Psalm 90 | Trinity 19B

Dr. John Michael Gutierrez

A reading from Psalms

1 Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another. 2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or the earth and the world were made, you are God from everlasting, and world without end. 3 You turn man back to the dust; you say, “Return, O children of men.” 4 For a thousand years in your sight are as yesterday, even as a day that is past. 5 You scatter them as a night-watch that comes quickly to an end; they are even as a dream and fade away. 6 They are like the grass, which in the morning is green, but in the evening is dried up and withered. 7 For we consume away in your displeasure and are afraid at your wrathful indignation. 8 You have set our misdeeds before you, and our secret sins in the light of your countenance. 9 For when you are angry, all our days are gone; we bring our years to an end, as a tale that is told. 10 The days of our life are seventy years, and though some be so strong that they come to eighty years yet is their span but labor and sorrow; so soon it passes away, and we are gone. 11 But who regards the power of your wrath, and who considers the fierceness of your anger? 12 So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom. 13 Turn again, O Lord, and tarry not; be gracious unto your servants. 14 O satisfy us with your mercy in the morning; so shall we rejoice and be glad all the days of our life. 15 Comfort us again, according to the measure of the days that you have afflicted us, and for the years in which we have suffered adversity.16 Show your servants your work and their children your glory.17 And may the grace of the Lord our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands; O prosper our handiwork.

Psalm 90

Please turn with me to page 388 in your prayer book – Psalm 90. If you are a regular visitor to morning prayer, then you will be familiar with this psalm. In my 1662 English prayer book, Psalm 90 is read entirely in the burial liturgy. The psalm sets forth in stately rhythm, majestic cadence and style and” firmness of faith”, human frailty and mortality in eternal words. It was prayer supremely matched to an age acquainted with grief, ready to reflect on sorrow. It seems to me Psalm 90, with its firm grasp on the passing of time and our tenuous place in it, is a fitting lectionary choice as we near the end of Trinity this year. 

Scott Peck was on his way to Christian faith when he made this observation in the first sentences of his book The Road Less Traveled “Life is difficult. This is a great truth. One of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it.” As we explore Psalm 90 this morning, his balanced observation is very much in the spirit of this psalm’s intention.

Understanding of the literature, poetic progress and themes of a complete psalm allows for richer and more responsible exposition. Whenever we enter a complete psalm, I believe we are doing two things. We are setting out on a journey of discovery to explore our humanness poetically in the face of the mystery of life in the presence of God With Us. And we are exploring energetic interaction between the spiritual, the physical, the divine and the human.

This morning I invite you to walk with me into the world of a lament psalm – a psalm having as its reality “Almighty God to you all hearts are open. all desires known and from you no secrets are hid……..”

We often approach the psalms under the heading “praise”.  Ancient Israel gathered them together under the heading “prayer”. Written in poetry, the psalms are prayerful communication spoken in real hope to a real God who has a real answer. And more than a third of the 150 collected were put under the sub-heading “Lament”. Laments are part of the Wisdom tradition of Israel fit into a world where the wheels seem to be coming off the wagon. In laments, the Jewish architects of the psalm’s collection offer us a reminder cries for help are part of life in the midst of praise. Laments, then, are complaint and protest prayers spoken in the community fiercely pursuing a realistic examination of who YHWH is and who we are in relation to him.

Laments are the liberation of speech vividly picturing what the heart feels. They throw caution to the wind with bold down to earth language. Laments say “if you’re going to pray then pray with urgency and shamelessness”. The “buck stops with him” to fine tune former American president Truman. Laments insist life’s experiences are in every instance proper and appropriate topics for conversation with the Lord.  Every conversation of the heart is open to the Lord. Every heart belongs in conversation with the Lord. 

Our lesson this morning – Psalm 90 – is a wisdom reflection. It explores life’s persistent troubles with protests and pleas for discernment. It seeks to know how to deal with life’s brevity and frailty. The psalmist opens with affirmation on life’s meaning and value when we have a relationship with the Lord (vs. 1-2). Looking back at how things are too often misunderstood (vs. 3-7), the psalmist sees Israel ill-fitted for eternity because of sin and its consequence – death. He then explores how things are and how the Lord deals with them (vs.8-12). If life really is as described in verses 1-10, then Israel really needs the Lord’s help. And that help is the subject of the petitions to YHWH to make things right (vs. 11-17).

