Editor’s note: This is the fifth essay in a series on The Seven Penitential Psalms. A complete list of the essays is at the bottom of this essay.
1 Hear my prayer, O Lord;
let my cry come to thee!
2 Do not hide thy face from me
in the day of my distress!
Incline thy ear to me;
answer me speedily in the day when I call!
3 For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
4 My heart is smitten like grass, and withered;
I forget to eat my bread.
5 Because of my loud groaning
my bones cleave to my flesh.
6 I am like a vulture of the wilderness,
like an owl of the waste places;
7 I lie awake,
I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.
8 All the day my enemies taunt me,
those who deride me use my name for a curse.
9 For I eat ashes like bread,
and mingle tears with my drink,
10 because of thy indignation and anger;
for thou hast taken me up and thrown me away.
11 My days are like an evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.
12 But thou, O Lord, art enthroned for ever;
thy name endures to all generations.
13 Thou wilt arise and have pity on Zion;
it is the time to favor her;
the appointed time has come.
14 For thy servants hold her stones dear,
and have pity on her dust.
15 The nations will fear the name of the Lord,
and all the kings of the earth thy glory.
16 For the Lord will build up Zion,
he will appear in his glory;
17 he will regard the prayer of the destitute,
and will not despise their supplication.
18 Let this be recorded for a generation to come,
so that a people yet unborn may praise the Lord:
19 that he looked down from his holy height,
from heaven the Lord looked at the earth,
20 to hear the groans of the prisoners,
to set free those who were doomed to die;
21 that men may declare in Zion the name of the Lord,
and in Jerusalem his praise,
22 when peoples gather together,
and kingdoms, to worship the Lord.
23 He has broken my strength in midcourse;
he has shortened my days.
24 “O my God,” I say, “take me not hence
in the midst of my days,
thou whose years endure
throughout all generations!”
25 Of old thou didst lay the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of thy hands.
26 They will perish, but thou dost endure;
they will all wear out like a garment.
Thou changest them like raiment, and they pass away;
27 but thou art the same, and thy years have no end.
28 The children of thy servants shall dwell secure;
their posterity shall be established before thee. (Psalm 102)
The opening verse of this psalm is put on the lips of the priest in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass just before he ascends the steps of the altar: Domine, exaudi orationem meam. And the faithful pick up the response: Et clamor meus ad te veniat. At that moment, the priest stands at the head of his people, preparing to re-present in their name the once-for-all perfect Sacrifice of Christ. A most appropriate dialogue.
The psalmist rehearses his profound alienation; as we have seen, it parallels the alienation our first parents brought on themselves and their progeny: human against human; man against the earth; man against God; man against himself. This is the cycle of sin as evil spreads – a veritable contagion – a word with which we have become very familiar of late.
After reciting his litany of miseries, the psalmist puts things in proper perspective: The God of Israel is above all of this, yet this divine sovereignty should not be interpreted as aloofness. Although God is “enthroned for ever,” He will “have pity.” In the Judaeo-Christian Tradition, there is a perfect balance between God’s transcendence and His immanence. The very first encounter between God and Moses is paradigmatic: Moses is told to remove the sandals from his feet, for he is standing on holy ground (divine transcendence) but, within minutes, he is also advised that the Lord God has heard the cry of His people (divine immanence) (see: Ex 3). The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the God of Jesus Christ – is not like the Greco-Roman gods on Mount Olympus who delighted in toying with human lives, even vying with one another to multiply human tragedies. The psalmist’s conviction here is given poetic expression by Robert Browning: “God’s in His Heaven—All’s right with the world!”
That immanence of the God of Revelation is called “mercy”: He is ever-ready to forgive our sin; He is even ever-ready to bring good things out of the stupidities into which we fall. Shakespeare rhapsodized on the beauty and glory of mercy when he had Portia exclaim in The Merchant of Venice:
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: It is twice bless’d;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; It becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God Himself,
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation: We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.”
