READ: Something slightly different today. I want to encourage you to read the BACKGROUND section before reading the passage, because the passage itself is very short. The use of imagery is incredibly important in Hebrew poetry, and having a deeper sense of what those images meant to the author and the original audience helps us more fully capture the mood and the message of the passage. So, read through the BACKGROUND and, with what you learned about imagery in mind, read Psalm 102.
BACKGROUND: My Hermeneutics Professor and old boss Jeannine Brown taught me that metaphors can communicate when literal expressions fall short. This concept was certainly not lost on the author of Psalm 102, as he used a great deal of imagery in the form of a number of metaphors to help convey his suffering and add power to his lament. The rich metaphorical images include: smoke, withered grass, bones, birds, ashes and embers, an evening shadow, Zion, and garments. Each of these, in context, provides depth and richness to the Psalm.
A few of the aforementioned metaphors served basically the same purpose. Smoke, withered grass, and an evening shadow all have transient qualities about them. They are used in this psalm to demonstrate the fleeting and transient nature of human life. These images help the audience understand that life truly is frail, and that human existence is not, by any means, permanent or everlasting. Like smoke, withering grass, and a shadow, life can be here one moment and gone the next.
The metaphorical use of bones in this psalm is very powerful, as it held a great deal of meaning for the original readers. Bones signified the most powerful emotions and relationships of humanity, the very lifeblood of physical existence. The images of burning bones and being reduced to skin and bones, used in Psalm 102, convey a great deal of pain and despair as the psalmist. They demonstrate alienation from those things by which humanity defines its very existence. Burning of the bones, in particular, was a powerful image as it was considered something that should not be done, being cursed by God in Amos 2:1. So, Palm 102 very effectively uses bones to demonstrate desolation and despondency.
The use of bird metaphors in verses six and seven is also powerful imagery. A “desert owl” is referenced in verse six and a “bird alone on a roof” is used in verse seven. These images reference the isolation. They demonstrate the despondency and seclusion of the psalmist, evoking powerful feelings of abandonment and being completely alone. These images are additive, in that they expound upon the earlier images of the text, adding isolation to desperation and despair over the transient nature of human existence.
Ashes and embers provide more imagery in Psalm 102. The image of ashes in the Old Testament is often used to connote death, and in this Psalm it certainly brings up that picture. Though the psalmist does not specifically discuss death, he clearly illustrates that death is near, allowing the audience to sense that he can taste it as it approaches by writing, “For I eat ashes as my food.” Ashes and embers, then, help provide add to the mood of despair and futility established earlier in the psalm.
Zion, used in verses 13, 16, and 21 also provides a meaningful image to the audience of Psalm 102. It symbolizes the covenant relationship between God and Israel and all of the many benefits, both physical and spiritual that God’s people will be able to enjoy because of that. As such, the use of Zion in this psalm helps to provide an image of the glorious future that the psalmist is looking forward to and helps to make his sense of hope more powerful for his audience.
Finally, the use of clothing and garments towards the end of the psalm, in verse 26, help to reiterate the transient nature of life that was illustrated in the lament at the beginning of the psalm. Clothes are not permanent; they are temporary and are susceptible to falling apart and becoming useless with time. This image, then, allows the psalmist to reconnect with the images of smoke, withered grass, and an evening shadow, and further illustrate the frailty and temporary nature of life.
THINK: This Psalm reminds us that, though all of humanity is fragile and transient in its existence, God is everlasting and powerful and he will not abandon his people but will extend mercy to them and will restore his covenant with them, allowing for a future where all nations and people will bow before him and his people will dwell with him forever. Though this message was certainly tailored to meet the needs of an ancient audience, it is one that has lasting meaning.
As one of the seven penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143) it is useful for those who are suffering and feeling downtrodden and burdened by sin. It establishes that human nature is fleeting and that the days of any given person are numbered, but if offers a great deal of encouragement with the declaration that God is powerful and everlasting. Though people are frail, God is eternal.
This psalm also has relevant implications for those who are suffering. It clearly demonstrates that God will not turn his back on his people or ignore their distress forever, but instead will answer their pleas for help and build them back up. This gives hope to all who are persecuted and all who are experiencing feelings of abandonment and isolation.
Also, this psalm has an incredible prophetic vision of all nations acknowledging God’s sovereignty and the people of God dwelling with him. Though life is short and despair is inevitable at times, a day will come when all people, from every tribe and nation, will bow before God and confess that he is Lord. And in the end believers will dwell with the everlasting God for all of eternity.
I love Psalm 102 because, in all of it’s sadness and lament, it always reminds me that in God those who are downtrodden can find hope, those who are oppressed can find deliverance, and those who are destined to die can look forward to a brilliant future of everlasting life.
PRAY: Spend time confessing your sins to God and lamenting your rebellion. Be honest with him and admit any feelings of hopelessness, isolation, frustration, or fear you have right now. And thank him for always being there and always being our hope!