From The Psalms as Christian Lament
PSALM 102: A prayer by an afflicted person when he grows weak
and pours out his complaint before “I AM.”
“I AM,” hear my prayer;
let my cry for help come to you.
Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress.
Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly.
For my days vanish in smoke;
my bones burn like glowing embers.
My heart is blighted like vegetation and so withers;
I forget and depart without eating my food.
From the sound of my sobbing,
my bones cling to my flesh.
I am like a desert owl,
I have become like a screech owl among ruins.
I keep vigil; I have become like a bird
alone on a roof.
All day long my enemies taunt me;
those who are senseless and against me swear by me.
For I eat ashes as my food
and mix my drink with tears.
Because of your indignation and anger,
surely, you lifted me up and then threw me down.
My days are like the evening shadow;
I wither away like the vegetation.
But you, “I AM,” sit enthroned forever;
your renown endures from generation to generation.
You arise and have compassion on Zion,
for time to show her favor—
for the appointed time is at hand.
For your slaves delight in her stones;
and they show favor to her dust.
The nations will fear the name of “I AM,”
and all the kings of the Earth will revere your glory.
For “I AM” will rebuild Zion;
He will appear in his glory.
He responds to the prayer of the destitute;
he does not despise their plea.
Let this be written for a future generation,
that a people to be created may praise “I AM”:
“I AM looked down from his holy place on high;
from Heaven he viewed the Earth,
to hear the groans of the prisoners.
and release those condemned to death
to proclaim the name of “I AM” in Zion
and his praise in Jerusalem,
when the peoples assemble themselves together,
and the kingdoms, to worship “I AM.”
In the course of my life he broke my strength;
he cut short my days.
I say: “Do not take me away, my God, in the midst of my days;
your years go on through all generations.
Prior to that you laid the foundations of the Earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
Like clothing you will change them and they will vanish.
But you are He Who Is,
and your years will never end.
The sons of your slaves will live in your presence;
their seed will be established before you.
An anonymous desperately sick exile in his midlife is on the edge of the grave at the end of the Babylonian exile. He probably heard the preaching of Isiah, for his psalm echoes the themes and motifs of Second (40-55) and Third Isaiah (56-66). The afflicted prays that God may share a tiny portion of his unending years with the psalmist’s few days so that he might witness the restoration of Zion with his own eyes.
In the first stanza the afflicted invokes an immediate hearing, for his case is urgent. His bones burn and his heart withers. He is gaunt – nothing but skin and bones – like the prisoners at Auschwitz – for sorrow and sickness have taken away his appetite. His enemies seize his desiccation and emaciation as an opportunity to taunt him. Exposed to their ribald mockery, he is like a owl among ruins; his food is the ashes of a mourner, and his bitter drink is made more potent with tears. Worst of all, he is under divine wrath. Now his life quickly fades away like a shadow about to be engulfed by the darkness of night; he is about to die, unfulfilled.
But the transient mortal is not without hope. In the second stanza, with the eagle eye of faith, he sees “I AM” enthroned on high forever. His kingship in Heaven and its historical realization on Mount Zion. God’s everlasting rule guarantees Zion’s future, for they are in corporate solidarity with one another. More than that, he knows – from the prophecies of Isaiah and especially Jeremiah – that the appointed time for Zion’s rejuvenation has come. Moreover, the covenant made their return from exile conditional upon their repentance. When “I AM” rebuilds Zion, the nations will join the slaves in praising the name of “I AM” at the temple in Zion. This new initiative of “I AM” shows that he responds to the prayers of the destitute. “I AM’s” intentional looking down from Heaven to hear the groans of prisoners and to release them from their death sentence must be written down – oral transmission evidently does not suffice – so that future generations may praise “I AM.” One thing is certain: the peoples, nations, and kingdoms of the Earth will gather and praise God in Zion. The afflicted psalmist longs to see that new age. In sum, within the meta-narrative of death and shame, he is lifted up from his self-immersion to Heavenly contemplation and finds hope and meaning to his otherwise unfulfilled, uncertain existence.
In the third stanza he returns to his broken reality, to his fragile and uncertain hold on life. But now armed with faith’s vision of God spanning the generations, he prays that he not die prematurely, presumably so that he might glimpse the reality of the appointed time. He lives in hope, confident that the descendants of God’s slaves will be established forever under God’s protection. Salvation history must end in triumph, not in defeat. His ultimate concern is not for himself but for the kingdom of God. He can accept his own death with equanimity, with the assurance that the future generations of God’s slaves will be established and protected. He is in corporate solidarity with the community that sacred history will justify.