By. Ligon Duncan
If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Psalm 102. We return today to the Fourth Book of the Psalms. It has been almost a month, but we’re back again. But we’re in a very different Psalm from the Psalm that we last studied. We were last together in Psalm 101. The Psalms immediately prior to that Psalm had dealt repeatedly with worship. This, however, is a Psalm that deals with affliction.
This Psalm was traditionally classed among the penitential Psalms, that collection of Psalms in which the psalmist confesses sins, repents of his sin and seeks God’s forgiving mercy, but this is a mislabeling of this Psalm. It is not a penitential Psalm; it is a Psalm of someone crying out in the midst of unexplained but almost unmitigated suffering. And this Psalm is Messianic. It points to Jesus Christ.
I want to emphasize as we study this Psalm together that it deals with unexplained suffering, not meaningless suffering. For the believer there is no such thing as meaningless suffering. Nor is this Psalm about inexplicable, or unexplainable, suffering. All suffering is ultimately explainable. It is just that in the most of our lives, as in the most of the lives of believers from the days of the Bible, it is not in God’s inscrutable plan to explain to us the reasons for our suffering, for our afflictions and for our tribulations; and so, though this Psalm is about unexplained suffering, it is not about unexplainable suffering. In the end all will be clear, but for now much of what we do and experience is unexplained.
This Psalm is a pattern for us. It provides encouragement to us in our suffering. It gives us habits and patterns to follow when the lot of suffering and affliction is our condition. Let me just outline that for you very briefly. As you look at the Psalm, it seems to me that there are at least five words of direction to those who are experiencing affliction, and the first word you’ll see in verses 1-2. It’s simply this: Pray. The first directive to those who are afflicted is the direction to bring their prayers to God. We’ll see how practical that is in just a few moments.
The second thing you’ll see in verses 3-11, and that is an exhortation to in prayer acknowledge to God fully the affliction that we are experiencing. So the first part is Prayer (vss. 1-2); the second part is Acknowledgement (vss. 3-11); and third, this prayer points us to Hope, and it is interesting to note where the psalmist points us to for hope in time of affliction. It will not surprise you that the psalmist points us to God and His sovereignty in verses 12-17, but it may surprise you what else he points us to for hope in the time of affliction. So that’s the third part – Prayer; Acknowledgement; and Hope.
Then, fourth, Testimony. The psalmist faces this affliction desiring that God’s faithfulness to hear his cries for help would be a witness and testimony to generations to come, to the glory of the loving, kind, tender Father who is a prayer-hearing and prayer-answering God. And so he faces his affliction desiring that God’s faithfulness to him in his affliction and his faith in God in his affliction (vss. 18-28) would be a testimony to generations to come.
So, Prayer, Acknowledgement, Hope, Testimony, and finally Christ.
One of the things that we’re going to learn is that this whole Psalm is a messianic Psalm, and that the whole circumstance and condition of this Psalm, though it was true for the psalmist (who had probably with his own eyes seen the destruction of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Southern Kingdom and so lived in a time of calamity and affliction for the people of God as well as personally being afflicted as is so clearly present in verses 3-11)…though this Psalm is truly the psalmist’s Psalm, it is more truly Jesus’ Psalm. You’ll note especially when we get to verse 23 that the words of this Psalm ultimately are only Jesus’, and that when we participate in affliction in the Christian life, we’re simply participating in a drop of what Jesus participated in and in fact bore in our place. So I want you to see Prayer, Acknowledgement, Hope, Testimony, and Christ as we study this Psalm.
Now let’s pray before we read and hear God’s word.
Heavenly Father, this is Your word. I do not know the burdens that are brought today. I know about some of them, but I have not lived in them and under them. But You know, and we thank You for this. Were we to know the afflictions in the lives of friends sitting on the pews here and now today, it would destroy us; but You, O Lord, can bear it, and You know every hopeless cry of our hearts, and for this reason we are supremely thankful that You have taught us in Your word what to do when we are living in this place of affliction. So open our eyes today, O Lord, and let us behold wonderful things in Your word so that we can endure affliction in faith and in hope, by the gospel. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear the word of the living God:
“A PRAYER OF ONE AFFLICTED, WHEN HE IS FAINT
AND POURS OUT HIS COMPLAINT BEFORE THE LORD.
Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come to you!
Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress!
Incline your ear to me;
Answer me speedily in the day when I call!
