The superscription of Psalm 102 reads, “A prayer of the afflicted, when he is overwhelmed and pours out his complaint before the LORD.” From this, we know that the writer was undergoing hardship and heartache when he wrote these words, which drove him to prayer.
But perhaps you would be tempted to ask, what kind of affliction? There are several suggestions. It would appear from vv. 3–5 that there was a physical element to this affliction. Some suggest a stomach ailment. Verses 4–6 appear to hint at emotional distress. Verse 8 suggests a relational struggle, while v. 10 hints at a spiritual battle. In truth, all four elements seem to have been present in the psalmist’s affliction.
But further, you might wonder whether this was a personal or national affliction. Again, both elements appear to have been present. In vv. 1–11, he appears to be praying personally, while vv. 13–16, he seems to be nationally burdened. It is clear that the author felt personally for the experience of the nation corporately.
The psalmist was a serious, committed, concerned “church member.” The condition of God’s people, God’s city, God’s community of faith concerned him. God’s dwelling place was of deep concern to him. He could not be at ease when Zion was in need. It is quite possible that this was the cause of his grief. Leupold observes,
Though the personal note is very much in evidence throughout this psalm, this is not the only note that may be observed. It appears that the writer is also deeply concerned about the welfare of Zion. In fact, it may even be possible that the wretched state of Zion is part of the affliction that bears the psalmist down.1
But what was the historical context which led to this?
Verses 13–17 parallel closely Nehemiah 1:3; 4:1–3, 10. It seems, then, that the historical setting was the early days of the return from Babylonian exile. Those who loved God and His place were sickened with sorrow over the condition of Zion and her people. But through prayer and perseverance, the temple, city and wells were rebuilt because the people “had a mind to work” (Nehemiah 4:6).
In the end, a wonderful restoration took place. Perhaps Psalm 102 played a role in what became a wonderful, God-sent restoration. It certainly reflects the honesty and hope required for this restoration.
In sum, it is quite possible that the writer was indeed sick. He may, in fact, have been facing the end of his life. And as he faced physical affliction and debilitation, his thoughts turned to matters of deeper import, to things of eternal import such as the kingdom of God. As Boice helpfully comments, “The psalmist sees a parallel between his condition and that of Jerusalem; but having turned his thoughts to God, he is concerned now for the greater of the two disasters.”2
Kidner asserts, “The troubles, to begin with, are private griefs, but later they are transcended by concern for Zion, whose destiny is glorious yet painfully slow in coming to fulfilment.”3 And Kirkpatrick writes, “The poet is one into whose heart the sorrows of the nation have entered so deeply that he feels them all his own. The strong sense of solidarity which was characteristic of ancient Israel finds expression here.”4 I think they are correct.
Likewise for Christians and for the church of our day. We need this psalm. We need restoration. In fact, we need the conviction that this is possible.
But further, for those who are suffering from chronic illness, let this psalm guide you in your prayers and in your ultimate perspective. Let the larger purposes of God define you rather than your afflictions.
As we will see, this psalm points to such a restoration, for this is a messianic psalm (Hebrews 1:10–12).
For our purposes, we will divide this psalm into three broad sections.
First, we read of the author’s personal desperation:
Hear my prayer, O LORD, and let my cry come to You. Do not hide Your face from me in the day of my trouble; incline Your ear to me; in the day that I call, answer me speedily. For my days are consumed like smoke, and my bones are burned like a hearth. My heart is stricken and withered like grass, so that I forget to eat my bread. Because of the sound of my groaning my bones cling to my skin. I am like a pelican of the wilderness; I am like an owl of the desert. I lie awake, and am like a sparrow alone on the housetop. My enemies reproach me all day long; those who deride me swear an oath against me. For I have eaten ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping, because of Your indignation and Your wrath; for You have lifted me up and cast me away. My days are like a shadow that lengthens, and wither away like grass.
If restoration, reformation and regeneration (v. 18) will occur, desperation must precede it. The chronicler recorded God’s words in this regard: “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).
We see the same principle in Mary’s song as recorded in Luke 1:46–55. There, Mary speaks of “God my Saviour” who “has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant.” She then goes on to praise Him for the salvation that He has brought to mankind through Jesus Christ.
Zacharias echoed Mary’s words when he received news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy:
Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, who have been since the world began, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us, to perform the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to our father Abraham: to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, with which the Dayspring from on high has visited us; to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
As we will see, the writer’s personal desperation was rooted in the nation’s corporate desperation. The corporate condition of God’s people and place was painfully a part of his psyche.
