A PRAYER FOR ONE IN AFFLICTION: THE FIFTH PENITENTIAL PSALM
The Douay-Rheims translation entitles this psalm: The prayer of the poor man, when he was anxious, and poured out his supplication before the Lord.
Psalm 102:2 Hear, O Lord, my prayer: and let my cry come to thee.
This verse is used daily by the Church as a preparation to any other petitions she may need to put up to the Creator; for, she learned from the prophet that we should ask for an audience from God before we put any petition in particular before him; not that God, as if he were otherwise engaged, needs being roused or having his attention called, but because we need that God should give us the spirit of prayer; nay, even it is “the Spirit himself that asketh for us with unspeakable groanings,” Rom. 8, “Hear, O Lord, my prayer;” that is, make me so pray that I may be worthy of being heard. And, to express his delight, he repeats it by saying, “and let my cry come to thee.” Make me pray in such a manner that my prayer may be the earnest cry of my heart; so full of fire and devotion, that, though sent up from the lowest depth, it may not falter on the way, but ultimately reach you sitting on your lofty throne. Many things prevent our prayers from penetrating the clouds, such as want of faith, of confidence, of humility, desire, and the like; and he, therefore, asks for the grace of praying well, that is, in a manner likely to obtain what we want.
Psalm 102:3 Turn not away thy face from me: in the day when I am in trouble, incline thy ear to me. In what day soever I shall call upon thee, hear me speedily.
This is the primary and principal petition of a poor man in trouble, or of a repentant sinner; for “No man can correct whom God hath despised;” and as God’s regarding us is both the first grace and the fountain of grace, he, at the very outset, asks God to look on him, saying, “Turn not away thy face from me,” however foul and filthy I may be; and if your own image, by reason of my having so befouled it, will not induce you to look upon me, let you mercy prevail upon you, for the fouler I am, the more wretched and miserable I am, and unless you look upon me, I will never be brought to look upon you, but daily wallowing deeper and deeper in my sins, I must, of necessity, be always getting more filthy and more foul. Anyone that speaks in such manner begins to be already looked upon by God, but, as it were, with only half his anger laid aside, and still averting his face; however, having got any glimpse of God’s light and countenance, he cries out, “Turn not away thy face from me;” cast me not away from thy face; finish what you have begun, by turning yourself to me, that I may be perfectly and completely turned to thee. “In the day when I am in trouble, incline thy ear to me.” This is a second petition, but a consequence of the first; for, the moment God begins to look upon anyone, that moment man begins to see his own filth and nakedness, and, through it, his real poverty. He then begins to be troubled and afflicted, and to recur to the supreme Physician, who is rich in mercy; for he knows that God never despises an afflicted spirit and a contrite heart. He, therefore, says, with confidence, “In the day when I am in trouble, incline thy ear to me;” whenever, through the influence of your grace, I shall feel troubled for my sins, and, in consequence, cry to you, hear me kindly, I pray you; and he repeats it, “In whatsoever day I shall call upon thee, hear me speedily;” whenever I shall be in trouble, and call upon you, my all powerful Physician, hear me, and that quickly, for fear a delay may lose you the one you seek to heal.
Psalm 102:4 For my days are vanished like smoke, and my bones are grown dry like fuel for the fire.
He assigns a reason for having said, “hear me quickly,” and the reason is, that man’s life draws to a close with the greatest rapidity; and if the wounds inflicted by sin be not cured at once, there is a chance of their never being cured. “For my days are vanished like smoke.” The time I have spent in this world has passed away like a body of smoke, that seems large and bulky on its first ascending, but immediately gets thinner and evaporates altogether; and thus, too, will the remainder of me; my bones, the pillars, as it were, of my whole body, “they are grown dry,” and thus weakened and verging to ruin.
Psalm 102:5 I am smitten as grass, and my heart is withered: because I forgot to eat my bread.
