Psalm 102
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The Psalmist supplicates for a speedy hearing (Psalm 102:1-2), for his strength is wasted till he is on the very edge of the grave. He is a solitary mourner, exposed to the ribald mockery of his enemies. His sufferings are a divinely inflicted chastisement (Psalm 102:3-11). From Psalm 102:13 ff. the cause of his sorrow appears. His people are in exile; Zion is desolate.

But in contrast to his own transitoriness rises the thought of God’s eternity, and that eternity is the guarantee for the restoration of Zion. That restoration will be a manifestation of Jehovah’s glory which will attract all nations to His service, and evoke the grateful praise of all future generations, when Jerusalem has become the centre of the world’s worship (Psalm 102:12-22).

Though he cannot forget his own sufferings, and prays that he may be spared a premature death, he finds rest in the thought of the eternity and unchangeableness of Jehovah, Who will not fail His faithful people (Psalm 102:23-28).

Who is the speaker? Israel, or an individual Israelite? Many commentators regard the Psalm as the utterance of the nation, and in many respects it seems to go beyond the experience of an individual. But this theory does not do justice to its intensity of personal feeling, and is hard to reconcile with much of its language. It is more natural to regard it as the utterance of an individual, while at the same time it is more than this. The poet is one into whose heart the sorrows of the nation have entered so deeply that he feels them all his own. The strong sense of solidarity which was characteristic of ancient Israel finds expression here. If the nation suffered every member suffered with it. He almost loses his own personality in that of his people. And he speaks not for himself alone, but for the whole body of his fellow-countrymen in exile. Comp. Introd. pp. li ff.

We can hardly be wrong in assigning this Psalm to the closing years of the exile in Babylon. Zion is in ruins, but the appointed time for Jehovah to have compassion on her is come (Psalm 102:13-14). The Psalmist looks for the fulfilment of the prophecies of Jeremiah and Isaiah 40-66, and prays that he may be spared to witness the restoration of Israel with his own eyes (Psalm 102:23-24). Cheyne indeed places it in the time of Nehemiah, on the ground of the resemblance of Psalm 102:14 to the description of the ruins of Jerusalem in Nehemiah 2:11-20; Nehemiah 4:2. But the Psalm seems to premise that no restoration has yet taken place. The perfects in Psalm 102:16-17; Psalm 102:19 are certainly relative perfects, denoting what will have taken place before events still future have occurred.

The Psalm is full of echoes of Isaiah 40-66, and of other Psalms, in particular 22, 69, 79.

The title is unique. It refers to the devotional use of the Ps., not to the occasion of its composition. It is an appropriate prayer of (or for) the afflicted, when he fainteth (Psalm 61:2), and poureth out his complaint before Jehovah (Psalm 62:8; Psalm 55:2; Psalm 64:1; Psalm 142:2; 1 Samuel 1:15-16), finding relief for his overburdened soul in appeal to God.

It is one of the seven ‘Penitential Psalms’ (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143), and is a Proper Psalm for Ash-Wednesday.

A Prayer of the afflicted, when he is overwhelmed, and poureth out his complaint before the LORD. Hear my prayer, O LORD, and let my cry come unto thee.
1, 2. The Psalmist’s prayer is not the less real because it is expressed in familiar phrases from older Psalms. Hear my prayer, Jehovah, is from Psalm 39:12; and let my cry for help come unto thee is suggested by Psalm 18:6. Hide not thy face from me is taken from Psalm 27:9, in the day of my distress from Psalm 59:16; incline thine ear unto me from Psalm 31:2; in the day when I call from Psalm 56:9, answer me speedily from Psalm 69:17.

1–11. The Psalmist supplicates for a speedy hearing, pleading the extremity of his distress.

Hide not thy face from me in the day when I am in trouble; incline thine ear unto me: in the day when I call answer me speedily.
For my days are consumed like smoke, and my bones are burned as an hearth.
3. like smoke] Or, in smoke, a natural figure for speedy and complete disappearance. Cp. Psalm 37:20; James 4:14.

are burnt as a hearth] Rather (cp. P.B.V. and R.V.), burn as a firebrand. He compares himself to a sick man whose strength is being consumed by the burning heat of fever. Cp. Psalm 22:15; Jeremiah 20:9.

