Sorrow in sickness - Psalm 102

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 8th June 2008.

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Glenn Chambers was a young man from New York who had a lifelong burning desire to work for God in Ecuador. Now he was setting off on an adventure of a lifetime, to be working with the “Voice of the Andes” mission team in Ecuador. At the airport on the day of his departure he was desperate to send a final note to his mother. So he looked for a piece of paper and found a scrap on the floor. It was an advertisement with the word “Why?” in the middle. So Glenn scribbled his note around the word in the middle, stuffed it in an envelope and put it in the post-box. Later that night his flight crashed into the side of the 14,000 foot Colombian mountain, El Tablazo. The envelope arrived on his mother’s doorstep after she heard the news. And all she saw when she opened the note was the question “why?”.

            Why. It’s a question no doubt many of us asked at different points in our lives. Some over trivial matters, some far deeper and more painful. But the fact is when loss and suffering comes our way, then it’s natural to ask why. But I guess in the back of our minds, we wonder whether it’s right to ask that question. Is it really right to question God? Is it right to put God in the dock so to speak and ask him to answer. We feel it’s somewhat unspiritual, it’s a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of not trusting him and being rather immature. Perhaps we should just resign ourselves to grinning and bearing our suffering rather stoically. Just putting on a brave face and have a stiff upper lip, as we Brits apparently do so well. And certainly in Christian circles, we don’t want to show any emotion. We mustn’t let on that something’s wrong, otherwise we fear people will think us weak. And even with our friends we tend to cover things up, until things get very bad.

            But when we come to the Bible, we discover a healthy dose of realism when it comes to these questions. Because we discover that writer after writer pours out his heart to God. In book after book we find believers questioning God, often very seriously indeed. Job for example spent chapter and chapter raising questions against God. He got very close to chucking in the towel, spiritually speaking. But it’s especially in the Psalms that such deep human emotions are revealed. Here we get everything from deep joy to deep suffering. And we find it is not spiritual at all to keep our emotions hidden, especially from God himself. In fact, it’s a mark of a godly man or woman to come to God in absolute honesty and to lay our deepest concerns, our pain, our joy, our frustration, yes even our anger before him. And that is why every so often it is good for our souls to come to psalms such as these and see how godly followers of the Lord in the past dealt with deep pain and loss. For they have much to teach us.

            And that’s definitely the case with Psalm 102. We don’t know who wrote this Psalm. It’s just possible that the author is writing in the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem, a time of unparalleled loss and suffering in the people of Israel, given what he says about the city in the verses which follow. But we do find out how he is feeling right at the start in the title of the psalm. “The prayer of an afflicted man, when he is faint, and pours out his lament before the Lord.” Here is a man who is at his wits end. He is afflicted and he pours out his lament before God. And whilst we will not find all the answers we want on the why question, yet we will be able to take some comfort and encouragement home with us as we see this man honestly wrestling with God and as we listen to God’s remedy for a suffering soul. So as we have a look at this psalm, we’ll see three things:

1) A Desperate Cry for Help (Vv 1-11)

2) A Deep Hope in God (Vv 12-22)

3) A Definite Answer to Prayer (Vv 23-28)  


1) A Desperate Cry for Help (Vv 1-11)

So first of all we see a desperate cry for help. And we see this in verses 1-11. Now what is clear in this section is just how much suffering this man is experiencing. As we go through note how many things this man is complaining about. In verse 3, he is physical pain, “For my days vanish like smoke; my bones burn like glowing embers.” It’s as if his bones are on fire. He’s perhaps got a raging fever or his joints and bones feel in agony. In verses 4-5 his pain means he cannot eat. He’s lost his appetite: “My heart is blighted and withered like grass; I forget to eat my food. Because of my loud groaning I am reduced to skin and bones.” This man is wasting away. He can’t eat and so he is losing weight. In verses 6-7 he says he experiences lonely isolation. “I am like a desert owl, like an owl among the ruins. I lie awake; I have become like a bird alone on a roof.” He feels like an owl, up half the night and alone, desperate for company. Sickness of any sort, whether it’s physical, spiritual or psychological can be very isolating, and this man felt it. And it’s compounded by sleepless nights. When you are tired already, it’s a terrible thing to have to endure insomnia, hours of the night spent wide awake, hoping for morning to come, hoping desperately that somehow sleep will come. Perhaps we get up, we make a cup of tea, we watch the Mexican women’s wrestling on Channel 5, as there is nothing else to do. Well this man felt it. And there’s more. In verse 8, he says he feels the pain of antagonism from enemies and the psychological trauma of their taunts. “All day long my enemies taunt me; those who rail against me use my name as a curse.” When you are down, you expect a bit of a break, but everything was piling up against this man. And worst of all was the spiritual isolation he felt, in verse 9-11: “For I eat ashes as my food and mingle my drink with tears because of your great wrath, for you have taken me up and thrown me aside.” Do you see what he’s saying? He’s saying that he feels God is angry with him. He feels tossed aside by God like an old used rag. He feels let down and rejected. God has broken his promises, he’s saying. God doesn’t care. It’s extraordinary isn’t it, coming from a believer. Would you ever allow yourself to say things like this? Would you ever give voice to your deepest thoughts that actually you believe that God has sold you short. He’s not come through for you. When you needed him most, he wasn’t there. That’s what this psalmist thought. “You have taken me up and thrown me aside,” he says. And it’s no wonder that depression has set in in verse 11: “My days are like the evening shadow; I wither away like grass.” That’s how I feel he says.

