PSALM 90
 
Lauren Davis and Sarah Richards
 

 

Text

Explication

Responses

TEXT [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 past,
like a watch in 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 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.
 
EXPLICATION
 
 
Context: A dying individual, looking back over his or her life and hoping that the short time spent in this world has been meaningful.
 
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.
This introductory section of the psalm is a direct address to God; it continues throughout the psalm until the last verse. Immediately, a theme of time and eternity introduced. God is shown as powerful, eternal, and singular. God has been the shield, protection, and sustenance of the Jewish community through years of hardships. The creation is invoked with "You brought forth the earth and the world." This creation theme will continue, along with the theme of both eternal time and insignificant passing time.
 
3 You return man to dust;
You decreed, "Return you mortals!"
4 For in Your sight a thousand years
are like yesterday that has past,
like a watch in the night.
In this section God's omnipotence and eternity are contrasted with human mortality. Not only is God eternal and powerful, but God has direct power over human life and death. God is the one who "returns man to dust" rather than it being a natural process. God's hand is active, and God makes the decree. It is here that the dramatic setting of death is introduced. Out of all God's actions, the psalmist has chosen to point out that God is active in human death, and this is therefore a focus of the psalm. In verse 4, God is the bearer of all time and has witnessed every moment of man's life. God has seen all of our ancestors briefly pass through this world, and in the next moment God watches the next generation, forever guiding time and life.
 
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.
God makes men rest and die. Verses 5b through 6a point out the cyclic quality of human life. We are compared beautifully to grass in nature. This reminds the reader of the creation mentioned in the second verse, and also works well as a metaphor. Humans are indeed plentiful and small compared to God, like blades of grass, and together the blades renew and re-seed while individually the blades are tiny and fleeting. Human generations are like plants growing, sprouting, seeding, and dying. The second half of verse 6 presents a dramatic change. Suddenly the image focuses on death again, and this signals a turn in the imagery for several verses.
 
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 speedily, and we are in darkness.
11 Who can know Your furious anger?
Your wrath matches the fear of You.
The mood here is of anger and fear rather than renewal and life. Still God is portrayed as eternal while humans are temporary, but now the fleeting human existence is characterized by wrath and sorrow as punishment for iniquities. Human life is reduced to the depths of existence: it is short, inconsequential, and painful. We are here but for an instant, a short blink in the eternity of time, but the days pass by slowly in pain, struggle, toil, and suffering. During that time, we live with the knowledge of God's divine awareness of our sins. In this entrapment of awareness we carry on in shame and inner disgust, knowing that God sees all of our transgressions but is still not able to control our behavior and thoughts. We live all the while in sheer terror of God's judgment.
 
12 Teach us to count our days rightly,
that we may obtain a wise heart.
Finally the psalm turns to a petition for help. Humans do not wish to remain in the depths of sin and terror, but wish for guidance from the Lord to live life well. Instead of an ethical statement, the psalmist still refers to time with "count our days rightly." The reader must infer that ethical behavior is what is meant here rather than mere mathematical counting of the length of life. We need God's help; we obviously have failed on our own for too long.
 
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.
This challenge/petition demands attention and favor from God, who must turn toward God's people rather than away, and sooner rather than later. The metaphors return to the beginning of the psalm with "daybreak," reminding the reader of all the implications of the eternal relationship between God and mortal. In addition, new ideas are introduced with "steadfast love," "sing for joy," "mercy," and "glory." The balance and beauty of the covenental relationship is restored, for both affliction and mercy are mentioned here, where above they were separated out. Here the psalmist asks that God brings the night to an end with a renewed morning, letting us awake to God's light and sustaining guidance. If God will shine in our presence, our lives will be filled with bliss and we will hallow God's name and serve God in truth. This life we must endure will be a righteous and blessed one.
 
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!
This last verse is surprising for two reasons. First, it is the only verse which is not a direct address to God. Second, it refers to the work of human hands rather than God's. Why has this verse suddenly become so grounded in the human rather than the divine? To whom is the psalmist talking, and for what is he really asking? The answer lies in the partnership between human and God. Theologically, we know that all our actions are reflections on God. Divine work is done in this world through human hands and, when God acts, it is often through us. Human actions do not take place in a vacuum, but rather they are often reflections of divine will. This is why it is said that the balance between good and evil lies in every individual's action rather than some abstract cosmic place. Human actions have real consequences in the both the human and divine realm. Asking for the work of "our" hands to prosper is really asking for God's work to be realized rightly through us. At a time of life and death, which this psalm is most definitely pertaining to, it is important to ask if one has done the work of God in life.
 
 RESPONSE
 
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Sarah Richards
 
Let the work of our hands prosper
O prosper the work of our hands
Let my children know my love for them
O prosper the touch of my hand, the sound of my voice
Let my labor feed another
O prosper my toil and sweat
Let this patient wake to see tomorrow
O prosper the work of my hands
Let this child be well
O prosper the strength in her heart
O prosper the medicine she drinks
Let this war come to an end
O prosper talks of peace
Let our hands do the work
Let us find Your way
O prosper
 RESPONSE 
Anonymous

Kim's plea, for the entire Ward, the morning after chasing 397 Tylenol with a handle of Vodka.

