How well do we know our bible?
Psalm 102 is a psalm which you may not have come across before our reading this morning; even if you are following the vicar’s instruction to read through all of the psalms at home this summer, two every day, you won’t reach Psalm 102 until a week tomorrow.
And in church, we usually only read Psalm 102 at evening prayer on Ash Wednesday and at morning prayer on the Wednesday of Holy Week, so its full text is likely to be unfamiliar to many; though most of its themes are also to be found in other psalms and in the prophetic books of the bible. We do not know the identity of the author of Psalm 102, nor the background to its writing, except that we could hazard a guess, based on its content, that it might date from the time when the Jews were in exile in Babylon, or from the time shortly after their return to Jerusalem.
Unusually, Psalm 102 has a heading: “A prayer of one afflicted, when faint and pleading before the Lord,” but what might be the context of this envisaged affliction, faintness and pleading? In our current series of sermons on the psalms, each psalm has been given the title, ‘A prayer of … … … ’ (dependence, trust, gratitude, etc), and this week’s title is, ‘A prayer of grief’; but that doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Certainly, the psalmist is distressed, but it’s not exactly clear what it is that is upsetting him; there’s no direct mention of bereavement or loss.
Traditionally, Psalm 102 has been regarded by the Church as a penitential psalm; but neither does that obviously reflect what we read. There’s no direct mention of sin, penitence or contrition; though there is reference in verse 9 to ashes and tears, which often signify grief or penitence and this might explain the use of the psalm on Ash Wednesday. Each of the psalm’s 28 verses is rich with hidden meaning, frequently described in colourful language, including many creative metaphors, conjuring up delightful images designed to articulate the psalmist’s feelings.
So, let us examine more closely the content of this prayerful psalm; and please do follow the words of the psalm as I speak, if you wish, and enjoy its beautiful poetry.
Like the formula of many psalms, this one begins with a lament; a plea to God, that he will turn towards the pleader and listen to his complaints about his misfortunes. The opening lines, “O Lord, hear my prayer, and let my cry come to you,” are familiar to many Christians today as a liturgical response during intercessory prayer. The last line of the second verse too is familiar, “when I call, answer me;” taken with the opening line it forms one of today’s best known Taizé chants. These are powerful words which have stood the test of time.
We then hear the list of distressing circumstances which apparently have befallen the psalmist: his life seems to have no substance, he has a fever, his heart is crushed, he has no appetite, he groans with pain and has lost weight, he is isolated, he cannot sleep, he is lonely and melancholic; rejected, his enemies taunt him, assuming that he has brought this on himself; even at mealtimes, normally regarded as a joyful, communal event, he sits alone and weeps, amongst ashes, a symbol of grief, in despair, rather than be in the company of others; it seems that even God is angry with him and has cast him aside; he feels that he is in the twilight of his life and is withering away. … … I hope that you don’t find this all too depressing; please bear with me, there is better news to come.
Verse 12 heralds a change of direction, tone and style. “But you, O Lord are enthroned for ever.” If this is meant to be a response to the psalmist’s predicament then, at first glance, it seems cold comfort: ‘I am dying God, but I’m relieved to know that you’re going to live for ever.’ But these words are not said with any sense of irony, nor does the psalmist with any bitterness express resentment that his everlasting creator God apparently begrudges him a few more days of life; indeed, the next ten verses are very positive, perhaps surprisingly so for one in such desperate circumstances. God is going to do great things, declares the psalmist, with absolute certainty, ‘the appointed time has come.’
This may sound like a daring challenge to God; remember Jesus in the wilderness, resisting the temptations of the devil, quoting from the Jewish law, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test?’ Well, that’s not what is happening here. This is the psalmist using a common figure of speech for the time, known as prolepsis. The psalmist speaks of things yet to pass as though they had already happened and it’s simply a literary device for expressing confident expectation; such a profound conviction in the course of future events that there’s no room for any doubt that they will occur.
So, the middle section of Psalm 102 has the psalmist, in contrast to the previous morbid gloom surrounding his individual suffering, now passionately and joyfully predicting God’s compassion and saving grace for his whole people, his answering of their prayers and his restoration of their holy city of Jerusalem to glory, such that this will go down in the records of history and will inspire not only the praise of God’s own people for generations to come but also the worship of the gentiles.
Then we’re back to the psalmist’s own situation in verses 23 and 24; his brief uplifting outburst of trust and firm belief in God’s will to care for his people seems to have sharpened his personal anguish. He wants his own prayer answering now, but it seems as though God’s answer is for a future generation and that his life is to be cut off in its prime.
But the darkness of these two verses provides a contrast against which to see the brilliance of the final four verses. The psalmist declares that God, who has created all things, is wholly committed to an eternal relationship with future generations of his people, though everything else in creation may be destined to wear out and to pass away. The role of servants is to wait on their master, doing the master’s will, enjoying the privilege of his protection and abiding in his gracious providence. The future of humanity as his servants has been secured by God and the psalmist delights in this revelation in spite of his own suffering and his failing life.
Finally, we cannot take a look at Psalm 102 without mentioning its connection with the Letter to the Hebrews, chapter 1, verses 10-12, which are an almost direct quote from verses 25-27 of the psalm. However, the letter’s author applies these words not to the psalmist speaking to God but to God speaking to Jesus, in praise of Christ. In the early church, Psalm 102 was understood to be Messianic, foreshadowing Jesus’ pain and isolation, Jesus’ crying to God in anguish that he might be spared the suffering and the Father’s promise that he would survive and the future of his servants’ children would be secured. A miracle which we commemorate each week in our Holy Communion service.
Most of us will suffer and grieve at some time and all of us will die; our lives are short, even if we live to be over 100, that is nothing compared to the span of God’s existence. But God is loving and generous and, through his saving grace and the redeeming self-sacrifice of his Son, God promises the hope of eternal life with him, in his Kingdom, for all who turn to him.
And God listens to prayer; there is no human condition which is beyond God’s experience. He understands our needs, feels our grief and our pains and wants to share our burdens. And he responds with compassion, whether that is to the private prayer of the individual or to the public prayer of the community; both are very powerful. Because he sees all things, all time and all space, God’s wisdom and judgement are far greater than ours and we must trust in his capacity to act in the right way at the right time, even though this may at times confound us and test our faith. In the end, we must simply lay our concerns before him and not hold back; what really makes a difference is not our faithfulness, but God’s.
God is eternal and merciful and is in control.
Thanks be to God. Amen.