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Psalm 90: Entering the Psalm

Moses’ Prayer for Humanity

The goal of life, according to the poet, is to “obtain a wise heart” (v. 12). Knowing that the human lifespan is limited, the psalmist urges us to think about how we spend our days. How can we actively participate in the prospering of the “work of our hands” (v. 17)? Like Moses in this psalm, we too beseech God to deal favorably with us as we make our life journeys.

Andrew Davis, PHD

Like Psalm 92, 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 sub)” and “relent” (Hebrew hinnahem) (Exodus 32:12).

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] עוֹנֹתֵ֣ינוּ 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׃

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!

1 A prayer of Moses, the man of God.

Lord, you have been our refuge
through all generations.
2 Before the mountains were born,
the earth and the world brought forth,
from eternity to eternity you are God.
3 You turn humanity back into dust,
saying, “Return, you children of Adam!”
4 A thousand years in your eyes
are merely a day gone by,
Before a watch passes in the night,
5 you wash them away;
They sleep,
and in the morning they sprout again like an herb.
6 In the morning it blooms only to pass away;
in the evening it is wilted and withered.

7 Truly we are consumed by your anger,
filled with terror by your wrath.
8 You have kept our faults before you,
our hidden sins in the light of your face.
9 Our life ebbs away under your wrath;
our years end like a sigh.
10 Seventy is the sum of our years,
or eighty, if we are strong;
Most of them are toil and sorrow;
they pass quickly, and we are gone.
11 Who comprehends the strength of your anger?
Your wrath matches the fear it inspires.
12 Teach us to count our days aright,
that we may gain wisdom of heart.

13 Relent, O Lord! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
14 Fill us at daybreak with your mercy,
that all our days we may sing for joy.
15 Make us glad as many days as you humbled us,
for as many years as we have seen trouble.
16 Show your deeds to your servants,
your glory to their children.
17 May the favor of the Lord our God be ours.
Prosper the work of our hands!
Prosper the work of our hands!

1 Señor, tú has sido nuestro refugio
    generación tras generación.
Desde antes que nacieran los montes
    y que crearas la tierra y el mundo,
    desde los tiempos antiguos y hasta los tiempos postreros,
    tú eres Dios.

Tú haces que los hombres vuelvan al polvo,
    cuando dices: «¡Vuélvanse al polvo, mortales!».
Mil años, para ti,
    son como el día de ayer, que ya pasó;
    son como una vigilia de la noche.
Arrasas a los mortales que son como un sueño:
    nacen por la mañana, como la hierba
que al amanecer brota y florece,
    y por la noche ya está marchita y seca.

Tu ira en verdad nos consume;
    tu indignación nos aterra.
Ante ti has puesto nuestras maldades;
    a la luz de tu presencia, nuestros pecados secretos.
Por causa de tu ira se nos va la vida entera;
    se esfuman nuestros años como un suspiro.
10 Algunos llegamos hasta los setenta años,
    quizás alcancemos hasta los ochenta,
    si las fuerzas nos acompañan.
Tantos años de vida, sin embargo,
    solo traen problemas y penas:
    pronto pasan y volamos.
11 ¿Quién puede comprender el poder de tu ira?
    Tu ira es tan grande como el temor que se te debe.
12 Enséñanos a contar bien nuestros días,
    para que nuestro corazón adquiera sabiduría.

13 ¿Cuándo, Señor, te volverás hacia nosotros?
    ¡Compadécete ya de tus siervos!
14 Sácianos de tu gran amor por la mañana,
    y toda nuestra vida cantaremos de alegría.
15 Alégranos conforme a los días que nos has afligido
    y a los años que nos has hecho sufrir.
16 ¡Sean manifiestas tus obras a tus siervos
    y tu esplendor a sus descendientes!

17 Que el favor del Señor nuestro Dios esté sobre nosotros.
    Confirma en nosotros la obra de nuestras manos;
    sí, confirma la obra de nuestras manos.

Andrew R. DavisEntering the Psalm

By Andrew Davis, PhD

Psalm 90 has a unique superscription; it is a “prayer of Moses, the man of God.” 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 sub)” and “relent” (Hebrew hinnahem) (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.

Discussion Questions

  1. Which words or images in Psalm 90 are most striking to you?
  2. Why do you think the editor of this psalm included the superscription “A prayer of Moses, the man of God”?
  3. How do you interpret the psalm’s tension between lament and instruction?
  4. What is your understanding of living wisely or “obtain[ing] a wise heart”?