We see the psalmist’s prayer in vv. 1–2. The word translated “cry” speaks of a hallooing cry. It speaks of heart-wrenching desperation from honest realisation. Things did not look good (cf. Nehemiah 1:1–4).
The psalmist writes of his “trouble.” The word speaks of a narrow, tight place,and therefore symbolically of distress. But note that the psalmist’s was hopeful desperation. If this were not the case, why pray?
I appreciate Leupold’s insight: “Asking to be heard is not the outgrowth of expecting not to be heard but rather an effective way of recalling that God is ready to hear.”5
Bad times call for bold means; big problems for bold praying. As Boice put it, “Desperate conditions make for strong petitions.”6 The psalmist’s desperate plight made for passionate, not perfunctory, prayer. It was the kind of prayer that John Knox prayed when he cried to God, “Give me Scotland or I die!”
I must admit that I tire of hearing those with solid, reformed doctrine sometimes criticising churches with less precise doctrine who promote all night prayer meetings. In our smugness, we can criticize the attitude that suggests longevity in prayer guarantees God’s answers to prayers. But perhaps we should recognise that greater passion and sobriety in prayer may well get God’s ear!
In vv. 3–11 we find a description of the psalmist’s desperation. He describes his pain in four distinct ways.
First, in vv. 3–5 he paints himself as afflicted: “For my days are consumed like smoke, and my bones are burned like a hearth. My heart is stricken and withered like grass, so that I forget to eat my bread. Because of the sound of my groaning my bones cling to my skin.”
He describes himself in v. 3 as dried up wood, consumed as by a furnace. His days are consumed with futility. In v. 4 he tells of being smitten and injured. Whatever the particular affliction, it led to loss of appetite. Some have suggested that he was driven by his burden to fasting. He describes his sighing in v. 5, as if he was hopelessly wasting away. A recent article about an anorexic woman who came to faith in Christ was a powerful illustration to me of what the author is perhaps trying to portray here. As I read the article, I was struck by the pictures of a woman who really looked like a starving refugee, and was moved as she described the help that she found in the gospel.
Let me ask at this point, have you been there? Have you felt the affliction that the author describes in this psalm? Some might question whether a Christian should ever reach this point, but the reality is that we sometimes do. I find it interesting that the author borrows phrases throughout this psalm from other psalms. It is difficult to be original when you are cast down!
Second, in vv. 6–7, the psalmist describes himself as all alone. He writes, “I am like a pelican of the wilderness; I am like an owl of the desert. I lie awake, and am like a sparrow alone on the housetop.”
We are not entirely certain of the identity of the birds mentioned in this verse, but the point has been well summarised by Kirkpatrick: “He compares himself to solitude-loving birds which haunt desolate places and ruins, uttering weird and mournful cries.”7
The writer describes his lonesome insomnia as he lies awake at night. I recently heard someone quip that there is good news for insomniacs: only three more sleeps till Christmas! The truth is, there is nothing funny about an inability to find rest in sleep.
The solitude of which the poet speaks reminds me of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote, “He who sins alone is painfully alone.”8 The psalmist’s sense of isolation only intensified his desperation.
You may have felt this way as a believer, but let’s remember that it is entirely possible to feel this way as a local church. I recall visiting Capitol Hill Baptist Church when I was in the United States. That Sunday, there was a large marathon being held in Washington, D.C. The church warned its members to arrive early because the streets all around the church building were being closed for the race. As I sat there that morning, the thought struck me that the most important thing in the city was happening right there in the building, but thousands of people were (literally) running around outside, completely oblivious to the significance of the gathering inside one building.
As churches, we can sometimes be made to feel irrelevant, ineffectual and ignored. Clearly, this is a psalm we need to hear!
Third, the writer describes himself as assaulted: “My enemies reproach me all day long; those who deride me swear an oath against me. For I have eaten ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping” (vv. 8–9).