“For my days pass away like smoke,
And my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is struck down like grass and has withered;
I forget to eat my bread.
Because of my loud groaning my bones cling to my flesh.
I am like a desert owl of the wilderness,
Like an owl of the waste places;
I lie awake; I am like a lonely sparrow 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 my tears with my drink,
Because of Your indignation and anger;
For You have taken me up and thrown me down.
My days are like an evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.
“But You, O Lord, are enthroned forever;
You are remembered throughout 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.
Nations will fear the name of the Lord,
And all the kings of the earth will fear Your glory.
For the Lord builds up Zion; He appears in His glory;
He regards the prayer of the destitute and does not despise their prayer.
“Let this be recorded for a generation to come,
So that a people yet to be created may praise the Lord:
That He looked down from His holy height;
From heaven the Lord looked at the earth,
To hear the groans of the prisoners,
To set free those who were doomed to die,
That they may declare in Zion the name of the Lord,
And in Jerusalem His praise, when peoples gather together,
And kingdoms, to worship the Lord.
“He has broken my strength in midcourse;
He has shortened my days.
‘O my God,’ I say, ‘take me not away in the midst of my days—
You whose years endure throughout all generations!’
“Of old You laid the foundation of the earth,
And the heavens are the work of Your hands.
They will perish, but You will remain;
They will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
But You are the same, and Your years have no end.
The children of Your servants shall dwell secure;
Their offspring shall be established before You.”
Amen. This is God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Have you known affliction? Deep and intense? Unrelenting affliction? A darkness where there is no light at the end of the tunnel? Have you brought it here with you today? Perhaps it’s in your job and your vocation…your profession. You have with integrity sought to earn a living, do what is right, and yet there is someone – a client, a partner – who had betrayed you and is raking your good name through the mud, calling into question all of your integrity, threatening your livelihood and the well-being of your family as well as ruining your reputation. And when you go home, late at night you want to lay your head on the pillow and close your eyes and forget about it, but you cannot. There’s no escaping it. Everywhere you go that reality is there, and there is no relenting in its pursuit of you.
Or maybe it’s in a family estrangement; one to whom you would give great joy, and from whom you would receive great joy, has plunged a knife into your own soul and there is no relief. It may be your husband or your wife or a child, or your own mother and father, or some close relative. And in the very place where we’re meant to have security and joy there is in fact the deepest of affliction, because there is no one who can hurt us like those who are closest to us.
Or maybe it’s just that you are living in a yawning loneliness…surrounded by frenetic activity in work, surrounded by numerous acquaintances, but no one who really knows you and loves you or would care about you if you were gone; no one to stick with you to the end.
Or maybe it is that you carry within your own body a disease that is killing you. Or maybe there is an unbelieving child who has broken your heart. And I could go on and on and on, and not end the list of the afflictions that are here today. My friends, it is one of the supreme truths of God’s word that it is true and that it is His that He speaks to us precisely in these places and that He dares to say to us, ‘Write down your afflictions and pray them to Me. In fact, I am going to give you words in My word so that you can pray back to Me your broken heart in the midst of your affliction, and so that you can bring to Me your complaint.’
This Psalm and so many other places in Scripture remind us from Genesis to Revelation just what the old Puritan said, that though God hath one Son without sin, He has no sons without affliction. If that one Son without sin was called a “Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief”, should it surprise us that the children that He saved by His own blood would also be acquainted with sorrows…deep burdens of heart? But how do we cope with them? How do we bear up under these afflictions?
Well, certainly we begin by acknowledging that affliction is a real part of the Christian life, and we acknowledge that this is one of the testimonies that Christianity is true. So often the other spiritualities offered us as false substitutes for the true religion attempt to candy-coat the afflictions of life, to paper them over, to pretend like they’re not there; but God in His word bids us look square in the eyes of the things that afflict us the most and acknowledge their reality, but also to acknowledge greater reality. So how then do we do it? How do we bear up under these afflictions?
Well, let me point you in this Psalm to five things that the psalmist teaches us, and the first thing is simply this. In our affliction we must go to God in prayer.
Notice how the psalmist begins:
“Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come to you!
Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress!
Incline your ear to me;
Answer me speedily in the day when I call!”