He continues deploring his past state, and says, “I am smitten as grass.” The sun so shone on me in my prosperity that I am stricken down like so much withered grass; “and any heart is withered;” for I have been so overwhelmed by the cares of the world that “I forgot to eat my bread;” the bread of heavenly truth, which, strictly speaking, is our bread, and not shared in by the brutes; for the food of the body is not, strictly speaking, our food. Nothing can be truer; and it is a reflection that should be always before those who are well to do in the world; for, if they dwell under the shadow of God’s wings, or constantly bedew themselves with the showers of his grace, they must, of necessity, “be smitten as grass;” and their heart, that so sickens at the food of heaven, must become quite “withered.” “Take heed to yourselves lest, perhaps, your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and the cares of this life;” for such people always forget to eat the true bread, and become dried up of all the grace of devotion.
Psalm 102:6 Through the voice of my groaning, my bone hath cleaved to my flesh.
He now tells how sorry he is for his past life, and shows fruit worthy of penance; for as his flesh formerly reveled in luxuries, and his heart withered by reason of his having forgotten his daily spiritual food, so now, on the contrary, “through the voice of his groaning,” from his constant lamentations, his flesh neglects its daily food; and thus, “my bone hath cleaved to my flesh;” that is, to the skin, being all wasted and worn—an evident approval of fasting and penance, being both the signs and the fruit of true penance.
Psalm 102:7 I am become like to a pelican of the wilderness: I am like a night raven in the house.
Psalm 102:8 I have watched, and am become as a sparrow all alone on the housetop.
To tears and fasting he unites solitude and watching, the marks of true penance. For if one will not seriously withdraw himself awhile from the world, and, in serious watchings, call up the number and the greatness of his sins, it is hardly possible to deplore them sufficiently. He compares the penitent to three birds; the pelican, living exclusively in the desert; the night raven or the owl, an inhabitant of old dismantled houses; and the sparrow, dwelling on, rather than in, houses. For, as St. Jerome remarks, the houses in Palestine were built with flat and not pointed roofs like ours, on which the people were wont to enjoy themselves, to sun themselves, and frequently to have their meals there. Hence, in Mt. 10, we have “Preach ye upon the house tops;” that is, standing on such flat housetops; and in Acts 10, we read of St. Peter, that “He went up to the higher parts of the house to pray.” These three birds represent three classes of penitents. Some repair altogether to the desert, such as Mary Magdalen, Mary of Egypt, Paul the first hermit, Anthony, Hilarion, and many others, who can say with the prophet, Psalm 5, “So I have gone afar off, flying away; and I abode in the wilderness;” and as the pelican wages constant war on noxious animals, especially on serpents, so the Anchorets constantly combat with the demons, and live, as it were, on the victories acquired over them. Others do penance in the cities and towns, cooped up in narrow cells and cloisters, and, separated from the world, come out like the owl in the night, and spend the most of it in chanting the divine praises in hymns and sacred music. Finally, others, encumbered with families, or public duties, who cannot retire from the world, still, like the solitary sparrow on the housetop, manage to rise above the world and its cares. These are they who, while they are in the world, are not of the world; being slaves neither to the wealth nor the honors, nor the cares of the world. They make such things slaves to them; they master, they dispose of, and they dispense them, and they do not suffer themselves to be entangled or ensnared by them; so that their minds can revel freely in solitude here, and thus, enjoy heaven hereafter. To such persons it belongs to watch and preach from the housetops, to watch their own temptations and dangers, and to preach both by word and by example to those over whom they may be placed. No penance can be more valuable than for those in high rank to observe the greatest humility, for those who have the wealth of the world to content themselves with moderate food and clothing, that thereby they may be the better able to help those in want; for those who are prone to concupiscence, to chastise their body, and bring it under subjection, by fasting and spare living; and finally, to serve our neighbors from love, to compassionate their sufferings, and to bear with their annoyances and scandals.
Psalm 102:9 All the day long my enemies reproached me: and they that praised me did swear against me.
