24 May 2022

Praying with the Psalms in Easter:
24 May 2022 (Psalm 90)

‘The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong’ (Psalm 90: 10) … this psalm and a road sign in Venice are reminders of my own mortality and frailty (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Before this day begins, I am taking some time this morning to continue my reflections in this season of Easter, including my morning reflections drawing on the Psalms.

In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 90:

Psalm 90 is the first or opening psalm in Book IV in the Book of Psalms, which includes Psalm 90 to Psalm 106. In the slightly different numbering scheme in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, this is psalm is numbered as Psalm 89.

Uniquely among the psalms, Psalm 90 is attributed to Moses.

This psalm is well known for its reference in verse 10 to human life expectancy being 70 or 80 (‘threescore years and ten,’ ‘if by reason of strength ... fourscore years’, in the King James Version). This verse has inspired Shakespeare in Macbeth and influenced the opening words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

The King James Version tells us: ‘The days of our years are threescore years and ten’ (Psalm 90: 10). Other translations can lack the elegant cadences and rhythms of the Authorised Version, so that the NRSV, for example, says: ‘The days of our life are seventy years.’

Thankfully, the Psalter in the 2004 edition of the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland retains a poetic approach to translation, and reminds us: ‘The days of our life are three score years and ten.’

Many Biblical turns of phrase found in the King James Version were picked up by Shakespeare. In Macbeth in 1605, for example, we have:

Threescore and ten I can remember well:
Within the volume of which time I have seen
Hours dreadful and things strange; but this sore night
Hath trifled former knowings

I reached that benchmark of ‘threescore years and ten’ this year, and I have been reminded of my own frailty in recent months with a stroke on 18 March that left in hospital for two weeks first in Milton Keynes University Hospital and then in the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. I am still waiting for a further procedure in Sheffield.

This psalm is a moving reflection on the eternity of God and the shortness of our own lives. We read a succession of poetic images conveying the brevity of human life: it flows as fast as a swollen river; it ends as quickly as a sleep or a dream; it fades like grass in parched land that withers by the end of the day; it is like a sigh, a mere breath, like a bird that lands briefly and then flies away.

The speed which these metaphors succeed one another mirrors the rapidity with which the days and the years pass.

The moral at the heart of the psalm is its lesson to remember how short life is, so that we may spend our time on those things that endure.

The first section (verses 1-6) contrast God’s eternity with the short and troubled span of human life.

Verse 4 (‘For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night’) inspired Isaac Watts in 1719 as he was writing his hymn ‘O God, our help in ages past’:

A thousand ages in thy sight
are like an evening gone;
short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.

Indeed, this hymn is an encapsulation of Psalm 90 in miniature, pulling out some major themes and leaving us with hints of others.

The second section (verses 7-12) deals with our own inner anger during this short life on earth.

The third part (verses 13-17) seeks God’s compassion and mercy.

‘May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us’ (verse 17): according to the Sages, this is the blessing Moses gave to the people when they finished building the Tabernacle, adding: ‘May the Divine presence rest in the work of your hands.’

‘The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong’ (Psalm 90: 10) … No 70 Bridge Street, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 90 (NRSVA):

A Prayer of Moses, the man of God.

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 to 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 for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for 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 favour of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in this week’s prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘Mission in Australia.’ It was introduced on Sunday by Peter Burke, Manager at Mission and Anglican Community Engagement AnglicareSA.

The USPG Prayer Diary this morning (24 May 2022) invites us to pray:

We pray for AnglicareSA and its work within the Anglican community in South Australia.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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