Thursday, July 06, 2017

Our refuge

A Prayer of Moses, the man of God.

Ps 90 is one of the great psalms of the Psalter. According to the superscript, it was penned by Moses. That attribution is reinforced by conceptual and verbal links between Ps 90, Gen 3, Exod 32, and Deut 32-33. 

This makes Ps 90 the most ancient psalm in the Psalter. The foundational psalm. 

In addition, the wilderness wandering is an especially apt setting for the psalm. The Israelites were rootless and homeless in the bleak, inhospitable expanses of the Sinai desert, condemned to drift until the faithless Exodus-generation died out. 

1 Lord, you have been our dwelling place
    in all generations.

As vagabonds, God is their only "refuge", "shelter", safe haven. In context, the word may also allude to the tabernacle or tent of meeting. 

Moreover, their survival depends on God's miraculous provision of food, drink, and protection from enemies. 

3 You return man to dust
    and say, “Return, O children of man!”
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.

Not only is their existence threatened by harsh environment, but by mortality. Both time and space menace their lives. They live under Adam's curse, at unrelenting risk of turning back into the dust from whence they came.

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?

In addition to natural hazards, divine judgment makes their already tenuous grip on life even more precarious. 

2 Before the mountains were brought forth,
    or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
    from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
4 For a thousand years in your sight
    are but as yesterday when it is past,
    or as a watch in the night.

The brevity of life stands in contrast to divine eternality. Divine continuity is the unbreakable thread connecting the discontinuities of human life and death, as one generation passes away while another generation takes its place.  

Although Christian theology has conditioned us to take divine eternality for granted, that was not a given in ancient Near Eastern mythology–where gods came into being, and could be slain. By contrast, Yahweh is the preexistent Creator and invincible ruler. 

Even though this psalm doesn't introduce the afterlife, God's eternality lays the basis for the afterlife. Only an eternal God can confer eternal life. 

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 favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
    and establish the work of our hands upon us;
    yes, establish the work of our hands!

Despite the generally oppressive tenor of the psalm, it ends on a note of chastened hope.

It's a realistic psalm, underscoring the ineluctable limitations of what this life has to offer.

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