As beautiful as that soliloquy is, as one commentator has observed, “before Shakespeare wrote it, God was it!”
The psalmist concludes that God’s forgiveness of Israel will draw all nations to the one, true God (after all, that is the vocation of the Chosen People). The Gentiles will come to “fear the name of the Lord.” But what kind of fear are we talking about here? We can identify two kinds of fear: servile fear and filial fear. Servile fear causes us to reverence and obey God because, like slaves, we cower before the lash of a cruel and exacting Master. Filial fear causes us to reverence and obey God because, like grateful children, we would never wish to sadden a loving Father who has done so much for us. The latter is the type of fear the biblical prophets sought to instill in the Jews of old: “After everything that God has done for you, how can you continue to flout His laws which, after all, have been given only for your good?” That’s the fear God expects from one of His children.
Now, there is another aspect of all this requiring our attention. Way back in the 1940s, Pope Pius XII noted that the fundamental sin of the twentieth century was a loss of the sense of sin. I would suggest that, firstly, that “fundamental sin” is still very much with us in the twenty-first century. Secondly, why this aversion to calling sin by its proper name? I suspect it may have something to do with the philosophy of existentialism, which gripped so many in the aftermath of the two world wars. That philosophy made cynicism a virtue. As it seeped into the popular consciousness (among those who could not even spell “existentialism”), a conviction set in that one’s sins were too great ever to be forgiven. And then, by a very circuitous path, that gave rise to the belief that no sin had been committed at all. That has certainly been the pattern I have observed in hearing the confessions of those who have been away from the Sacrament of Penance for years or even decades on end.
I would be grossly remiss were I not to underscore how often in this psalm – and throughout the Old Testament – we are enjoined to honor the holy Name of God, for the Name and Person are one. The Name of God most revered among the Chosen People was the one given to Moses: Yahweh (I Am Who Am), the Source of all being. That Name was so sacred, that it was to be uttered only once a year on the feast of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple. That reverence for the sacred Name is still part and parcel of Jewish spirituality, so much so that even when proclaiming a text of Sacred Scripture and that Name appears, the reader substitutes a synonym. Would that Christians had such devotion, let alone our culture.
All kinds of supposedly offensive words cannot be used on television, however, such sensitivity does not apply to the holy Name of God, which is regularly taken in vain. In the era of mass compositions of would-be sacred music for the liturgy, it was commonplace to have “Yahweh” feature in those songs. It took a notification by Cardinal Francis Arinze in 2008 in his capacity as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, to bring a stop to the practice as he reminded us that the Jewish honor in which that Name is held should be ours as well.
The psalm ends on a note of absolute, unwavering confidence in God’s ongoing mercies toward the sacred author and toward all Israel.
A final thought: What comes across, loud and clear, in this poem-song – indeed, in all the psalms – is the majesty of God and the awe in which we humans ought to relate to Him. Modern man’s God is way too small. Strong doses of holy wonder and amazement need to become once more an essential element of our spirituality. A hymn like “Immortal, Invisible” would be a good starting place:
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessèd, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, thy great Name we praise.
Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
Nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might;
Thy justice like mountains high soaring above
Thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.
To all life thou givest—to both great and small;
In all life thou livest, the true life of all;
We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
And wither and perish—but nought changeth thee.
Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
Thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight;
All laud we would render: O help us to see
’Tis only the splendour of light hideth thee.
Essays on the Seven Penitential Psalms:
• The Seven Penitential Psalms in time of pandemic/Psalm 6 (April 4, 2020)
• Psalm 32: The Joy of Forgiveness (April 5, 2020)
• Psalm 38: A Penitent Sufferer’s Plea for Healing (April 6, 2020)
• Psalm 51: Prayer for Cleansing and Pardon (April 7, 2020)
• Psalm 102: Prayer to the Eternal King for Help (April 8, 2020)
• Psalm 130: Waiting for Divine Redemption (April 9, 2020)
• Psalm 143: Prayer for Deliverance from Enemies (April 9, 2020)
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