The middle section of Psalm 90 – omitted by this week’s lection in the RCL – deals with the wrath of God, and that is probably why the Lectionary averts its eyes from that part on every occasion when Psalm 90 pops up in the Lectionary. Yet it is a key part of what is the focus of verses 12-17 in terms of the nature and brevity of human life. So in this commentary we will keep that in mind as background.
I always tell my students in Psalms class to not put too much stock in the superscriptions on many of the psalms. Sometimes it is suggested where a given psalm came from, as in Psalm 51 and the superscription’s claim that David wrote this after Nathan confronted him about Bathsheba. And many psalms are attributed to David or a few other figures. In the case of Psalm 90 we are told – and this is the only psalm with this superscription – that this was of Moses.
The problem is that these superscriptions were not part of the original text of the Psalms and so few believe they are inspired. Even those psalms where the author is identified it is not clear whether the indication is that David or Moses or whoever wrote the psalm or if this is dedicated to that person or if this was written in the spirit of David or Moses or some other figure. In any event, we should not pin too much on the superscriptions.
More likely some later interpreters looked at various psalms and concluded that, for instance, Psalm 51 sure looks like it could fit the Bathsheba story and so someone stuck that into the superscription at the head of the poem. So also with Psalm 90: Moses may or may not have had anything to do with the composition of this song but this sure looks like something Moses might have thought or written and so his name got associated with it.
The Psalm, after all, opens by claiming that God had been Israel’s dwelling place or “home” for many generations and that this was a good thing in that for a long time Israel was a wandering, nomadic people without a home. Surely this called to mind the 40 years in the wilderness and hence (again) the association with the time of Moses. The wilderness was surely a place where the transient and fragile nature of life would come to mind on a regular basis. Grass might spring up in parched land and flourish for a few hours but a stiff desert wind could wilt that same grass in the course of a single day. Human life is like that in the desert too. If God did not send the manna and give Israel fresh water to drink – in miraculous ways in a few stories – then they would be as dead as withered grass.
But, of course, Israel ended up in the wilderness for as long as they did because of their unbelief. The 40 years or wandering was a punishment for faithlessness. Hence Psalm 90’s meditation on God’s anger and on the prudent human need to avoid this anger by being obedient.
Still, whether our sin makes us the object of God’s displeasure or whether we endure better times before the face of God, the fact of the relative brevity of human life remains. The psalm says that being taught to number our days leads to “a heart of wisdom.” That is an interesting way to put it. Knowing that we will not live in this current existence forever is not counted as a piece of knowledge, as a factoid or bit of data. No, it is counted as wisdom.
Wisdom in Scripture of course is generally regarded as having the knack to get along well in this world on account of careful observations of what works and what does not work. What leads to flourishing and what leads to discouragement. Which way of answering a difficult person is the most prudent: a direct confrontation or walking away in silence? (And note that in the Book of Proverbs at least, the answer to this last question is “It depends.” Sometimes it takes wisdom to apply wisdom.) In any event, the wise person takes careful notes on which behaviors trend in the direction of delight and which ones trend toward disaster and then the wise one conforms accordingly.
In the case of Psalm 90, the poet observes that sooner or later everyone dies. And it usually feels sooner to most people even if they manage to live to what most would regard as a ripe old age. The years tend to speed up the older one gets (a particularly cruel sensation to which most people attest). And so in wisdom one sees this and then asks, “Given the rather short nature of my earthly existence, how ought I behave? What should count as very important to me and what should count as not at all important?”
Hopefully in wisdom we discover that serving God should be our highest priority. Following what Jesus called the first and great commandment (and the second one like unto it) should be our daily goal: To love God with everything we’ve got and then do the same to our neighbors. That means that living for only short-term personal gains and forever trying to move life’s moral boundary fences so that they fall in more convenient places for us are dead ends in the cosmic long run.
Psalm 90 famously concludes with a prayer to God to establish the work of our hands. But perhaps it ought to go without saying that we cannot ask God to firm up and make fruitful our work if that work is motivated by sheer selfishness or if that work builds us up at the expense of a neighbor. God will not establish as something of lasting value that which is short-sighted or ruinous for others of God’s creatures and image bearers. When you set God as the standard for the value of your work—and if you expect God to “establish” it in some approving way—then that cuts off a whole lot of the ways too many people choose to live their lives.
Psalm 90 is not trying to make us sad or unduly distressed at the prospect of how relatively brief is the span of our lives. It is trying to teach prudence and wisdom and if we can manage to attain to this, then our lives, though short, will glorify God and, just so, enrich this world. And as an added bonus, we may find our own lives start to fill up with a sense of shalom too.
In one of my undergraduate English literature classes we considered a number of classic poems that contained the literary Latin term “memento mori” or loosely translated “remember your death” or “be mindful of mortality.” These were poems along the lines of John Donne’s famous line “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” Or you could see a more contemporary poem along these lines and with the title “Memento Mori” by Billy Collins.
It reminds me, too, of a novel I once read that was set in a Roman Catholic convent. At meal times the sisters were to eat in silence or perhaps listen to Scripture being read. But one possible focus for their minds while eating was the calvarium or skull that sat in front of the Mother Superior at he head table. It was to stand as a reminder not to enjoy the food too much because in the end, they would all die anyway and so at mealtimes as at all times they had to entrust themselves to the Lord.
Though this may seem extreme, it is in one sense an example of Psalm 90’s pursuit of gaining “a heart of wisdom.”
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 10, 2021
Psalm 90:12-17 Commentary