Possibly better known than the psalm is Isaac Watts’ hymn based upon it: ‘O God, our help in ages past.’ But the original is well worth looking into.
Walter Brueggemann and W.H. Bellinger, Jr point out the significance of the placing of this psalm within the overall arrangement of the psalter: Psalm 89 ends with an unresolved plea regarding the apparent failure of the Lord’s covenant with David: ‘Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?…’ (Psalms, Cambridge, 2014). Psalm 90 then works towards an answer.
The first two verses acknowledge God to be our ‘dwelling-place’. God is prior to creation, and eternal. The main section (verses 3-12) is a lament on the trouble and transience of human life, lived under the judgment of God. Finally the psalmist expresses faith in God, with the hope that, through God’s love, joy and effective living may still be found in the world as it is (verses 13-17).
The ecological interest of Psalm 90 is considerable. The cycle of life and death, in which humans participate, lies within the overall rule of God. This conviction applies both to humans and to the grass of the field (3-6). Our life, unlike God’s life, is transient and short-lived. We are destined one day to return to the dust from which we came. This natural process is not self-governing, but is within the cosmic governance of God.
Death and sin are connected throughout the Bible (e.g. Genesis 3; Romans 6:23). In the story of the Garden of Eden, the humans do not die physically as soon as they disobey God’s directions. Something more subtle takes place – the disruption of all relationships, which unfolds throughout the succeeding chapters of Genesis. Psalm 90 bears witness that physical death and spiritual death are closely related.
The tension within the reality of death – it is part of God’s plan in creation, and also is inescapably linked with judgment – runs through the Bible and through Christian experience. This tension will be resolved at the Resurrection, and in the new heaven and earth, where:
“…death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4, NRSV).
Verse 12 forms a transition to the more hopeful final section: ‘So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart’ (NRSV). For me this request focuses the challenge of the whole psalm. By valuing and rightly using each day, we can learn to live wisely on the Earth.
The final prayer (verses 13-17) is a plea for the experience of God’s covenanted love, with glad days to counterbalance the evil ones, a revelation of God’s love and power, and the ability to achieve effective work.
James L. Mays helpfully points out that ‘[t]he church reads the supplications in verses 13-17 in the light of God’s revelation in Jesus. He is the work of God that has decisively once for all changed the sign under which we live and die from wrath to grace.’ Nevertheless, ‘Adam lives on in those who are in Christ, the “old human, in the new.”’(Psalms, John Knox Press, 1994, Page 295). So the tension remains.
I have inhabited this psalm recently in the circumstances of my own declining health (I have passed not only the 70-year but also the 80-year mark referred to in verse 10, and do not feel ‘strong’!); and more especially my wife’s present grievous illness and unexpected terminal prognosis. But I suggest that the bringing together of ecology, mortality, judgment and hope gives this psalm a wide relevance.
Keith Innes was in parish ministry from 1958 until his retirement in 1997. Since then he has studied and written on biblical eco-theology. A paper based on his M.Phil. dissertation, “The Old Testament Wilderness in Ecological Perspective” is available here. Other essays can be found here. His note “British and American attitudes to nature” is available on the JRI Briefings page of this website.