“Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O LORD”:
The Remnant Motif in the Book of Psalms
Pss. 51, 130, 89: Repentance, Appeal to the Lord’s Name and to His Covenant
The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, among others, have time and time again uttered that exile had befallen Israel due primarily to her sins, more precisely, due to her apostasy. Isa. 1:4-9 says:
Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward…
Jer. 2:5-15 makes it even clearer that not only the people and the kings but also the priests as well as the (false) prophets, who were supposed to teach the former ones, had forsaken the Lord:
Thus saith the LORD, What iniquity have your fathers found in me, that they are gone far from me, and have walked after vanity, and are become vain? Neither said they, Where is the LORD that brought us up out of the land of Egypt… The priests said not, Where is the LORD? And they that handle the law knew me not: the pastors also transgressed against me, and the prophets prophesied by Baal, and walked after things that do not profit… Be astonished, O ye heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid, be ye very desolate, saith the LORD. For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water…
Therefore, they all had to be punished. In fact, there is no doubt that the actual punishment, i.e. exile, was undertaken through the Gentiles, to wit, through the Babylonians. But it should also be noted that Israel was defeated and deported by the Gentiles not because the later were powerful. From the perspective of the Bible, the role of the Gentiles is clear: they only served as instruments to punish Israel. Once again, I would like to stress that exile befell Israel due of course to her sin, truly through the Gentiles, but indeed from God! So that, as Jeremiah brings it out, her own wickedness shall correct her, and her backslidings shall reprove her: “know therefore and see that it is an evil thing and bitter, that thou hast forsaken the LORD thy God, and that my fear is not in thee, saith the Lord GOD of hosts” (v. 19). What is left then for the remnants to do, except to repent?
Bearing the prophets’ words in mind let me now turn to the Psalms. Among the Psalms assigned by the Ethiopian tradition to be “prophecy about the remnants,” many of them can rightfully be regarded as Psalms of repentance. Take Ps 51, for instance, which is correctly considered by many scholars as a Psalm of confession. I don’t however want to go into much detail here except to mention a couple of points, which may indicate that this confession could possibly be better interpreted in connection with the remnant situation.
Manifestly, I have all along stressed that the forsaking of God, i.e. apostasy, was the main reason for Yahweh to punish Israel with exile and its consequences, and such an emphasis was indeed based on my observation of what the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel said. If that was really the case, Israel had thus been punished primarily for the offense she committed against none other than Yahweh Himself. Hence, it should correspondingly be expected that the repentant remnant would indeed have to acknowledge this in his/her confession: “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest” (v. 4). The other point pertains to the sacramental element of confession. Based on the commentary to Psalm 24, I have mentioned in Part Two of this article that the Psalmist was exhorting the remnants to conduct a modest kind of worship in “little sanctuaries,” so to say—a synagogue worship that involves mainly reading (and teaching) of the Scripture and some minor cleansing practices. Such a situation is reflected here, when the Psalmist says: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow…Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee” (v. 7, 13). And that this confession was proper to someone who did not have access to Temple worship involving proper sacraments may easily be learned from the last four verses:
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem. Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar (v. 16-19).
It would have been worth demonstrating that the whole content of this Psalm could be taken as the best example of confession in general, but for lack of time and space I shall now consider another, even so important, Psalm of repentance.
Psalm 130: this is the Psalm that best exemplifies how the remnant—in utter humility—appropriately applies what I have referred to as the Appeal to the Holy Name of God. Here the Psalmist begins by establishing the distance between him and Yahweh, an almost unbridgeable distance between someone at the most low and another one at the most high: “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD” (እማዕምቅ ጸዋዕኩከ እግዚኦ)!
To be sure, this reflects the psychological and spiritual distance. But the Ethiopian tradition takes it to express the physical distance as well: the remnant who finds himself in the low lands of Babylon trying to look up to the One whose throne he believes is in Heaven! Not that if he were on the high lands he would have been able to come closer, it is just to express how destitute a feeling the remnant had about the place where he finds himself in, both physically and mentally. That salvation comes not as a reward for what even the repentant remnants might do, say or acknowledge, but from God alone, for the glory of His name, the Psalmist knows very well and makes a very good use of it: “But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared” (v. 4). Again, the remnant knows that, in the final analysis, Yahweh would save him not in favor of anything he did but only ex nihilo, out of nothing, as it were; or, ex amore, shall we say, out of love!