They who seriously turn to penance are always objects of hatred to those sinners who choose to remain in their sins. “He is grievous unto us even to behold; for his life is not like other men’s, and his ways are very different,” Wisdom 2; and, though that was said of the just man, it applies to the penitent sinner, seeking to be reconciled also. He, therefore, says, “All the day long my enemies reproached me.” All those who previously, by reason of our union in wickedness, had been my friends, when they saw me become another man, turned out most bitter enemies, and upbraided and reproached me with my conversion, as if I were doing a foolish act; “and they who praised me” as a brave and boon companion, for the wicked are praised for their bad acts, afterwards “did swear against me,” conspired to injure me.
Psalm 102:10 For I did eat ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping.
He tells why his enemies reproached him: it was because “I eat ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping;” that is to say, they thought it the height of madness for me to adopt so severe a rule of life of my own accord. The eating of ashes like bread means that the bread he ate was coarse, and rudely baked, being baked in the ashes, which clung to it; such bread being in use with those doing penance. “And mingled my drink with weeping,” wept while I remembered how often I had offended God.
Psalm 102:11 Because of thy anger and indignation: for having lifted me up thou hast thrown me down.
See why the true penitent chooses to begrime himself with ashes and quench his thirst with his tears! He does not do so for want of reason, or because he cannot help it through his poverty, but because he has the Divine anger before his mind, and by such humiliations and signs of true repentance he hopes to satisfy him in some degree. He so punished himself because he saw God’s anger and indignation were lighted up against him for the sins he had committed; and that he saw, because “having lifted me up thou hast thrown me down.” Having, through your grace, raised me to the highest dignity by your friendship and adoption, you afterwards, by reason of my own sins, degraded me from the rank of a friend and a child to that of an enemy or a rebellious fugitive slave. For fear sinners may imagine that the loss they suffer by the commission of sin is a trifling one, the Scripture makes use of a word, translated “thou hast cast me down,” that signifies complete demolition. It alludes to a vessel thrown on the ground from a high place, and thereby shivered into a thousand atoms along with losing its high position. And so with the sinner, who, blinded by the desires of the flesh, does not see the injury done to him, yet truly loses his all when both body and soul are consigned to hell by him who cannot be resisted.
Psalm 102:12 My days have declined like a shadow, and I am withered like grass.
Our own mortality is a part and a sign of the aforesaid demolition; for, when our first parent was placed in so glorious a position that he might have lived forever, by reason of his sin he “was thrown down,” with all his posterity, and the effect of that was, “that his days declined like a shadow, and he became withered as grass.” The prophet, then, speaking in the person of the penitent, says, I am “thrown down” by you in your anger. Not only by reason of my own sins, but by reason of the old fall, that is, common to us all; “my days have declined like a shadow,” quietly, insensibly, but steadily, until at sunset it disappears and passes into the shadow of night. “And I am withered like grass.” I, who was created to flourish like the palm forever, am now prostrate and withered, like the grass that dries up immediately.
Psalm 102:13 But thou, O Lord, endurest for ever: and thy memorial to all generations.
This is the second part of the Psalm, in which the prophet, in the person of a poor penitent, after having recounted his wretchedness, now conceives a hope of reconciliation; and, inspired by the Holy Ghost, predicts the future restoration and renovation of the Church through Christ, as the Apostle explains in the first chapter of the Hebrews. The Apostle, wishing in that chapter to prove the divinity of Christ, first quotes the words in Psalm 44, “Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever;” then those of Psalm 95, “Adore him all you his Angels;” and lastly, the words of this present Psalm, saying, “Thou, O Lord, in the beginning hast founded the earth;” which words are addressed to the same person as those words before us, “But thou, O Lord, endurest forever.” If the former, then, be addressed to the Son, so are the latter. They who say these words apply to God directly, and to Christ indirectly as the Son of God, do not meet the objection; for in that case the Apostle, instead of proving Christ to be God, would be only taking for granted he was God. The meaning of the passage, then, is: I, indeed, have withered away like grass, but thou, O Lord, the Messias we expect, remainest forever; our memory passes away like a sound, but your memorial—that is, your memory—will pass from generation to generation, because, in the succession of ages, there shall be always those to hand down your wonderful doings.
