The superscription identifies this psalm as a prayer and relates it to a time when the poor or afflicted one is weak or faint and “pours out” his “complaint” or trouble (“supplication,” LXX) before YHWH. In a state of great distress, the afflicted person has no one but God to whom to turn for help, “pouring out” everything that is heavily weighing upon him. Based on the context, the psalm appears to relate to a time after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. Whereas much of the composition is expressed in the first person, the psalmist may be speaking representatively for all his suffering people.
The psalmist pleaded with YHWH to hear his prayer, answering his appeal for aid. He wanted his cry for help to reach his God and to be granted desperately needed assistance. For YHWH to “hide” or “turn away” (LXX) his face from him would have meant not being favorably heard. The psalmist begged that this would not happen to him in the “day of his distress,” and that YHWH would incline his ear toward him, listening to his cry and then quickly responding to him.
In his distress, the psalmist felt that his days were passing away like smoke, which quickly dissipates. Possibly he meant that the days of his life had become meaningless or empty, without his being able to accomplish anything. His “bones” (his entire frame) appeared to him as if having been subjected to intense fire. Perhaps this relates to his having a high fever. Another possibility is that he sensed a continual decline in strength as if being consumed by fire, with his frame no longer supporting him as formerly.
His heart or inmost self was smitten like grass that dries up during the hot days of summer. As if his heart had withered, the psalmist found himself depleted of vitality. His forgetting to eat probably refers to having lost his appetite. On account of his affliction, he could not bring himself to eat.
In his afflicted state, he would groan. Without being able to partake of needed nourishment, the psalmist wasted away. In his emaciated state, the bones began to show through underneath the skin.
A lone bird (“pelican,” LXX, Vulgate) in an isolated wilderness appears lonely and pathetic, as does an owl in deserted places or ruins. When applying this description, the psalmist portrayed himself as abandoned and forlorn. (See the Notes section for verse 6].)
At night, he would remain awake, his affliction not permitting him to get his rest. All alone and forsaken, the psalmist likened himself to a single bird (“sparrow,” LXX) on a roof.
“All day” or unceasingly, his enemies taunted him. Those regarding him with contempt would swear by him or use his name as a curse, expressing themselves to the effect that others whom they hated would come to be in a wretched state like his. (For additional comments on verse 8), see the Notes section.)
The psalmist’s reference to eating “ashes like bread” could mean that, in his affliction, he seated himself in ashes, which then came to be mixed with his bread. (Compare Job 2:8.) Another possibility is that the ashes themselves were like bread to him. So profuse was his weeping that his tears became intermingled with his drink.
He attributed his sad plight to God’s indignation and anger. In the past, the Most High had raised him up, making it possible for him to prosper and to enjoy life, but then cast him down. The great contrast in his circumstances intensified his pain.
The days of his life were slipping away like the shadow cast by the setting sun and which quickly disappears. He considered himself as one withering like grass from the sun’s intense heat.
The psalmist then contrasted his transitoriness with YHWH’s eternity. “You, O YHWH, reside forever, and your remembrance is from generation to generation.” He is the Sovereign for all time to come. His “remembrance” or “memorial” is the great name he made for himself through his wondrous deeds. From one generation to another, his unparalleled fame would be kept alive, never to be forgotten.
Confidently, the psalmist looked forward to the time when YHWH would rise as from a seated position, taking pity on devastated Zion and again bestowing his favor on the city. The granting of his favor would signify the restoring of his people to their land. According to the psalmist, the time had come for favoring Zion.
As YHWH’s representative place of dwelling, Zion was precious to his exiled people. Although it lay in ruins, the exiles had not forgotten the city nor lost their appreciation for it. They cherished its “stones” (the very rubble) and “took pity” on its “dust,” being saddened about the existing desolate state and yearning for it to end.
Upon YHWH’s turning his favorable attention to Zion, his name as the God who can effect deliverance and restoration would come to be known among the nations. Therefore, people of the nations would come to fear him or have regard for the “name of YHWH” (the bearer of the name). As witnesses of the Almighty’s intervention for his people and the restoration of Zion, earth’s kings or rulers would come to see “YHWH’s glory” or his greatness and magnificence.
