A Prayer of the Afflicted: A Study of Psalm 102
“Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances” (Proverbs 25:11, NASB). In the circumstance of tragedy, a simple statement spoken in sincerity, “I know how you feel,” are words that are like apples of gold in settings of silver.
When you say, “I know how you feel,” to a friend recently diagnosed with a malignancy, being a recovering cancer patient yourself, those are words fitly spoken.
Or when one mother puts her arms around another mother who has recently lost her child, having lost a child herself, and says “I know how you feel,” those are words fitly spoken.
When a person is grievously suffering, and reads Psalm 102, he finds a sentiment that says, in part, “I know how you feel.”
In the midst of raging technology, we can still identify with an inspired prayer dozens of centuries old. In fact, the psalm puts into words and pictures feelings that many have experienced, yet have never verbalized.
Before we examine the content of the prayer, let’s take a moment to consider its type and structure. Of the 150 psalms in the inspired collection, the majority are laments. The superscription of Psalm 102 provides a precise definition of a lament: “A prayer of the afflicted when he is overwhelmed, and poureth out his complaint before Jehovah.”
Notice the nature, time, and focus of the lament, as defined in this “scribal commentary.” The nature is serious in that the psalmist is overwhelmed. The time of the prayer corresponds to the time of the tragedy; this would be different from a prayer uttered several years after the fact (e.g., a psalm of thanksgiving). The focus is toward God.
Generally, laments have a discernible structure. Laments found in Jeremiah, Lamentations, and the book of Job contain a similar structure to those found in the Psalms. “This suggests that these writers were following an accepted literary convention, as poets frequently do in our Western culture” (Anderson 1983, 66). Laments are normally structured according to the following format:
- address to God,
- confession of trust,
- words of assurance,
- and vow of praise (76-77).
While laments of a similar structure can be found in Babylonian literature, the laments of Psalms are inspired. They are not to be construed as rambling complaints, but the songs are from-the-soul prayers to God. Their writers seek for divinely approved solutions in the management and resolution of real problems.
In Psalm 102, we can readily identify with the writer’s feelings concerning tragedy. The challenge lies in identifying with his thoughts concerning the solution. Let us now look to the content of Psalm 102.
God Is Addressed.
The writer’s prayer was a cry of distress (1-2). He anticipated that God could and would answer him, but he desired a speedy response (2c). Faith, in the nation of Israel, was based upon the reality that God sees the affliction and hears the cries of His people (cf. Ex. 4:7).
The psalmist was no Lord Herbert of Cherbury, the so-called father of deism (Harrison, 161-62). The deistic belief concerning potential divine involvement in the affairs of men is embodied in the words of the mockers of 2 Peter 3:4. “Where is the promise of his coming? For, from the day that the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.” Peter corrected that false notion by reminding them of the heaven-sent universal flood during Noah’s day.
The petitioner of Psalm 102 had a faith rooted in the God who acts on behalf of his people (though not always miraculously — certainly not miraculously today, cf. 1 Cor. 13:8-10). To whom else should he, or we, turn in anxious hours?
Here’s What I Am Going Through.
The historical situation of the afflicted one is unknown. One clue in the psalm may be verse thirteen with its reference to the rebuilding of Zion. The tone certainly fits one who was exiled in Babylon.
The health of the Psalmist was an issue as well, but it may have been a secondary cause of distress, and not the real issue at hand. Regardless, he was suffering in many respects, whatever the initial cause.
The composer is so overwhelmed by his affliction that he is going through a mental, physical, social, and spiritual crisis. The author uses vivid imagery to describe how certain problems had seriously affected these respective areas of his existence.
“For my days consume away like smoke and my bones are burned as a firebrand” (3). There is a mental strain on the part of one who is afflicted (which often is self-imposed). Life’s troubles demand considerable time and energy. Feeling distracted from the urgencies of daily living, the psalmist’s days appeared to be but a waste of time. The hours resembled wisps of smoke, and there was nothing to show for them after they vanished.
In depression, one may feel useless, lazy, and unproductive. This only further frustrates the afflicted one, and others may unproductively call it to his attention as well. The psalmist felt as if he accomplished nothing, and that his life was a waste of time.
This was not necessarily a proper assessment of his days, yet that’s how he felt, and it compounded his anxiety. Albert Barnes correctly observes: “This is often the feeling in trial: — and yet in trial a man may be more useful, he may do more to accomplish the real ends of life, he may do more to illustrate the power and excellence of religion, than he ever did in the days of prosperity” (64).
His burning bones witnessed the depth to which he was touched by the ordeal. It was not a trifling itch, but rather a painful burning. The thought of this verse may actually indicate the physical pain that came by the trial. That his health had been compromised, at the expense of the difficulty, is without question — when the following verses are considered.
“My heart is smitten like grass, and withered; for I forgot to eat my bread” (4). The psalmist spoke from a broken heart. His heart had received a blow — he was wounded.
He had been cut down like grass. Having no provision of its own, when cut from the root, grass immediately withers and dies. The crushing effect of grief was painfully described.
The psalmist’s agony was complicated by the fact that with his grief came the loss of appetite, “for I forgot to eat my bread.” His mind could no longer “remind” him that it was time to eat. The capacity to prompt hunger had been lost. Anyone who has experienced serious loss, or depression, can say, “I know what this person was experiencing.”
The body and mind cannot function properly without adequate nutrition. The weaker he felt, the worse his condition became. The more despondent he became, the less he wanted to eat. A vicious cycle took over and his body began to suffer. He struggled with the pain and its complicating realities.
