Reflections on the Seven Penitential Psalms: Psalm 102

By Graziano Marcheschi, M.A. D.Min

Psalm 102 — Prayer in Time of Distress

We live in more sterile and politically correct times than did the psalmist. Today, heads would wag if we composed such prayers as this that dares tell God what to do. Notice the number of imperatives within the first six lines: “hear my prayer,” “let my cry come,” “do not hide your face,” “turn your ear to me.” But the more striking difference between then and now is not the audacity of these verses, but the psalmist’s willingness to admit his sin and abandon all excuses. Today, we prefer euphemisms and so “sins” become “mistakes,” “indiscretions,” “errors,” “slip-up,” “problems” or what have you. Not so here. The psalmist begs for mercy, and that requires an admission of sin. He begs to be spared the consequences that flow from all his sins, so he can’t deny having committed them.

It’s said that when he was dying, St. Augustine asked that the Psalms be hung from the wall facing his bed. Famous for his years of flagrant sinning, Augustine sought the comfort of the Psalms as he prepared to meet God face to face. The Psalms ought to give us courage and confidence as we reflect on our own lives and on the struggles, sins, and “enemies” that afflict us. They teach us to plead without restraint, to hold nothing back in begging for God’s mercy. I’m “skin and bones,” says the psalmist. “7I am like a desert owl,/ like an owl among the ruins” whose mournful cry and solitary life make it the very emblem of desolation. Such talk is not born of arrogance or overconfidence, but from a deep conviction that God is merciful and loves us like a parent.

It will be this compassion that overwhelms the nations and fills them with awe. They will have no choice but to glorify God when they see the marvel of his merciful love. It’s that conviction that enables the psalmist to ask that God not end his life too soon and that God let his children and their children stand before him  in peace. The psalmist’s conviction must be ours. Knowing Jesus also prayed these Psalms, we can make these words our own means of turning to the Lord with passion and sincerity.

Reflection Questions

Do you ever turn to the Lord with the kind of open, honest and passionate pleading we see in this Psalm? Do you trust God enough to storm heaven’s gates with your prayers?

A requisite for praying the Penitential Psalms is an awareness of our sinfulness. Can you look honestly in the mirror admitting what you see? If that is challenging, can you be patient with yourself and ask God for the gift of trust?

When you pray, do you focus more on the chasm between your sin and God’s goodness or on the ocean of God’s mercy vs. your need?

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