Thoughts on Teaching Psalm 102:
This psalm is as awkward as the subject and experience of suffering. It begins desperate and then quickly plunges into despair. The despair is self-loathing, full of self-pity, and bears many marks of deep depression (changes in eating habits, sleeping patterns, intense isolation, and a world reduced to the size of one’s suffering). As abruptly as the psalm plunges, it emerges in tones of great hope and faith. However, this faith is awkwardly third person. The first person pronouns prominent in verses 1-11 are completely absent in verses 12-22. It is as if the author lives in two mental worlds—one with hope (theology and the future of Jerusalem); one without (personal). Finally, verses 23-28 make some effort at bringing these two worlds together. Yet these connections are not as neat and satisfying as the writer would seem to like.
When teaching Psalm 102, I would advise not trying to make it neater than it is. Point out the disjointedness as part of God’s awareness and compassion for those who suffer. God included words that match how we think when we suffer in Scripture. There is a real tension that exists as we live in between the “already” and the “not yet” of God’s work in history. One of the great comforts of Psalm102 is not its answers to hard questions, but how it relates to our struggle to bring Truth and life into harmony.
Similarly Constructed Passage:
When trying to understand and apply a passage that “wanders” like Psalm 102 it can be helpful to study a passage that follows a similar pattern. In this case Lamentations 3:4-26 follows a similar pattern. In this passage Jeremiah (the author of Lamentations) begins by describing his suffering and despair (v. 4-20). The description is vivid and intense. Then there is an abrupt change (v. 21) before the listing of many truths (v. 22-26). In this passage I believe we can see clearly that Jeremiah “calls to mind (v. 21)” those truths and attributes of God that his suffering most caused him to question. As modern readers, we take comfort in seeing that even the great prophet Jeremiah wrestled with his own mind to affirm and cling to the same truths that we question in our suffering.
If this parallel between Psalm 102 and Lamentations 3 is accurate, it causes us to ask this question, “What truths and attributes of God in 102:12-22 did the experiences of 102:1-11 cause him to question and how is he finding comfort from those in 102:23-28?” As we answer this question, we will (at least) find a pattern for our troubled heart to follow and probably much regarding how God comforts us in our hardships.
Three Dots with Dotted Lines
Psalm 102 is not neat. It contains despair (v. 1-11), hope-filled truth (v. 12-22), and some attempts at connections of comfort (v. 23-28). The psalmist, like us, is not able to connect the dots as well as he would like. Use the three column chart below to organize Psalm 102. When you face personal times of despair or affliction you can use a similar chart to try to maintain hope and perspective during times of intense, disorienting suffering.
Evidences of Despair & Suffering
Truths Concerning God’s Activity
Comfort Connections between
Truths and Suffering
Introduction to the “Living Our Faith” series.