Hear my prayer, 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.
For my days vanish like smoke;
my bones burn like glowing embers.
I am writing this on Good Friday which seems fitting. I don’t know when this will be published but Good Friday seems an appropriate day to reflect on the themes of this particular psalm. The writer is struggling. As the title says, his prayer is a lament before the Lord. There has been a lot written over recent years about lament and about its almost total disappearance from contemporary worship.
Some might argue that on the other side of Easter Sunday that lament is inappropriate. How can we lament when the tomb is empty and Christ is risen? Not only is a whole book of the Bible named after the practice but the Psalms are full of it.
To lament is to be honest and say, ‘You know what, God, everything is not alright.’ It strikes me that this is often an accurate reflection of our experiences and maybe that accounts for the enduring appeal of the Psalms.
The Psalmist is in a bad way. He is physically distressed (v. 3b, 4, 5, 7) and his days are filled with pain and discomfort. He’s floundering emotionally, unable to sleep, lonely and cut off from human company (v. 7). ‘The greatest misery of sickness is solitude,’ reflected poet-preacher John Donne when he was struck down with life-threatening fever. One of the very distressing features of the current Covid-19 pandemic, as was also true of the 2014–16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, is the way in which some people have died alone, separated from their loved ones.
He is in a pitiful state but there is no pity for him. His enemies are hostile – they probably think that he’s getting what he deserves (v. 8). The Psalmist feels he is wasting away, vanishing like smoke into the air, withering away like grass in the summer heat, slipping inexorably into the darkness (v. 3, 11).
In stark contrast to his own feebleness is his awareness of YHWH’s might: ‘the LORD sits enthroned’. In stark contrast to his own mortality is YHWH’s immortality: the LORD sits enthroned ‘forever’.
As the Psalmist ponders his own fate, his thoughts turn to Jerusalem. The holy city had been reduced to ruin (v. 14, 17) but he is confident that YHWH has not forgotten her and will restore her fortunes (v. 13). When God does this for his people it will result in praise throughout the earth.
In verse 23 the writer returns to theme of the opening section. Even though he feels shattered, he can still call upon God in his brokenness. The Old Testament writers had little hope of any life beyond death (Isaiah 26:19, Daniel 12:2, 3) which might come as a shock to those who think that life after death is the whole end and purpose of religion. The psalmist simply asks that God does not cut short his days and that leads him to contemplate the difference between his life and the life of God.
The psalm, which begins in pain and fragility, climaxes with a majestic description of God’s eternal nature. In the New Testament the final verses are picked up by the unknown author of Hebrews who daringly applies them to Jesus of Nazareth – so much for all those sceptics who claim the Church only decided Jesus was divine in the fourth century!
And it is in Jesus that the hopes of the psalmist find ultimate fulfilment. Our creator is not deaf to our cries, he is not impervious to our affliction, he is not oblivious to our pain (v. 19) but, in Jesus, he has entered the vale of tears. In one of the most remarkable and moving scenes in the gospels, Jesus weeps with Mary over the death of her brother Lazarus but also summons the dead man from the tomb (John 11:33–43). Whether our days are long or cut short, we know that he is with us by his Spirit and that nothing, not even death itself, can separate us from his love, from his presence or the promise of resurrection (Romans 8:38).