“By reason of the voice of my groaning my bones cleave to my flesh” (5). Who cannot identify with him who experienced anguish of body and soul! He claimed to be nothing but “skin and bones.” The calamity was no trifling irritation which he could “get over” quickly. A life-changing tragedy had happened, he was overwhelmed, and he could not adapt easily or painlessly.
In addition to the mental and physical trauma through which he had passed, the writer described the social pressure that he tasted. He was lonely, sleepless, and reproached.
“I am like a pelican of the wilderness; I am become as an owl of the waste places” (6). Here is a representation of loneliness and depression. He was not as the eagle who soars high and is a picture of strength (cf. Ps. 103:5); rather, “The Psalmist likens himself to two birds which were commonly used as emblems of gloom and wretchedness” (Spurgeon, 2: 252).
“I watch, and am become like a sparrow that is alone on the housetop” (7). Withdrawal is characteristic of the desperately hurting, yet the loneliness of isolation often compounds the hurt.
“Mine enemies reproach me all the day; they that are mad against me do curse by me” (8). His social misery came partially from the reproach of his enemies, and his grief was complicated by their taunting statements. Their collective ridicule may have taken the form of such insults as, “Where is your God?” (cf. Ps. 42:3). “So miserable does he seem, that enemies take him and his distresses for a formula of imprecation, and can find no blacker curse to launch at other foes than to wish that they may be like him” (Maclaren, 3: 92).
Such suffering was often viewed as having a spiritual cause (cf. Jn. 9:1-2). Leslie C. Allen states: “In a culture where ill health was regarded as divine punishment for sins, he has found himself ostracized and persecuted. Rivals have seized the opportunity to taunt him and misuse his name” (14).
His mental, physical, and social struggle knew no relief. Ashes, a token of mourning, were as common to him as food is to the healthy; his tears mingled with his drink (9). Barnes aptly explained the scene, saying, “The idea is, that he shed copious tears; and that even when he took his food, there was no respite to his grief” (67).
The bitterest thought came with the psalmist’s speculation that divine wrath was the ultimate cause of his suffering (10). Certainly the writer knew more about his condition than we do, but we are shown positively in the case of Job, that not all suffering comes as a direct result of personal sin (cf. Jn 9:1-3).
But in his own case, the psalmist contemplated his experience as a measure of God’s indignation. If the setting was Babylonian exile, perhaps he was having to suffer because of the nation’s sins and God’s divine punishment upon them.
The reflection on his pain closed with his recognition of the lengthening shadows. He saw life’s sunset quickly approaching, and death lurking on the horizon (11).
Here’s What Gives Me Hope.
Laments of Psalms are set apart from mere self-pity by sections like the following. The thoughts that helped the psalmist cut through the darkness to the dawning of a new day are found in verses 12-22.
God is above time and its inherent problems (12). God is a being of mercy and pity (13). God is trustworthy; therefore, he will fulfill his promises (14-16). God hears our prayers, cares when we hurt, and will act on behalf of his people (17, 19, 20). God can encourage later generations through the help he gives his people today. He will be vindicated, and “This shall be written for the generation to come” (18). When God renders help, men will praise and serve him (21-22).
The basis, then, for the psalmist’s hope is that he recognizes the character and nature of God. God is faithful to his promises. He will accomplish his divine plans, and faithful men will praise him in spite of earthly trials.
The writer’s basic petition, as he thought on these things, remained the same. He desired for the prolonging of days (23-24). The grounds for his request were: God is the Creator (25); God is eternal, and he is not subject to the vicissitudes of life (26-27).
[Note: These attributes of deity are applied to Jesus Christ in Hebrews 1:10-12 (cf. Jn. 1:1-3; Col. 2:9).]
Untouched by time’s hand, God is above it. The Lord, who layed the foundations of the earth of old, can ensure that his children continue, and that their seed is established (28).
One distressing thought for a faithful Jew was the contemplation of his race being wiped out and absorbed by a pagan nation (as the Northern Kingdom had been by Assyria in 721 B.C.). God promised that, through Abraham’s descendants, all the families of the earth would be blessed by the coming of the Christ (cf. Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:26-29).
So, the psalmist not only hoped for a continuation of his days personally, but also for his nation’s. Hope was bound up in the perpetuation of “the children of thy servants” (28), until the coming of the Messiah.
[Note: Because they rejected the Messiah, God sent his armies, destroying those murderers and burning their city (Mt. 22:7), in A.D. 70. Christ is the author of eternal salvation to all those that obey him (Heb. 5:9).]
As we stressed in the outset of this study, the challenge is to identify with the resolution of the psalmist, not merely with the agony of his distress. We are going to experience (or are experiencing) mental, physical, social, and spiritual trials. In fact, any problem is potentially a spiritual problem.
But we, like the psalmist, must rely upon God’s Word. Although the heavens wear out like an old garment, he who is above time will accomplish his saving plan.
Regardless of the severity of life, and even in the midst of national calamity, victory is the final word for God’s faithful.
“These shall war against the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them, for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings; and they also shall overcome that are with him, called and chosen and faithful” (Rev. 17:14).
- Allen, Leslie C. (1983), Word Biblical Commentary, Psalms 101-150 (Waco, TX: Word).
- Anderson, Bernhard W. 1983. Out of the Depth: The Psalms Speak for Us Today. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press.
- Barnes, Albert (1950 Ed.), Notes on the Old Testament – Psalms, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1950), Vol. 3.
- Harrison, Everett F., ed. (1960), Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, “Deism” by J. Oliver Buswell, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Baker).
- Maclaren, Alexander (n.d.) The Psalms (New York: George H. Doran Co.), Vol. 3.
- Spurgeon, Charles (n.d.), The Treasury of David (Lynchburg, VA: The Old Time Gospel Hour).