environment, the water pressure is so great it’s impossible for humans to survive there, except in a specially equipped submersible. Titanic film director James Cameron made the descent in one, several years ago.
There are depths in our spiritual lives too, that seem difficult or impossible to bear. Times of great trial, and anguished despair in which we call upon God. David experienced that as “a horrible pit” (Ps. 40:1-2). For another psalmist it meant a recognition of his own sinful condition, hopeless, apart from an intervention of God. “Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice!” (Ps. 130:1).
Paul felt that way about his sinful life before he trusted in the Saviour. He speaks of himself as a blasphemer, a persecutor (of Christians), and the chief of sinners (I Tim. 1:13, 15). That was how John Newton, author of Amazing Grace felt, before his conversion. In a series of letters published in 1764, he tells his story. A twentieth century publication of the letters bears the appropriate title, Out of the Depths.
Martin Luther, in his early years, struggled to find peace with God through the rituals of his church, but failed to do so. In his study of Romans he finally saw the light–that our soul’s salvation is not based on what we do for God, but on accepting, by faith, what He has done for us, through Christ (cf. Rom. 3:21-25). Paul says, “To him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:4-5; cf. Eph. 2:8-9).
A 1953 film, simply called Martin Luther, effectively presents the reformer’s life, and describes his journey of faith. At one point, Luther is seen discussing with his church superior the way of salvation, as it’s revealed in the Word of God. The man asks, sharply, “If you take away all the masses, and penance, and other things, what will you replace them with?” Luther answers simply, “Christ.”
Psalm 130, the basis for Luther’s hymn, says:
“Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice!…If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared [reverenced]. I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in His word I do hope” (vs. 1, 3-5).
(The word “meed,” stanza 1, line 6 of the hymn below, means reward.)
CH-1) Out of the depths I cry to Thee;
Lord, hear me, I implore Thee!
Bend down Thy gracious ear to me;
I lay my sins before Thee.
If Thou rememberest each misdeed,
If each should have its rightful meed,
Who may abide Thy presence?
CH-2) Thou grantest pardon through Thy love;
Thy grace alone availeth;
Our works could ne’er our guilt remove;
Yea, e’en the best life faileth.
For none may boast himself of aught,
But must confess Thy grace hath wrought
Whate’er in him is worthy.
CH-3) And thus my hope is in the Lord,
And not in my own merit;
I rest upon His faithful Word
To them of contrite spirit.
That He is merciful and just–
Here is my comfort and my trust;
His help I wait with patience.
1) Why is it that our good works cannot provide eternal salvation for us?
2) How has God has provided for our salvation? (In other words, how can a person be saved?)