Psalm 102:14 Thou shalt arise and have mercy on Sion: for it is time to have mercy on it, for the time is come.
The reason why “thy memorial shall be propagated to all generations” is, because you will not forget dealing mercifully with your people; but “thou shalt arise” as if from a long sleep, “and have mercy on Sion,” wilt come in mercy and save us; for in spirit I see “the time is come to have mercy on it;” that is, it is nigh, just at hand, nay, even has already come; for, with the eye of a prophet, I see the future as if it were really present. This is the time of which the Apostle speaks when he says, “But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent his Son,” of whom Isaias says, “In an acceptable time I have heard thee, and in the day of salvation I have helped thee;” in explaining which St. Paul, 2 Cor. 6, says, “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”
Psalm 102:15 For the stones thereof have pleased thy servants: and they shall have pity on the earth thereof.
The prophet foresaw and foretold the renovation of the holy Sion, from the fact of foreseeing God’s servants, his holy Apostles, who hitherto had been devoted to fishing and such humble pursuits, now, after having been instructed by Christ, and filled with the Holy Ghost, inflamed with the most ardent desire of establishing the Church, and having abandoned all the cares of this world, devoting themselves to that one object alone. “For the stones thereof,” the building of the new Jerusalem, the collecting and placing the living stones together that were to be built upon the foundation already laid, “pleased thy servants,” those whom you chose and predestined for the purpose; “and they shall have pity on the earth thereof,” they will foster and cherish the land of the new Jerusalem, as the mother clings to the child in her womb (for such is the force of the Hebrew), as in Isaias, “Can a woman forget her infant so as not to have pity on the son of her womb?” By stones are meant in this verse the steady and the perfect, while the earth represents the weak and the infirm of whom the Apostle says, “Him that is weak in faith take unto you;” and again, “Now, we that are stronger ought to bear the infirmities of the weak;” and again, “Who is weak, and I am not weak.”
Psalm 102:16 All the Gentiles shall fear thy name, O Lord, and all the kings of the earth thy glory
When the new Sion shall be in progress of building, the gentiles will be converted, and “shall fear” with a holy fear and pious veneration, “thy name, O Lord,” Jesus Christ; “and all the kings of the earth” will also be converted, and will fear “thy glory;” that is, thy majesty, as King of kings and Lord of lords of the earth, sitting at the right hand of the Father, until all your enemies shall be put under the footstool of your feet; and afterwards as the Judge that will come to judge the living and the dead, and render to everyone according to his works.
Psalm 102:17 For the Lord hath built up Sion: and he shall be seen in his glory.
See why all nations and all their kings shall fear Christ’s glory! “For the Lord hath built up Sion” in the present day, having established his Church in spite of all kings and nations, and “the gates of hell will not prevail against it;” “and he shall be seen in his glory,” in the time to come, when he shall come with all his Angels, in the clouds of heaven, with great power to judge the world. When he began to build up Sion he was seen in his lowliness. “We have seen him, and there was no sightliness, that we should be desirous of him;” but when he shall come to pass judgment, then “he shall be seen in his glory.”
Psalm 102:18 He hath had regard to the prayer of the humble: and he hath not despised their petition.
This verse alludes to the prayers of the holy martyrs, who in Apocalypse 6, say, “How long, O Lord, dost thou not judge and revenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” The Son of God, then, will be seen in his glory, for he hath “had regard to the prayer” of all the martyrs, and all his other pious servants; “and he hath not despised their petitions;” and, therefore, he will come to judge, and to avenge their blood on those who are still in this world.