The first voice we hear is the psalmist speaking for the community “Lord you are our refuge”. It’s a soft start. The psalmist affirms both authority and majesty using the word “sovereign ruler” or “master” instead of the name YHWH,. The Lord is presented as “our refuge” highlighting intimacy, reliability, protection inaccessible to an adversary. The psalmist acknowledges Israel has been securely in the Lord’s hands “from generation to generation”.  Certainly, the psalmist is overwhelmed in the presence of mountains, the Land and the inhabited world. But the psalmist is more overwhelmed in the presence of Israel’s creative, immense, even timeless “everlasting to forever” Lord. So, the psalmist assures the hearer’s the Lord is a certain, secure refuge. Verses 1-2, then, are affirmations of trust, submission and commitment. But hold on. Buckle your seatbelts. We’re about to discover this is a lament psalm framed around this soft start.

The psalmist rolls up his shirt sleeves. Vss. 3-7 offer a grocery list of protests opposing the affirmation in vs. 1-2. Paraphrasing “Ok, you’ve always been there as Sovereign. I like what you’ve done with the refuge but there’s a need for some serious remodeling. Listen to me. You are Sovereign and you have authority to command, to judge but you’ve gone too far. When you say “turn back humankind”, I say, “You turn humans back to lowliness” What ‘s the matter with you? That’s a bridge too far.” The psalmist lets the complaints hang in the air for the moment. Only at vs. 8 will another explanation begin to take shape.

What he is lamenting is a popular idea. People in ancient Israel, people today, recoil at the idea of God as Sovereign Judge based upon their experience with authority figures. They blame Him for the ills in their life. They see Him as harsh with a whip in His hand and a cold, calculating heart. To their minds, He is an angry God who makes impossible demands and then casts people away for failing to keep them. This is the stone of stumbling for many an unbeliever and sadly the source of uncertainty for many believers.  As the psalm unfolds, there will be more than a little truth – the Lord is Judge who has the authority to command. A lot of people have done a lot of things to shake off this idea, instead of, as the psalmist proposes, seek refuge in the Lord.

Joining “generation to generation” with “everlasting without end”, the psalmist turns “forever” into a time telescope searching the depths of the human condition. In eloquent poetry the complaint’s vision is narrowed – 1000 years down to 24 hours – a day, down to a mere 4 hours – part of a night watch in vs. 4. Then in a dizzy turn around 24 hours – a day in the life is expanded back to 70, maybe 80 years, or in the lyrics of the KJV,  “threescore years and ten, and if by reason of strength they be fourscore” (vs. 10). In effect while complaining, the psalmist is humbling human pride putting “timed lived experience” into comparison with forever.

The psalmist protests “Lord, you’re immense, you’re timeless. We’re like grass on a hillside in comparison. When you come at our brief moment in the sun like a Sovereign then we’re going to wither like grass in a hot wind”. Images of insecurity, dust, withered grass, a vanished dream in the morning – life at its best is uncertain, feeble, forgettable (vs. 5-10).  Not exactly a Thomas Kinkade painting! The complaints are valid. But seen from another perspective the psalmist is also showing us we think too lowly of the Lord and too highly of ourselves. Human beings’ dwell in a house of clay taken from the ground and must return to it. Yet we look upon the Lord as having little right to judge us and upon ourselves as having every right to judge Him. That the Lord is Judge is shocking in some of our religious gatherings where the Lord has been reduced to a useful “love” notion, someone to pal around with, a life coach helping us to lose weight or a vending machine full of prosperity. This isn’t the Sovereign who laid the foundation of the heavens and the earth. This is some other god hawking a cheap, boring, irrelevant gospel.

While the Lord’s judgement is vigorous, it’s also just. Summarizing these complaints, the psalmist asserts death casts a long, deep shadow (vs. 8-10). The enduring finality of death has been poetically played off against “ the permanence, the firmness, the stability, the foreverness” of the Lord our refuge, the mountains and the world in vs. 2. But the psalmist makes this point: death entered this world as a result of “anger” and “wrath” over human’s believing and acting on the talking serpent’s lie in the Garden “You will not die. You will be like God” (vs, 7, 11 and vs. 8, cf. Gen. 3). Death, then, is the ultimate “no” that cancels pretension to human timelessness. In any case, even the longest human life “is only toil and trouble” (verse 10). In short, the psalm arrives at this conclusion, can I say, judgment, unpleasant as it may be, “Who knows the power of your anger?  For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you” (verse 11).

