Psalm 102 is the fifth of the seven Penitential Psalms. In this Psalm, we see a dimension to ‘repentance’ that we have not yet seen. Rather than an individual focus on ‘my sin’ and the desire to amend my sinful life and walk with the Lord, here we see a desire for ‘repentance’ that grows out of the weariness and struggle of trying to live by faith in a fallen and sinful world. The Psalmist prays to that the Lord will rescue the nation and the church from its sinful and fallen ways.
1 Hear my prayer, O LORD; let my cry come to you!
2 Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress!
Incline your ear to me; answer me speedily in the day when I call!
The brief introduction Psalm tells us that the psalmist is in ‘DISTRESS,’ and that in his ‘DISTRESS,’ he calls upon God. It’s not that he thinks that God doesn’t already know his situation. But as a person of faith, he comes to God with his troubles because he knows that God is his gracious heavenly Father who tenderly invites His children to ‘come to me, you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ (Mat.11:28)
His prayer is that God would not be so disgusted with him that He would ‘turn his face’ from him but, hear his prayer.
Luther writes, “To turn away the face is a sign of wrath, while to turn the face toward one is a sign of grace. To incline the ear is nothing else than to heed the cry of a troubled heart. He cannot call or desire strongly enough to reach up to the ears of God, and so he prays that God may turn downward toward him to hear him.”
After this brief introduction, the Psalmist proceeds to lay out his situation to the Lord.
As we read verses 3-11 again, notice that the personal pronouns are all first person, singular – “I,” “me” or “my.”
3 “For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace.
4 My heart is struck down like grass and has withered; I forget to eat my bread.
5 Because of my loud groaning my bones cling to my flesh.
6 I am like a desert owl of the wilderness, like an owl of the waste places;
7 I lie awake; I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop.
8 All the day my enemies taunt me; those who deride me use my name for a curse.
9 For I eat ashes like bread and mingle tears with my drink,
10 because of your indignation and anger; for you have taken me up and thrown me down.
11 My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass.”
As the Psalmist lays out the condition of his life to God, it is a pretty depressing picture.
Listen to the way Luther describes it. “My days become nothing and are spent uselessly, just as smoke passes away in the air and is gone. Nothing of my life remains that is of any use in yonder life. My life is more a symptom and a sign than a real life, just as smoke is only a symptom and a sign of fire and not the real thing…”
“Grass that is cut off and broken loses its source of life. It dries out and becomes fuel for the fire. This is how we are all smitten in Adam by the devil and robbed of or source of life, namely, of God, through whose inflowing we should become green and grow. So, we are without grace, dried up, fuel for the everlasting fire.”
“His heart is so smitten that he forgets to eat. No wonder he is wasting away. FOR THE BREAD OF THE DRIED OUT HEART IS NONE OTHER THAN GOD HIMSELF, WHO ALONE CAN NOURISH THE HEART; for the heart must have eternal food if it is to be satisfied. But, blessed is he who realizes this forgetfulness that he has not eaten the bread of God and complains about his hunger. Those who forget their forgetting because they are so full of earthly bread are accursed.”
Luther sees the primary struggle that he feels he is the struggle against his own, sinful nature – a struggle which he is losing. “In my life of groaning, I labor and fight against my evil nature so much that I am nothing but skin and bones…” “By this groaning, it is not only the bodily and momentary sobbing that is to be understood, but the whole repentant life and the laborious desire for grace and comfort. Such people experience how profoundly original sin has corrupted us.”
Luther sees in the Psalmist a man who strives to be faithful in a world that is hostile to the faith and persecutes the faithful person. He is weary and worn out and he sees the transitory nature of his life as smoke and grass. He is like an “owl in the wilderness” that looks over a world and sees nothing but a wasteland of unbelief and ungodliness.
When he complains of not sleeping, rather than seeing this a sign of his worrying and grief, Luther sees it as a sign of his perseverance. “I did not fall asleep or fail to watch over myself. The world sleeps, as the apostle says, “Let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.” (1 Thess. 5:6).”
“Thus Isaiah says, “it is like when a hungry man dreams, and behold, he is eating, and awakes with his hunger not satisfied, or as when a thirsty man dreams, and behold, he is drinking, and awakes faint, with his thirst not quenched.” (Is.29:8) To sleep is nothing but the love and desire for that which cannot satisfy. It’s nothing but dreaming. But to be awake is to hold fast and look to and long for the eternal good.”
Luther sees the man of faith in a faithless world as a lonely person. “But in this he is all alone and no one is with him for all the others are sleeping. He thinks of his situation as “on a housetop,” as if he meant: The world is a house in which all men are sleeping. I alone am outside the house, on the roof, not yet in heaven and still not in the world. The world is below me, and heaven is above me. I hover between the life of the world and eternal life, lonely in the faith.”
