Ps. 90: Entering the Text
Like Psalm 92—last week’s psalm—Psalm 90 has a unique superscription; it is a “prayer of Moses, the man of God.” As with Psalm 92, we may ask how the content of Psalm 90 relates to the superscription, and in this case, we find a strong connection between verse 13 and a famous moment in Moses’s career. When Moses interceded on behalf of the Israelites after the Golden Calf debacle, he implored YHWH to “turn (from anger)” (Hebrew šûb)” and “relent” (Hebrew hinnāḥēm) (Exodus 32:12). The same verbs occur in Psalm 90:13 and highlight the speaker’s desire for a similar intercession in another instance of divine wrath.
This link between verse 13 and Exodus 32:12 underscores the psalm’s theme of lament. Here we encounter a community in crisis. For a long time they have felt consumed by divine anger (verses 7-11, 15), and they beg YHWH to exchange that wrath for steadfast love and favor (verses 14, 17).
Moreover, this lament and petition serve to frame the poet’s ruminations on the brevity of human life. In contrast to the eternity of God, humans are dust (compare Genesis 2:17; 6:3), and their time is fleeting. Probably, the most famous line in the psalm is verse 12 when the speaker asks YHWH to “teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart.” This line and the overall theme of human transience have led many interpreters to read Psalm 90 as a kind of meditation. Without denying the psalm’s invitation to such reflection, we must hold its contemplative language in tension with its raw account of suffering at the hands of God. Psalm 90 is not a leisurely meditation on mortality but a desperate cry for help from community whose brief existence has contained more than a fair share of hardship.
- “the man of God” (verse 1) is an unusual designation for Moses. This title is most often associated with the miracle-working prophets Elijah and Elisha and is only a few times applied to Moses (Deuteronomy 33:1; Joshua 14:6: Ezra 3:2; 1 Chronicles 23:14; 2 Chronicles 30:16). These verses also associate Moses with blessing or teaching rather than the prophetic intercession suggested by verse 13. It is not clear what the title meant to the editor who added the superscription to Psalm 90.
- “seventy years…eighty years” (verse 10), like many numbers in the Hebrew Bible, are not literal counts, especially when they occur in step parallelism, like 70 and 80 here. See also 3//4 in Amos 1-2; 6//7 in Job 5:17 and Proverbs 6:16-19; and 1,000//10,000 in 1 Samuel 18:7; 21:11; 29:5. In this psalm 70-80 years represent an especially long life compared to the life expectancy of 40-50 years. This long life makes it all the more poignant that these many years have been full of hardship.
- “that we may obtain a wise heart” (verse 12) is more literally translated “let us bring wisdom (to our) minds.” For one thing, the heart in ancient Israel was the seat of the will and intellect rather than emotion, so Hebrew lĕbab is better rendered “mind.” Secondly, “obtain” for Hebrew bô’ (in the Hiphil form) misses a key element of biblical wisdom. Often personified as a woman, Wisdom is not something to be obtained (see especially Job 28) but a way of life. Hebrew bô’, whose basic meaning is “to go/come,” is consistent with this view of wisdom. Moreover, wisdom in the Bible is highly pragmatic. It is not metaphysical contemplation but practical knowledge of how to act rightly in a given situation. Thus, in hoping for a “wise mind” in verse 12, the speaker is not asking for a key to the meaning of life but for help making good decisions in the day-to-day challenges of life.
- “Lord…refuge” (Hebrew ’dny m‘n) in verse 1 and “favor of the Lord” (Hebrew n‘m ’dny) in verse 17 form an elegant kind of palindrome that bookends the psalm.
Questions for Reflection:
- Which words or images in Psalm 92 are most striking to you?
- How do you interpret the psalm’s tension between lament and meditation?
- How has the pandemic impacted your understanding of “counting” our days?
- How do you understand the call to live wisely in the psalm? What might this look like concretely in this time?
Psalm 90 Text and Translation
תְּפִלָּה֮ לְמֹשֶׁ֪ה אִֽישׁ־הָאֱלֹ֫הִ֥ים אֲֽדֹנָ֗י מָע֣וֹן אַ֭תָּה הָיִ֥יתָ לָּ֗נוּ בְּדֹ֣ר וָדֹֽר׃
בְּטֶ֤רֶם ׀ הָ֘רִ֤ים יֻלָּ֗דוּ וַתְּח֣וֹלֵֽל אֶ֣רֶץ וְתֵבֵ֑ל וּֽמֵעוֹלָ֥ם עַד־ע֝וֹלָ֗ם אַתָּ֥ה אֵֽל׃
תָּשֵׁ֣ב אֱ֭נוֹשׁ עַד־דַּכָּ֑א וַ֝תֹּ֗אמֶר שׁ֣וּבוּ בְנֵי־אָדָֽם׃
