Psalm 102:19-20

Sermon preached on September 18, 2016 by Laurence W. Veinott. © Copyright 2016. All rights reserved. Other sermons can be found at

Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

The big news in St. Lawrence County the past couple of weeks has been the murder trial of Nick Hillary. A lot of people are wondering how it's going to turn out. If you watch crime shows on TV one of the things that you'll find is that when the jurors file in to announce their verdict—just about everyone scans their faces to try to get an indication of what the verdict will be. The defendant and his lawyers do it, hoping for an indication that the verdict will be not guilty. The prosecution and the family of the victim do it—hoping to see the jurors look somber which might indicate a guilty verdict. Is the verdict going to be favorable or unfavorable? Mr. Hillary is not having a jury trial and the decision will rest with the judge. But when the judge comes in with his decision—everyone will be doing they same thing with him—looking at him to get an indication of what he has decided. When the judges looks down from his chair—what kind of look will the defendant see, what kind of look will the victim's family see?

Our text is about how God looks on those who are afflicted. How does God look at you when trouble comes to you? When you're in trouble, when you're facing suffering or affliction, when everyone around you is against you, when it seems that you should lose all hope—the great question is—does God care about you? When you cry out to Him and He doesn't seem to answer—should you lose all hope? Has He abandoned you? When you've sinned and are in a whole lot of trouble because of it—does God care? Does He look down on you with an angry face—or a face full of love and forgiveness?

In our text we have a wonderful teaching about God's countenance toward afflicted people. Psalm 102 is about someone who is suffering. The superscription at the beginning reads,

"A prayer of an afflicted man. When he is faint and pours out his lament before the Lord."

The entire psalm can be a great help to someone who is going through suffering or trouble. This morning we're going to be looking at the great truths in verses 19 and 20. We read,

"The Lord looked down from his sanctuary on high,
from heaven he viewed the earth,
to hear the groans of the prisoners
and release those condemned to death."

The main thing we see in our text is that

God has compassion on prisoners and those condemned to death.

The passage here reminds me of what Jesus said when He began His public ministry. In the synagogue in His hometown He stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. He found the place where these words were written, (Luke 4:18–21, quoting from Isaiah 61:1-2)

" 'The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim
freedom for the prisoners and
recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.'
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it
back to the attendant and sat down.
The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him,
and he began by saying to them,
'Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.' "

Jesus came to set prisoners free. There is no doubt that He is talking about a spiritual reality, how He was going to deliver human beings from the slavery to sin and bondage to Satan. In such a sense that includes all of us. We were prisoners that Jesus came to deliver. (Romans 6:6-14)

But there is also a literal component to it. As I said a minute ago, this is the prayer of an afflicted man. Anyone who is in prison or who is afflicted in a physical way can take comfort from these words. They also apply to those who are literally 'in prison'.

There are several things that show us God's attitude toward those in bondage, those in prison.

First, we see that the psalmist tells us that

the Lord looked down from His sanctuary on high.

The phrase 'looked down' is a common phrase that is used of God, of angels and of men. It's sometimes used of merely looking out a high window, or looking from a high vantage point. Sometimes it's used of God looking over mankind, evaluating them. For example, in Psalm 14:2 we read,

"The Lord looks down from heaven
on the sons of men to see
if there are any who understand,
any who seek God."

Sometimes it refers to looking down in judgment, or impending judgment. It certainly could have that meaning when the angels who were sent to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah looked down on the cities after they had eaten with Abraham. The time for judgment had come and the angels got up and looked down on the cities of the plain. It definitely has that meaning in Exodus 14:24, when the Egyptians pursued the Israelites and followed them into the Red Sea when God parted the waters for the Israelites to cross. We read,

"During the last watch of the night
the LORD looked down
from the pillar of fire and cloud
at the Egyptian army
and threw it into confusion."

God then made the wheels come off their chariots and then God told Moses to stretch out his hand and had the waters flow back into their place and drown the Egyptians.

What's interesting is that whenever it's used of God in connection with His people, it is in the context of God blessing His people, by protecting them or by pouring out blessings on them. One example is Deuteronomy 26:15 where Moses gave instructions concerning the offering of the firstfruits and tithes. After they had done these things, they were to say to God,

"Look down from heaven, your holy dwelling place,
and bless your people Israel
and the land you have given us as you
promised on oath to our forefathers,
a land flowing with milk and honey."

In Lamentations 3:49–50 the prophet wrote,

"My eyes will flow unceasingly,
without relief, until the LORD
looks down from heaven and sees."

W.S. Plummer says, (Psalms, p. 908)

"It implies earnest and thorough inquisition… The Lord looked down for purposes of mercy…"

Nancy Declaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth Laneel Tanner that God looking down, (The Book of Psalms, NICOT; p. 756)

"is testimony that bears witness to the basic character and nature of God. God is not a remote lord, lacking either agency or concern. God looks down, regards, hears. And then God sets free."

God looking down on the prisoners shows that He cares very deeply about them, about what they are going through. It implies that He is going to help them.

The second part of this also shows that God cares about injustice. It tells us that the Lord looked down

from his sanctuary.

Sometimes this world is a very unjust place. Injustice abounds. When the injustice happens to you it's very difficult to take. We wonder how it could happen. We wonder why God permits it to happen. As time goes on we wonder why He doesn't set it right.

After more time goes by we may wonder if God cares. Does He care about injustice? Does He care when people are oppressed, when they are betrayed, when they are afflicted? Does He care for us? Does He care about how the powerful take bribes, how they pervert justice, how they oppress the innocent? Does He care about wrongs that continue day after day?

What's the answer to that? Yes, He does. He looks down from His palace in the heavens, from (literally) His holy height. God is holy. He looks on the injustice in the world and cares about it. He is going to do something about it.