At the time of his “building” Zion, YHWH would appear in his glory, manifesting his greatness by restoring the desolated city. The “destitute” or “lowly” (LXX) are probably the exiles who had been stripped of everything. To their prayers, YHWH would turn his favorable attention, never despising their supplication.
For the benefit of the generation to come, a written record was to be made. This record may relate to the restoration YHWH had brought about for his people. The restoration would make it possible for the people who would be “created” to praise Yah (YHWH, Yah being the abbreviated form the divine name). The people to be “created” may denote either those yet to be born or the restored nation, which could be described as coming into existence through God’s creative act. (Compare Isaiah 66:8; see the Notes section for additional comments on verse 18.)
From his exalted position in the “height of his holiness” or from the lofty heavens, YHWH looks down upon the earth, taking note of the very ones for whom humans have shown no regard. He hears the groans of the prisoners of war and effects liberation for those doomed to die. The ones destined for death could be prisoners of war about to be executed or those whose plight appeared to be so severe that death seemed inevitable.
YHWH’s effecting the deliverance of those in desperate straits would result in “his name” being declared in Zion and “his praise in Jerusalem.” He would be acknowledged as the God of saving acts and as deserving praise for all that he had done.
According to the psalmist, the Israelites would not be the only ones who would serve YHWH on account of his dealings with them. “Peoples” or nations and kingdoms would assemble to serve or worship him.
It may be that the psalmist spoke for his people as a whole when referring to the then-existing distressing situation, which he attributed to God. YHWH had deprived him of strength in midcourse (not while in a state of decline) and shortened his days. From all appearances, an early end was at hand.
The psalmist then pleaded that God would not cut short his life in the midst of his days or prematurely. When referring to God’s “years” as being “throughout all generations,” he seemingly implied that there would be no reason for his having to experience a premature death because time has no significance to the Most High.
Long ago (“at [the] beginning,” LXX), God founded the earth (as if it were a building with a foundation), and the “heavens” are the “work” of his “hands.” Although the creative works would perish, the Creator would continue to exist for all eternity. They would wear out like a garment. The Most High would change the creative works like clothing, and they would pass away. He, however, would remain the same, eternally immutable. His years would have no end. (See the Notes section for additional comments.)
Because he is the changeless God for all time to come, his true servants (the “sons of his servants” ) would abide or live on. Before his “face” or before him, their “seed” or offspring would be “established” or enjoy security as recipients of his favor and blessing. According to the Septuagint, their “seed” would prosper forever.
In verse 6(7), the Hebrew word qa’áth, translated “pelican” in the Septuagint and the Vulgate, is often rendered “owl” in modern translations. This is because owls frequent ruins or deserts, whereas pelicans are found near water.
The Hebrew term halál, basically means “to praise.” In the context of verse 8(9), the word has commonly been understood to mean “deride,” and numerous translations convey this significance. “My deriders use my name to curse.” (Tanakh) “Those who deride me use my name for a curse.” (NRSV) “Those who rail against me use my name as a curse.” (NIV) The Septuagint reads, “The ones [formerly] praising me have sworn against me.” Like the Septuagint, a number of translations have retained the meaning of “praise.” “Those who once praised me now use me as a curse.” (NJB)
In verse 18(19), there is a possibility that the written record relates to the words found in verses 19(20) and 20(21). The Contemporary English Version makes this possible significance explicit. “Future generations must also praise the LORD, so write this for them: ‘From his holy temple, the LORD looked down at the earth. He listened to the groans of prisoners, and he rescued everyone who was doomed to die.’”
When the psalmist referred to the “heavens” and the “earth” (verses 25 and 26), he expressed himself from the perspective of his own time. The vast universe as it has come to be known in comparatively recent years was unknown to him. The “earth” was the land, and “heaven” was the sky or the celestial vault or dome, and the psalmist perceived that the sphere in which humans lived was subject to changes, comparable to those of a garment that eventually wears out.
In Hebrews 1:10-12, the words of Psalm 102:25-27(26-28) are quoted. The quotation in the book of Hebrews basically corresponds to the reading of the extant Septuagint text, with certain manuscripts of the Hebrews passage varying in ways that do not affect the meaning. To show that the Son of God was greater than the angels, the writer of the letter applied the words of the psalmist to him. This use of Psalm 102 harmonized with the Son’s role in the creation. Through him, the Father created everything.
Regarding the divine name (YHWH), see Psalm 1.