A Prayer of Moses, the man of God
1 Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
2 Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
3 You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!”
4 For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
5 You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:
6 in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
7 For we are brought to an end by your anger;
by your wrath we are dismayed.
8 You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.
9 For all our days pass away under your wrath;
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
10 The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
11 Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?
12 So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
13 Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
14 Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
16 Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
17 Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands! (Psalm 90 ESV)
The idea that the older we get, the more we understand, I think is generally accepted – though I may have to get older to be sure! With more life experience we can see more of the things that are important markers of life – what and who can be trusted – and what and who shouldn’t be trusted or should be regarded – if you don’t have an option – carefully and cautiously. I find things – even such things as poetry and the arts and for me economics – more understandable now than I did decades ago. I also have more questions about some things – why am I such an idiot and selfish at times? – why is there suffering? – and what is truth when we are bombarded with so much information? It also may happen that the older we are, the more set in our ways we are – and so there is a tension between faithfulness to what is true and a ‘seize the day’ point of view.
Today’s psalm, Psalm 90, might be regarded as an old person’s psalm. Attributed to Moses though it is unlikely to be from him but in honour of him – as the vigorous old man who walked and talked with God – and at 120 years old was told ‘time’s up, come to me’ and Deuteronomy even says that it was God who buried Moses after Moses had gone up Mount Nebo to see the ‘promised land’ (Deuteronomy 34:5,6).
What do we see from the high vantage point? Are we old enough to read this psalm? [You might want to have a look at it in the LSB.]
We can see three sections in this psalm. The first (verses 1-6) talk about the everlasting God and the all too brief us – we’re not even a night but a watch of the night – a few hours in the night – and the picture looms like a mountain range or the night sky, God is eternal and we are animated dust for a brief time. However this God is not unknown – hidden – and found only through hide ‘n seek but in fact has revealed himself to the psalmist and the people he is addressing and those later who are reading – as the God who is their dwelling place, their refuge – in all generations – not just for us, for now, but we can look back in the past to God’s action – not just in creation but in rescue. For the psalmist this will be the Exodus and God’s presence through the Tabernacle and later the Temple. For us today, our dwelling place will be the fulfilment of tabernacle and temple – the Word made flesh – Jesus who dwells among us (John 1:14).
The second section (verses 7-12) is, today, the most problematic. Psalm 90 is a psalm that has fallen out of favour in funerals because of this ‘middle section’ – for the idea that God has anger and wrath towards us – for the idea that we have iniquities and secret sins. What humanity finds abhorrent is monstrous evil – we can see it when it is huge – but we’re not so observant towards our own iniquities and secret sins. And because we can think of far worse behaviour by others or in history than what we have done, we want to give ourselves some sort of pass. And there is an even deeper level rebellion at work here and that is the idea that at some sort of cosmic, ultimate, divine, eternal level we are accountability for our lives. In the vastness of the universe, time, expanding galaxies, the thought that our few years of existence actually count or will be measured by someone other than ourselves or a random historian is cause for much soul-searching and an annoyance – how dare I be held accountable by more than the world – or even the world?
And yet wisdom hears and nods at verse 12 in particular but of course at the whole psalm as well.
12 So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.
And it is this verse and the ones that follow that tell us that young people who may not have a vast personal landscape to view can and should read this psalm to become alert to God’s perspective on life. That is not meant to intimidate or scare or cause us to despair but this psalm offers both perspective and prayer about how we can live no matter what is happening to and around us.
I put it to you that this sort of psalm is really a horrible and terrifying one depending on your god or what you think is god. I put it to you and all of the world – should they ever hear me – that unless your God is a gracious God – one of grace and mercy, steadfast love, kindness and righteousness – one who is active in this world even if he is angry and wrathful – I’m not denying it – but who has done something about it in rescuing us – and I am saying that unless you have a God of rescue who isn’t made in your image then this psalm and probably most of the psalms are terrifying. Why should we number our days? Why should we call to the Lord to return? Why do we cry for help in the morning? Why do we want this God to make us glad? Why do we want God’s favour?
The world wants God’s blessings, trinkets, and ‘lucky moments’, the psalmist wants to know this God more and more; this God who has stepped onto Planet Earth and rescued us. We know the Exodus is part of our spiritual story but for us the focus is on Jesus and his cross and empty tomb; on Jesus risen; on Jesus who comes to us through words, water, bread and wine; on Jesus who points us to the Father and together with the Father sends us the Holy Spirit; on Jesus who is with us each day whether that day be heavenly or hellish.
Today data about life expectancy at birth shows that people are, on average, living longer around the world though there are certainly geographical variations of many decades visible. The general data points to the average global life span, at the moment, to be around 79 years but sadly some countries still have life expectancy in the 40s while a few countries seem to be consistently in the 80s. The ‘take home’ message for me, however, is that the most dangerous time to be alive is infancy and childhood. Once past a certain threshold of age, one’s survival statistics definitely improve. And of course, when we stop to think about it, that makes sense.
Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seed implies that young faith and troubles can be spiritually deadly. It implies that deep rooted longer-term faith produces fruit. Of course having the faith of a child is also praised and the elderly do have particular faith struggles that come from their life experiences. What, however, I think is critical is how one is formed in the Faith and one’s spiritual infancy and childhood – irrespective of the number of candles on the birthday cake – needs a big picture to helps us see past the all encompassing ‘now’ moment. We need to see more than Jesus and me. One such big picture is Psalm 90 which presents the everlasting God, the culpable tragedy of humanity, and the mysterious grace of God which, for us, is found best in Jesus. As we grow in this big picture perspective – find our place in it – we discover that we are unique, special, and recipients of grace from a God who doesn’t owe us anything but who has acted nonetheless. That ‘big picture’ perspective and prayers offers the best way to face the mirror … and the day.
- Psalm 90