Expositor's Dictionary of Texts
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.An Unfinished Life
I. The inscription of this Psalm is unique. It describes the inner subject of the Psalm and makes a very beautiful heading. A prayer of the afflicted when he is overwhelmed and poureth out his complaint before the Lord. The afflictions are those of the nation and of the Psalmist himself, who added to his own sorrows the sorrow of his people. The elegy moves with mournful strain as he describes the bitterness of his pain. He has eaten ashes like bread, and mingled his drink with weeping. His days are shortened, his strength wasted, and death has crept up close to him, so that he is withered like grass. It seems to him so untimely, so premature that he should be taken, for he is assured that God is about to remember Zion and to have mercy upon her. To have gone through all the pain and tribulation without tasting the ultimate joy, to have borne all the toil and the burden without sharing in the harvest and in the joy of the harvest-home, to have taken part in the long weary strife and to fall in the hour of victory, that eyes which had seen all the desolation and been salt with tears through many a sorrow should be closed in death as the new era breaks—that is the dreadful pathos of the situation.
II. We, too, have often a similar feeling about what we call unfinished lives and untimely deaths; we have this sense of pathos not for the victor of a hundred fights, but for the soldier who falls in his first campaign, not for the statesman who passes away laden with years and honours, but for the promising novice who was just earning his first laurels, not for the man who could say after a long and strenuous life, 'I have fought a good fight, I have finished the course'. Pity to him is an insult. He has lived out his life and done his work, and entered into his rest. We are oppressed with the thought of the irony of human life and of the vanity of human wishes at the sight of all unfinished work. The manuscript with the sentence broken off where the pen fell from the fingers, the picture with here and there a figure only sketched in charcoal, the statue with only suggestions of the beauty that was designed by it. But unfinished work can never be half so sad as unfinished lives. We pass by the unfinished work to consider the work actually accomplished. But an unfinished life has no such other reference to offer. It is a crop blighted before the harvest.
III. In all this natural train of thought we are liable to fall into a great and grievous error. We may have a wrong standard of judgment as to what is a finished life. We mostly think of it as length of days, the telling of a long tale. A long life may be an unfinished life, though it has run out to the last sand undisturbed. It may never have grasped for one moment the real purpose of living so that to all intents it is cut off in the midst of its days though the days were as the days of Methuselah. Human life cannot be judged by its years nor even by its work, but must be judged by its spirit, not the palpable and outside, such as the years passed or the deeds accomplished, but what is attained through the time and through the deeds, the true set of the character, the bent of life the discipline of the heart, the culture of the soul. Early or late, young or old, that is a finished life when the true end of life is apprehended. If a man has learned to love God and obey Him, if he has submitted his will to the will of God, if he has linked his life to the Eternal life and his love to the Eternal love, his life is not unfinished, though it seems taken away in the midst of his days. There can be nothing untimely when his times are in God's hands. Nothing can happen too early or too late.
—Hugh Black, University Sermons, p. 131.
References.—CII. 24.—Expositor (3rd Series), vol. iv. p. 377. CII. 25-27.—J. J. Blunt, Plain Sermons (2nd Series), p. 114.
The Permanence of Spirit in the Fleetingness of Nature
I. The sentiment of this passage is to my mind unique in literature. The common sentiment of men in looking on the face of nature is the contrary. You gaze upon a field which you trod in childhood: and almost with bitterness the thought comes over you. Why is matter so much more enduring than spirit? You think of the multitude who are dead since first you trod this field—this field which seems to stand as fresh and green as of yore. It is such a sentiment as this which Tennyson expresses when he makes the brook sing 'Men may come and men may go, but I go on for ever'. It is such a sentiment as this which Byron expresses when he surveys the sea and cries, 'Time writes no wrinkle on thine azure brow'. It is such a sentiment as this which we all express when we speak of 'the everlasting hills'; we are contrasting the permanence of nature with the transitoriness of spirit.
II. In this outpouring of the Psalmist we have exactly the opposite idea; here, nature is the perishable and spirit the permanent. He looks at the field, at the sea, at the hills, and cries, 'They perish but the great Spirit remaineth'. It is the inversion of Tennyson's song—'Brooks may come and brooks may go, but soul goes on for ever'. And there is no doubt, even from a literary point of view, that the Psalmist is right. Even in this world the most abiding thing is a soul. The brook could never say 'I,' because it does not remain the same brook for two minutes. So far from going on for ever, it needs to be renewed every instant. The drops are new each moment. They only seem the same because my spirit is the same. It is my spirit which says 'I'—not the brook. The Psalmist saw this. He saw that the permanence attributed to each natural form is an illusion cast by the shadow of the soul's own immortality. The bloom of the flower is not a single bloom; it is a momentarily repeated colour. The water of a stream is not a single water; it is an ever renewed liquid. The strength of the mountain is not a single strength; it is a constantly replenished force coming from the play of atoms. The spirit alone abides; the spirit alone says 'I'.
—G. Matheson, Messages of Hope, p. 65.
References.—CII. 26.—H. J. Wilmot-Buxton, Waterside Mission Sermons (1st Series), p. 44. CII. 27.—W. Baird, The Hallowing of Our Common Life, p. 1. CII.—International Critical Commentary, vol. ii. p. 316.
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.
My heart is smitten, and withered like grass; so that I forget to eat my bread.
By reason of the voice of my groaning my bones cleave to my skin.
I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert.
I watch, and am as a sparrow alone upon the house top.
Mine enemies reproach me all the day; and they that are mad against me are sworn against me.
For I have eaten ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping,
Because of thine indignation and thy wrath: for thou hast lifted me up, and cast me down.
My days are like a shadow that declineth; and I am withered like grass.
But thou, O LORD, shalt endure for ever; and thy remembrance unto all generations.
Thou shalt arise, and have mercy upon Zion: for the time to favour her, yea, the set time, is come.
For thy servants take pleasure in her stones, and favour the dust thereof.
So the heathen shall fear the name of the LORD, and all the kings of the earth thy glory.
When the LORD shall build up Zion, he shall appear in his glory.
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.
For he hath looked down from the height of his sanctuary; from heaven did the LORD behold the earth;
To hear the groaning of the prisoner; to loose those that are appointed to death;
To declare the name of the LORD in Zion, and his praise in Jerusalem;
When the people are gathered together, and the kingdoms, to serve the LORD.
He weakened my strength in the way; he shortened my days.
I said, O my God, take me not away in the midst of my days: thy years are throughout all generations.
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:
But thou art the same, and thy years shall have no end.
The children of thy servants shall continue, and their seed shall be established before thee.