1 Oh Lord, You have been our refuge in every generation.

G-d? Are You still there? You have kept all of us alive, despite each of our desperate attempts. Each time we have tried to exit, it is Your power that returns us to these stark rooms with shackles around our wrists and ankles. It is You who wants us alive, despite so many careless tries.

2 Before the mountains came into being, before You brought forth the earth and the world, from eternity to eternity You are G-d.

You have been with us since before the years of solitude, the nights of isolation, the days of desperation. Forever, ever since we used to smile and enjoy the world, You have been the once watching our path, planning our journeys into Hell on earth, setting the demons into attack us.

3 You return man to dust; You decreed "Return you mortals!" For in Your sight a thousand years are like yesterday that has past, like a watch of the night.

Hey You, G-d: don't You want us to die? Is it not You who made our lives so that they should end. Why do You care if we want to go anyway? To You, time is but a long train ride, continually perpetuating, letting one passenger on as another steps off? Just let us off! More will come. Let our ride be over. For to You, life will always march on, but to us it barely edges by. We live on and on and on, and on, and on, wanting only for the trip to end. The pain to stop. The demons to be silenced. Let us off this treacherous ride. For we can only get off at Your command.

4 You engulf me in sleep; at daybreak they are like grass that renews itself; at daybreak it flourishes anew, by dusk it withers and dries up.

You give us only temporary satisfaction. Sleep that is. Although only momentary relief, You allow us to break from the torture for some of our day. Yet we can no longer enjoy this recess from reality. We are haunted in the night as well. The darkness only brings on more agony, as the hours creep by, ever so slowly, allowing each haunting moment to linger in our diseased minds. The nights have become so excruciating, we can only pray that the new day will bring about a new lost joy. But our hopes are to no avail.

5 So we are consumed by Your anger, terror-struck by Your fury.

So for all of these despicable thoughts, You alas begin to hate us. Is this why You abandon us? Is this why You do not answer our screams? Because You are disgusted with our loathsome minds. For, surely, we are aware that Your most scathing wrath is upon us.

6 You have set our iniquities before You, our hidden sins in the light of Your face.

Not only do You see the destruction of our actions, the consequences of our behavior, the pain we inflict upon our families, but the depraved thoughts of our inner voices as well. The voices that shriek at us that we are worthless, that we are nothing; that we will never smile again; that the light has exhausted; never to shine upon our lowliness again. You hear also the screams inside, luring us to escape life. For these secret voices are no mystery to You, our darkest sins are seen by You.

7 All our days pass away in Your wrath; we spend our years like a sigh.

Each day, the anguish only augments, and so too does Your despising of us. You are disgusted that we curse the life You blessed us with. In an awareness of shame, we are keenly conscious of the sin of wanting, praying only to die. For this terrible cognizance, we are only drawn deeper into the depths of depression. Our whole days are consumed by the guilt of our diseased minds.

8 The span of our life is seventy years, or given the strength, eighty years; but the best of them pass by speedily, and we are in darkness.

Our lives have been blessed with healthy bodies, and intellect, and affluence, but our souls search for happiness with no relief. No; our prayer is not for more time on this world. Instead we seek refuge from our despair. We have been given much, but find little solace for the aching pit of hopelessness plunging in our stomachs.

9 Who can know Your furious anger? Your wrath matches the fear of You.

How is one to sustain this pain? Do You expect one to endure true, neverending depression? We are trapped in a vicious cycle: because of our sins You turn away from us, but the ceaseless pain only drives us further to the edge.

10 Teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart.

Show us the correct path to health and happiness, so we may love life again. Show us how to like the reflection on the other side of the glass. Show us how we are to evade this darkness. For it is only with Your help, that we will ever escape depression and live as You have intended for us.

11 Turn, O Lord! How long? Show mercy to Your servants.

G-d, ignore me no longer. Let me escape. Let me break the shackles of loneliness. Let me unfetter the chains of shame. Whether I must reach out to You, or myself, or the doctors I know not. But I do know, You mustn't leave me alone any longer. We are Your subjects. We lay ourselves down, sublime, prostrate before the Source of Life and Death. Answer our cries. We curse life, when You gave it to us. We curse it, when You desire to bless it. This brings us shame. Do You think we like wanting to die? Do You think this is the way we want to live and thrive?

12 Satisfy us at daybreak with Your steadfast love that we may sing for joy all our days.

Please, end this long nightmare and let us awake to a new light of peace and understanding. Fill us with Your mercy, embrace us with Your care so we will want to live another day.

13 Give us joy for as long as You have afflicted us, for the years we have suffered misfortune. Let Your deeds be seen by Your servants, Your glory by Your children.

Let the fire of rage be extinguished by the Your shining presence. With Your hand, let our lives become livable. For we have been consumed by this disease for too long. Let us know Your ways and understand the beauty in life. Let us see that the world really is a beautiful place. That we really are worthy. That we really can endure. That Someone really loves us. That life really is worth living.

14 May the favor of the Lord, our G-d, be upon us; let the work of our hands prosper, O prosper the work of our hands!
 
Please G-d, I don't want to die. I don't want to die. I don't want to die. I just want the pain to end. May G-d grant us the strength to endure, the will to survive, the power to fight this disease, and the desire to live happily. For now, my life is in my hands. I know it is up to me. I must fight. I must believe. I must live. I will survive.
 
_____________________
 
[1] From the Jewish Publication Society translation.
 

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