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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Psalms 102

 

 

Verses 1-28

Psalms 102:1-28

Psalms 102:13-14 show that the psalm was written when Zion was in ruins and the time of her restoration at hand. Sadness shot with hope, as a cloud with sunlight, is the singer’s mood. The pressure of present sorrows points to the time of the Exile; the lightening of these, by the expectation that the hour for their cessation has all but struck, points to the close of that period. There is a general consensus of opinion on this, though Baethgen is hesitatingly inclined to adopt the Maccabean date, and Cheyne prefers the time of Nehemiah, mainly because the references to the "stones" and "dust" recall to him "Nehemiah’s lonely ride round the burned walls," and "Sanballat’s mocking at the Jews for attempting to revive the stones out of heaps of rubbish" ("Orig. of Psalt.," p. 70). These references would equally suit any period of desolation; but the point of time indicated by Psalms 102:13 is more probably the eve of restoration than the completion of the begun and interrupted reestablishment of Israel in its land. Like many of the later psalms, this is largely coloured by earlier ones, as well as by Deuteronomy, Job, and the second half of Isaiah, while it has also reminiscences of Jeremiah. Some commentators have, indeed, supposed it to be his work.

The turns of thought are simple. While there is no clear strophical arrangement, there are four broadly distinguished parts: a prelude, invoking God to hearken (Psalms 102:1-2); a plaintive bemoaning of the psalmist’s condition (Psalms 102:3-11); a triumphant rising above his sorrows, and rejoicing in the fair vision of a restored Jerusalem, whose Temple courts the nations tread (Psalms 102:12-22); and a momentary glance at his sorrows and brief life, which but spurs him to lay hold the more joyously on God’s eternity, wherein he finds the pledge of the fulfilment of his hopes and of God’s promises (Psalms 102:23-28).

The opening invocations in Psalms 102:1-2 are mostly found in other psalms. "Let my cry come unto Thee" recalls Psalms 18:6. "Hide not Thy face" is like Psalms 27:9. "In the day of my straits" recurs in Psalms 59:16. "Bend to me Thy ear" is in Psalms 31:2. "In the day when I call "is as in Psalms 56:9. "Answer me speedily" is found in Psalms 69:17. But the psalmist is not a cold-blooded compiler, weaving a web from old threads, but a suffering man, fain to give his desires voice, in words which sufferers before him had hallowed, and securing a certain solace by reiterating familiar petitions. They are none the less his own, because they have been the cry of others. Some aroma of the answers that they drew down in the past clings to them still, and makes them fragrant to him.

Sorrow and pain are sometimes dumb, but, in Eastern natures, more often eloquent; finding ease in recounting their pangs. The psalmist’s first words of self-lamentation echo familiar strains, as he bases his cry for speedy answer on the swiftness with which his days are being whirled away, and melting like smoke as it escapes from a chimney. The image suggests another. The fire that makes the smoke is that in which his very bones are smouldering like a brand. The word for bones is in the singular, the bony framework being thought of as articulated into a whole. "Brand" is a doubtful rendering of a word which the Authorised Version, following some ancient Jewish authorities, renders hearth, as do Delitzsch and Cheyne. It is used in Isaiah 33:14 as =" burning," but "brand" is required to make out the metaphor. The same theme of physical decay is continued in Psalms 102:4 with a new image struck out by the ingenuity of pain. His heart is "smitten" as by sunstroke (compare Psalms 121:6, Isaiah 49:10, and for still closer parallels Hosea 9:16, Jonah 4:7, in both of which the same effect of fierce sunshine is described as the sufferer here bewails). His heart withers like Jonah’s gourd. The "For" in Psalms 102:4 b can scarcely be taken as giving the reason for this withering. It must rather be taken as giving the proof that it was so withered as might be concluded by beholders from the fact that he refused his food (Baethgen). The psalmist apparently intends in Psalms 102:5 to describe himself as worn to a skeleton by long-continued and passionate lamentations. But his phrase is singular. One can understand that emaciation should be described by saying that the bones adhered to the skin, the flesh having wasted away, but that they stick to the flesh can only describe it, by giving a wide meaning to "flesh," as including the whole outward part of the frame in contrast with the internal framework. Lamentations 4:8 gives the more natural expression. The psalmist has groaned himself into emaciation. Sadness and solitude go well together. We plunge into lonely places when we would give voice to our grief. The poet’s imagination sees his own likeness in solitude-loving creatures. The pelican is never now seen in Palestine but on Lake Huleh. Thomson ("Land and Book," p. 260: London, 1861) speaks of having found it there only, and describes it as "the most sombre, austere bird I ever saw." "The owl of the ruins" is identified by Tristram ("Land of Israel," p. 67) with the small owl Athene meridionalis, the emblem of Minerva, which "is very characteristic of all the hilly and rocky portions of Syria." The sparrow may be here a generic term for any small song bird, but there is no need for departing from the narrower meaning. Thomson (p. 43) says: "When one of them has lost his mate-an everyday occurrence-he will sit on the housetop alone and lament by the hour."