The first thing that the psalmist says to us in affliction is to run to God in prayer. And why is that so important? Because in affliction that is very often the last thing that we want to do, and it is so for a couple of reasons. For those of us that are too prayerless as it is in the normal motions of life, it may feel false to us to run to God in the time of our affliction. That is why it is so important for us to practice communion with God and daily converse with Him, so that in the hour of need it is the most natural thing in the world to run to Him in prayer.
And I suspect that for many more of us the reason that we do not naturally run to Him in prayer and affliction is that the affliction is so overwhelming that we are completely shut down from the inside out. We cease to feel; we can’t think straight; we can’t even articulate our thoughts; we don’t even know what to say; we fumble; we’re almost embarrassed to begin to speak to God in the midst of our confusion and consternation, and the depth of our heartbreak. And here is why what God says here is so kind and helpful. Isn’t it interesting that especially, as we’ll see in verses 3-11, God provides you words to pray to Him when you don’t have words to pray to Him?
I want to say two things about that. The first thing is this: When we begin to pray in affliction, we will almost certainly feel as if we are not being heard, because after all the experience of affliction itself (as verse 10 will show you) often brings to us the sense that God has turned away from us, and is not for us, and does not care about us. So it would be very tempting for us to not feel that we are being heard: and then we follow the advice of the wise old Christians who said, “Pray until you pray.” Pray until you pray. They acknowledge that sometimes at the beginning of your prayers you don’t feel as if you’re praying, and you may not be. But you keep praying until you pray.
And second, I would say in addition to this that it is a good practice in affliction, when you are seeking to pray until you pray, to pray out loud. It is one of the interesting things, my friends, that we have perhaps forgotten in the last two hundred years – that until about the 1700’s almost all Christian prayer whether in public or private was out loud. It is only since about the 1700’s (when Christians began to have their own copies of the Bible as a commonplace in every home, and that devotions would have been practiced reading that Bible and praying to God morning and evening privately by Christians) that predominantly Christians began to pray silently. But sometimes it is helpful to take God’s word and pray it out loud so that your own ears hear the words that you are saying to God, and so that the Spirit may take those words from God’s word that you are hearing in your ears and work them deep down in your heart until you believe them. Prayer is the first step in dealing with affliction. Pray until you pray. Pray out loud until you believe the word of God that you’re praying out loud, until God’s Spirit works it deep down into your heart. Prayer is the first step in responding to affliction. Go to God with your problem.
II. Acknowledge-confess our problems to God.
Now that leads us to the second point, and you’ll see it in verses 3 -11. Here this psalmist in excruciating detail describes the effect of his affliction on him. Wasn’t it gripping? Wasn’t it graphic in its particularity? He’s fainting. His bones burn. His flesh cleaves to him. He can’t eat, he can’t sleep. He can’t think straight. He can’t get relief. And God says, ‘Right. You take that and you bring it right to Me.’
You know, in the wilderness the children of Israel complained to Moses rather than complaining to God, and God judged them for it. Do you know why? Because Moses couldn’t do anything about their complaints. And so they complained to Moses against God, instead of complaining to the only one who could do anything about their affliction and need and circumstances. And God (in verses 3-11) provides for you through the words of this afflicted psalmist words that you can bring to Him. God says, ‘Go ahead. Fully disclose your heart to Me. Specify it. Spell it out. I can take it. In fact, I already know it better than you know it, but you spell it out and you bring it to Me, because I’m the only one who can do anything about it.’
My friends, that’s especially hard to do because of the truth of verse 9. You notice what the psalmist says there: “I eat ashes like bread and mingle tears with my drink.” Why? “Because of Your indignation and anger.” In other words, the psalmist is acknowledging that in every affliction we feel as if that affliction is the expression of God’s indignation and anger towards us, and that in and of itself tempts us to do what? Not to come to God with our complaints.
Now my friends, we need to think about this for a little bit, because sometimes in our affliction we have indeed brought it upon ourselves. But my friends, even when we have brought it upon ourselves, if we are in Christ, if we are trusting Him, our heavenly Father loves us in the beloved; and, even if we are feeling the blows of His discipline it is the expression of His love for a child whom He will not let go. Now Satan will attempt to keep you from coming to God because of that fear of His anger and of His indignation, and the psalmist acknowledges it here. But nothing must keep a child of God from God. No, the urge to pray must never be resisted, and the need to pray is never greater than when we are in affliction, and so even if we fear that we are under the disciplining hand of God and that His indignation is upon us, we run straight to Him.
