Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 29, 2017
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 Commentary
Psalm 90 is a classic text for funerals, for ecclesiastical observances of New Year’s Eve, and for any other time we mark the passing of time and lament our tenuous place in it. So it is a fitting choice for this last Sunday of October just a month away from the end of Ordinary Time.
The first 12 verses seem like nothing more than a meditation on time along the lines of something we might read in wisdom literature. Indeed, verse 12 ends that section of the Psalm with the hope that we may “gain a heart of wisdom.” There isn’t much we can do about time. Like “an ever- rolling stream, it bears us all away.” The best we can hope for is a wise understanding of time. But the last 5 verses clearly identify this Psalm as a prayer, a fervent prayer that God will do something to change the times of our lives.
The superscription identifies Psalm 90 as “a prayer of Moses, the man of God,” but most modern scholars have serious questions about that authorship. I’m not sure why. Having just concluded a study of Moses’ life and particularly the last 40 years in the wilderness, I must say that this Psalm surely sounds like something Moses would write, perhaps near the end of his very long life. After observing the human drama for 120 years and especially after slogging through those last 40 years with Israel in the wilderness, during which they suffered under God’s wrath for their continual rebellion, Psalm 90 sounds like the very thing Moses would leave as his last word on God, humans, and time. Moses made it far past those eighty years allotted to the strongest of us, but about those additional 40 years, Moses could well have written, “All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan.” So, for purposes of brevity and clarity, I will assume that Moses wrote Psalm 90.
For a nomadic people wandering through that vast and howling wilderness, verses 1 and 2 are the perfect confession of faith. Israel may have been homeless and landless, but they had a “dwelling place.” Not a place, but a person. Adonai, not Yahweh. Indeed, that covenant name for God does not appear until the passionate prayer begins in verse 13. Is there any significance in that choice of words at the beginning of this meditation on the times of our lives? Adonai means master, Lord, with the connotation of power and authority. When life feels all too short and the wrath of God is all too real, we experience God more as Adonai than as Yahweh.
Perhaps that is reading too much into a couple of words, but it is certain that this Psalm about time begins with a confession about God that distinguishes God from us in a radical way. By the end of his life Moses has three generations of Israelites in his weary band of brothers and sisters: the older generation who had known slavery in Egypt and salvation in the Exodus, but who are now dying off; the middle generation, those 30 and 40 somethings who knew only the desert with its manna and pillar of fire; and the young ones, the toddlers and teens and young adults who would spend nearly all their days in the land flowing with milk and honey. They were on his mind when he wrote, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.”
But Adonai is not merely old, older than any of us, “the Old Man Upstairs.” Before there was anything, before “the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” As is the case throughout the Bible, Psalm 90 makes absolutely no attempt to prove that God exists. God is the great Given, the Creator of all that is, existing before anything else did. That God is our dwelling place. What a comfort for a homeless people!
And what a threat! In what follows, this eternal God, who gives refuge to his helpless people, is also seen as the source of the transience and trouble of human life. Verse 3 is a troubling verse, especially if we read it in the later light of 1 Corinthians 15:26 which speaks of death as “the last enemy” and Hebrews 2:14 which says that it is the Devil who “holds the power of death.” So, how can Moses suggest that it is God who decrees death? “You turn men back to dust, saying, ‘Return to dust, O sons of men.’” Verse 5 mysteriously continues, “You sweep men away in the sleep of death….” If death is the enemy and the Devil holds the power of death, how can Moses say things like this? And is he right?
Obviously we are dealing here with the enduring mystery at the heart of the Bible, namely, the relationship between the sovereign rule of a loving God and the existence of sin, suffering, and death. This is the stone of stumbling for many an unbeliever and the source of much doubt for many believers. We can’t solve the mystery in a sermon on this text. But we can assert, with Moses, that God is ultimately in control of all things, even death. Death is the enemy used by the Devil to sow fear in human hearts, but God is finally in charge of all dark forces.
And Moses’ intention is not so much to raise that large theological issue as it is to assure us that our Lord is our dwelling place. In spite of the brevity of human life, we dwell in the God who is eternal. Using a variety of images, the Psalmist compares God’s eternal life with our ephemeral life. Our lives may seem long as we live them, but compared to God’s life, our lives are like a day, like a dream, like grass.
