For the next couple months I intend to write about a psalm each week, particularly in how they can be prayed in continuity with the current season in the Church calendar.
Psalm 102 is one of seven psalms traditionally identified as “the penitential psalms” – so nick-named because of their focus on repentance from sin. A handy feature of this list of seven penitential psalms is that they’re paired up with the classic “seven deadly sins.” Each of those sins has its own psalm assigned to it as an especially poignant prayer of repentance.
For Psalm 102 the deadly sin involved is gluttony. Normally, gluttony is thought of as over-eating, as in the picture below. In reality, the sin of gluttony is a bit more precise.
Gluttony is a sin of excess, for sure, but not so much excess in amount but rather excess in desire and its satisfaction. Thus gluttony can entail:
- consuming too much food
- consuming too much drink (especially drunkenness)
- consuming or buying too much stuff
- wasting things (and in today’s world, creating too much trash)
- being too picky about quality or luxury (be it with food or other things)
One of the big challenges with gluttony is that it seems so relative… how much is too much? Are Christians allowed any sense of luxury or comfort? While these questions have been answered in different ways at different times, the general agreement is this: you know you’ve had “too much” when it’s hurting you. (For example, once you’re drunk, once you’re so full of food you feel sick, once you’re so picky that people get frustrated with you, once you generate so much waste that it clutters others’ lives or could have been redistributed to aid others in need, etc.)
Psalm 102 and the solution to wayward desires
How does Psalm 102 play into this? First of all, it describes the kind of problem that gluttony leads to. Verses 3-11 are particularly vivid:
my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is smitten like grass, and withered; I forget to eat my bread.
Because of my loud groaning my bones cleave to my flesh.
I am like a vulture of the wilderness, like an owl of the waste places;
I lie awake, I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.
All the day my enemies taunt me, those who deride me use my name for a curse.
For I eat ashes like bread, and mingle tears with my drink,
because of thy indignation and anger; for thou hast taken me up and thrown me away.
My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass.
There you can almost see the picture of someone who just over-ate, groaning in pain; the drunkard waking up with a hangover; the lover of luxury lamenting the loss of former friends; the futility of a life lived chasing after the desires to consume.
Instead of seeking fulfillment in (either quality or quantity of) food and drink and other possessions, the Psalm redirects our desires to God. Verses 12-14 begin the turnaround of repentance in the Psalm:
But you, O LORD, are enthroned for ever; your name endures to all generations.
You will arise and have pity on Zion; it is the time to favor her; the appointed time has come.
For your servants hold her stones dear, and have pity on her dust.
God, unlike all other sources of satisfaction “endures to all generations.” God is eternal, He will always be there for us, he is all we need. As we realize that, believe that, and respond to that, we turn to Zion, the promised land of a new heaven and new earth free from sin and evil. We look to that perfect homeland and adore the very stones and dust – for even the God’s worst (so to speak) is better than this world’s best.
from repentance to praise
The next part of the Psalm describes the glory of God being made known both amidst his own people and among “the nations,” for two stated reasons.
First (in verse 16) God appears in glory, which is an expression of holiness and power. We see this fulfilled largely in the person of Jesus Christ: he made visible the invisible God, he glorified his Father perfectly on the Cross, he was the definitive arrival of God in creation. The Church ever since has proclaimed the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ to all nations, continuing the fulfillment of this Psalm’s prayer.
The second reason God’s glory goes out to all the nations (given in verse 17) is that God answers prayers, even “the prayer of the destitute.” This is always good news! God is not just into big flashy miracles, and guiding nations and kings, he also cares about the poor, the needy, the lonely, the destitute. Even little old me and my problems are not too far below God’s love.
the final summary
Verses 1-2 were the opening cries to God for help.
Verses 3-11 describe the complaint we lift to God.
Verses 12-17 give voice to repentance and reorienting ourselves towards God.
Verses 18-22 remind us of the importance of remembering what God has done for us, so we can pass on that good news to others.
Finally, verses 23-28 give a final summary of the whole picture. The prayer’s lament of the pain and suffering inflicted by sin are revisited – “He has broken my strength in mid-course; he has shortened my days” especially works in the situation of the glutton who has wasted so much time in the pursuit of satisfaction. And then the correcting lesson is revisited also: God created the earth and the heavens, “they will all wear out like a garment.” But God is “the same, and [his] years have no end.” It is to God that we much turn to seek for the satisfaction of our hearts. In the end, He’s all we have.
And that’s fine, because He’s all we’ll ever need!