“If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared” (Psalm 130:3–4).
In Psalm 130, the psalmist finds himself in a hopeless situation. We are not told who the writer of this psalm is, but he has sunk into the depths of trouble and woe, as referred to in verse 1. In his utter hopelessness, his cry arises to God for help. As he seeks deliverance from his Lord and God, he finds assurance in the words that we consider for this meditation, the knowledge that God does not count the iniquities of those whom he has chosen, but rather has imputed their guilt to his Son.
“If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?” This reflection draws our attention in this meditation. After expressing the extent of the miserable depths in which he finds himself, the psalmist uses this rhetorical question to explain the comfort and the faith that he has in the midst of his suffering.
It is important to understand what is being illustrated when the psalmist speaks of “marking” our iniquities. Marking refers to a process of recording or counting. We can conceptualize God’s “marking” iniquities by imagining a book in which the sinful thoughts, words, and deeds of all men are recorded by the pen of God (we speak foolishly, as men, of course). However, the idea of God’s marking our iniquities is also more than that: it carries the connotation that our iniquities are all continually before his face. Constantly the sinful actions and deeds of every man are preserved in God’s eyes. Though our ability to comprehend this fully is weak, try to imagine your sins forever before the consciousness of the almighty and holy God who can stand no evil. Oh, how the people ought to have trembled in the days of Jeremiah when God prophesied that his eyes were “upon all their ways: they are not hid from my face, neither is their iniquity hid from mine eyes” (Jeremiah 16:17). How dreadful for us also then to stand before the holiest one when defiled by the filth of one’s own sins.
Consider that the God who has created all things and sustains them by his marvelous power knows your actions, your thoughts, your intentions, and your inclinations on a level that we cannot even fathom with our weak understanding. David, who explores this very topic in Psalm 139, confesses that even before his members were formed God had known them and seen them. This is our God, the God of whom the psalmist speaks here.
Note that the musing of the psalmist is not without hope. He does not say, “Because you do mark iniquities, how can I stand?” No, the comfort of the psalmist is that what he proposes in verse 3 is not true of God’s elect. Rather, the psalmist finds his comfort in the very fact that his loving Father does not mark his iniquities. This is where he can and does find his comfort in his deep affliction. The psalmist’s next thought immediately reinforces this idea: “But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.” The use of the word “but” creates a sharp contrast between the hopelessness of those whose iniquities are marked by God and those whose iniquities are covered.
However, his iniquities are not removed due to some action that the psalmist has performed. Instead, the psalmist’s words make it strikingly obvious that God alone can forgive. “There is forgiveness with thee.” God alone is able to forgive. This is supported in the rest of Scripture: God’s promise to Israel and us today was and is that he is the one who blots out our transgressions (Isaiah 43:25, 44:22).
The idea of “blotting” is essentially that of hiding, covering or wiping out. Something that is blotted has been fully removed and is no longer visible. God blots out our sins, but it is not the case that God simply makes these sins disappear on a whim. This cannot be the case. The righteousness and justice of our God demands that satisfaction or payment be made for our sin (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 5). Our Savior and head bore the eternal reproach of hell which we ought to have suffered, and thereby redeemed or purchased us. The beauty of our sins’ being blotted out is that the sins that were blotted from our book have been added to the book that belongs to Jesus Christ. Our guilt has been imputed, or transferred to him. Not only that, but in exchange we are also given all the full righteousness of Christ. What an unfathomable exchange! Our rags for Christ’s riches, as it has been said. Psalm 69, in a remarkable foreshadowing of the coming Messiah, proclaimed that he would “restore that which [he] took not away.” Indeed, what a restoration has been made unto us!