The Lectionary skips over verses 7-11, perhaps for the sake of brevity, but probably because they raise the unpleasant subject of God’s wrath. Maybe that’s a wise choice, as Psalm 90 is already gloomy enough in its words about the shortness of human life. On the other hand, these hard words about God’s anger with human sin are part of a major theme in the Bible. They give us a very different understanding of human trouble than we find anywhere in the natural world. It isn’t just that life is “poor, nasty, brutish, and short (Thomas Hobbes)” because that’s the way life is; “nature is red in tooth and claw.” No, human depravity and divine severity are an important part of the human tragedy.
Moses saw that depravity and severity again and again during the wilderness wandering of Israel. In spite of God’s repeated acts of deliverance, Israel rebelled repeatedly. The story of the wilderness is filled with words about God’s burning anger against his people and the suffering they endured because of that sin-fueled anger. How could Moses fail to mention that dynamic in his last words to God’s people? He is writing about reality. Unpleasant as it may be, it is life. “Who knows the power of your anger? For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you (verse 11).” Understanding the wrath of God against human sin is part of “the heart of wisdom” that Moses prays for in verse 11.
The Lectionary skips this section, and you may be tempted to do the same. But if you don’t, how can you deal with this grim assessment of the trouble in human existence? Well, you might say that these words were written long before the coming of Christ, who completed God’s revelation of himself and accomplished the atonement that permanently propitiated the wrath of God against the sins of his people. This is not to say that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New. It is only to say that revelation and redemption are progressive, and Moses is simply speaking of what had been revealed to him at this point in the story.
Or, instead of getting into all that theological complexity, you might simply point out that Psalm 90 does not end with these hard words about God’s role in the brevity of life and God’s response to the depravity of sin. Beginning in verse 13 Moses pleads with God, now Yahweh, to change the times of our lives. It’s not as though Moses didn’t know anything about a God of mercy, compassion, and unfailing love. Indeed, the only way he could endure life was to believe that Adonai was Yahweh, the God who took his people by the hand and led them to the Promised Land and beyond. If verses 3-12 deal with the tragedy of life and ask for the wisdom to deal with it, verses 13-17 ask God for a change in the times of our lives and, indeed, in himself.
Echoing the direct, even confrontational way Moses often spoke to God (see Exodus 33 for an example), Moses asks God to “relent” in the way he is treating his people. “Relent” is the same Hebrew word used is verse 3, where it is translated “return.” The word is shub and it means to turn (back). It is a favorite biblical word for repentance. Moses is not suggesting that God has done something wrong and needs to repent of it. Rather, he appeals to the covenant God, Yahweh, to turn from his anger and act in compassion toward his sinful people. We can’t do much to change the times of our lives, except pray that God will change them in his “unfailing love” for us. The Hebrew word there is the ever-present covenant word chesed.
In other words, after reflecting on how short and hard life can be under the God who is the
Adonai of time and eternity, Moses turns to God as Yahweh and asks him to re-balance, redeem the times of our lives. We may have the life span of morning grass, but God can “satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love.” We may have “trouble and sorrow,” but by God’s grace “we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.” “Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble.”
How is such a re-balancing, reversal, redemption possible? Well, Israel has seen throughout its history that God acts in history, disrupting the natural order of things to accomplish his great purposes. Moses alludes to those historical actions in verse 16. “May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children.” The most splendid deed Yahweh ever did, of course, is the event that was Jesus Christ. In the fullness of time, God broke into history in the person of Jesus, so that God’s people could be saved from their sins and God’s wrath against those sins and, therefore, live forever. Through Jesus, God changed the times of our lives. Now he commands us to redeem the times of our lives.
Because of God’s merciful deeds in the ministry of Christ, all of the passionate prayers of verses 13-17 become precious promises. Even death has been conquered through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And all the futility of life’s ventures, ostensibly obliterated by our ignominious end, is reversed by the recreating grace of God. That’s why Paul’s great chapter on the resurrection of Christ and of his followers ends with a promise that answers the prayer of Psalm 90:17. “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (I Cor. 15:58).” In Christ, the work of our hands and the times of our lives are established by the grace of God.
Earlier in my pastoral career, as I was learning how much I didn’t know about ministry, I fell in love with the whole idea of time management. I read everything I could get my hands on to learn how to manage my time more effectively. Much of it was helpful. But now in the last chapters of my ministry, I’m convinced that the old hymn writer was correct when he wrote, “Time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all its sons away; they fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.” How good to know that “our times are in his hands (Psalm 31:5)” and that “he” is Yahweh, the God of unfailing love.
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