The poet describes the insulting taunts that the enemies fling at him as they “reproach” and “deride” him “all day long.” Once again, we see evidence of this in the record of the early returnees from exile (Nehemiah 4; 6). The word translated “reproach” literally means to carp at, to scorn, or to esteem as having little worth. “Deride” means to treat as a fool, or shamefully. “All day long” indicates that these insults were continuous. In fact, these insults were flung at him as curses (“swear an oath”). He felt condemned. Leupold observes, “A far more painful trouble is the mockery of heartless enemies who pour out a continual stream of taunts.”9
Let’s face it: The church is often despised and the butt of jokes—as are individual Christians. If we are honest, we will admit that this is sometimes deservedly so, but sometimes we suffer for the name of Christ (see 1 Peter 4:15–16). I do not mean to excuse the foolishness that we see in so many churches, which leads the world to scorn the name of Christ. It has saddened me in recent days to read of churches in our own country in which pastors have encouraged congregants to eat live snakes and rats. Such churches may well deserve the scorn with which the world views them, but sadly the world lumps all churches together in this derision. One senses, however, that the psalmist and his people were being scorned not for such foolishness, but for true Christian behaviour.
Fourth, the psalmist felt abandoned by God. All this opposition, he felt, was “because of Your indignation and Your wrath; for You have lifted me up and cast me away. My days are like a shadow that lengthens, and I wither away like grass” (vv. 10–11).
We should not be hasty in criticising the author’s words here. It appears that he was willing to assume responsibility for the alienation and sense of rejection that he felt. Nonetheless, it is clear that he felt the sun setting on his life (v. 11).
It is a right thing to accept responsibility as a member of the community. Consider the words of Nehemiah, in which he openly accepted responsibility as one of God’s covenant people for the chastening of the nation:
I pray, LORD God of heaven, O great and awesome God, You who keep Your covenant and mercy with those who love You and observe Your commandments, please let Your ear be attentive and Your eyes open, that You may hear the prayer of Your servant which I pray before You now, day and night, for the children of Israel Your servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel which we have sinned against You. Both my father’s house and I have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against You, and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses. Remember, I pray, the word that You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, “If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations; but if you return to Me, and keep My commandments and do them, though some of you were cast out to the farthest part of the heavens, yet I will gather them from there, and bring them to the place which I have chosen as a dwelling for My name.” Now these are Your servants and Your people, whom You have redeemed by Your great power, and by Your strong hand. O Lord, I pray, please let Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant, and to the prayer of Your servants who desire to fear Your name; and let Your servant prosper this day, I pray, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.
Nehemiah expresses similar acceptance of responsibility in the longer prayer in chapter 9. He understood a vital principle, which we would do well to understand today: When the church suffers, the individual church member suffers. And this should lead us, as it led Nehemiah, to seek repentance in a hope-filled manner.
There is perhaps one overriding lesson we need to take from this section: When you feel the pain, pray! Perhaps many of us, in fact, should pray to feel the pain! Perhaps it is time to make ourselves vulnerable before the Lord so that we might be driven to pray for restoration.
In vv. 12–22, we see the psalmist praying in hopeful anticipation:
But You, O LORD, shall endure forever, and the remembrance of Your name to all generations. You will arise and have mercy on Zion; for the time to favour her, yes, the set time, has come. For Your servants take pleasure in her stones, and show favour to her dust. So the nations shall fear the name of the LORD, and all the kings of the earth Your glory. For the LORD shall build up Zion; He shall appear in His glory. He shall regard the prayer of the destitute, and shall not despise their prayer. This will be written for the generation to come, that a people yet to be created may praise the LORD. For He looked down from the height of His sanctuary; from heaven the LORD viewed the earth, to hear the groaning of the prisoner, to release those appointed to death, to declare the name of the LORD in Zion, and His praise in Jerusalem, when the peoples are gathered together, and the kingdoms, to serve the LORD.
While the writer felt the weight of his affliction, he was hopeful of restoration and reformation. His was a vision of victory.
A Fruitful Remembrance
While things seemed bad at present, the psalmist was confident that the Lord would have His day: “But You, O LORD, shall endure forever, and the remembrance of Your name to all generations. You will arise and have mercy on Zion; for the time to favour her, yes, the set time, has come” (vv. 12–13). “Though he cannot forget his own sufferings, and prays that he may be spared a premature death, he finds rest in the thought of the eternity and unchangeableness of Jehovah.”10
The point of these verses is, in the words of G. Campbell Morgan, that “there is nothing more calculated to strengthen the heart in suffering, or inspire the spirit with courage in days of danger and difficulty, than the sense of the eternity of God.”11 The psalmist believed that the future was as bright as the promises of God.
The word translated “endure” means to dwell or to sit down on a throne. “Remembrance” speaks of holding something always before you. Because the Lord was seated ever on his throne, the psalmist was confident that He would act when the time was right—and that time, he felt, was now.