My heart is smitten, and withered like grass; so that I forget to eat my bread.
4. My heart is smitten like grass, and withered;

Yea, I forget to eat my bread.

His heart, the centre of vital force and vigour, is dried up like a plant struck by the fierce heat of the sun and withered (Psalm 121:6; Hosea 9:16). Sorrow and sickness have deprived him of all appetite for food. Cp. 1 Samuel 1:7-8; Job 33:20.

By reason of the voice of my groaning my bones cleave to my skin.
5. If the A.V. is retained, the verse will describe the state of emaciation to which he has been reduced by continued sorrow. Cp. Lamentations 4:8. But though the cognate Arabic word means skin, it is doubtful whether the Heb. word bâsâr can bear this sense. Usage requires the rendering of R.V., ‘my bones cleave to my flesh,’ which means apparently that his limbs are swollen and stiff. The phrase seems to be borrowed from Job 19:20, “my bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh,” where Job describes his limbs as partly emaciated, partly abnormally swollen, and stiff with disease. The curious rendering of the P.B.V. “my bones [Coverdale, bone] will scarce cleave to my flesh,” comes from the Zürich Version:—“Vor geschrey mines seufftzens mag mein gebeyn kum an meinem fleysch hangen.”

I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert.
6. He compares himself to solitude-loving birds which haunt desolate places and ruins, uttering weird and mournful cries. Cp. Isaiah 34:11; Zephaniah 2:14 (A.V. cormorant). Render the second line, I am become as an owl in desolate places. The owl is called by the Arabs “mother of ruins,” and “in the tombs or on the ruins, among the desolate heaps which mark the sites of ancient Judah, on the sandy mounds of Beersheba, or on the spray-beaten fragments of Tyre, his low wailing note is sure to be heard at sunset.” Tristram’s Nat. Hist. of the Bible, p. 194.

I watch, and am as a sparrow alone upon the house top.
7. I keep vigil, and am become

Like a solitary bird upon the housetop.

His nights are sleepless: he spends them like “the moping owl” in mournful complaints. Some solitary, nocturnal bird is clearly meant, perhaps some kind of owl, or according to Tristram (Nat. Hist. of Bible, p. 202), the Blue Thrush. Cp. Verg. Aen. iv. 462,

“Solaque culminibus ferali carmine bubo

Visa queri, et longas in fletum ducere voces.”

For am become we should perhaps read and moan (ואהגה for ואהיה).

Cp. Isaiah 59:11.

Mine enemies reproach me all the day; and they that are mad against me are sworn against me.
8. His enemies aggravate his sufferings by mocking him as one forsaken by God (Psalm 42:10; Psalm 44:13).

are sworn against me] Rather as R.V., do curse by me; using my name in formulas of execration, ‘God make thee like yonder miserable wretch.’ Cp. Isaiah 65:15; Jeremiah 29:22.

For I have eaten ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping,
9. They may well do so; for what can be more wretched than his plight? Mourning and tears are as it were his food and drink. Cp. Psalm 42:3; Psalm 80:5. For ashes as the symbol of mourning, cp. Job 2:8; Lamentations 3:16; Ezekiel 27:30.

Because of thine indignation and thy wrath: for thou hast lifted me up, and cast me down.
10. This suffering is the punishment of sin. The storm of God’s wrath has swept Israel away from its own land, and flung it down helpless in the land of exile. Thou hast lifted me up, and cast me down (A.V.) has been taken to mean that the bitterness of Israel’s present humiliation is intensified by the recollection of its past exaltation (cp. Lamentations 2:1), but it suits the context better to render For thou hast taken me up and flung me away, a metaphor from a hurricane. Cp. Job 27:21; Job 30:22; Isaiah 64:6. The same word is used of the banishment of Israel in Jeremiah 7:15, &c.

My days are like a shadow that declineth; and I am withered like grass.
11. like a shadow that declineth] Or, like a shadow stretched out (Jeremiah 6:4) towards evening, and about to disappear altogether as the sun sinks below the horizon.

I am withered like grass] Rather, I am withering away like grass. The common emblem for frail and transitory mortality. Cp. Isaiah 40:7; James 1:11.

But thou, O LORD, shalt endure for ever; and thy remembrance unto all generations.
12. But thou, Jehovah, shalt sit enthroned for ever;

And thy memorial shall be for generation after generation.