The division of Psalms 102:7 is singular, as the main pause in it falls on "am become," to the disruption of the logical continuity. The difficulty is removed by Wickes ("Accentuation of the Poetical Books," p. 29), who gives several instances which seem to establish the law that, in "the musical accentuation, there is "an apparent reluctance to place the main dividing accent after the first, or before the last, word of the verse." The division is not logical, and we may venture to neglect it, and arrange as above, restoring the dividing accent to its place after the first word. Others turn the flank of the difficulty by altering the text to read, "I" am sleepless and must moan aloud" (so Cheyne, following Olshausen).

Yet another drop of bitterness in the psalmist’s cup is the frantic hatred which pours itself out in voluble mockery all day long, making a running accompaniment to his wail. Solitary as he is, he cannot get beyond hearing of shrill insults. 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. So ashes, the token of mourning, are his food, instead of the bread which he had forgotten to eat, and there are more tears than wine in the cup he drinks.

But all this only tells how sad he is. A deeper depth opens when he remembers why he is sad. The bitterest thought to a sufferer is that his sufferings indicate God’s displeasure; but it may be wholesome bitterness, which, leading to the recognition of the sin which evokes the wrath, may change into a solemn thankfulness for sorrows which are discerned to be chastisements, inflicted by that Love of which indignation is one form. The psalmist confesses sin in the act of bewailing sorrow, and sees behind all his pains the working of that hand whose interposition for him he ventures to implore. The tremendous metaphor of Psalms 102:10 b pictures it as thrust forth from heaven to grasp the feeble sufferer, as an eagle stoops to plunge its talons into a lamb. It lifts him high, only to give more destructive impetus to the force with which it flings him down, to the place where he lies, a huddled heap of broken bones and wounds. His plaint returns to its beginning, lamenting the brief life which is being wasted away by sore distress. Lengthening shadows tell of approaching night. His day is nearing sunset. It will be dark soon, and, as he has said (Psalms 102:4), his very self is withering and becoming like dried-up herbage.

One can scarcely miss the tone of individual sorrow in the preceding verses; but national restoration, not personal deliverance, is the theme o/the triumphant central part of the psalm. That is no reason for flattening the previous verses into the voice of the personified Israel, but rather for hearing in them the sighing of one exile, on whom the general burden weighed sorely. He lifts his tear-laden eyes to heaven, and catches a vision there which changes, as by magic, the key of his song-Jehovah sitting in royal state {compare Psalms 9:7; Psalms 29:10} forever. That silences complaints, breathes courage into the feeble and hope into the despairing. In another mood the thought of the eternal rule of God might make man’s mortality more bitter, but Faith grasps it, as enfolding assurances which turn groaning into ringing praise. For the vision is not only of an everlasting Some One who works a sovereign will, but of the age-long dominion of Him whose name is Jehovah; and since that name is the revelation of His nature, it, too, endures forever. It is the name of Israel’s covenant making and keeping God. Therefore, ancient promises have not gone to water, though Israel is an exile, and all the old comfort and confidence are still welling up from the Name. Zion cannot die while Zion’s God lives. Lamentations 5:19 is probably the original of this verse, but the psalmist has changed "throne" into "memorial," i.e. name, and thereby deepened the thought. The assurance that God will restore Zion rests not only on His faithfulness, but on signs which show that the sky is reddening towards the day of redemption. The singer sees the indication that the hour fixed in God’s eternal counsels is at hand, because he sees how God’s servants, who have a claim on Him and are in sympathy with His purposes, yearn lovingly after the sad ruins and dust of the forlorn city. Some new access of such feelings must have been stirring among the devouter part of the exiles. Many large truths are wrapped in the psalmist’s words. The desolations of Zion knit true hearts to her more closely. The more the Church or any good cause is depressed, the more need for its friends to cling to it. God’s servants should see that their sympathies go toward the same objects as God’s do. They are proved to be His servants, because they favour what He favours. Their regards, turned to existing evils, are the precursors of Divine intervention for the remedy of these. When good men begin to lay the Church’s or the world’s miseries to heart, it is a sign that God is beginning to heal them. The cry of God’s servants can "hasten the day of the Lord," and preludes His appearance like the keen morning air stirring the sleeping flowers before sunrise.

