Commentary on Psalm 90:1-8 [9-11] 12
This week’s psalm selection is the opening section of one of the great lyrics of the Bible—Psalm 90.1
It is the only poem in the Psalter that is associated with Moses; the Hebrew in the superscription literally reads “a prayer to Moses, man of God,” and likely does not refer to Moses as the author of the poem. Most likely the connection with Moses was made because of a connection between the psalm’s theme of asking for wisdom in light of human finitude and the story of Moses, who was not allowed to enter into the promised land.
In the same way that one can tune into the first few innings of a ballgame or drop in for the opening movements of a symphony and still enjoy the performance, it is indeed right and salutary that the preacher or worship planner opt to stick with the lectionary and use only the opening verses of the psalm. Better, however, would be to include all seventeen verses of this poem.
Don’t have time for those extra five verses? Here’s an idea—skip one announcement so as to make time for the word of God.
God, humanity, and time (verses 1-11)
Speaking of time, the prayer is an eloquent meditation on God, humanity, and time. It builds a tableau that explores the relationship between God and human beings—using the hands of time to plumb the depths of the human condition and then to point mortals back to eternal God.
According to the psalm’s use of this motif, the Lord is the one who is…
- “Our dwelling place in all generations”
- The creator since “before the mountains were brought forth”
- Who has been God “from everlasting to everlasting”
- And for whom “a thousand years are … like yesterday … or like a watch in the night”
Human beings, on the other hand, are those who…
- “turn back to dust” at a single word from God
- “Are like a dream” in the night
- Perk up like grass fed by morning dew, but who fade and wither before evening
- And have a lifespan that is “seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong” (I still cotton to the old King James’ Version: “threescore years and ten, and if by reason of strength they be fourscore”)
And, not to put too fine of a point on it, the psalm arrives at the conclusion (judgment?) that all of human life passes under God’s judgment—”we are consumed by your anger … our years come to an end like a sigh.”
Half of the battle in preaching a poem as elegant as Psalm 90 is simply to get out of the way of the beautiful poetry, to hit the notes clearly so that they can ring vibrantly in the imaginations and hearts of hearers. (Little surprise, then, that Abraham Lincoln began his most soaring speech—a speech dedicating a graveyard of strong, young men whose flames had snuffed out even before their allotted fourscore years had been counted—with a self-conscious allusion to Psalm 90: “Fourscore and seven years ago…”)
Wise hearts and prospered hands (verses 12-17)
The other half of the battle in preaching such a poem is finding a way to proclaim the psalm’s desperate plea as a message of hope and good news, for the psalm is a prayer. And as such, it is a theological plea written in the key of hope. Making its plea to God, the psalm hopes for what it does not see. Indeed, it hopes for what could not be seen when it was first prayed.
The witness of the psalm—a witness made to God, perhaps even made against God—is that for mortal to find true hope for today and true strength for tomorrow, they can only turn to the eternal Lord.
This is no carpe diem argument—Seize the Day!—as one may find in such secular lyrics as venerable and humorous as Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” (“Had we but world enough and time…”) or as fresh and naïve as Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway” (“Life is a road that you travel on, there’s one day here and the next you’re gone…”). In these songs, the lyricist urges mortals to seize what joy they can, before they die (“The grave’s a fine and pleasant place, But none I think do there embrace”).
Such thinly veiled attempts to deny mortality are precisely the sort of foolishness that the psalm prays against when it begs in verse 12, “Teach us to count our days that we may game a wise heart.” What is a wise heart? One that turns away from human attempts at self-deception and self-justification. One that paradoxically implores the very God who says to us, “turn back, you mortals!” (verse 3) to, in turn, “Turn…. Have compassion on your servants!” (verse 13).
The psalm then returns to the theme of time and pleads with God, if not to wind back the hands of time, then at least to reverse some of the more deflating and discouraging effects of human mortality: the burdensome sense that a mortal life is without purpose; the debilitating sense that nothing we do matters, because death comes for all; the horrible fear that there is nothing that can satisfy or give joy.
Thus, weaving back in to the poem the earlier temporal terms such as morning, days, and years, the psalm prays for God to “satisfy us in the morning with you steadfast love” and “make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us and as many years as we have seen evil.” The witness here is that joy, satisfaction, and gladness are not marketable or manufacturable goods that can be seized by the mortal from a creation that would without them. But that they are gifts made freely available, proffered without condition by the creator and redeemer of all.
In this light, even the psalm’s doubly repeated closing plea to “prosper for us the work of our hands—O prosper the work of our hands” is not just a plea, but a promise. The promise that the work done by mortal hands here on earth can make a lasting difference, when the eternal one in heaven blesses it.
That isn’t a bad prayer with which to start every day. Or a bad message on which to center a sermon.
- Commentary first published on this site on Nov. 13, 2011.