Featured Commentaries

Psalm 90: Reflections from the 8th Stage of Life by Rev. Ed Vaeni and Rabbi Rim Meirowitz

We live in Brooksby Village, 1350 independent living units, 2,000 people, all eating from the same dining halls. The youngest of us is 62, the oldest perhaps 102. When the psalmist speaks of “the years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty” it hits home.

Read more

Psalm 90: Yearnings for Meaning by Leah Carnow

My partner and I, along with our two best friends in Boston, joined to become a “pod” early on in quarantine. Through the spring, we met once, twice, sometimes three times a week to cook dinner together, drink, and play Catan. Since games usually last one or two hours, and there were afternoons and evenings where we played more than one game in a row, we have now played dozens of games together.

Read more

More Multimedia Resources

"In Every Age" by Janet Sullivan Whitaker and Chris Brunelle (Music)


Composer’s Statement—Janet Sullivan Whitaker

“The refrain for this song came to me the night after I was asked to sing at the memorial service for John Woodcock, my husband’s friend since childhood. By the following afternoon the piece was completely finished, just in time for John’s memorial service where it was sung for the first time.” Read the full lyrics here.

Liturgist’s Statement—Chris Brunelle

“We use this beautiful song extensively at my church in instances that call for hope and healing, for a reminder of God’s never-ending love for us. The congregation has always responded well to this piece, singing it heartily and genuinely praying the words. If I asked our parishioners for a list of the most meaningful songs we use regularly, this would be at the top of the list.”

Discussion Questions

  1. How does this musical setting impact your experience of Psalm 90?
  2. Which verses from the psalm has Janet Sullivan Whitaker included and which has she omitted? How might this relate to the context in which she composed the song (see composer’s statement above)?
  3. How do you respond to the psalmist’s description of God as a “refuge”?

Chris Brunelle has been involved in liturgical music since 4th grade, participating in numerous choirs and ensembles throughout the years. He is currently the music director at Holy Family Church in Portland, Oregon. He leads music for two other churches on a weekly basis and has led music for liturgy at numerous area churches, including the Portland Cathedral. He has a YouTube channel which provides videos of commonly used Catholic songs and psalms, with a subscribership that is 20,000 strong, with viewers from all over the world.

A native of Berkeley, California, Janèt Sullivan Whitaker is a forty-year veteran of parish pastoral music leadership in the diocese of Oakland, California. In addition to her ministry as a composer, recording artist, and storyteller, Janèt is an inspiring presenter of parish missions, workshops, and retreats. Dedicated to the enrichment of all who serve in liturgical ministries, her deepest desire is to form and encourage parish musicians and she does so by drawing upon her wealth of wisdom, spirituality, strength, and humor.

By Andrew Davis, PhD

“That we may obtain a wise heart” (v. 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 lebab is better rendered “mind.” Secondly, “obtain” for Hebrew bo’ (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 bo’, 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.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the relationship between heart and mind in the Hebrew Bible according to Davis?
  2. How does the biblical personification of wisdom as a woman impact your understanding of this psalm?
  3. Based on the practical nature of this term, what is one specific situation in which you are seeking wisdom?
  4. With this definition of wisdom in mind, think of a wise person in your own life?

i settle myself, sense your mountainous presence
the earth & the stars a comforting backdrop

Your gaze a mirror reflecting
our triumphs, our failures, i dream

of blossoming without death, waken
to feelings of dread and despair

i turn away

life suddenly seems so frail, so brief, seventy
maybe eighty years, not nearly enough

to craft Your vision for us, not nearly enough
to enable our children, or theirs’, not nearly enough

to create, rejoice, to foster change. i scan the horizon
search for wisdom, teach us the value of our days

teach us to value our days, let Your hands bless
our own, let our works birth healing, bring peace

Discussion Questions

  • The poet describes God’s gaze a “mirror.” How do you understand or experience this mirroring?
  • How does Rose use the refrain of “not nearly enough” in this poetic adaptation of Psalm 90?
  • What does it mean to “value our days” (since the psalm itself instructs us to “number our days” [v.12] )?

Carol Rose is a writer, educator and spiritual counselor. Her published works include Path of The Mothers (poetry and prose, Albion-Andalus Books), From the Dream (poetry, Albion-Andalus Books), and Behind the Blue Gate (poetry, Beach Holme Publishing). In 2017, she and her husband, Rabbi Neal Rose, received the Lieutenant Governor’s Award of the province of Manitoba for the advancement of interreligious understanding.