The psalmist anticipates that a rebuilt Zion will ensure a worshipping world. He expresses that confidence, which he shares with Isaiah 40:1-31; Isaiah 41:1-29; Isaiah 42:1-25; Isaiah 43:1-28; Isaiah 44:1-28; Isaiah 45:1-25; Isaiah 46:1-13, in Psalms 102:15-18. The name and glory of Jehovah will become objects of reverence to all the earth, because of the manifestation of them by the rebuilding of Zion, which is a witness to all men of His power and tender regard to His people’s cry. The past tenses of Psalms 102:16-17 do not indicate that the psalm is later than the Restoration. It is contemplated as already accomplished because it is the occasion of the "fear" prophesied in Psalms 102:15, and consequently prior in time to it. "Destitute," in Psalms 102:17 is literally naked or stript. It is used in Jeremiah 17:6 as the name of a desert plant, probably a dwarf juniper, stunted and dry, but seems to be employed here as simply designating utter destitution. Israel had been stripped of every beauty and made naked before her enemies. Despised, she had cried to God, and now is clothed again with the garments of salvation, "as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels."

A wondering world will adore her delivering God. The glowing hopes of psalmist and prophet seem to be dreams, since the restored Israel attracted no such observance and wrought no such convictions. But the singer was not wrong in believing that the coming of Jehovah in His glory for the rebuilding of Zion would sway the world to homage. His facts were right, but he did not know their perspective, nor could he understand how many weary years lay, like a deep gorge hidden from the eye of one who looks over a wide prospect, between the rebuilding of which he was thinking, and that truer establishment of the city of God, which is again parted from the period of universal recognition of Jehovah’s glory by so many sad and stormy generations. But the vision is true. The coming of Jehovah in His glory will be followed by a world’s recognition of its light.

That praise accruing to Jehovah shall Be not only universal, but shall go on sounding, with increasing volume in its tone, through coming generations. This expectation is set forth in Psalms 102:18-22 which substantially reiterate the thought of the preceding, with the addition that there is to be a new Israel, a people yet to be created. [Psalms 22:31] The psalmist did not know "the deep things he spoke." He did know that Israel was immortal, and that the seed of life was in the tree that had cast its leaves and stood bare and apparently dead. But he did not know the process by which that new Israel was to be created, nor the new elements of which it was to consist. His confidence teaches us never to despair of the future of God’s Church, however low its present state, but to look down the ages, in calm certainty that, however externals may change, the succession of God’s children will never fail, nor the voice of their praise ever fall silent.

The course of God’s intervention for Israel is described in Psalms 102:19-20. His looking down from heaven is equivalent to His observance, as the all-seeing Witness and Judge, {compare Psalms 14:2; Psalms 33:13-14, etc.} and is preparatory to His hearing the sighing of the captive Israel, doomed to death. The language of Psalms 102:20 is apparently drawn from Psalms 79:11. The thought corresponds to that of Psalms 102:17. The purpose of His intervention is set forth in Psalms 102:21-22 as being the declaration of Jehovah’s name and praise in Jerusalem before a gathered world. The aim of Jehovah’s dealings is that all men, through all generations, may know and praise Him. That is but another way of saying that He infinitely desires, and perpetually works for, men’s highest good. For our sakes, He desires so much that we should know Him, since the knowledge is life eternal. He is not greedy of adulation nor dependent on recognition, but He loves men too well not to rejoice in being understood and loved by them, since Love ever hungers for return. The psalmist saw what shall one day be, when, far down the ages, he beheld the world gathered in the temple courts, and heard the shout of their praise borne to him up the stream of time. He penetrated to the inmost meaning of the Divine acts, when he proclaimed that they were all done for the manifestation of the Name, which cannot but be praised when it is known. If the poet was one of the exiles, on whom the burden of the general calamity weighed as a personal sorrow, it is very natural that his glowing anticipations of national restoration should be, as in. this psalm, enclosed in a setting of more individual complaint and petition. The transition from these to the purely impersonal centre Of the psalm, and the recurrence to them in Psalms 102:23-28, are inexplicable, if the "I" of the first and last parts is Israel, but perfectly intelligible if it is one Israelite. For a moment the tone of sadness is heard in Psalms 102:23; but the thought of his own afflicted and brief life is but a stimulus to the psalmist to lay hold of God’s immutability and to find rest there. The Hebrew text reads "His strength," and is followed (by, the LXX, Vulgate, Hengstenberg, and Kay He afflicted on the "way with His power"); but the reading of the Hebrew margin, adopted above and by most commentators, is preferable, as supplying an object for the verb, which is lacking in the former reading, and as corresponding to "my days" in b.

