Where do you turn when life overwhelms you? Rocky road ice cream? The latest Netflix series? Your favorite sports team? Your social media feed? Living on this side of the veil of tears, the question is not if but when will life overwhelm.
Christians, of course, are not exempted from life’s tumultuous waves. Where do we turn? How do we turn? So often our richest resources in the church are neglected. A good Christian would surely answer “God’s Word” as a place to turn in distress. But where in the Scriptures specifically? Throughout the history of God’s people, the Psalms in particular have been a resource for the hopeless, for the discouraged, for the distressed. One thing they continually do for us—no matter our station and experience in life—is bring us near to God as our only resource.
Psalm 102 is a striking and helpful example of this. When overwhelmed, when at the end of himself, the psalmist turns to God. What I want to focus on in this first post on Psalm 102 is that God is a God to whom we can bring brutal lament. My second post on this psalm will look at how God is a God who can help.
The psalm starts with a note of urgency: Lord, hear! Listen! Do not hide Your face! Incline Your ear! Answer quickly! The psalmist is a desperate man, but, in his distress, he calls out to God: “Hear my prayer, O LORD; let my cry come to you!” The most important element of this opening is not the psalmist’s distress but that he calls on God in his distress. Distress calls on God.
Now, the specifics of the psalmist’s distress are not given, because the psalmist wants us to focus on his sense of discouragement. The language is striking: the psalmist’s bones burn, his heart is struck down, he forgets to eat, he utters loud groaning, his bones cling to flesh. There is an illness of some sort that is contributing to his distress. There are enemies too. What’s more, he feels as if God has “thrown him out,” shut him out of His presence. If this section of the psalm has a mood, it’s one of discouragement. The psalmist feels abandoned and lonely, like a desert owl in the wilderness, like a lone bird on a rooftop with the only thing around the empty sky.
The first eleven verses of Psalm 102 are pretty bleak . . . but honest. They catch the universal experience of the Christian at one time or another. John Calvin said the Psalms present to us a “complete anatomy of the soul.” He went on to say: “There is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn . . . all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”
Centuries before Calvin, Athanasius wrote that “from the Psalms those who want to do so can learn the emotions and dispositions of the soul, finding in them also the therapy and correction suited for each emotion. If the point needs to be made more forcefully, let us say that the entire Holy Scripture is a teacher of virtues and the truths of faith, while the Book of Psalms possesses somehow the perfect image for the soul’s course of life.”
We see in Psalm 102 the darker side of our soul’s course, prompted by the difficulty of life and the feelings that follow.