As to the appeal to the Covenant with the Fathers, I may just refer to Psalm 89 which indeed tries to evoke Yahweh into the remnant’s salvation by way of reminding Him of the Mercy that He shall build for ever and of His faithfulness which He shall establish in the very heavens. This Psalm mentions Yahweh’s covenant both to His chosen ones in general and to the House of David in particular; it sounds as if the Psalmist had a written copy of the pact out of which he could reproduce Yahweh’s exact words:
I have made a covenant with my chosen, I have sworn unto David my servant, Thy seed will I establish for ever, and build up thy throne to all generations… Then thou spakest in vision to thy holy one, and saidst, I have laid help upon one that is mighty; I have exalted one chosen out of the people. I have found David my servant; with my holy oil have I anointed him: With whom my hand shall be established: mine arm also shall strengthen him… (v. 2, 3, 19-21)
Heir of such a splendid covenant, the remnant nonetheless finds himself in a situation where “All that pass by the way [the Gentiles, i.e. the Assyrians and the Babylonians] spoil him: he is a reproach to his neighbours” (v. 41)! He in fact knows that it was his own entire fault, not Yahweh’s, which led him into such a situation. And yet, he remembers that Yahweh said:
If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments; if they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless my lovingkindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer my faithfulness to fail. My covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that is gone out of my lips. Once have I sworn by my holiness that I will not lie unto David. His seed shall endure for ever, and his throne as the sun before me (v. 30-36).
He thus had no better alternative to evoke Yahweh than recounting all this and asking Him: “Lord, where are thy former lovingkindnesses, which thou swarest unto David in thy truth” (v. 49)? The Psalmist even seems to be extremely provocative when he refers to the fact that his enemies were none other than Yahweh’s own enemies and those of His own anointed one: “Wherewith thine enemies have reproached, O LORD; wherewith they have reproached the footsteps of thine anointed” (v. 51).
It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes. The law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver. Thy hands have made me and fashioned me: give me understanding, that I may learn thy commandments. Ps 119:71-73
To sum up, that the remnants had learned the hard way, when they in fact did not have to, was due solely to their refusal to obey the Torah and to take heed of the prophets' admonitions. That God nevertheless brought them salvation, even though they did not deserve it, was due exclusively to the Holiness of His Name and to His faithfulness for His Covenant, evoked as He was by the remnants’ repentance and even provoked more so by the scolding of the enemies. Not only how the remnants learned to live with their crisis situation, the Psalmist tells us also what they would finally take to be the significance of their afflictions: “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes” (Ps 119:72). This being so, there still is something mysterious in all this.
I do not mean mysterious in the sense that there was something obscure behind the event, something that cannot be explained. But rather I want to refer to an important element of the significance of the exile that was beyond immediate, ordinary understanding of the remnants. And that is the preparation for the establishment of Yahweh’s new Covenant and His new partner, namely, “Israel in Spirit,” i.e. the Church! Whether all the remnants understood it that way or not, such a transformation from “Israel of the Flesh” to “Israel of the Spirit” has already been indicated by the prophets. Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant, for instance (31:31-34; cf. Hebrews 8:8). Those Psalms that speak of a creation of new heart or of a renewal of spirit may thus be interpreted along this line. After all, as a result of the exile, open-minded remnants must have learned that it was not they but Yahweh who has always been sovereign and free to do whatever would please Him to do. In other words, although it is always spoken of a covenant, conversation etc. between Yahweh and Israel, the two partners should not be understood as standing on the same footing. God was totally free to add Gentiles of pure heart into His folk and bring about a somewhat new chosen people—the ecclesia—into existence, which He did through the incredible mystery of Incarnation. Hence, among the then mysterious significance of the exile, it can now with hindsight be mentioned the establishment of synagogues, the spread of Yahweh’s name and word among the Gentiles that paved the way for their acceptance of the Lord.
ሶበ ጸውዑከ በባቢሎን እምውሳጤ ልቦሙ ማዕምቅ
ዘሰማእኮሙ ክርስቶስ ለትሩፋነ ሕዝብ ደቂቅ
ለውሳጤ ልብየ ዐይኑ ከመ ይርአይከ በጽድቅ
ፍጥር ሊተ እግዚኦ እስመ እስእል በጻሕቅ
ወሠሩ እምኔሁ ፍትወቶ ለወርቅ
ከጥልቅ ልባቸው በጠሩኽ ጊዜ በባቢሎን
የሰማኻቸው ክርስቶስ ሆይ የሕዝብ ትሩፋን ልጆችኽን
በጽድቅ ያይኽ ዘንድ የልቤ ውሳጣዊ ዐይን፤
አቤቱ ፍጠርልኝ በትጋት የምለምንኽን
ከሥሩም ነቅለኽ አጥፋልኝ የገንዘብ ምኞትን
["በደመወዝ ጭማሪ ተደልዬ ከጽድቅ እንዳላፈገፍግ ርዳኝ" ማለቱ ነው፤ "ፄዋዌ" ማለፉ አይቀርምና!]