Commentary on Psalm 90:12-17
If, on occasion, the Revised Common Lectionary may be said to do the interpreter no favors in its delineation of the boundaries of a text, the reading before us from Psalm 90 surely presents such an occasion.
Reading only from verse 12 onward, it is difficult to avoid the impression of a congregation seeking to wheedle as many good things as they can think of out of God, in an almost childlike, “praying for candy” tone. Were it not for the anomalous “So” that begins verse 12 and the hints of some darker reality lurking in the background found in the “Turn, O Lord! How long?” of verse 13 and the “as many days as you have afflicted us” of verse 15, the interpreter might be led to think this a fairly uninteresting piece.
The conjunctive force of that “So” turns the reader’s attention to the preceding verses of the psalm by framing the petitions of the selected reading as the result of what has gone before. When the entire psalm is considered, the hints of darkness acquire substance, and the petitions may be seen and understood more fully in context. Thus, the interpreter should, at minimum, attend to the whole psalm, if it is not possible to have the entirety read in worship.
Taken as a whole, Psalm 90 presents a sequence of three observations or contentions, followed by a set of petitions deriving from them. The three observations, in brief, are as follows:
- God is eternal, and God’s reign extends beyond even the lifespan of the creation itself. God’s role as the “dwelling place” of God’s people is similarly without end (verses 1-2).
- Human lives, by contrast, and even the longest spans of time that human beings can contemplate (“a thousand years”) are, by comparison, ephemeral. All return to the dust within what doesn’t even amount to the blink of an eye in God’s frame of reference (verses 3-6).
- Even the oh-so-brief span of a human life, seventy or perhaps eighty years at best, is beset with constant toil and suffering, and this toil and suffering are the expression of God’s judgment and wrath against human sin. The best that can be hoped for is that knowledge of the brevity of human existence will somehow grant wisdom (verses 7-12).
The weight and meaning of the petitions in verses 13-17 are now much clearer. The cry “Turn, O Lord!” is a plea that God might turn away from the judgment and wrath that have long shaped human existence and toward compassion and mercy for his covenant people. The question “How long?” reflects the conviction that, in the grander scope of God’s eternal sovereignty, the era of his wrath and therefore of human misery and toil is only of limited duration. When the psalmist prays that the years of gladness will be as many as the years of affliction, that prayer represents nothing less than a call for a change of era, a new dispensation in God’s dealings with the people. In this context, the final petition of the psalm, that God might prosper the work of the people’s hands is no longer a mere request for prosperity, but rather a request that in the new era, it may be the work of God’s servants, and, through them, the work of God himself, that is the sign of the times, replacing the sins of God’s servants and their suffering under his wrath.
Understanding of the logic of the full psalm allows for richer and more responsible exposition of the text. The interpreter could explore the phenomenon of prayers for God’s mercy and steadfast love that arise from a location of suffering and finitude, reflecting on the theological convictions that must be in place for such prayers to be meaningful. Such reflection might encompass not only the eternity and sovereignty of God, as highlighted in this psalm, but also the enduring mercy and forgiveness that are extolled elsewhere in both the Old and New Testaments. In particular, some congregations may be receptive to an exposition that looks at the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the ultimate and decisive “turn” from judgment to compassion. There is ample testimony in the Bible and in the teaching of the church that Jesus’s life on earth represented the turning point between eras, and that the crucifixion and resurrection of the Messiah made a decisive difference in the calculus of God’s wrath and God’s forgiveness. The preacher must, however, be careful not to imply that these two characteristics are mutually exclusive, or that either is entirely absent from the character and activity of God, before or after the Incarnation. To do so would be to introduce a far more grave distortion of the psalm’s meaning than that brought about by omitting the first eleven verses!