Psalm 102: The Day of Distress
May 8, 2022
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
One of the great challenges of some songs, and some published prayers, is that they give the impression that life as a Christian is one long feast of rejoicing and celebration. But while a song of triumph has its place, triumphalism is rarely warranted. Even in the midst of a celebration of a great event of kingdom advance, some will be mourning over a deceased husband or child. And too often when we look out at the morning we are unsure how—in our own human strength—we will be faithful to the evening.
The psalmist of Psalm 102 is in great difficulty. It is the “day of my distress” (102:2). Perhaps you sense that for yourself today, or over the last few weeks or months. What do you do about such feelings, or when you are facing those kinds of circumstances that cause you real and great distress? The psalmist begins by praying: “Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come to you!” (102:1).
Too often, we turn our afflictions into complaints; let us instead employ the alchemy of prayer to reconstitute our legitimate moaning into the gold of godly Christlikeness. How does he pray, then? What sort of prayer is this?
First of all, it is painfully honest. He is honest about his physical ailments. “My days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace.” Does he have cancer? At any rate, he is facing real physical suffering. There is some coronary problem too: “My heart is struck like grass and has withered.” It has affected his appetite: “I forget to eat my bread.” He is losing weight alarmingly: “My bones cling to my flesh.” He cannot sleep: “I lie awake; I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop.”
But he is honest not only about his physical ailments, but also his relational difficulties. It is a sad truth, but so often physical suffering is accompanied by relational challenges. People do not understand what you are going through. Those who never liked you make hay while the sun shines to do you down, to talk badly about you, when you are not around to defend yourself. Tolstoy has a short story about the death of his protagonist. He tells the story starting from the point that he is already dead. With biting sarcasm, and all too acute observation, Tolstoy begins with someone saying, “He’s dead, you know.” “Really,” the other replies, “I hadn’t heard.” And then they go on to wonder who has got the job of the deceased person. Even someone’s death becomes hardly a momentary pause in our ambitions for personal success and achievement.
And on top of his physical and relational problems, there is a third—perhaps the cruelest of all. He is depressed (who could blame him?). “For I eat ashes like bread and mingle tears with my drink.” Is he turning to the bottle to self-medicate his depression? Or can he simply not get through a glass of water with weeping into it? At any rate the saw-dusty description of losing appetite and uncontrollable weeping is all too real a description of some sort of depressive experience.
And then comes verse 12! “But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever.” So the prayer is first of all painfully honest, but then it moves to look at God and who he is. Anyone who thinks that theology is for the impractical and theoretical has not yet suffered much. I have had some of the most profound conversations with people facing death. Of course! We want to know for sure who this God is!
But in particular, the psalmist comforts himself with two thoughts about God. One, that God is sovereign: “you, O Lord, are enthroned forever.” Two, that God cares about his people: “You will arise and have pity on Zion.” In other words, if God is sovereign, and if God cares for his people, and if I am a part of that people for whom he cares, then God must have a sovereign plan of compassionate care for me. Whatever you are facing, remind yourself not only that God is sovereign, but also that he is covenanted by his own promise to protect and shepherd his people.
Then the psalmist turns his mind to the evangelistic and discipleship benefit of him being healed or recovering. “Let this be recorded for a generation to come…that he looked down from his holy height.” One of the great, surprising truths is that our difficulties are not only teaching moments for us, but also teaching moments for others. There, in the fire, people see what we are made of—and they discern Christ in the blaze and learn themselves to trust him.
Still, though he has this vision for how God as sovereign could use his suffering, he refuses to retreat to pious platitudes. “He has broken my strength in midcourse; he has shortened my days. ‘O my God’ I say ‘take me now away in the midst of my days” (102:23-24). It does not help people if we pretend that suffering is not suffering. For then they are less likely to see Christ at work through such suffering, if they do not know that it is suffering.
He continues with his view that honesty is the best policy regarding what he is going through. And yet this has not left him faithless, or finally shaken, but rather confident. “You are the same, and your years have no end.” He may die, but “The children of your servants shall dwell secure; their offspring shall be established before you.” So if this is your “day of distress,” take this psalm and turn it into your prayer.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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