- “Hear My Voice”:Rhythmic Forgiveness and Psalm 130
OUT of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD.Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope.My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning.Let Israel hope in the LORD: for with the LORD there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.— Kjv Ps. 130
Psalm 130’s sorrowful cry from the deep, with its plea for an attentive, patient, and forgiving God, resembles not only the longing voice in Christina Rossetti’s Verses (1893)—for which the epigraph is verse 1 of Psalm 130—but also her devotional prose; in particular, her exegesis of Revelation, [End Page 26] The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse (1892). Modern readers, so concerned with labelling and accounting for wrongdoing, find it hard to understand that what the Victorians sought in forgiveness was as much a process of expressing and confessing sin as one of absolution. This essay explores why the question of how one might voice forgiveness was so central to nineteenth-century thought and outlines why the penitential cry of Psalm 130 appealed so deeply to those concerned with such expression. After discussing why the Psalms registered as a distinctly poetic set of texts in this period, I point to the significance of Psalm 130 both in ongoing debates about the nature of atonement and as a foundation for a “poetry of forgiveness” specific to the long nineteenth century.
Together with the Book of Job, Psalms was the most significant of Old Testament books for the Victorians, as much for aesthetic as theological reasons. Psalms were sung after the litany and before the sermon in most parish churches and were preferred to even the most popular of Victorian hymns (Thistlethwaite 72). As ancient spiritual poems, the Psalms’ strong metrical beat and musical history appealed to readers and worshippers. As E. Warwick Slinn argues, David’s resolve to sing his emotional experience of faith “embeds a close relation between brain and tongue, body and language, physical action and speech” (92), an embodying of poetry that speaks to both a long tradition of memorizing the Psalms and the Victorians’ propensity for internalizing verse through recitation. The Psalms also comprised a short handbook, for Christians and Jews alike, on how to approach God, while their mythological and polytheistic references encouraged scholars to rethink their content in the context of Egyptian, Babylonian, and Canaanite, as well as Davidic, cultures. The debate on how to translate, interpret, and annotate the Psalms in relation to issues of national identity, kingship, community, and belonging, as well as ecclesiological meanings of forgiveness, penitence, prophecy, and love, climaxed in the nineteenth century in part because their poetic and aesthetic value exempted them from disputes on the historical authenticity of the Bible. Several commentaries1 predominantly present the Psalms as examples of ancient lyric poetry, an idea that enthralled an educated and lay readership invested in securing its faith in affective and aesthetic experience rather than material evidence.
The strong association between the Psalms and their assumed composer, David, anchored this experience for believers. While theories regarding the multiple authorship of the collection abounded in the nineteenth century, readers of the Psalms were nevertheless moved by the idea that they comprised David’s personal narrative of faith, piety, sorrow, and love, a narrative thought to look back to Adam and Moses and prophetically forward to Jesus (see Davison). The popularity of Charles Spurgeon’s The Treasury of David (1860–67) and Frederick Meyer’s David—Shepherd, Psalmist, King (1910) underscores the Victorians’ fascination with the writer of the Psalms, just as Robert Lowth’s and William Law’s writings on poetry and devotion had promoted the aesthetic [End Page 27] sound of...