Today I am returning to the Psalms, of which I have translated 89 so far on this site. I begin now with Psalm 90.
A prayer of Moses, the man of God
You have been our refuge, Lord, in all generations:
Before you were mother to the mountains
Or gave birth to the life-bearing earth
From all time gone to all time coming, you are God.
You turn people back into dust;
Children of Adam, you say, it’s time to return.
For a thousand years to your eyes are like yesterday
When it is gone, like a wakeful hour in the night.
You sweep them off into the sleep of death.
In the morning they grow up like grass
That gleams and grows in the morning
And in the evening it is cut down and dried.
For we have been exhausted by your anger;
We have been terrorised by your rage.
You have set our sins before you
Our hidden faults in the light of your face.
All our days have been darkened by your fury
And our years pass sadly, like a sigh.
The length of our life is seventy years
eighty years if you are strong,
Yet their glory is toil and trouble;
We finish soon and take flight.
Who knows the power of your displeasure?
Among those who fear you, the force of your fury?
So teach us to weigh out our days,
That our hearts may learn to be wise.
Turn back to us Lord! How long will it be?
Show compassion to your servants;
Fill us with your faithful love in the morning
That we may dance for joy and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you bowed us down
For the years in which we saw sadness.
May your work be seen upon your servants
And your beauty upon their boys and girls.
May the delight of our Lord God be upon us
Holding firm the work of our hands,
Holding firm the work of our hands.
This is a grand and integrated psalm, praising the eternal God while stating clearly what it’s like to be his people. The psalmist does not argue with the justice of the Holy One; doubtless the people are sinful. But do they deserve the fury of an offended God, who after all is not subject to death, as mortals are. The details of God’s rage are not specified, but the reader can remember the disasters of Israel’s history. Human beings are no match for God, but can only bear his displeasure. Wisdom for this author is not expecting too much from life.
The prophets had called the people to turn to God; here the psalmist calls God to turn to the people. Wonderfully she ignores the political benefits of God’s favour, giving pride of place, to the joy, dignity and beauty that God bestows on the people. The final prayer is movingly modest, that the people’s labour should not be subject to destruction, “holding firm the work of our hands.”