Psalm 102:19 Let these things be written unto another generation: and the people that shall be created shall praise the Lord:
For fear the Jews may suppose that this prophecy applied to themselves, and take it as in reference to the termination of the captivity of Babylon, and the building of Jerusalem, the Holy Ghost was pleased to remind them distinctly, as St. Peter afterwards clearly explains in his first Epistle, chap. 1, “The prophets who prophesied of the grace to come in you;” and further on, “To whom it was revealed, that not to themselves but to you they ministered those things which are now declared to you by those who have preached the Gospel to you.” The Holy Ghost, then, speaking through David, says, “Let these things be written unto another generation.” These things will be understood hereafter, “and the people that shall be created,” the people then in existence, “shall praise the Lord,” by reason of seeing all those things accomplished.
Psalm 102:20 Because he hath looked forth from his high sanctuary: from heaven the Lord hath looked upon the earth.
The reason why the people of the New Testament will praise the Lord is, because God has deigned to look down from his holy place on high on this vale of our wretchedness; and that, not with an uninterested or indifferent eye, but with a view to let himself down, to be seen on earth, and to converse with men.
Psalm 102:21 That he might hear the groans of them that are in fetters: that he might release the children of the slain:
God Almighty so humbled himself to have an opportunity in that he might hear the groans of them that are in fetters,” imposed upon them by the prince of darkness, and held in captivity by him; and that he might, on hearing their groans, release them and send them away in freedom. That was accomplished, as the Lord himself testifies, by his own coming, as we read in Lk. 4. By those “that are in fetters,” we are to understand those who are slaves to concupiscence, mastered and fettered by their own passions. “The children of the slain,” are the old children of Adam and Eve, who were slain by the craft of the serpent, for, as we read in Wisdom 2, “By the envy of the devil, death came into the world;” and the Lord himself, speaking of the devil, says, Jn. 8, “He was a murderer from the beginning, and he abode not in the truth.”
Psalm 102:22 That they may declare the name of the Lord in Sion: and his praise in Jerusalem;
The Lord came to break the bonds of those that were in fetters, and to rescue them from the power of darkness, in that they may declare the name of the Lord in Sion;” that is, that by their conversion to the true and living God, they may glorify the name of the Lord in the Church, which is the spiritual Sion; which he repeats when he says, “and his praise in Jerusalem,” praising and thanking God, and blessing him for the great favor of calling them to the Catholic Church, which is the new Jerusalem, as St. Peter explains in his first Epistle, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people; that you may declare his virtues, who hath called you out of darkness into his admirable light.”
Psalm 102:23 When the people assemble together, and kings, to serve the Lord.
He now tells when those who have been delivered from the powers of darkness ought to praise the name of the Lord. “When the people assemble together.” When the various nations all over the world, who hitherto had been worshipping various and different false gods, “shall assemble together,” and be formed into one body, and there shall be one spirit, one God, one faith, one baptism; nay more, when, through charity, there shall be one heart and one soul; when not only the people, but those who are placed over them, shall come together in the one body of the Church, that they, too, may serve God.
Psalm 102:24 He answered him in the way of his strength: Declare unto me the fewness of my days.
This is a most obscure passage, and the most probable interpretation of it is that which makes it an answer of the prophet to him who commanded him to write those things to another generation. The prophet “answers in the way of his strength;” that is, when he was in the flower of his youth, in robust health: “Declare unto me the fewness of my days.” Make me understand and seriously persuade myself, that my days are numbered, and short is the term of my life, for fear I may be deceived by calculating, from the present vigor of my youth, on a long and hale old age, and be hurried off when I least expect it, unforeseen and unprepared; and thus fail in being numbered among that people that will be created to praise thee forever in the heavenly Jerusalem.
Psalm 102:25 Call me not away in the midst of my days: thy years are unto generation and generation.
The first half of this verse refers to the preceding; the last half to the following verse. Having said, “Declare unto me the fewness of my days,” he adds another prayer, saying, “Call me not away in the midst of my days.” Do not cut my course short by hurrying me off on a sudden, when I may be quite unprepared, and the call most unexpected. “Thy years are unto generation and generation.” A reason why God should allow man to live as long as may be necessary to meet a holy and happy death. In other words, your years, O Lord, are everlasting, from generation to generation, without end; and it is, therefore, only meet that the creature formed to your image should be favored with a life long enough to secure an everlasting life.