The psalmist has felt the exhaustion of long sorrow and the shortness of his term. Will God do all these glorious things of which he has been singing, and he, the singer, not be there to see? That would mingle bitterness in his triumphant anticipations; for it would be little to him, lying in his grave, that Zion should be built again. The hopes with which some would console us for the loss of the Christian assurance of immortality, that the race shall march on to new power and nobleness, are poor substitutes for continuance of our own lives and for our own participation in the glories of the future. The psalmist’s prayer, which takes God’s eternity as its reason for deprecating his own premature death, echoes the inextinguishable confidence of the devout heart, that somehow even its fleeting being has a claim to be assimilated in duration to its Eternal Object of trust and aspiration. The contrast between God’s years and man’s days may be brooded on in bitterness or in hope. They who are driven by thinking of their own mortality to clutch, with prayerful faith, God’s eternity, use the one aright, and will not be deprived of the other.

The solemn grandeur of Psalms 102:25-26 needs little commentary, but it may be noted that a reminiscence of Isaiah 11:1-16 runs through them both in the description of the act of creation of heaven and earth, [Isaiah 48:13; Isaiah 44:24] and in that of their decaying like a garment. [Isaiah 51:6; Isaiah 54:10] That which has been created can be removed. The creatural is necessarily the transient. Possibly, too, the remarkable expression "changed," as applied to the visible creation, may imply the thought which had already been expressed in Isaiah, and was destined to receive such deepening by the Christian truth of the new heavens and new earth-a truth the contents of which are dim to us until it is fulfilled. But whatever may be the fate of creatures, He who receives no accession to His stable being by originating suffers no, diminution by extinguishing them. Man’s days, the earth’s ages, and the aeons of the heavens pass, and still "Thou art He," the same Unchanging Author of change. Measures of time fail when applied to His being, whose years have not that which all divisions of time have-an end. An unending year is a paradox, which, in relation to God, is a truth.

It is remarkable that the psalmist does not draw the conclusion that he himself shall receive an answer to his prayer, but that "the children of Thy servants shall dwell" i.e., in the land, and that there will always be an Israel "established before Thee." He contemplates successive generations as in turn dwelling in the promised land (and perhaps in the ancient "dwelling place to all generations," even in God); but of his own continuance he is silent. Was he not assured of that? or was he so certain of the answer to his prayer that he had forgotten himself in the vision of the eternal God and the abiding Israel? Having regard to the late date of the psalm, it is hard to believe that silence meant ignorance, while it may well be that it means a less vivid and assured hope of immortality, and a smaller space occupied by that hope than with us. But the other explanation is not to be left out of view, and the psalmist’s oblivion of self in rapt gazing on God’s eternal being-the pledge of His servant’s perpetuity-may teach us that we reach the summit of Faith when we lose ourselves in God.

The Epistle to the Hebrews quotes Psalms 102:25-27 as spoken of "the Son." Such an application of the words rests on the fact that the psalm speaks of the coming of Jehovah for redemption, who is none other than Jehovah manifested fully in the Messiah. But Jehovah whose coming brings redemption and His recognition by the world is also Creator. Since, then, the Incarnation is, in truth, the coming of Jehovah, which the psalmist, like all the prophets, looked for as the consummation, He in whom the redeeming Jehovah was manifested is He in whom Jehovah the Creator "made the worlds." The writer of the Epistle is not asserting that the psalmist consciously spoke of the Messiah, but he is declaring that his words, read in the light of history, point to Jesus as the crowning manifestation of the redeeming, and therefore necessarily of the creating, God.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 102:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/psalms-102.html.

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Monday, December 16th, 2019
the Third Week of Advent
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