Psa. 102:12 ¶ But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever; your name endures to all generations.
Psa. 102:13 You will rise up and have compassion on Zion, for it is time to favor it; the appointed time has come.
Psa. 102:14 For your servants hold its stones dear, and have pity on its dust.
Psa. 102:15 The nations will fear the name of the LORD, and all the kings of the earth your glory.
Psa. 102:16 For the LORD will build up Zion; he will appear in his glory.
Psa. 102:17 He will regard the prayer of the destitute, and will not despise their prayer.
Psa. 102:18 ¶ Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet unborn may praise the LORD:
Psa. 102:19 that he looked down from his holy height, from heaven the LORD looked at the earth,
Psa. 102:20 to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die;
Psa. 102:21 so that the name of the LORD may be declared in Zion, and his praise in Jerusalem,
Psa. 102:22 when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to worship the LORD.
If the problem is personal, is the answer communal? The woes and troubles narrated in verses 3-11 all pertain to individual problems of various sorts. They aren’t speaking to communal concerns, such as famine, plague, or captivity, but individual ones such as bad personal health, and inter-personal trauma. With this in mind, it is striking that the focus of the psalm changes so dramatically.
The change is so dramatic that it causes me to wonder if verses 1-11 were originally from a different psalm that was later joined to verses 12-22 to form a new combined longer psalm? But as it is, we move, without preparation from considering the problems of an individual to the fate of Zion as a community.
The emotional shift is also striking, moving from lamentation and woe to celebration and anticipation. It is almost as if the writer stands on a mountain top which has completely different views if one looks to the east from what one sees looking west. On one side of the mountain it is all wasteland, but on the other it is paradise and beauty. On one side God hears the prayers and frees the prisoners (verses 12-22 –in verses 3 through 11, prison was not mentioned as a problem). So, looking down on one side of the mountain, all we see is personal woe, but looking down on the other we see collective struggle and liberation. God is on the move here, but seemingly absent there. It is a contrast of horizons.
The problems articulated in 3 through 11 are not resolved. It is rather as if the psalmist merely looks away from them to see a completely different narrative playing itself out. In the first narrative, all was private defeat, but in the second narrative, there is struggle, but there is also victory: God is on the move. The problems of the first part of the Psalm are not resolved, but the problems in the second, more collective narrative are. It’s as if we are offered a choice of narratives – an individual one which is really a litany of tragedy, and a collective one, which has its share of trouble, but also hope. The psalm offer us a choice as to which vista to look at and to live into. Look this way or that way; live into your own personal tragedy, or into a struggle unto victory with God.
Psa. 102:23 ¶ He has broken my strength in midcourse; he has shortened my days.
Psa. 102:24 “O my God,” I say, “do not take me away at the mid-point of my life, you whose years endure throughout all generations.”
The psalmist seemingly turns his attention back to the more private woes of verses 3-11 – unto that side of the mountain (as it were). He summarizes the experiences of verses 3-11 – they are like being broken in the middle of one’s way. One expects to be broken – or at least to have one’s body break down in later years – but not in the middle of one’s days: that is too soon! This setback does not occasion self-pity, but rather a philosophical reflection…
Psa. 102:25 ¶ Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands.
Psa. 102:26 They will perish, but you endure; they will all wear out like a garment. You change them like clothing, and they pass away;
Psa. 102:27 but you are the same, and your years have no end.
Psa. 102:28 The children of your servants shall live secure; their offspring shall be established in your presence.
The trouble narrated in the first part of the psalm could lead to despair. Yet that is not where the psalmist wants to take us. Rather, he would have us reflect on our mortality – and on God’s immortality. There is comfort in God’s abiding nature. There is even a strange comfort is knowing that our time is fleeting. Heidegger, an important 20th century German philosopher, argued that we only truly become our real selves when we deeply consider our impending deaths. Death has a way of cutting away the trivial things and bringing us closer to that which is really important. He believed the anxiety that often accompanies this deep meditation upon death is a key that unlocks a courage to live more deeply and truly. The psalmist may have come to think something like this as well. But for him, our mortality is only part of the story – he encourages us to consider the “mortality” of the whole created order – even of the stars! When measured against our brief lifespans, they seem as if the stars are immortal – but they aren’t. Even if they may exist for many billions of years, the day is coming when each of them will burn out and cease to be. We live in a mortal universe. Only God is immortal.
The psalmist ends not with hope for his own post-mortem survival – but with that of his community. In Christ we hope for more, but I think there is wisdom for us in the psalmist’s perspective. Do we have hope for the future generations? Hope is a precious thing, and hard to find, especially in this time of the climate crisis. How is hope possible given the mortality of everything? Yet we have an immortal God…
The psalm takes the form of a sandwich. It starts and ends with private suffering, and in the middle is struggle with victory. As the psalmist puts us on the mountain top with two rival views of two rival narratives stretching out on either side of the mountain, again, it is as if we have to choose between one view or the other view. But by turning back to the former more private view of suffering in the final verses of the psalm, the psalmist seems to be saying that this isn’t really the choice before us. It is not this way or that, but both. We never fully escape our private suffering, just like we never get away from the good hand of God. We have to bear both our private suffering and our part in the community’s struggle, and not forget one for the other. We need to honour the private suffering of the many (including ourselves), and not forget the redemptive work of God.