The Fourth Book of the Psalms begins with Psalm 90 – a Prayer of Moses, the man of God.
Moses is not the author of the psalm. Moses is the context of the psalm.
From the very beginning of the prayer, we think of Moses’ encounter with The Bush that Burned but was not Consumed; of his encounter on the mountain top with the God of Fire and Cloud.
This psalm taps into the eternity of the Divine One: the One who exists outside of time. The Lord/Sovereign/King/Creator who spoke the cosmos into existence:
Before the mountains were brought forth or ever you had formed the earth and the world …
from everlasting to everlasting you are God ….
for a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past …
The context of Moses causes us to recall his deep submission to the Eternal One but also his argumentative relationship with God.
At first Moses argues against his calling to confront Pharaoh and lead the people out of slavery. Later, as both God and Moses share their frustrations with the stubborn willful Israelites, we recall his arguing against God’s wrath on behalf of their salvation.
The context of this Psalm of Moses causes us to remember the long weary forty years in the wilderness as he led the people from Egypt toward the Promised Land. But while we are reading this psalm and considering the context of Moses’ homeless, wandering people, we also consider the context of Israel in Exile hundreds of years later. Here is a prayer that emerged from their disorientation in Babylon as they grieved the loss of Temple, land and home.
In Babylon, God’s people were once again homeless.
So the bold affirmation that opens the Psalm of Moses proclaims Israel’s faith that “home” is not a place. Home is a Person.
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
The Psalmist of the Exile reaches back into their history when the ancestors had no land or Temple; no home. If the God of Moses was the faithful dwelling place for the wandering Israelites, then the Eternal God would remain faithful to these people exiled from their homes.
Then the prayer creates a bald contrast: The Lord/Sovereign/King/Creator may be timeless, but we humans are definitely time-bound creatures.
The days of our life are seventy years or perhaps eighty, if we are strong…
Therefore teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.
Here is the key: Wisdom.
Wisdom to realize that God is God and we are not.
- Wisdom to understand that God sees even our secret sins and so acknowledgment and confession of our faults is the prudent response.
- Wisdom to comprehend that stubborn willfulness only alienates but humble repentance brings forgiveness, grace and hope.
- Wisdom to count our days.
Once again we recall the context of Moses as God’s provisioned people gathered manna in each new morning. Counting on just enough bread for each new day.
As we read this Psalm from our Christian context, we also remember the prayer our Lord taught us to pray: “Give us this day our daily bread.”
Wisdom to live each day as gift and grace.
As the Psalmist acknowledges God’s power to “turn us back to dust,” the prayer also cries out in faith for God’s Own Self to “turn.”
Turn, O LORD! How long? Have compassion on your servants!
Turn back to us – your stubborn willful people. Turn back to us – your toil and trouble people. Turn back to us – because of your steadfast love and covenant faithfulness.
There is an intriguing story in Exodus 32 that relates a “turning” of both God and Moses. While the “stiff-necked” people caroused in sin, Moses conferred with YHWH on the mountain top. The Lord’s wrath burned and threatened annihilation. Moses pleaded, argued and confronted God’s anger, recalling and reminding of God’s promises.
And the Lord changed his mind (turned his mind) about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people. Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God engraved upon the tablets.
The good and perfect Law was the “work of God,” Exodus declares. The “work of God” is glory and power, the Psalmist declares.
May the “work of our hands” also be thus: favored, blessed, just and established by the One who established the cosmos and established the nation of Israel.
May each day of our time-bound existence celebrate and participate in the eternal steadfast love of the Lord.
By the way…
Psalm 90 provides the form for the beloved hymn: O God, Our Help in Ages Past by Isaac Watts. It is one of many psalms he shaped into hymns in his work: The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719). See here all the original nine stanzas and see how closely they follow the Psalm of Moses.