The answer to the psalmist’s question in verse 3 is that none can stand if God would mark iniquities. However, knowing that we have been forgiven in the blood of our divine Savior, we are able to stand in the day of judgment. What greater comfort is there than that? This knowledge brings to mind the words of a familiar hymn, “On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand.” We can be comforted in the knowledge that when God looks upon his people, he sees us as guiltless because all our guilt has been completely borne by our Savior. We read in I John 4:17 that we may even have boldness in the day of judgment, with firm faith stemming from Christ’s eternal love for us and his righteousness that has become ours.
We are able to stand because the Lord who sees all things has not marked our iniquities. What a comfort we have! This comfort is not some distant, intangible future idea that we hope to experience in the day of the Lord’s return, but not until then. This does not even begin to do it justice. We are comforted here and now. We are assured of an eternal, undying love that is for each of us, even though we all confess that we are the most dreadful of sinners (I Timothy 1:15). When we sin, we can and must come to God for forgiveness, but we need not do so in fear that this time we may not be forgiven. We come in the full assurance of our faith—an assurance we often sorely need when we are plagued again and again by sin. In our every difficulty, we are borne up by the consciousness that we have a faithful high priest who knows our infirmities. “He who spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all” will indeed give us all things and will work all things to our salvation (Romans 8:31-39). God in Christ gives us the assurance that we need in this life.
No matter the depth of sorrow or tribulation, our Lord Jesus Christ is with us. He went to the ultimate of depths. And for whom, but us? The filthy, wretched sinners that we are? He bore our shame and reproach? Yes, he did! “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4). Notice how emphatically “he” and “our” are used in that text. It could not be any more clear that Christ is the one on whom the unfathomable burden of our guilt has been laid. What comfort that is, young people! The one who loved us with an eternal love strong enough to take away all of the filth of our sins is the one seated at God’s right hand as our Mediator. No matter the day or the hour, Jesus Christ is the same, and his gracious love to us changes not. Knowing this, we can come to him in full assurance of our faith, believing that we will be heard of him.
As young people in the church of Christ, we need this assurance. We know that we are weak; we face many trials and temptations, and we often feel that we fall again and again. How assuring is it to know that we belong to him!
Knowing this, our assurance is undoubtedly rich. But another fruit of considering this deliverance must be humility in our Christian life. We read in the form for the administration of the Lord’s Supper that the result of self-examination is that we “abhor and humble” ourselves before God, when considering the wrath of God against your and my sin apart from Christ. As we have already considered, the fact that God shows mercy to us ought to resonate in our hearts every day. Consider that even the smallest of sins against the most high majesty of God merits for one eternal death, and then think about the sins that we commit with our deeds, hearts, and minds every day. It is frightening to consider one’s plight apart from the mercy of Christ when we think about the depths of our sins. The only thing that separates us from that state is his mercy in choosing us to be his people from all eternity. How is it even conceivable that we could exalt ourselves in pride when we understand the deliverance we have been given?
Consider also the great evil of bearing grudges or of speaking evil of others within the body of Christ. Is this characteristic of those who know that they have been spared from the agonies of hell by grace alone? Often we can make excuses and allow ourselves to walk in these ways of sin. “If it was another sin, I could forgive him, but I can’t ever forgive that sin!” Or we spread a story about something or someone that we know is better left unsaid. Young people, Christ bore the burden of the guilt of all his people. How can we then allow ourselves to mark the sins of others as though Christ has not taken them away? But that is what we are doing when we dwell on the sin of others who have already repented. When we neglect to forgive, we mark again the iniquities which Christ has already taken away. Why would we desire such a terrible thing? Rather, with believing hearts we ought to strive to forgive others and lead them in the spirit of love to the cross, where they can experience the true joy of repentance.
Beloved, our calling is to consider our sins and the curse due to us for them, and in that knowledge flee to the shadow of the cross. In what way can we live a life of gratitude but in the shadow of the cross? Knowing our sin, hating it, and fleeing from it, we will be humbled and will flee from iniquity. We do not lift ourselves up in pride, but rather we run into the arms of our Savior, for, “in thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Psalm 16:11).