כִּ֤י אֶ֪לֶף שָׁנִ֡ים בְּֽעֵינֶ֗יךָ כְּי֣וֹם אֶ֭תְמוֹל כִּ֣י יַעֲבֹ֑ר וְאַשְׁמוּרָ֥ה בַלָּֽיְלָה׃
זְ֭רַמְתָּם שֵׁנָ֣ה יִהְי֑וּ בַּ֝בֹּ֗קֶר כֶּחָצִ֥יר יַחֲלֹֽף׃
בַּ֭בֹּקֶר יָצִ֣יץ וְחָלָ֑ף לָ֝עֶ֗רֶב יְמוֹלֵ֥ל וְיָבֵֽשׁ׃
כִּֽי־כָלִ֥ינוּ בְאַפֶּ֑ךָ וּֽבַחֲמָתְךָ֥ נִבְהָֽלְנוּ׃
שת [שַׁתָּ֣ה] עֲוֺנֹתֵ֣ינוּ לְנֶגְדֶּ֑ךָ עֲ֝לֻמֵ֗נוּ לִמְא֥וֹר פָּנֶֽיךָ׃
כִּ֣י כָל־יָ֭מֵינוּ פָּנ֣וּ בְעֶבְרָתֶ֑ךָ כִּלִּ֖ינוּ שָׁנֵ֣ינוּ כְמוֹ־הֶֽגֶה׃
יְמֵֽי־שְׁנוֹתֵ֨ינוּ בָהֶ֥ם שִׁבְעִ֪ים שָׁנָ֡ה וְאִ֤ם בִּגְבוּרֹ֨ת ׀ שְׁמ֘וֹנִ֤ים שָׁנָ֗ה וְ֭רָהְבָּם עָמָ֣ל וָאָ֑וֶן כִּי־גָ֥ז חִ֝֗ישׁ וַנָּעֻֽפָה׃
מִֽי־י֭וֹדֵעַ עֹ֣ז אַפֶּ֑ךָ וּ֝כְיִרְאָתְךָ֗ עֶבְרָתֶֽךָ׃
לִמְנ֣וֹת יָ֭מֵינוּ כֵּ֣ן הוֹדַ֑ע וְ֝נָבִ֗א לְבַ֣ב חָכְמָֽה׃
שׁוּבָ֣ה יְ֭הוָה עַד־מָתָ֑י וְ֝הִנָּחֵ֗ם עַל־עֲבָדֶֽיךָ׃
שַׂבְּעֵ֣נוּ בַבֹּ֣קֶר חַסְדֶּ֑ךָ וּֽנְרַנְּנָ֥ה וְ֝נִשְׂמְחָ֗ה בְּכָל־יָמֵֽינוּ׃
שַׂ֭מְּחֵנוּ כִּימ֣וֹת עִנִּיתָ֑נוּ שְׁ֝נ֗וֹת רָאִ֥ינוּ רָעָֽה׃
יֵרָאֶ֣ה אֶל־עֲבָדֶ֣יךָ פָעֳלֶ֑ךָ וַ֝הֲדָרְךָ֗ עַל־בְּנֵיהֶֽם׃
וִיהִ֤י ׀ נֹ֤עַם אֲדֹנָ֥י אֱלֹהֵ֗ינוּ עָ֫לֵ֥ינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂ֣ה יָ֭דֵינוּ כּוֹנְנָ֥ה עָלֵ֑ינוּ וּֽמַעֲשֵׂ֥ה יָ֝דֵ֗ינוּ כּוֹנְנֵֽהוּ׃
New Jewish Publication Society Translation (NJPS)
1 A prayer of Moses, the man of God. O Lord, You have been our refuge in every generation.
2 Before the mountains came into being, before You brought forth the earth and the world, from eternity to eternity You are God.
3 You return man to dust; You decreed, “Return you mortals!”
4 For in Your sight a thousand years are like yesterday that has passed, like a watch of the night.
5 You engulf men in sleep; at daybreak they are like grass that renews itself;
6 at daybreak it flourishes anew; by dusk it withers and dries up.
7 So we are consumed by Your anger, terror-struck by Your fury.
8 You have set our iniquities before You, our hidden sins in the light of Your face.
9 All our days pass away in Your wrath; we spend our years like a sigh.
10 The span of our life is seventy years, or, given the strength, eighty years; but the best of them are trouble and sorrow. They pass by speedily, and we are in darkness.
11 Who can know Your furious anger? Your wrath matches the fear of You.
12 Teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart.
13 Turn, O LORD! How long? Show mercy to Your servants.
14 Satisfy us at daybreak with Your steadfast love that we may sing for joy all our days.
15 Give us joy for as long as You have afflicted us, for the years we have suffered misfortune.
16 Let Your deeds be seen by Your servants, Your glory by their children.
17 May the favor of the Lord, our God, be upon us; let the work of our hands prosper, O prosper the work of our hands!
New International Reader’s Version (NIRV)
A prayer of Moses, the man of God.
1 Lord, from the very beginning
you have been like a home to us.
2 Before you created the whole world and the mountains were made,
from the beginning to the end you are God.
3 You turn human beings back to dust.
You say to them, “Return to dust.”
4 To you a thousand years
are like a day that has just gone by.
They are like a few hours of the night.
5 Yet you sweep people away, and they die.
They are like new grass that grows in the morning.
6 In the morning it springs up new,
but by evening it’s all dried up.
7 Your anger destroys us.
Your burning anger terrifies us.
8 You have put our sins right in front of you.
You have placed our secret sins where you can see them clearly.
9 You have been angry with us all of our days.
We groan as we come to the end of our lives.
10 We live to be about 70.
Or we may live to be 80, if we stay healthy.
But even our best days are filled with trouble and sorrow.
The years quickly pass, and we are gone.
11 If only we knew the power of your anger!
It’s as great as the respect we should have for you.
12 Teach us to realize how short our lives are.
Then our hearts will become wise.
13 Lord, please stop punishing us!
How long will you keep it up?
Be kind to us.
14 Satisfy us with your faithful love every morning.
Then we can sing for joy and be glad all our days.
15 Make us glad for as many days as you have made us suffer.
Give us joy for as many years as we’ve had trouble.
16 Show us your mighty acts.
Let our children see your glorious power.
17 May the Lord our God always be pleased with us.
Lord, make what we do succeed.
Please make what we do succeed.
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.