Psalm for a new year

Psalm 90 makes a fine reading for a new year. Through the psalm, time (and especially the haunting disparity between short brutish human time and the timeless divine reality) is a strong theme. The psalm is peppered with time words:

  • dor generation in v.1 (x2)
  • b’terem before in v.2
  • shanah year in vv.4, 5, 9, 10 (x3), 15
  • yom day in vv.4, 9, 10, 12, 14, 15
  • ashmorah night watch in v.4
  • boqer morning in v.5, 6, 14
  • ereb evening in v.6
  • chish quickly in v.10

The psalm opens in the distant past with a heading associating it with Moses the great leader from Israel’s pre-monarchic origins.1

The rest of the first verse forefronts the two key ideas of the psalm, time and our relationship with God. The wording of the opening stresses the persons involved. Very literally it would read: “Lord, a dwelling, you, you have been for us from generation to generation.

This attention to time carries on through the psalm, and is straightaway extended in the next verse from a human timescale from “generation to generation” to extend from before the birth of the world into the “age”2  to come:

Before the mountains were born
or ever you had given birth to the earth and the world,
from age to age you are God.

From verse 3 to 11 the focus on time stresses time and again that the human and the divine timescales are incommensurable, and that humans suffer the divine wrath. This is not a psalm for the faint hearted, or for people living the comfortable smooth lives our TVs and magazines tell us should be ours. This psalm is not compatible with the Western dream.

But it “works” in a world full of natural disaster: earthquakes (still going on in Christchurch after over a year), floods (and even the minor ones in the Bay of Plenty yesterday cause pain and disruption), and all of man’s inhumanity to man (although 2011 was a year with more glimpses of hope for Burma that anyone expected as 2012 begins the Army is still attacking ethnic villages and destroying their crops, the political prisoners kept in inhuman conditions in the jails can still be counted as over a thousand).

Ps 90:10 is often quoted in something approximating to the fairly literal KJV: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years” this with its mention of strength suggests (or in the last few generations reminds us) that we might even live longer. However, in the psalm the effect is quite different, to quote the whole verse:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten;
and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years,
yet is their strength labour and sorrow;
for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

The whole point of the verse is that even if our life is long it is marked (sooner or later) by toil and trouble, and in any case (by any measure but our own pitifully brief one) are so short. Anyone who has reached “a certain age”3 will recognise how the years begin to fly away faster and faster.

So far, if I have presented it as I think it should be read, Psalm 90 is as far from contemporary cheery upbeat “worship songs” as it is possible to be ;)

Yet, it was my grandmother’s favourite psalm. Perhaps because the hymn based on it “Our God, our help in ages past…” used to be sung every “Remembrance Sunday”, and she had cause to remember. Her groom, my father’s father, was killed in the first world war leaving his new wife and toddler. Psalm 90 is a good new year reading in such circumstances. For as well as human mortality it reminds us of the divine author and finisher of our lives. “…our hope for years to come!

There are two more reasons why this psalm is a favourite of mine. It is one of the few passages in Scripture to deal seriously and in any depth with human aging. And it contains one of the Bible’s few descriptions of creation as birthing:

Before the mountains were born
or ever you had given birth to the earth and the world,
from age to age you are God. (Ps 90:2)

As a result it gets a brief appearance in my new book Not Only a Father,4 and will deserve much fuller treatment in the one on human aging, if I ever write it ;)

  1. Although there is considerable evidence that the headings may have been added to psalms after they were first written and used, there is no textual evidence for them being absent from the psalms that have them in most modern translations. Rather the reverse the early Greek  translation and the Qumran psalms scrolls seem to have more of these headings, suggesting that they were later additions. []
  2. Whatever exactly ‘olam means. []
  3. 50, 40, 30…? []
  4. I will add a link to the print version soon, for now the text is already available online in discussable format. []

One comment on “Psalm for a new year

  1. Bob MacDonald

    delighted to see a post on a psalm.

    I think of the whole Book as the prayer of Moses. At the end of the book are four long psalms that summarize the revelation to the people. Just before those four psalms is the second prayer, Psalm 102. The similarity of form and shape suggests that Psalm 102 is a second reflection of the opening prayer. (102 is also between the only two psalms of David in Book 4).

    We think of grass ‘growing’ (verse 6) but psalm 102.27 has the same word applied to clothing. We think of ‘changing’ clothes but that is to consider that the old are discarded. A possible translation of ‘renew’ for both these psalms (where alone this word in these forms is used in the psalms) gives us a refreshing new double frame for Book 4. Psalms 102 and 90, both prayers, share 24 words. 35% of psalm 90’s words are used in psalm 102.

    Also re the time words – they seem to be in three’s and sixes (except for generation only twice) –

    Days and years (6 times each) are the only words that occur more than three times in the psalm. (v4 is not year but the root ישׁן) Occurring exactly three times are other words related to time.

    (till 3x, everlasting (dissembling) – a curious word implying time and what is hidden 3x, and the verb to be / become 3x, and morning 3x but I did not note the others that you point out.)