From My Soul Waits
So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. (v. 12)
There are five “books” in the collection that is the Psalter, and Psalm 90 is the first psalm of Book IV. Both Jewish and Christian scholarship notes that the emphasis of the final two books (sixty-one psalms in all) is on God’s sovereignty and glory. Three begin with the words, The Lord reigns (vv. 93, 97, 99), and the only ten psalms beginning with, Praise the Lord, are in these closing volumes. Psalm 90 was chosen as a fitting introduction to these songs of praise, and its title tells us why: “God’s Eternity and Human Frailty.”
For creatures of dust we are remarkably blind to matters of our own mortality. We spend a good part of our young lives oblivious to death, unconsciously savoring the naïve notion that life is meant to be forever. Then, in the middle of our lives, circumstances cause us to begrudgingly acknowledge death’s presence. Perhaps, understandably, we keep it standing outside the door, our backs turned to it like some unwelcome visitor. Usually (and perhaps fortunately) it is not until the arrival of old age and the frailties it brings with it, that we turn and come face-to-face with the reality that the spans of our lives are limited – that our days are “numbered” and, actually, quite few.
The superscription of Psalm 90 says: “A prayer of Moses, the man of God.” If, in fact, Moses is the author of this psalm (other sons of Moses may be found in Exodus 15 and Deuteronomy 32), then we are hearing the voice of a man who has lived long past the fourscore years that even the strongest might expect, (Psalm 90:10). In any case, we have the prayer of a man who stands at the end of his days. From that vantage point, looking both forward and backward to the horizons of his life, he sees with a profound clarity two unalterable truths: that the life of a person – his life – will pass away like the dying grass or like a night’s dream; and that God alone is everlasting. In contrast to the incessant change and decay that defines human mortality – and which the psalmist knows firsthand – only God and his “glorious majesty,” (v. 17), remain changeless and eternal. Knowing these truths – numbering our own days and living for the Ancient of days, (Daniel 7:9) – this, says the psalmist, is the substance of wisdom, (v. 12).
From The Fathers
Whatever there is in the world, it fades away, it passes. As for this life, what is it but what the psalmist said: “In the morning it will flower, but in the evening it will fall.” That is what “all flesh is, (Isaiah 40:6). That is why Christ; that is why new life; that is why eternal hope; that is why the consolation of immortality has been promised us. (Augustine)
O God, teach me the wisdom that comes from knowing my own limits…and your own limitlessness.
For you confined yourself within my house of clay so that I might be set free within your house of light.
The first house crumbles to dust.
The last house will shine forever.
Teach me the wisdom that comes from knowing both.