YEAR A: SEASON AFTER PENTECOST
(Sunday between October 23 and October 29)1
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
One reason Psalm 90 has been selected today, when we also hear of Moses’ death, is that the psalm is attributed or associated with Moses (the only such psalm) in its superscription: ‘A prayer of Moses, a man of God.’ Its focus on trust fits Moses’ own journey of faith leading the Israelites out of Egypt to the promised land, although the psalm also shows some elements of lament (e.g. the final petition in vv. 13-17). The occurrence of the word ‘Lord’, in the first and last verses of the psalm provides an inclusio and a sense of completion in God.
Verses 1-2 consist of the praise of God in the form of an extensive chiasm (ABCC’B’A’): ‘Lord, you’ – ‘all generations’ – mountains – ‘were brought forth’ – ‘you formed’ – ‘the earth and the world’ – ‘from everlasting to everlasting’ – ‘you are God’. The focus is on the one called ‘Lord’ being God, a statement founded in the traditions of creation. This one is described as a ‘dwelling place’ (v. 1,?sometimes translated as ‘refuge’). An important shift takes place here. The Hebrew word used is rare in the psalms (cf. Pss 26:8; 68:6; and 71:3). In those three places it refers to a physical location, especially the temple in the first two. However, in Ps 90:1 (cf. 91:9) it is applied to God (cf. Deut 33.27). Our attention is shifted from places where God dwells, to God being the one in whom the community dwells; it is a fitting word when all other institutions of the faith have failed at one time or another.
The grandeur of the initial statement about God is countered in vv. 3-6 by reflection on the brevity of human life. Psalm 90 is further complicated when human sinfulness is brought into the equation (vv. 7-10, not in our reading today). Moreover, it is God who ‘turns’ humans back to dust (v. 3) and ‘consumes them by his anger’ (v. 7). No enemy is mentioned in this psalm as is usually the case in lament psalms. Here the community’s adversary is the one who is God, their ‘dwelling place’. It is little wonder that the section ends in vv. 11-12 with a question and a petition. The petition is not for relief, which will be the concern of the next section of the psalm, but for learning: ‘so teach us to count our days, that we may gain a wise heart.’
Of course, even in this contemplation of human frailty before the eternal nature of the divine, there is already evidence of some learning and the gaining of wisdom. First, the section does not relate sin to the brevity of human life in a simple causal fashion. Rather the two are juxtaposed with the brevity of life discussed before any mention of sinfulness and divine wrath. Humans may come to the end of their life ‘in (God’s) anger’ (v. 7) but that is a statement of extent not cause. Secondly, the statement of God as ‘dwelling place’ in v. 1 is not negated by the knowledge of human limitation, for both the petition for wisdom in v. 12 and that for relief in vv. 13-16, presume the sovereignty of God acts even in the brief lives of God’s people. Indeed, knowledge of the divine could be the very thing that brings hope to the community because it is that knowledge that leads the community to respond to God as dwelling place, even if only for the brief time at their disposal.
This sense of acceptance of the brevity of life and of the recognition of God’s presence even within that brief span has been the usual understanding of these verses. A lot depends on how we understand the verbal phrases ‘who knows’ in v. 11a (NRSV: ‘who considers’) and ‘to count our days’ in v. 12a. The former could be a negative statement, i.e. ‘no one can know’ or anticipate a positive answer. The petitions in vv. 12-17 suggest that the question in v. 11a is genuinely an open one. The verbal phrase ‘to count our days’ in v. 12a, could mean, that the psalmist contemplates not the brevity of life in general so much as the length of the present distress. This would fit the question of ‘How long?’ which follows. But over against this there is still the statement in v. 7, which sees life determined by the wrath of God. There is also the general propensity of laments to maintain hope in the midst of disaster. It is not beyond bounds that in Psalm 90 the psalmist contemplates both the brevity of life and the general implications of that as well as the immediate matter of the length of the present dilemma.
Further contrast is made in vv. 13-17 as the psalmist turns quickly to seek a ‘turning’ from God (v. 13) and asking ‘How long?’. Contemplation of the brevity of life in comparison to the eternity of God has neither dulled the psalmist’s brazenness to demand things of God nor their trust that to do so is a worthwhile task. If the counting of days in v. 12a is a matter of the length of present suffering, then the psalmist’s question of ‘How long?’ is clear and consistent. However, if there is some level of contemplation on the fleetingness and vulnerability of human life then there is no little irony in the question. Even in the brevity of their life, God’s servants will seek compassion, be satisfied with God’s ‘steadfast love’ and rejoice all their days. Only what is everlasting can satisfy in such a short life.
Psalm 90 ends with a petition for the prosperity of the work of the community. The inclusio around the psalm created by the word ‘Lord’ is strengthened by reference to the work of human hands in v. 17 and the work of God in creation in v. 2a. The comparison ties the two together, while the contrast maintains the theme of vv. 3-12. The eternal and everlasting nature of God’s work finds manifestation in the limited and fleeting toil of humans. This is the nature of God’s dwelling with his people and the thing which gives human work its value. In acknowledging the fleetingness and vulnerability of human life, as well as the pervasiveness of the people’s iniquities and secret sins, the psalmist concludes that to know God’s work, glory and favour, and to have our work prosper is a wonder.
This psalm is not a mournful reflection on the brevity of human life and a resignation to the inevitability of death. Rather, it is a psalm to generate hope. It calls the servants of the Lord to entrust their brief experience of life to the one who grants life and who as God is their dwelling place.
Psalm 90 calls on the Lord’s servants to recognize their place of confidence, and to put trust in the one who is their dwelling place. It reminds us that entrusting our brief and frail time to God is itself an act of faith. Gaining a wise heart involves above all understanding that God is our dwelling place. Even if the act of ‘counting our days’ in v. 12 is in part a matter of seeking how long suffering will last, then it is also calling upon those who suffer to continue to seek the favour of Yahweh and ask that the work of their hands might participate in the divine work in creation. It is also a plea that wrath will not be the only thing which defines the divine-human relationship. Sin is certainly a factor in that relationship, and it can have dire consequences, but it need not determine all.
Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship
Verses 1-2 could be used as a call to worship.
Most of the psalm could be adapted to a prayer of adoration and confession. The following example is based on the New Jerusalem translation with some adaptation.
Lord, you have been our refuge from age to age.Old Testament reading: Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Before the mountains were born,
before the earth and the world came to birth,
from eternity to eternity you are God.
A thousand years are to you like yesterday when past,
like a watch of the night.
Your people are like growing grass:
in the morning blossoming and growing,
by evening it is withered and dry.
For we are dismayed by your righteousness and justice.
You have taken note of our guilty deeds,
our secrets in the full light of your presence.
All our days pass under your eye,
our lives are over like a sigh.
The span of our life is seventy years
-- eighty for those who are strong –
but their whole extent is anxiety and trouble,
they are over in a moment and we are gone.
Teach us to count up the days that are ours,
and we shall come to the heart of wisdom.
Come back, O Lord!
Take pity on your servants.
Each morning fill us with your faithful love,
we shall sing and be happy all our days;
let our joy be as long as the time that we experience disaster.
Show your servants the deeds you do,
let their children enjoy your splendour!
May the sweetness of the Lord be upon us,
to confirm the work we have done!
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