Sing from your Sick Bed

In his reflection on Psalm 102 in his book "Songs of Experience", Roy Clements refers to the 16th century playwright  Thomas Nashe’s poem written during an outbreak of the plague. He only cites a few verses, but for full effect let me quote the whole thing:
Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss;
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
None from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
   Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
   Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
   Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector’s brave;
Swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds ope her gate.
“Come, come!” the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
   Lord, have mercy on us.

Wit with his wantonness
Tasteth death’s bitterness;
Hell’s executioner
Hath no ears for to hear
What vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
   Lord, have mercy on us.

Haste, therefore, each degree,
To welcome destiny;
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player’s stage;
Mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
   Lord, have mercy on us.

Cheery wee number… and completely out of tune with the modern age which is running headlong to avoid the inevitability of death. Indeed the middle-aged man on a treadmill may be the perfect metaphor for the modern world’s attitude to death… Running ever faster but getting no-where… At best delaying the inevitable by a few years…
Health and well-being is a major industry… and a fertile field for charlatans and quacks. The sad thing is that the Church has it’s fair share of the same… The superstition around some Roman Catholic pilgrimage sites, the inappropriate emphasis placed on “signs and wonders” in certain Pentecostal and Charismatic strands of the the church, and the unashamed money-grabbing of  some supposedly Christian "faith-healers” are all manifestations of this… 
In the light of this the approach of Nashe or the "afflicted man" cited in this Psalm, would be seen as being defeatist and betraying a lack of faith… But as Roy Clements points out:
“A believer is not a person who believes in healing; a believer is a person who believes in God.”
God does heal… but not “on demand” and anyway, any earthly healing is only temporary. Unless Christ returns, we will all eventually die and return to dust… even those who have been healed. 
The original of this psalm is the prayer of someone who is clearly physically ill, but this is complicated by the fate of Jerusalem, which seems to have been destroyed at the time of writing. We don’t know whether the psalmist has been exiled, or is literally living in the ruins of the city (as verse 6 might suggest), but either would have a profound affect on his emotional wellbeing, and our physical health is, as we have already said in this study, is deeply affected by our psychological and emotional health.
His description of his condition is evocative… he’s clearly fading away… he’s lost his appetite… everything tastes like ashes… and he is weeping uncontrollably… He blames God, because if God is truly sovereign then everything is his fault. But he is also looks to God as the source of all healing and restoration. But God’s timing is not necessarily our own, and Hebrews 1 would suggest that while this Psalm may not have been fulfilled in the Psalmist’s lifetime, it was ultimately fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and in his body, the church. Jesus, through us, is the source of all healing, for all nations…
One final thought before I offer you my paraphrase of this Psalm (heavily influenced as usual by Eugene Peterson's work); The concluding contrast between the Psalmist’s mortality as a creature and the finite nature of creation over and against the infinite, immortality of the creator, who was there in the beginning and always will be, was an explicit challenge to the contemporary cosmologies of Babylon which were supposed to be recorded in the stars in the heavens. But it is also a challenge to the Godless science of the so-called “New Atheists” which claims that an absence of evidence of God in cosmology and evolution is evidence of his absence… Not so says the Psalmist… his fingerprints are to be found all over the place if you have eyes to see… And not only was he around in the beginning, he will be around long after we (and the New Atheists) are gone… indeed will be there long after all evidence of our earthly existence is gone as well.


Listen to  my prayer, O Lord; hear my cry for help.
Don’t turn your back on me when I am in desperation.
Pay attention to my pleas and hurry to help me.
I’m fading away to nothing; I’m burning up with fever.
My heart is shrivelling up within me; I’ve lost my appetite for food and life.
I moan and groan all the time; I’m reduced to skin and bones.
I feel like a vulture, picking over the ruins of my life.
Or a lonely tawny owl twit-twooing in the twilight.
All day long my enemies mock me; while others call me accursed.
I live on a diet of ashes; I drink deeply from my own tears;
In  your great anger, you seem to have swept me aside discarded me;
You have plucked me from your path like a withered weed.
But you, O Lord, are still on the throne; always and forever sovereign.
Yet it is time for you to  arise from your throne and show compassion to your people;
The time to act has come.
Rescue your people from the rubble and the ruin and the world will sit up and take notice;
When you, O Lord restore your people, your glory will be clear.
They will see that you respond to the prayers of the wretched;
That you do not dismiss their pleas.
Write this down for generations to come, so that those yet unborn may praise the Lord:
"The Lord looked down from his high and holy place, from heaven he surveyed the earth,
He heard the piteous groans of the prisoners; he released those on death row."
So the name of the Lord will be praised among his people;
It will be honoured in all nations when people gather to worship the Lord.
While I was striding tall through life he brought me to my knees;
he cut me down in the prime of life.
"Don’t let me die so soon, O my God” I prayed; “while you endure eternally.
You were there at the beginning shaping the sphere on which we stand,
and leaving your fingerprints all over the sky.
All of creation will crumble to dust, but you remain forever;
They will all wear out like an old suit of clothes;
In time you will change them and throw them away.
Everything changes but you remain the same, your years will never come to an end.
The children of your servants will live under your shadow;
their children’s children’s children will find their home in you."
Psalms 102

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