A prayer of one afflicted, when faint and pleading before the Lord.
1 Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come to you. 2 Do not hide your face from me on the day of my distress. Incline your ear to me; answer me speedily on the day when I call.
3 For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace. 4 My heart is stricken and withered like grass; I am too wasted to eat my bread. 5 Because of my loud groaning my bones cling to my skin.
6 I am like an owl of the wilderness, like a little owl of the ruins. 7 I lie awake; I am like a lonely bird on the housetop. 8 All day long 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 your indignation and anger; for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside. 11 My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass.
12 But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever; your name endures to all generations. 13 You will rise up and have compassion on Zion, for it is time to favor it; the appointed time has come. 14 For your servants hold its stones dear, and have pity on its dust. 15 The nations will fear the name of the Lord, and all the kings of the earth your 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 prayer.
Sleep is a wacky event in the Hamilton household, a combination of musical chairs and utilitarianism. Often Leah or I lay down in our children’s room to help them fall asleep only to fall asleep on the floor. Other nights, we make it to bed, only to be joined later by one or more of our children. Anywhere is more comfortable than the sliver of bed I end up with when this happens, so at some point a few nights ago, I ended up on the couch.
There are feeders outside the living room window, so bright and early I woke up to the sound of birdsong. Goldfinch, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Tufted titmouse, Black-capped Chickadee, and Northern Cardinal are common these days. I laid there for a while, listening to the different sounds. I looked out and was amazed at the number of birds all in one place.
Birds play a role in the imagery of Psalm 102, but the initial scene isn’t as hopeful. Our psalmist is experiencing social isolation, likely because of illness. The feeling of social isolation is like a solitary owl. We can clearly understand what is being conveyed, perhaps especially now, during our own experiences of social isolation.
Today’s reading from the Psalms is a lamentation or cry to God because something awful is happening. The subject is wasting away and feels lonely. The early church read this psalm metaphorically, categorizing it as one of the “penitential” psalms (along with 6, 32, 38, 51, 130, and 143) that describes the sinner’s dilemma. Recent scholars have noticed other themes, including poverty, imprisonment, and physical starvation.
Perhaps today, this psalm hits closer to home. While we long to be the songbirds that arrive in spring and congregate around the feeder, we are more like the lonely owl. But this psalm does not pile on more grief to our lack of social engagements these days. Owls were venerated in ancient times, associated with meditation, wisdom, and immortality. The “Owl of Minerva/Athena” was a symbol used in schools of philosophy across the ancient Mediterranean world. In medieval Christianity, owls were observed as staying in one place during the entire day. As such, monks in the middle ages used the owl's symbol for folks that devoted themselves to uninterrupted study. The sixth-century Byzantine writer Johannes Lydus noted that the owl, “days awake all night to signify the human soul which is never lazy, always in movement by its very nature, which is immortal.” Even in the darkness of social isolation and pandemic, we can use this time to grow in wisdom.
There is also an abrupt transition in this psalm at verse 12. Despite the psalmist’s awful predicament, there is still complete trust that if God hears this lament, God will respond favorably. Taking complaints, petitions, and urgent requests to God through prayer is done with the belief that God acts in this world in good and favorable ways today.
There is still something for us in our loneliness and social isolation. Because of this unusual time, we are gaining different sorts of wisdom and understanding about ourselves and the world. It’s hopeful to think of ways these insights will stay with us once we exit the pandemic.
I also remain hopeful that God is/will respond to the cries of so many around the world that long for playgrounds, jobs, and community once again. If you haven’t already, this would be a good week to join in the worldwide chorus of lament, trusting that God hears us and will show up.