21 June 2012

Psalm 90

"So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart" (v. 12)


Psalm 90 marks the beginning of the fourth book or collection within the psalter. Although introduced as a prayer of Moses, it reflects the language and concerns of a later wisdom tradition. By introducing the psalm in this way, the wisdom teachers made a connection with the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, which are traditionally ascribed to Moses. The wisdom tradition encouraged reflection on the Torah, and this is what Psalm 90 does also.

Like other wisdom texts, such as Job and Qoheleth (or Ecclesiastes), the psalm contrasts the lasting power and presence of God with humanity's fleeting, fragile existence. Even before creation, God is; while humans are yet dust. This reference to dust (verse 3) links the psalm to one of the creation stories in which God forms humans out of dust and breath (Genesis 2:7). It also recalls the description of mortality found in Genesis 3:19: "you are dust, and to dust you shall return".

But there is another return that the psalm awaits: the return of God to God's people. Thus the psalm is also a lament, an indignant demand that God end suffering. Acknowledgement of God's anger over injustice does not diminish faith in God's steadfast love, and it is this faith which allows the psalmist to challenge God to remain involved in human struggles.

In the structure of the psalm, a number of key words are used both to describe the futility of human life and to explore what a fulfilled life might be like. Thus morning is used initially to describe the rapid cycle of death and decay (verse 5), yet the same word later carries with it the promise of a fresh start, warmed by the morning light and steadfast love of God (verse 14). This changed perspective rests on the call for "a wise heart", at the centre of the psalm. The psalmist comes to see that the goal of wisdom is not to become like God, but to be consciously human, with all the limitations and possibilities that brings. Wisdom is a returning to God, and a willingness to live fully and generously all the days of life. The (wise) heart, to quote Augustine, is restless till it finds its rest in God, who is home (verse 1).

To Ponder

Are you a morning or evening person? How does God greet you throughout the day?

What do you think are the outward signs of a heart full of wisdom?

What makes you feel 'at home', in a place, with another person, and with God?

Bible notes author

Rachel Starr

Rachel Starr is the Methodist tutor at The Queen's Foundation for ecumenical theological education in Birmingham, where she teaches studies in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. Before that she spent three years in Buenos Aires completing doctoral studies at the Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos (Instituto Universitario ISEDET).