Psalm 102:26 In the beginning, O Lord, thou foundedst the earth: and the heavens are the works of thy hands.
Psalm 102:27 They shall perish but thou remainest: and all of them shall grow old like a garment: And as a vesture thou shalt change them, and they shall be changed.
Psalm 102:28 But thou art always the selfsame, and thy years shall not fail.
He proves that God alone is eternal from the fact of his being alone immutable, a proof from first principles. And he proves God to be immutable, from the fact of his having brought the heavens from nonexistence into existence, and will again bring them back to their original nonexistence, while he always remains the same, without any change, and what he says of the heavens applies to all creation, of which the heavens form the noblest part. “In the beginning, O Lord, thou foundest the earth;” you, O Lord, existed in the beginning, before the earth, an inferior part of the world, and you laid its foundations, without any preexisting matter whereon to lay them. “And the heavens are the work of thy hands.” You made not only the earth, but even the heavens, the most excellent part of the world, without any help, from Angels or anyone else, but with your own hands, by your own power and wisdom; and thus brought the whole world from nonexistence into existence. “They (the heavens) shall perish, but thou remainest.” Even though the heavens should grow old, should change and perish, you will always remain the same, as we read in Mt. 5, “Till heaven and earth shall pass, one jot or tittle shall not pass from the law, till all be fulfilled;” which is explained in Lk. 16, “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than for one tittle of the law to fail.” Another explanation of this sentence makes it absolutely apply to what he names. For the heavens will perish, will grow old, will be subject to changes, as regards the motion of the heavenly bodies, the influence of heat, the production of inferior bodies; the earth, too, will perish as regards the production of herbs and animals, and the world will be consumed as regards the figure and shape it now has for the Apostle writes, “For the figure of this world passeth away;” and again, “For the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” Here he gives the name of temporal to everything we see, because the very elements, and the heavens, as we see them, will have an end. We see the earth clothed with trees, full of cattle, ornamented with buildings; the rivers now placidly rolling along, now swollen and muddy; the sky now clouded, now serene; the stars in perpetual motion; all of which are temporal, and sure to come to an end; for, as St. Peter writes, “We look for new heavens and a new earth, according to his promise.”—”And all of them shall grow old like a garment.” All the heavens, as regards their shape and form, shall be consumed. “And as a vesture thou shalt change them, and they shall be changed;” you will remove the external clothing the heavens now have, and put a new one on them, as if you took off a man’s old clothes, and dressed him in a new suit. “But thou art always the self same, and thy years shall not fail.” No length of years will make any impression on you. God can suffer no change, for changes are made with a view to further acquisitions, which does not apply to God, he being most pure, most perfect, nay, even infinitely perfect, and, therefore, can acquire nothing when he wants nothing.
Psalm 102:29 The children of thy servants shall continue and their seed shall be directed for ever.
Having discussed the eternity of God, the destruction and renovation of the world, he now predicts that God’s servants and children, and the children of his servants forever, would be sharers in his eternity in that world so renovated; not that there would be a propagation of children in that world, but that all the faithful servants of God, with all their posterity, who may share in their piety, will certainly arrive at that happy rest; and such was the promise formerly made to Abraham, “And I will establish my covenant between me and thee, and between thy seed after thee in their generations, by a perpetual covenant.” The servants of God here represent the patriarchs; their sons represent the Apostles; and their sons again represent all other Christians. “The children of thy servants shall continue.” The Apostles, with their parents the patriarchs, shall continue in thy kingdom, that renewed heaven, that heavenly Jerusalem; “and their seed shall be directed forever;” and it will not be confined to them, but those also begotten by them through the Gospel, if they persevere in faith and love, “shall be directed forever;” will remain to all eternity upright and steady in all prosperity.