The writer pleaded for “mercy,” using a word that means to cherish or soothe. It carries overtones of the tenderest affection and compassion. The word translated “favour” means to be inclined toward or to pity. The “set time” is perhaps a reference to the completion of seventy years. One feels that the author was aware, likely in terms of Jeremiah 29:10, that the appointed time for the end of the exile was at hand. The psalmist, therefore, was clinging to God’s promises as he prayed.
Believer, pray—clinging to the promises of God. There is hope! Does all seem hopeless for the sake of the gospel? Then cling to the promises of Matthew 28:18–20. Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth, and He has promised to be with us until the end of the age. Read Revelation and be encouraged that the gospel will triumph in the end; the kingdom of God will be fully and finally established. Pray, clinging to these glorious gospel promises.
A Faithful Remnant
In vv. 14–15, the psalmist speaks of a faithful remnant: “For Your servants take pleasure in her stones, and show favour to her dust. So the nations shall fear the name of the LORD, and all the kings of the earth Your glory.”
God shows favour to His church by raising up those who favour the church. The result is a greater awakening. “Israel does not return alone: its restoration will be the signal for that gathering of the nations to worship Jehovah in Zion.”12
Every generation has those who keep the vision alive. In ages past, we might point to men like Augustine, Calvin, Carey or Spurgeon. Today we might look to men like Ralph Winters, David Platt, John Piper or Kenneth Gentry. These men believed (and believe) God’s gospel promises and we would do well to learn from them.
Some years ago I preached through Exodus. As I was making my ways through the case laws, I was working through Gary North’s massive volume dealing with the same.13 North takes some 1,200 pages to expound three chapters of Exodus. As he writes, he clearly understands that it is not necessarily a book that will be read cover to cover. He admits that people might think it strange to spend such a massive amount of effort on a lengthy book detailing ancient laws. But he writes in hope. He believes that a day is coming in the future when God’s gospel promises will be realised, and when people will be looking for ways to apply God’s revealed laws. He hopes that his book will one day prove a valuable tool in a gospel-saturated world.
Would to God that we would share the hope-filled faith of these (and other) men. Do you want to make a difference in the world for God’s glory? Then believe the power of the gospel. Believe that God uses His faithful remnant to bring others to worship Him.
Next (vv. 16–22), the writer expresses his hope in future restoration. He understands that the Lord does His work through His people. There is a major transformation in tone here from vv. 1–11. “The restoration of Israel will be nothing less than a new creation.”12
The psalmist has already expressed his desperation, but now he displays confidence in God’s response: “For the LORD shall build up Zion; He shall appear in His glory. He shall regard the prayer of the destitute, and shall not despise their prayer” (vv. 16–17).
But the psalmist’s hope was not only for his current generation. He believed that there was an even more glorious day to come:
This will be written for the generation to come, that a people yet to be created may praise the LORD. For He looked down from the height of His sanctuary; from heaven the LORD viewed the earth, to hear the groaning of the prisoner, to release those appointed to death, to declare the name of the LORD in Zion, and His praise in Jerusalem, when the peoples are gathered together, and the kingdoms, to serve the LORD.
Verse 18 is promise of regeneration. As we have noted, regeneration must precede and accompany restoration. The psalmist, therefore, looked forward to “a people yet to be created” who would “praise the LORD.” His confidence was in the gospel. As the gospel created a new people to praise the Lord, things would change. There was glorious hope of restoration because of the gospel.
The gospel is always the issue. Our goal in all things is to see, by the power of the gospel, the “release” of “those appointed to death.” Consider these words, written by Burk Parsons, of the well-known Scottish preacher John Knox:
Perhaps more than anything else, John Knox is known for his prayer “Give me Scotland, or I die.” Knox’s prayer was not an arrogant demand, but the passionate plea of a man willing to die for the sake of the pure preaching of the gospel and the salvation of his countrymen. Knox’s greatness lay in his humble dependence on our sovereign God to save His people, revive a nation, and reform His church. As is evident from his preaching and prayer, Knox believed neither in the power of his preaching nor in the power of his prayer, but in the power of the gospel and the power of God, who sovereignly ordains preaching and prayer as secondary means in the salvation of His people.
