When I Am Afflicted

Explore the Bible Series

November 1, 2009

 

Background Passage: Psalm 102:1-28

Lesson Passage: Psalm 102: 1-14, 24-28

 

Introduction:

 

Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft has pointed out that the problem of suffering is one of the most important questions humans must face, and most people, it seems, would intuitively agree with Kreeft’s assessment (See, Handbook of Christian Apologetics).  This first-class Christian apologist lists three reasons why the problem of suffering is so critical.

1.      Suffering is universal: Everyone experiences pain, and many wonder why bad things happen to good people (or why bad things happen at all). 

2.      Suffering is an intensely personal, existential problem: Philosophers and theologians may posit rational and biblical arguments about pain, but, in the end, the suffering becomes concrete, substantial, tangible.  This problem refuses relegation to dusty tomes and stuffy classrooms; rather, it worms its way into your hospital room, funeral home, or sleepless bedroom.

3.      Suffering is the strongest argument for atheism:  Kreeft points out, rightly I think, that the problem of suffering poses the greatest challenge for believers as they attempt to interact with non-Christian friends.  For the atheist, suffering is a proof that God does not exist. Their arguments often run something like this:

Christians claim that God exists, and he is infinitely powerful, good and compassionate.  How, then, could an all-good, all-powerful, all-loving God create a world which contains so much evil (both immorality and personal suffering)?  Wouldn’t the nature of such a God preclude the presence of evil and suffering in a world he created?  The atheist would claim that if God exists, he could not be either all-good or all-powerful. 

 

C.S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, stated the dilemma in somewhat different terms.  He reflected on his days as an atheist when he defended his unbelief by appealing to the seeming senselessness of the vast vacuum of space and the presence of unspeakable suffering in the human race.  Why would a good God create a universe with so much wasted, empty space?  The history of the world, red in tooth and claw, seems to revolve around the themes of suffering, loss, pain, and death.  I might add, how can anyone retain belief in God in light of the Holocaust, Siberian gulags, Rwandan ethnic cleansing, or Indonesian tsunamis?  Lewis, very early in his book, gave a hint at a possible “fingerprint” of God, even in a world fraught with such catastrophic pain. 

 

Why do thoughtful, reflective people experience such outrage at the presence of suffering in the world?  Liberal, (perhaps) atheistic people often have an acute sense that the Holocaust, for instance, was morally reprehensible.  Where do atheists derive this sense that an event, like the Holocaust, was wrong?  Lewis believed that the human awareness of right and wrong gave evidence of the existence of God.

I do not have easy answers to these complex problems of life.  Frankly, the Bible does not seem to give simple answers.  Wonderful people of God, even in the Scriptures, wrestled with these problems, including the anonymous author of Psalm One Hundred and Two.  This man suffered from some unknown malady, perhaps a physical hardship, and he found no consolation in the counsel of his “friends.”  He felt that God had hidden his face from the sufferings of his servant, and death seemed to loom on the horizon.  Nevertheless, the author maintained his faith in the goodness and power of Jehovah.

 

 

Lesson Outline:

 

I.                    The Psalmist’s Lament (vv. 1-11)

A.     The psalmist’s concern that God hear his prayers (vv. 1-2): “Hear my prayer, O Lord.”   These words rend the empathetic heart.  Clearly, this man had sunk into the morass of deep distress, and he feared that God would not hear the suppliant’s prayers.  He characterized his prayers as “cries”, profound groans that gave inadequate expression to his internal anguish, and he feared that God had hidden his face from his child.  Hopefully, God would incline his ear and answer these prayers quickly.

B.     The psalmist’s description of his condition (vv. 3-11)

1.      “for my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace” (v. 3): Some commentators think this verse indicates a physical illness troubled our author.  He compared his life to a puff of smoke, here one moment, gone the next.

2.     “my heart is struck down like grass” (v. 4a): Hardship had withered this man’s soul like grass in an arid wilderness. 

3.     “I forget to eat my bread” (vv. 4b-5): Perhaps an illness robbed this man of his appetite; or, something troubled him so deeply that he could not eat.  Days without proper nutrition caused his flesh to cleave to his bones, indicating that his suffering had continued for some time.

4.     “I am like a desert owl of the wilderness (vv. 6-7): The psalmist likened himself to a lonely owl in the desert and a forsaken sparrow on a housetop.  Furthermore, his distress deprived him of sleep.

5.     “all the day my enemies taunt me” (v. 8): To make matters worse, this poor man had no friends to console him; instead, his enemies mocked him mercilessly, relentlessly. This verse is reminiscent of the ridicule aimed at Job by his “friends.”

6.     “I eat ashes like bread and mingle tears with my drink” (vv. 9-10): Ashes, in the Old Testament, often symbolize overwhelming grief, and, in this context, the psalmist observed that his continual misery had become his food and drink.  He felt like God had thrown him down, in indignation and wrath. 

7.     “my days are like an evening shadow” (v. 11): Like the waning moments of daylight, this man felt like his life was about to be extinguished.

 

II.                 The Psalmist’s Confusion about the Character of God (vv. 12-23): This section captures something of this poor man’s perplexity.  He understood something of God’s nature, his faithfulness and love; yet, he believed that this compassionate God had broken his strength (See v. 23).

A.     The psalmist’s understanding of the character of God (vv. 12-21)

1.      “you, O Lord, are enthroned forever” (v. 12): This passage affirms the sovereignty of God.

2.      “you will arise and have pity on Zion” (vv. 13-14): Some think this verse indicates the time of this Psalm’s composition, perhaps on the cusp of the return from the Exile.  The author believed that God would show mercy to his people.  The ancient people of God held the land precious (even the very stones of the country) as an affirmation of God’s faithfulness and love (See v. 14).

3.      “nations will fear the name of the Lord, and all the kings of the earth will fear your glory” (vv. 15-16): God’s glory would return to Zion, and the kings of the earth will learn to fear the Lord presence among his people.

4.      “he regards the prayer of the destitute” (vv. 17-22): The destitution of God’s people is offset by the assurance that he looks down from heaven and hears the prayers of the humble.  These verses affirm the merciful kindness of the Lord.

B.     God’s ways with the psalmist (v. 23):  The author is heartbroken because his theology did not match his experience.  He earnestly believed that God was faithful, righteous, and compassionate; nevertheless, this gracious God had broken this man’s spirit and apparently shortened his life. 

 

III.               The Psalmist’s Final Prayer (vv. 24-28)

A.     The object of his prayer (v. 24a): “O my God… do not take me away in the midst of my days.”  The author feared that he would die prematurely, and he pled with the Lord to let him live.

B.     The transcendence of the Lord (vv. 24b-27): Our writer took consolation in the eternity and immutability of Jehovah.  The Lord laid the foundations of the world, and he set in motion all of creation, history, and time.  Though the earth will pass away, yet God will remain, eternally unchanged and unmoved.  The text compares the earth to a garment, wondrous and beautiful, but in time, worn and frayed.  Like an old garment, the world will “wear out”, but the Lord remains unchanged and unchangeable.  

C.     A final affirmation of faith (v. 28): The psalmist could not make sense of his circumstances, but, in the midst of his suffering, he remained convinced of God’s faithfulness to his people.  Again, faith is not the absence of doubt; rather, it is perseverance in the midst of struggle.