I can give testimony to the consistent Christian love of my parents that they have taught me two things: that they would punish me when I was wrong; and, that they would never stop loving me. So that when I had done wrong, though I knew that when I went to them it would mean punishment, I so wanted fellowship with them that I would go to them anyway. And God teaches us in His word that though He disciplines His children, He never ceases to love them, so that even when going to Him means discipline, we go to Him trusting in His love. So, my friends, the Lord bids that we disclose our affliction, that we name our troubles before Him specifically, and that we run to Him with our complaints because in the end He’s the only one who can do anything about them.
My friends, have you known friends – dear friends – who are under such burdens that all they can do when they are with you is complain about those burdens? I’ve had friends like that. They have a group of brothers and sisters around them to support them, but all they can do is complain. What the Lord would have them do is complain to Him. Yes, we need to complain to one another from time to time, but especially we need to bring our complaints to the Lord because He’s the only one who can do anything about them. Well, there’s the second thing – acknowledgement – full disclosure of our problem to the Lord.
And then, there’s Hope. You look at verse 12 and you know that something is about to change in this Psalm. You’ve gone from this long, fulsome description of the grief of the affliction that the psalmist is experiencing, and then you get to verse 12 and you read, “But You, O Lord…” and you know that something is about to change! That’s how it always is in the Bible, isn’t it? When you get to a “but You, O Lord,” you know it’s about to change. And so it is.
In verses 12-17, you see the hope that is held out before the psalmist and that hope comes in three parts. The first part of course comes in the Lord himself: “But You, O Lord, are enthroned forever.” He acknowledges God’s sovereign rule over everything and that it is enduring, it is eternal, it didn’t start, it won’t stop. It’s just always been, and it ever shall be. God is always in charge, and so the very first foundation of this believer’s hope in affliction is that God is sovereign forever.
There’s no part of my experience that’s out from under His control. That is why it’s so tragic that so many true Christians today look for relief from their affliction by trying to act as if God had nothing to do with it. My friends, that is the exact opposite direction to run in days of affliction. If I thought that there was some part of my affliction that God had nothing to do with, I’d want to die right there. But here the psalmist says, “No, Lord, You rule over everything, including my affliction.” That’s why tonight when we sing Margaret Clarkson’s beautiful hymn, and when in the midst of that hymn she acknowledges that He is the Lord of human pain, I love to sing that line with you. Because it is an acknowledgement that even in our pain, God is sovereign. And so our hope is in that sovereignty.
But notice also that hope is because God has a plan for His people. Verse 13: “You will arise and have pity on Zion”; verse 16: “For the Lord builds up Zion….”
In other words, the psalmist is acknowledging even as he looks on the ruins of Jerusalem and the remnant of Judah, just as we were hearing in Isaiah 11 this morning that God has a plan for Jerusalem, God has a plan for Judah, and that plan is the people of God brought under the headship of Jesus Christ. It’s what the Apostle Paul is talking about in Ephesians 1, that from every tribe, tongue, people and nation He is going to bring to himself a people for himself. They are going to live under the headship of Christ, and they’re going to reign forever and ever. And the psalmist is comforted by that fact. In his personal affliction, his eyes are not only lifted up to God, but they’re lifted out to remember that there is a plan for all the people of God. There’s something bigger going on here in my affliction than just my affliction. My affliction is a part of this larger plan of God for His people, and because that plan is good I can have confidence.
And then he says (vs. 17), “He regards the prayer of the destitute…He does not despise their prayer.” Because God is ruling over everything, because God has a special plan for His people, God will hear His people’s prayer. He will not leave them in destitution. And so there is hope, and what more do we need in affliction than hope? But so often where do we look for that hope? We look for hope in the improvement of our circumstances…and notice that that is not what the psalmist looks at. He looks to God, he looks to God’s plan among His people, and he looks to God’s hearing of his prayers. He does not look at his circumstances getting better and say ‘I’m going to draw hope from my circumstances getting better.’ He looks to God, he looks to God’s plan, he looks to God’s hearing and answering of prayer – all things that are completely outside the sphere of his circumstances. His circumstances may not change, but those realities will remain and those realities will change the way he looks at his circumstances.