Although Knox had been imprisoned and enslaved, and though he was often infirm and under threat of persecution, he consistently lived out his theology, believing that “one man with God is always in the majority.” As such, the prayers of one man heard at the throne of God were a threat to the throne of Scotland. During the time of the sixteenth-century Scottish Reformation, Knox’s ministry of preaching and prayer were so well known that the Roman Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, is reputed to have said, “I fear the prayers of John Knox more than all the assembled armies of Europe.”
We need to pray, driven by this vision. Daniel saw the kingdoms of the earth crushed by the kingdom of Christ, which then grew into an enormous mountain covering the entire earth. We must be driven by confidence in that vision to preach and pray the gospel with passion.
The psalm closes with a theological realisation:
He weakened my strength in the way; He shortened my days. I said, “O my God, do not take me away in the midst of my days; Your years are throughout all generations. Of old You laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but You will endure; yes, they will all grow old like a garment; like a cloak You will change them, and they will be changed. But You are the same, and Your years will have no end. The children of Your servants will continue, and their descendants will be established before You.”
The psalmist did not want to be taken by God before he saw the promises of vv. 18–22 fulfilled. His prayer would perhaps echo the words of the sons of Korah:
Restore us, O God of our salvation, and cause Your anger toward us to cease. Will You be angry with us forever? Will You prolong Your anger to all generations? Will You not revive us again, that Your people may rejoice in You? Show us Your mercy, LORD, and grant us Your salvation.
The psalmist believed that God’s answer to this prayer was on the horizon and he wanted to live to see it. At the same time, he was confident that God’s answer would come, even if he did not live to see it. As Leupold put it, “How early or how late God’s help will come is far less important than is the fact that it will come.”15 Kirkpatrick adds, “The eternity of God is the pledge for the permanence of His people. Even if the Psalmist and his contemporaries do not live to see the restoration of Israel, their descendants will have part in it.”16
We need to develop in our minds a multigenerational mindset. Some years ago, a church members suggested that we plant some trees in the parking lot of our church. He brought small, spindly-looking specimens with him. At first, I thought we should go for more mature plants, thinking quite selfishly that I may never live to see the benefits of planting such young trees. But I was soon convicted that I should be thinking of the benefits that would be reaped by future generations.
The psalmist appear to revert in these verses to the desperation of vv. 1–11. He senses a lessening of vigour. He senses that, like Moses, he wasn’t experiencing what he anticipated. He recognises universal deterioration. Yet, fundamentally, he acknowledges God’s continuation. He is convinced that the eternal God will have His way. There is cause for celebration. And there is reason to labour now for then.
Believer, regardless of what you see happening around you, believe that Jesus Christ will build His church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). Prioritise, therefore, what God is doing and through whom He is doing it. God buries His workmen but His work continues.
Finally, we should note that this is a psalm of Messianic expectation. The New Testament applies Psalm 102 to Christ:
For to which of the angels did He ever say: “You are My Son, today I have begotten You”? And again: “I will be to Him a Father, and He shall be to Me a Son”? But when He again brings the firstborn into the world, He says: “Let all the angels of God worship Him.”
And of the angels He says: “Who makes His angels spirits and His ministers a flame of fire.” But to the Son He says: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of Your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness more than Your companions.” And: “You, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but You remain; and they will all grow old like a garment; like a cloak You will fold them up, and they will be changed. But You are the same, and Your years will not fail.”
Hebrews 1:12 quotes Psalm 102:25–27. Hence, this is a messianic psalm. It is perhaps legitimate to apply the entire psalm to Christ. We might, therefore, argue that vv. 1–11 describe Messiah’s desolation; vv. 12–22 describe Messiah’s salvation; and vv. 23–28 describe Messiah’s expectation or full consummation. His “shortened days” because of the cross were rewarded with everlasting days. His kingdom will have no end. Salvation is coming.
We are actually a part of what was written about from v. 18. The new creation has begun. So pray for a greater realisation of this. Labour for it. Remove the rubbish. Have a mind to work. And then be surprised by hope!
- H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 706. ↩
- James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 2:829. ↩
- Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 2:360. ↩
- A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms (Cambridge: Scripture Truth, n.d.), 593. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 708. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 2:826. ↩
- Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 594. ↩
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1954), 110. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 709. ↩
- Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 593. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 2:828. ↩
- Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 597. ↩
- Gary North, Tools of Dominion: The Case Laws of Exodus (Tyler: The Institute for Christian Economics, 1990). ↩
- Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 597. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 714. ↩
- Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 599. ↩