            Now it may be that such sentiments and feelings are pretty shocking to us. We’d never say that to God, we’d say. But the fact of the matter is that these words are here and they are repeated many times, especially in the psalms. These brutally honest confessions of pain and suffering, these almost accusations against God, are pretty common in the Bible. And if we take a step back then this desperate cry for help offers us two very important lessons. The first is that we need to have the right approach to God. Because it is tempting to think that we cannot express any of our pain or frustration to God. That it’s somehow not the done thing to express hurt and disappointment. But whilst it’s not healthy to do it all the time, and there are many other things we can do, as we will see a bit later, yet the fact remains that sometimes it is good for our souls to express with honesty to God our feelings. To say we’re feeling at our wits end, to say we feel let down, to say we’re in great pain. After all, how many of these things the writer talks about have many of us experienced. These aren’t particular rare. Intense physical pain, so intense it feels as if your bones are on fire; sleeplessness, lack of appetite, psychological pain, spiritual pain, loneliness, isolation. They are all common human emotions. And the writer brings them to God, because he knows God is big enough to take it. Notice how the writer expresses himself in verses 1-2: “Hear my prayer, O LORD; let my cry for help come to you. Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress. Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly.” Do you see his pain and desperation? This man needs help, and he is willing to bring all this pain to God and lay it before him, however tough his words. I wonder if you and I have the courage to do that, faith to see that God is big enough to take such verbal assaults, and is loving enough to hear us out. This psalmist knew that, and he brought his catalogue of pain before the Lord. He had the right approach.

            But notice a second lesson from this desperate cry for help, and that is to have a right understanding of God. Because the plain fact of this psalm, and indeed the whole Bible, is that believers are not exempt from pain. Christians are not given an opt out clause from suffering. For very sadly we live in a world where evil happens. And for whatever reason, reasons often known only to God himself, God allows his children to endure times of great pain. And the trouble is we live in a society where pain is not thought to be normal. And we do everything in our power to get rid of it or avoid it. Because of the advances in technology and medicine, we sometimes are tempted to assume that we can go through life facing no pain or suffering. And even in the face of death, we try and stave it off for as long as possible, thinking that death is the greatest of tragedies. Well of course in some ways it is. But there are worse. To die without Christ- that is a far greater tragedy. And for the Christian, we are to have a different perspective. That sometimes we do go through very tough times, and we will one day die. But that does not mean God has lost control, or that he will not use such tough times for good, however hard it is to see the good God has for us.

            Daniel Hans is a Presbyterian minister in the United States. In 1986 he and his wife Beth lost their three year old daughter Laura to cancer. Daniel and Beth watched in agony as their little girl faced nine hospitalisations and four separate operations in the last nine months of her life. Their hearts broke as they watched Laura die, and they struggled to make sense of what had happened. In 1987 Daniel Hans released a book containing some of the sermons he preached throughout his daughters battle with cancer and in the period immediately after her death. One of them is entitled: "Caution. Your God is Too Big." Hans relates how he once surveyed his congregation, asking them about their disappointments with God. He asked them to share things they had hoped God would do but that God didn't. People described times they had prayed for the life of a newborn child only to see it die, of the hope God would protect his people from violence only to hear of an elderly woman being attacked on her way to church, prayed for rain for famine stricken Africa only to see starvation continue. To these disappointments Hans now added his own - he had hoped God would heal his baby girl, but her condition only grew worse. Hans suggests that disappointments like these are the stuff of life, and that if we read the Scriptures we discover that alongside the stories of miracles and amazing feats by God we hear story after story of disappointment with God, of times God appears silent and inactive. He suggests that sometimes we remember only the miracle stories and so we develop too big a view of God - not that we can have too big a view of God's greatness and power or too big a view of God's love and grace, but that we can have too big a view of God's will. God's action in our world is not always to perform the miraculous, but more often than not to walk through our suffering with us. Hans suggests that "A view of God that is too big is harmful both to believer and unbeliever. When our understanding of God is exaggerated, we declare that God will do things he does not intend to do, at least not regularly and in all situations."