It’s worth pausing here to think about how easily this prayer could belong to our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane. In His terrible distress over the cup of wrath that He knows He must drink, He remains awake while His disciples sleep.
It is hard for the psalmist to find enjoy in anything, even his food, which he describes as like eating ashes. “So it seems to every soul who feels God’s wrath, as if it were cast away and eternally damned,” says Luther.
His final verdict on his life is like Solomon’s “vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Luther describes it like this, “My time has passed away vainly, and I have nothing to show for it. Just as nothing remains of a shadow, so also nothing remains of all life that is spent in fleshly and worldly lust. And yet there is no one without this life, for the flesh is in all of us. Therefore the life of all of us is a useless life. Fortunate is he who realizes this.”
Now as we read verses 12-22 again, let’s be sure to notice that all of the personal pronouns are now in the ‘second or third person, singular” – “You, He, His.”
12 But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever;
you are remembered throughout all generations.
13 You will arise and have pity on Zion;
it is the time to favor her; the appointed time has come.
14 For your servants hold her stones dear
and have pity on her dust.
15 Nations will fear the name of the LORD,
and all the kings of the earth will fear your glory.
16 For the LORD builds up Zion;
he appears in his glory;
17 he regards the prayer of the destitute
and does not despise their prayer.
18 Let this be recorded for a generation to come,
so that a people yet to be created may praise the LORD:
19 that he looked down from his holy height;
from heaven the LORD looked at the earth,
20 to hear the groans of the prisoners,
to set free those who were doomed to die,
21 that they may declare in Zion the name of the LORD,
and in Jerusalem his praise,
22 when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to worship the LORD.
The Psalmist now makes a decisive turn away from looking inward at himself and his pathetic condition and the world in which he lives – and directs his full attention to God.
Listen to Luther: Here the Psalmist prays, “I pass away, and my days come to nothing. Therefore I am sick of my life and desire Your life, in which there is nothing that passes away. My name and all I have done passes away. But Your name endures to though all generations. So how do I get from myself to You so that my being and my name may also remain forever? Sadly, I am too far away from You and too far down in the depths. I cannot come to You. Therefore, O Lord, arise, and come to me and take me to Yourself.”
“He appeals to the time. As St. Paul says, the fullness of time has come. The time for grace is at hand. That is to say, everything that is necessary to build your church is ready. Your servants long for your deliverance and eagerly want to hear and learn the Gospel. This is what Christ meant when He said, “Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.” (John 4:34).”
“Just as God made Adam out of the dust of the earth, so God can build His new church out of the dust that remains of the old… This is not an earthly kingdom in which one must help, support, and assist – but a spiritual kingdom, in which everyone is helped and assisted out of every need of body and soul.”
“It is the gospel of God’s love and mercy for His poor and destitute people that the Psalmist prays would ‘be recorded for a generation to come.’ The message is that God has looked down from heaven and seen the misery of His people. He has heard the groans of the prisoners. And He has come down and set them free from their captivity to sin. He has delivered His people who were doomed to die because of their sin by atoning for it in the death of His beloved Son.
God has answered the Psalmist’s prayer in Jesus Christ. And we are the “generation to come.” For the Good News has come to us. And we are now being called to pass it forward to the next generation. And one day when the time has once again fully come, we will be gathered together in the holy Zion, as one people, with one voice, to declare the name of the Lord and in Jerusalem his praise, and with all the faithful, worship the Lord.
23 He has broken my strength in midcourse;
he has shortened my days.
24 “O my God,” I say, “take me not away in the midst of my days—
you whose years endure throughout all generations!”
25 Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
26 They will perish, but you will remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
27 but you are the same, and your years have no end.
28 The children of your servants shall dwell secure;
their offspring shall be established before you.
The Psalmist ends his prayer by contrasting the temporal nature of our life in this world to the eternal nature of God. He finds great security and comfort in a society that seems to be crumbling as it becomes progressively more godless, in the fact that God is permanent and unchanging. However unsteady the ground beneath his feet is, his God is unchanging and “the children of your servants will dwell secure.”
We confess, that like the Psalmist, we have all too often been overwhelmed with worry and despair, as though God were not in control and did not already win the victory on Easter Sunday. In our weakness, we have fallen asleep far too often. We pray that we would once again be reminded and reassured that even though this world is transitory and bound to pass away, “God will remain…” And by our baptism and through faith, we remain in Him. “He is always the same. His years have no end.” Therefore, “we will dwell securely.”