The verse is taken from Lamentations 5:19, with the substitution of memorial for throne. The thought in which the Psalmist takes refuge is not merely Jehovah’s eternity (‘shalt abide’), but Jehovah’s eternal sovereignty (Psalm 9:7). The name which is His memorial to one generation after another (Exodus 3:15) is the pledge and expression of that sovereign rule. “I will be that I will be,” ever revealing Myself as the Living God, working out My plan in the history of the world. Such as He revealed Himself to be in the Exodus, He must continue to be for all time.

12–22. From the thought of his own frailty and transitoriness he turns to the eternal sovereignty of Jehovah, which is the sure pledge for Zion’s restoration.

Thou shalt arise, and have mercy upon Zion: for the time to favour her, yea, the set time, is come.
13. Since He thus rules, He must have compassion on Zion in accordance with His promise, for it is time to have pity on her, yea the set time is come. Cp. Isaiah 30:18; Isaiah 49:13; Jeremiah 30:18; Jeremiah 31:20; Zechariah 1:12. The appointed time for the end of the exile was now at hand. Cp. Jeremiah 29:10; Isaiah 40:2; Habakkuk 2:3.

For thy servants take pleasure in her stones, and favour the dust thereof.
14. For thy servants have affection for her stones,

And for her dust are they moved with pity.

Another argument to move Jehovah’s compassion. His servants look with yearning love towards Zion in its ruin. Even the broken stones and scattered heaps of rubbish which are all that remain of it are very dear to them. The language resembles that of Sanballat’s contemptuous taunt: “Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish?” Heb. dust, Nehemiah 4:2; cp. Psalm 102:10, “there is much rubbish,” Heb. dust.

So the heathen shall fear the name of the LORD, and all the kings of the earth thy glory.
15. So the nations &c.] The restoration of Zion will be the prelude to the conversion of the world. God’s manifestation of His power and His faithfulness towards His people will win the homage of all the nations. This is a fundamental thought in Isaiah 40-66. See especially Isaiah 59:19; Isaiah 60:3.

When the LORD shall build up Zion, he shall appear in his glory.
16, 17. When Jehovah hath built up Zion,

Hath appeared in his glory,

Hath turned to the prayer of the destitute,

And not despised their prayer.

These verses are in close connexion with Psalm 102:15. The nations will pay homage to Jehovah, when He has manifested His glory in the redemption of His people. The destitute or forlorn is Israel in exile. With Psalm 102:17 generally cp. Psalm 22:24; Psalm 69:33.

He will regard the prayer of the destitute, and not despise their prayer.
This shall be written for the generation to come: and the people which shall be created shall praise the LORD.
18. The good news of Jehovah’s mercy shall be recorded as the theme for the grateful praises of future generations. Cp. Jeremiah 30:2. The restoration of Israel will be nothing less than a new creation. Cp. Isaiah 43:7; Isaiah 43:21; Psalm 22:31.

shall praise the Lord] Heb. Jah. Here first in the Psalter we have the combination of words which forms the characteristic call to worship in the post-exilic Psalms, Hallelujah, ‘Praise ye Jah.’

For he hath looked down from the height of his sanctuary; from heaven did the LORD behold the earth;
19. Because he hath looked down … hath beheld] In answer to the prayer of Isaiah 63:15. Cp. also Deuteronomy 26:15; Psalm 14:2; Psalm 33:13. This verse is related to Psalm 102:18 as Psalm 102:16-17 are to Psalm 102:15. The perfect tense denotes what will lie in the past when the time referred to in Psalm 102:18 is reached. Jehovah had not yet ‘looked down’ upon His people when the Psalmist was writing; this is clear from Psalm 102:13; but He will assuredly do so, and His renewed regard will be the occasion and theme for their thanksgiving.

To hear the groaning of the prisoner; to loose those that are appointed to death;
20. An echo of the prayer in Psalm 79:11. Cp. Isaiah 42:7; Isaiah 61:1. Israel in exile is compared to a condemned captive languishing in prison, and doomed to perish if Jehovah does not speedily interpose.

the groaning of the prisoner] R.V. the sighing of the prisoner, as in Psalm 79:11.

those that are appointed to death] Lit. the sons of death. Cp. 1 Samuel 20:31 (marg.). The word for death is a form found only here and in Psalm 79:11.

