From Bringing the Psalms to Life
During times when our lives resonate with the mood of some psalms, God seems remote and absent to us. We feel like God has forgotten all about us, or cast us off. More darkly, we fear that perhaps God even smolders with anger against us. The psalms make repeated use of the powerful image of God’s face being hidden from us. Admittedly, today we tend to be uncomfortable with anthropomorphic images that speak of God in terms of human attributes. Yet this image does strike a chord in us. It feels to us that God is not merely away, but is holding back from us, hiding. Like the face of the sun hidden by clouds, or during an eclipse, God’s face feels hidden from us in our time of need.
Paradoxically, these verses from psalms bring a particular kind of comfort to us because they assure us that we are not alone in feeling cut off from God when we need God’s presence. Others experience this same eclipse, the psalms remind us; people have anguished over it for thousands of years.
These verses also remind us that it is an authentic religious experience to feel cut off from God. The awareness of God’s absence, as much as the awareness of God’s presence, is part of what it is to experience life as a religious person.
These same feelings animate countless other psalms. We find one particularly powerful evocation of despair in Psalm 102. It begins by stating the mood of those who give voice to these words. Quickly it moves to a clear expression of the sense that even God feels far removed from us in the times of our distress.
1 A Prayer of the afflicted, when he fainteth, and poureth out his complaint before the Lord.
2 O Lord, hear my prayer,
And let my cry come unto Thee.
3 Hide not Thy face from me in the day of my distress;
Incline Thine ear unto me;
In the day when I call answer me speedily.
4 For my days are consumed like smoke,
And my bones are burned as a hearth.
5 My heart is smitten like grass, and withered;
For I forget to eat my bread.
6 By reason of the voice of my sighing
My bones cleave to my flesh.
7 I am like a pelican of the wilderness;
I am become as an owl of the waste places.
8 I watch, and am become
Like a sparrow that is alone upon the housetop.
9 Mine enemies taunt me all the day;
They that are made against me do curse by me.
10 For I have eaten ashes like bread,
And mingled my drink with weeping.
11 Because of Thine indignation and Thy wrath;
For Thou hast taken me up, and cast me away.
12 My days are like a lengthening shadow;
And I am withered like grass.
As we read this psalm we can speculate on the circumstances from which it emerged. It resonates with overtones of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E., and can readily be understood as a petition of one of the exiles from Jerusalem. The fall of the Temple and the people’s exile was no less traumatic in its time than the Shoah [Holocaust] was in our own. The people as a whole couldn’t help but ask, Where is God? in the midst of this cataclysm.
Yet the psalm talks urgently and directly to the reader on a very personal level. When we feel ourselves adrift, we can identity with the poetically compelling images of verses 7-8, 10, and 12. By reflecting on these images drawn from nature, we can experience the emotions within ourselves. They talk to what it feels like to be cast off and alone, to feel that there is no home, no secure place, in this world for us.
If you read the remainder of this psalm you will experience a powerful transition in mood and participate in the journey from hopelessness to confidence.