Humans beguiled by short-lived flourishes of life are dull to the reality of the basis for the Lord’s judgement. However, our situation “dust and dried grass” is not set in eternal concrete rather is set in YHWH, the covenantal refuge. The psalmist now looks YHWH in the face (vs. 11-14). Vs. 8 begins a confession of trust. Confession of trust in a lament is like turning a Caribbean cruise ship on a dime. It opens Laments to underlying truths. All the powerful images in the lament representing human suffering and limitations recenter their focus in the confession. Please note Wisdom in Israel teaches us “The fear of YHWH is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). By weaving wisdom elements into this lament in vs. 11-12, the psalmist joins hands with Wisdom in Israel. The confession of trust is an act of faith, of hope. Notice also the name change – the Sovereign’s majesty is transferred to YHWH – God among us in covenant faithfulness.

So here’s the dime: “Teach us to number our days so that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (vs. 12). Although my lack of math skills is legendary, even I know “numbering our days” isn’t about counting but involves understanding believers have responsibilities. So “numbering our days” means being realistic about the fragility of human life and the abiding constancy of YHWH as a refuge. “Numbering our days” means actively engaging, probing the Lord’s purposes with discernment, not throwing in the towel.  A heart of wisdom can be ours when we allow the fear of YHWH to teach us through the days and years of our spiritual, emotional and physical lived experience. And it seems to me the concern of the phrase “the fear of YHWH” is  reverence. It’s a specific attitude toward someone precious and valuable just as much as a specific attitude toward someone who is superior. And “the fear of YHWH” is an awareness of value without seeking any personal advantage from it. A pious man is ever alert to see behind the appearance of things for traces of the divine. Thus, his attitude toward life is one of expectant reverence. A pious woman is at peace with life, in spite of its conflicts. She patiently resists life’s misfortunes because she glimpses their spiritual potential. A pious woman accepts life’s ordeals as belonging to the totality of life. This does not mean overconfidence or fatalistic resignation. She is not insensitive. On the contrary, she is keenly sensitive to pain and suffering, to adversity and evil in her own life and in that of others. But she has the wisdom to rise above grief with her insightful understanding of what sorrows really are. A pious woman will never overestimate the weight of momentary adversity. Such “fear of YHWH” offers pious men/women the courage and energy to live each day to the fullest, quite literally, for God’s sake!

In verse 12-17, eight times imperative after imperative is hurled at YHWH prayerfully pressing “foreverness” into daily realities – teach us, you turn around, you change your mind, fulfill your covenant loyalty, make us rejoice, show your saving acts, and two times secure our work. The psalmist forcefully petitions YHWH to remove limitations. Because for there to be change in the human condition, YHWH must be actively present. This is the passionate language favored by the psalmists for covenant practices and actions about YHWH’s nearness, his presence. What is at issue here is the psalmist’s refusal to have YHWH stay at arm’s length. Only you YHWH can come close. Only you YHWH can untangle this mess. You,YHWH, cannot take refuge in some “forever-land” indifferent to our wellbeing. In the covenant you have been drawn deeply into our lives. You can’t push us outside the refuge.

Most of us would agree with these petitions. But here’s my problem with the psalm. This psalm is about facing the unwelcome facts of time, sin and death in order to be moved to prayer and assurance. Too often I want change without confronting the issues presented in verses 11-12. Besides that I don’t want to persevere and endure through difficulties, I want a life to be easier so I don’t have to change myself. The message of Psalm 90, while it is somber, is one that is both true to reality and foundational to a believing perspective on life. If I wish only to think positively, I will not want to ponder this psalm too long. But the fact is I am the very person who most needs to grasp its message.

At the heart of the confession lies this truth: death is not the intended outcome of our lives. This is why the good news of the Gospel begins with the bad news of sin and its ugly consequences. If you have put your trust in Jesus Christ, then He has saved you from judgement (1 Thess. 1:10). Though you might die, unless Christ returns in your lifetime, you will not face condemnation. But if you are apart from Christ, you are under condemnation. The psalmist describes life that is short and uncertain because of the Lord’s judgement on sin, as seen in the fact of death. The Lord has provided a way for us to live. Not only is there hope for the future, but there is also hope for the present through the redemptive work of Christ on the cross. The sign on the cross reads “The buck stopped here”. Now when the Lord looks at someone who trusts, He is not judgmental or angry. He sees someone who has entered the Refuge He is.

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