            Do you see what he is saying? He is saying that God makes no promise to protect us from evil or suffering. And it means that we need a Biblical attitude to suffering and death. So that when we ourselves are caught up in such tragedy and pain, we have the right expectancy of what God will and will not do. And the psalmist knew that. But it did not stop him from crying out to God in pain and honesty, expressing his deepest feelings to God, of hurt and even anger. And we too need to learn from him, to have the right approach and the right understanding of God. For we too will sometimes cry out with a desperate cry for help.

2) A Deep Hope in God (Vv 12-22)

But wonderfully that is not where we are left. Because the psalmist is able to see some other things about God as well. And that brings us to his deep hope in God. Because whist it is true to say that we are not always given the answers as to why we are suffering in our particular way, that does not mean God has nothing to say for himself. Yes, there are times of silence, but there is also much to hear from God. And notice that our writer has a big change of heart at verse 12, for he says: “But you O Lord.” His focus changes from his problems to his God. And that is what lifts his soul. And there are two aspects of God that the writer says gives him hope in this desperate time.  

The first is God’s character. And the writer is confident of a number of aspects about God’s character. So notice what the writer says in verse 12: “But you, O LORD, sit enthroned forever; your renown endures through all generations.” So here the writer is confidence that God is an eternal God. This God sits enthroned forever. There will be no abdication of the throne. There will be no coup in heaven. No this God is king forever. God’s renown, his fame endures for all generations. He cannot lose control of the universe or our lives. But notice as well that the writer knows that God is glorious. So verses 15-16: “The nations will fear the name of the LORD,
all the kings of the earth will revere your glory. For the LORD will rebuild Zion and appear in his glory.” We’ll see what the writer means by this in a moment, but notice here how God is glorious. God’s glory is his weightiness, his shining brilliance, his awesome majesty and holiness, which means that he cannot be tainted with sin. And when it comes to evil and suffering, it means that God is not to blame. Yes, he is sovereign but he is not responsible for the sin and evil in our world. Because he is a God of utter glory who will one day bring all things into line with his purposes and will. Sin will have its day. Evil will be punished and those who have committed it. Justice will be done and seen to be done because God is glorious. And notice a third aspect of God’s character that the writer has hope in and that is God’s compassion. Verse 13: “You will arise and have compassion on Zion.” Again we will see exactly what that means a moment, but it is something the writer takes hope from. God is compassionate. He feels his people’s pain. He genuinely grieves over sin and evil. Remember the times the Lord Jesus wept in the gospels. Over the evil of death at the grave of Lazarus, over the stubbornness of Israel. God feels our pain in that way. And if the evil of this world and the pain we feel causes us to weep, then consider how much more God is deeply grieved. He is compassionate.

That’s what gave the writer deep hope in such difficult times. He moved from pondering his own troubles to seeing God’s character. And in tough times that is often what gets us through. And if you are going through those times at the moment, then see the God who has you. This is the God who won’t let you go. But it needs to be said that many of us feel we can no longer hang on to God. We have no strength left. We just cannot do it and we might even doubt him. But whilst we might lose our grip on him, he never loses his grip on us. And it’s often after the period of pain that we look back and see how he has kept us, even in the very darkest of times. But for those with eyes to see, it’s God’s unchanging, glorious and compassionate character that can give us strength in these dark times.

But it’s not just God’s character that gives the writer hope, it’s also God’s plans. And we see these plans in verses 13-22. Because throughout these verses, the writer speaks of God restoring the hopes of Zion. So verse 13: “You will arise and have compassion on Zion, for it is time to show favour to her.” Or again in verse 16: “For the Lord will rebuild Zion and appear in his glory. He will respond to the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea.” Now it’s tempting to think that this is simply referring to the rebuilding of physical Jerusalem after the destruction by the Babylonians in the 6th century BC. If you remember the story, the people of Israel were deported to Babylon and Jerusalem destroyed. And it’s possible that this writer lived at that time. But the rebuilding of Jerusalem was a bit of a non event. Writers like Nehemiah and Ezra are left disappointed at the failure of the people to get their hearts right with God. And Jerusalem remained a war torn city. So these hopes and aspirations of our writer could never have been fulfilled in the physical return of the people of Israel to their land. And when you look at verses 18 and following you discover something much bigger in its scope: “Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the LORD: "The LORD looked down from his sanctuary on high, from heaven he viewed the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners and release those condemned to death." So the name of the LORD will be declared in Zion and his praise in Jerusalem when the peoples and the kingdoms assemble to worship the LORD.” The writer is talking about the future generation which will see peoples and kingdoms assembling to worship the Lord. Now that never really happened in Israel’s time. But there is something that we’re told will happen which will fulfil these verses. And that is when Jesus returns and brings all his people together to his place, the new Jerusalem, the new creation. And so we will stand together, peoples from all nations, praising and glorifying God together. Now of course for our writer, he was looking with the eye of faith. We know more with the first coming of Jesus. But the writer has the same confidence as we can have. That God’s promises cannot fail. That his plans cannot be frustrated.