Fourth, not only hope, but testimony. Look at verse 18:
“Let this be recorded for a generation to come,
So that a people yet to be created may praise the Lord:
That He looked down from His holy height;
From heaven the Lord looked at the earth…”
In other words he’s saying, ‘Lord, in Your faithfulness to my cries, I want You to give a testimony to Your faithfulness to generations to come. Lord, use my affliction in this way…that as You are faithful to hear my cries for help, and as I have faith and trust in You, bear witness to future generations that You are good and that You can be trusted. In other words, ‘Lord, use my affliction for the purposes of Your grace in generations yet to come.’ This is huge, my friends.
When we read about afflictions of the saints in the Scripture, we know how the story ends. But usually they didn’t. We know how the story of Job ends. We don’t know whether God ever explained to Job what He explained to us in Job 1 and 2. We look at the story of Hannah in
I Samuel and we know how Hannah’s barrenness, her inability to have children, was a part – an integral part – of the purposes of God for the saving of the world. Hannah did not know that, and even though God was pleased to show her just a little bit of the role that she would play in redemption, yet she did not know the end of the story that we know. And so when we look back on saints and realize that there was purpose in their suffering, though it was unexplained to them, we are encouraged.
But here’s another encouragement. We don’t know all the reasons for our afflictions, and we will not until the end. And that means that we are in precisely the same circumstance they were in. But their faith in God and God’s faithfulness to them serves as a testimony to us that God can be trusted.
Now the psalmist here (in verses 18-28) prays that his faith in God and God’s faithfulness to him will be a testimony to generations yet to come. We, just like those saints of the Bible, are called upon to trust God in afflictions that are not explained to us. And you see how the psalmist is rising out of his affliction to say, ‘Lord, I know that this affliction has some purpose in Your plan. I just don’t know what it is. So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to trust You, and would Your faithfulness to me be used as a testimony to generations to come.’ That’s what the psalmist does. From prayer to acknowledgement, to hope, to testimony.
There are so many of us in this room who could give testimony to how others of us in this room have been a testimony to us in affliction…when they have borne things that we would not have wished on our worst enemy and they’ve done it in trust, our lives have been made immeasurably richer because of it and we have been given cause to praise our Savior.
Well, one last thing (five) – the most important thing.
You know, one of the things we learn from verse 23 is that, in the end, the prayer of affliction that is being lifted up by this psalmist is in the final analysis Jesus’ prayer, and that the afflictions being described by the psalmist are in the final analysis Jesus’ afflictions.
We learn that not only because Hebrews 1:10-12 directly quote verses 25-27 and apply them to Jesus Christ, but we learn it from the words of verse 23:
“He has broken my strength in midcourse;
He has shortened my days.”
What’s going on there, my friends? The psalmist, without fully understanding it, has said hundreds of years beforehand the words of the Lord Jesus Christ from the cross, when because He was bearing our sins He was afflicted of His soul with the full weight of the wrath of God, and God cut Him off in the midst of His days. This prayer, like Psalm 22, is a Messianic psalm in which Jesus speaks to His Father about the afflictions that He bore for you.
Now what does that mean for you in your affliction? It means this. No matter how great your affliction is – and I do not in any way want to take away at all from the weight of your afflictions. I know about some of them. I cannot begin to comprehend where some of you live, but I can say this. That there is no affliction that a believer experiences in this life that can begin to compare in any way with the greatness of the affliction that Jesus has experienced for you, and that means that your greatest affliction is just a shadow of the affliction that He bore for you, and that every time you take up the words of this Psalm – and it’s legitimate for you to do so, to lift them up to the Lord as a cry of the heart for relief – ‘O God help me, how long is it going to be before you can come and answer my prayer and give me relief?”
No matter when you take up the words of this psalm, you don’t understand an inkling of what Jesus did for you. Because He bore your affliction; not simply with you, but instead of you. And so for every believer, every real experience of affliction in this life, ought to be a reminder that in your place condemned He stood, and that He bore what you ought to have borne, and that what you have borne in no way compares to what He has borne for you. This is Christ’s affliction that is spoken of in this psalm, and this too, gives the greatest encouragement to believers under affliction, for if He was raised to reign, and if He is preparing a world with no affliction for us, then it is certain that we, too, shall be raised with Him and reign in that place where there will be no more tears, and no more sorrows, and no more afflictions, and no more crying. The psalmist tells us how to respond to our affliction. May God by His Spirit enable us to do so.
Our heavenly Father, grant that we would so trust in You, that the deepest of our afflictions would be borne in faith and hope, in Jesus’ Name, Amen.