Psalm 90 - Turn, O Lord!

1) Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
2) Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
3) You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”
4) For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.
5) You sweep them away; 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.
7) For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
8) You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance.
9) For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh.
10) The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.
11) Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.
12) So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.
13) Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants!
14) Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
15) Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil.
16) Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.
17) Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands— O prosper the work of our hands!
Psalm 90 (NRSV)
Proper 23, Year B, verses 12-17, Sunday between October 9 and October 15
Proper 25, Year A, verses 1-6, 13-17, Sunday between October 23 and October 29
Proper 28, Year A, verses 1-8, (9-11), 12, Sunday between November 13 and November 19

This psalm blends faith with fear, in a hopeful appeal for God's favor.

In the first two thirds of the psalm, there is a frank appreciation for God's power set against humanity's weaker position as mortal creatures.

We are like grass: fresh in the morning, yet fading and withering in the evening. Even should we be granted long life, it is filled with toil and trouble. (Not false even in good times, absolutely true for most of humanity in most of human history.) We are on a completely different scale than the Lord: "a thousand years in your sight" is but a fleeting moment.

And in this mortality we are subject to sin. Is that lifetime of "toil and trouble" something which is inherent in God's order, or more the result of our wrongdoing and wrongheadedness?

Either way, we fear that we are subject to God's wrath, which dwarfs us in scale: "Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you." We are far beyond the realm of mortal power. God's answer is seen as massive, even infinite: earthquakes, floods, cosmic violence.

Let us be clear: the Psalms are not systematic theology, philosophical explorations, or speculations about God and the world. They are not abstract. They are prayers and worship texts by and for people going through "stuff." When the psalm talks about mortality, it is our mortality. When the psalm references God's anger, it is personal and probably immediate: "by your wrath we are overwhelmed." If the Lord knows all our secret sins, how can we stand.

Yet the same one who fears God's wrath, also believes in the reality of God's powerful love.

Turn, O Lord! Turn back from anger, or retribution, or any plan for our destruction. One hears the plea: "I can turn, O Lord, and I want to, but help me!

Is the psalmist trying to bargain: "If you turn, Lord, I will too!"? Or simply buy some time to make amends? Is he asking the Lord to help him make the turn, too? "Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart." Or is she reminding God's of God's loving, faithful, just and merciful nature? "Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, [...and] make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us."

Even in the midst of affliction, the turn is towards the Lord, and the knowledge (or hope?) that the Lord can turn things around.


Robert Lawton, Prairie grass, Rock Springs Nature Center, O'Fallon, Illinois, 2006. (CC BY-SA 2.5).
Unattributed, Arrow Turn U (edited). (CCo 1.0).


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