To declare the name of the LORD in Zion, and his praise in Jerusalem;
21. To declare] R.V. That men may declare: either the returned exiles or the assembled nations, or in the widest sense, both together.

When the people are gathered together, and the kingdoms, to serve the LORD.
22. the people] R.V. the peoples. Israel does not return alone: its restoration will be the signal for that gathering of the nations to worship Jehovah in Zion, which ancient prophecy had foretold (Isaiah 2:2 ff. = Micah 4:1 ff.), and which recent prophecy had uncompromisingly reaffirmed in the teeth of appearances (Isaiah 60:3 ff.). Cp. Psalm 22:27.

But did not the event, it may be asked, fall far short of the anticipations of prophet and Psalmist? They looked for a triumphant return of Israel and a visible manifestation of Jehovah’s glory, to be followed immediately by the submission of the nations. As a matter of fact the return was an insignificant event, and no startling results immediately followed it. The answer is twofold. The spiritual significance of the Return for the history of the world could not be exaggerated; and prophecy constantly combines in one view the nearer and the remoter future, depicting the eventual result, without indicating the steps by which it is to be reached.

He weakened my strength in the way; he shortened my days.
23, 24. He hath brought down my strength in the way;

He hath shortened my days.

I will say, O my God &c.

Life has been a toilsome journey for him; he is prematurely old; but he deprecates an untimely death. He would fain survive to see with his own eyes the glory which he knows is to be revealed. Cp. Psalm 89:47, note. The contrast of God’s eternal years adds pathos to the thought of the brevity of his own life, yet at the same time that eternity is the guarantee for His faithfulness to His people.

My strength is the traditional reading (Q’rç), which is supported by most of the Versions. The written text (K’thîbh) has his strength, which must be rendered, He hath afflicted me with his strength; or, His strength hath brought me down. But the Q’rç gives a better sense.

23–28. From the contemplation of the glorious future the Psalmist returns to the present, and takes up the thought of Psalm 102:11.

I said, O my God, take me not away in the midst of my days: thy years are throughout all generations.
24. I will say introduces the prayer which follows with additional emphasis. Cp. Job 10:2.

in the midst of my days] Cp. Psalm 55:23; Isaiah 38:10.

thy years &c.] The eternity of God is contrasted with the transitoriness of man as in Psalm 102:12; Psalm 102:11.

Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth: and the heavens are the work of thy hands.
They shall perish, but thou shalt endure: yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed:
26. Compared with man’s brief span of life the natural world is an emblem of permanence; compared with God’s eternity, it is seen to be transitory. He existed from all eternity before it, and called it into being: He will exist unchanged when it has passed away.

they shall be changed] Or, pass away. The Psalmist’s thought here is rather of the transitoriness of heaven and earth contrasted with the eternity of God than of the new heavens and new earth, Isaiah 65:17; Isaiah 66:22.

But thou art the same, and thy years shall have no end.
27. thou art the same] Lit., as in Deuteronomy 32:39; Isaiah 41:4; Isaiah 43:10; Isaiah 43:13; Isaiah 46:4; Isaiah 48:12, Thou art He, an emphatic assertion of the personality of Jehovah, which is in its very nature unchanging.

Psalm 102:25-27 are quoted in Hebrews 1:10-12, from the LXX, and applied to Christ. The Psalmist is addressing Jehovah, Whom he expects to manifest Himself as the Redeemer of Israel. As the mystery of the Godhead was disclosed in the progress of revelation, it was seen that the words might be applied with equal right to the Eternal Word through Whom all things were made, and Who was manifested for the redemption of the world.

The children of thy servants shall continue, and their seed shall be established before thee.
28. The eternity of God is the pledge for the permanence of His people. Even if the Psalmist and his contemporaries do not live to see the restoration of Israel, their descendants will have part in it. The verse is an echo of Isaiah 65:9; Isaiah 66:22 : cp. Psalm 69:35-36.

shall continue] Lit. shall dwell, in the land once more (Isaiah 65:9; Psalm 69:36).

before thee] Or, in thy presence. ‘Banish them from my presence’ was the sentence pronounced upon Judah as upon Israel (Jeremiah 7:15; Jeremiah 15:1, &c.); but they shall be readmitted to Jehovah’s presence and restored to His favour. The prophecy of Jeremiah 30:20 will be fulfilled.

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