God is holy. He is hates injustice. It grieves Him more than it grieves us. To think that He does not care, to think that He will not set everything right is an insult to Him. He looks down from His holy height.

Be patient when you suffer injustice. As we read in 1 Peter 4:19,

"those who suffer according to God's will
should commit themselves to their faithful Creator
and continue to do good."

God will eventually set it right.

The second thing that shows God's love here is that He looked down

to hear the groans of the prisoners.

W.S. Plummer writes, (p. 909)

"To hear is to regard in compassion."

This reminds me of what we read in Exodus 2:23–25 about God hearing the pain of the Israelites in slavery. We read,

"The Israelites groaned
in their slavery and cried out,
and their cry for help
because of their slavery went up to God.
God heard their groaning and
he remembered his covenant with Abraham,
with Isaac and with Jacob.
So God looked on the Israelites
and was concerned about them."

W.S. Plummer writes, (p. 911)

"God hears every sigh and every groan that is uttered."

This reminds me of Psalm 56:8 where David said to God, (ESV)

"You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your book?"

How deeply God cares for His people. Every tear they shed is recorded. So when it says that God looks down on the prisoners to hear their groans it means that God is looking down in sympathy, with love. He is taking note. He will help them.

The thing for us New Testament Christians to note is that Jesus has entered into our sufferings.

He suffered on our behalf. He Himself has experienced loneliness, betrayal, injustice, treachery, cruelty, sadism. He knows it first hand. He is able to sympathize with you whatever you go through. As we read in Hebrews 4:15–16,

"For we do not have a high priest
who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are,
yet without sin.
Let us then with confidence
draw near to the throne of grace,
that we may receive mercy
and find grace to help
in time of need."

What this means for everyone here is that if you ever find yourself in a situation where you think you have no hope, where you think that everyone has abandoned you—

remember that God cares about you.

W.S. Plummer writes, (Psalms, p. 909)

"The prisoner is the most afflicted of men, unable to help himself, or obtain aid from his friends; cut off from the charities of life, and wholly in the power of enemies."

The word 'prisoners' is used in a very general way in the Old Testament. For example, when Joseph was put in prison it is mentioned that that was the place, (Genesis 39:20)

"where the king's prisoners
were confined."

The word is used there to refer not to Joseph, but to the other prisoners there. It's also used in the book of Judges to refer to the place where Samson was held. In other places it refers to peoples taken captive by the king of Babylon. (Isaiah 14:17) And in other places it refers to God's people who have been taken prisoner. (Zechariah 9:11-12) In our text the context is also about God's people. We're not sure when this psalm was written. Some think that it was written after the return from the exile, in the time of Ezra. Others think that it was written before that, during the time of the captivity in Babylon. Still others believe it was written much earlier, by David.

But it really doesn't matter. We shouldn't restrict it to include just those who don't deserve to be in prison. W.S. Plummer writes, (p. 909)

"The deplorable condition of men involved in sin, and sunk in guilt is fitly represented by that of prisoners."

God's covenant people went into captivity because of their sins. There were some among them, like Jeremiah, who were faithful to God but the majority of them were taken away because of their unfaithfulness to God. The Bible also tells us that God hears the cries of prisoners who are in prison because of their sin. For example in Psalm 107:10–14 we read,

"Some sat in darkness
and the deepest gloom,
prisoners suffering in iron chains,
for they had rebelled
against the words of God and
despised the counsel of the Most High.
So he subjected them to bitter labor;
they stumbled, and there was no one to help.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress.
He brought them out of darkness
and the deepest gloom
and broke away their chains."

The prisoners there, the ones the Lord heard, were those who had previously rebelled against God's Word and despised the counsel of the Most High.

The first application I want to make from this is that

it doesn't matter how bad you have been, if you turn to God He will hear you.

Anyone who is afflicted, the righteous and the unrighteous can take heart from this Psalm, even those who have been despised God's commands. As we read in Isaiah 55:1–3, 6-7,

"Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money
and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and your soul will delight
in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
hear me, that your soul may live…
Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake his way
and the evil man his thoughts.
Let him turn to the Lord,
and he will have mercy on him,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon."

Some people mistakenly believe that they're too bad for God, that they've despised His word in the past and that even if they repented now, God wouldn't hear them. Nothing could be further from the truth. In 1 Timothy 1:15 the apostle Paul wrote,

"Here is a trustworthy saying
that deserves full acceptance:
Christ Jesus came into the world
to save sinners—of whom I am the worst."

What a remarkable God we have. He hears our groans. What a remarkable Savior we have in Jesus. He loves sinners. This is one of the most astounding truths of the Bible. God loves sinners. Jesus loves sinners so much that He died for them.

The second application I want to make is for you who are not prisoners, I ask you,

do you hear the groans of the prisoners?

Do you look on them with compassion? Are you like God? Are you like Jesus who has compassion on sinners?

So often we have the wrong attitude toward prisoners, toward sinners. We think,

"They're bad people. They don't deserve anything good. They're getting what they deserve."

So often our hearts are like the people who tested Jesus, like those who brought the woman taken in adultery to Him, asking if she should be stoned. They didn't care anything about the woman, she had sinned and that was all they needed to know. They were going to use her to try to trap Jesus.

Is your heart like that toward prisoners, toward sinners? Are you uncaring, unsympathetic? Do you think they should get what they deserve? If you do, you're like the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18. You're nothing like God wants you to be. You need to ask God to change your heart. Your great God has rescued and delivered you from your sin. You didn't deserve it. It's all of grace. How then can you be unsympathetic and uncaring for those who are slaves of sin, who are in bondage to it? It should never be.