Now why is all this important for those of us going through hard times? Because the writer is reminding us that this is not the end. That there is much better to come. It is darkness now, but the day is coming. And whilst God’s way so often seem to us mysterious and confusing, yet be assured of this that his plans will not fail. That one day he will wipe away every tear. Mourning will be replaced with joy. Pain with deep comfort. Guilt and anger replaced by love and mercy in all their fullness. And that is a real tonic to press on in the present pain.

It was something that Henry Lyte came to discover for himself. Not many of us will have heard of Lyte, but all of us will know one of his most famous hymns: “Abide with Me.” Unfortunately it’s now associated with funerals and often stirs memories of sadness, but actually Lyte wrote that hymn as a hymn of victory. Now when Lyte penned that hymn, he himself was within months of his death. He had serious chest complaints and knew his time was short. And one day, as he pondered Luke 24 where the risen Jesus appears to the two on the road to Emmaus, he began to write down his thoughts in verse: “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens, Lord with me abide. When other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, O abide with me.” He knew that God alone was the one who could sustain him and be his helper in all the ups and downs of life. Now for much of his life, Henry Lyte had feared death, but shortly before his death, he received a new confidence because of a deeper appreciation of Christ’s resurrection. So he was able to write: “I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless, ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness; Where is death’s sting, where grave, thy victory? I triumph still, if thou abide with me!” He said just a few hours before his death, “I glory only in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. O there is nothing terrible in death. Jesus Christ steps into the grave before me. Blessed faith… Today piercing through the mist of earth; tomorrow changed to sight! Abiding with the Lord forever.” Here was a man who knew the reality of the present pain and the joy of the future promise. And so he could write in the final verse, “Hold thou the cross before my closing eyes, shine through the gloom and point me to the skies, heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.” He, like our psalmist, had a deep hope in God’s character and his plans.




3) A Definite Answer to Prayer (Vv 23-28) 

But there’s one final thing we see from this psalm and that is a definite answer to prayer and we see this in verses 23-28. Now when we come to verse 23 it looks as if the psalmist is slipping back into his depression and sickness. It looks as if he is pleading to God not to cut short his days. And then it seems as if the psalmist is repeating truths he has already expressed about God, that he is timeless and eternal. But the NT sees the verses in a totally new light. Because Hebrews 1 quotes these end verses and applies them to Jesus. And when we read the psalm in that light, then we discover something wonderful about the Lord Jesus Christ. This whole psalm is an expression of pain and suffering of a real man thousands of years ago. But what this man did not realise was that his experience was to be fulfilled in the deepest way possible by another. And when you look back through the psalm having seen the whole thing is really about Christ, then it puts it all in a new light. For he is the one who suffered all those things in verses 1-11- horrific physical pain, lack of sleep, hunger, the trauma of people betraying him and attacking him, and most appalling of all, he was truly God forsaken. All for us. And then what is said about God from verse 24-28 is spoken about Jesus. He is the one who laid the beginning of creation. Whilst the universe will perish, the Lord Jesus Christ will go on for all eternity. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. And that is ultimately how this man’s prayer for help is answered. Because in Christ we have someone who has died our death, who has stepped into our shoes, who has done what is necessary to deal with all the pain and suffering in the world. He died on the cross so that we need not and so that all evil and death and pain might be defeated for all time. And it’s his death and resurrection that guarantee that wonderful work of God in renewing the whole world and bringing his people to God’s perfect place to be with him forever. That’s why the psalm ends on this glorious note in verse 28: “The children of your servants will live in your presence; their descendants will be established before you.” That’s what awaits us- we will live in God’s presence, no tears, no pain, no sadness, no evil, no regrets. And it’s all achieved for us through the work of Christ.

            You see this psalm does not give us all the answers to our suffering and pain. We won’t get all the answers this side of heaven. But it does point us to the way ahead. For we need to see that must come to God in honesty and express our feelings to him- whatever they are. He can take it, and he loves us. We need to see his character and plans, that they are perfect and trustworthy. And we need to see the real answer- Jesus Christ, the one who suffered and died for us, who walked our path and knows our pain, and who will bring us home. So let me end by reading to you a poem we often sing, by a man called William Cowper, a man who struggled with chronic depression to his dying day, and yet in a moment of rare light saw the hope and help that was his in God:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

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