Yesterday I conducted a graveside service for a man who lived a decade longer than the strong person who is imagined in Psalm 90. Verse 10 says, “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong.” This member of my congregation died last week at age ninety.
We gathered yesterday at the cemetery, just a few of his family members. They hope to have a second gathering sometime in the future, when a larger group of people would be safer than it is now. Their grief is compounded because the pandemic prevents them from holding the funeral they would have liked for their dad.
Psalm 90 is fitting for the ninety-year-old’s family and friends as we grieve. The Psalm is honest about our mortality. It’s honest about how brief human life feels to us, and how brief it really is compared with God’s sense of time. The Psalmist sings to God: “A thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past…like grass that is renewed in the morning…in the evening it fades and withers.” (verses 4-6)
As the hymn setting of this Psalm by Isaac Watts puts it:
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Soon bears us all away;
We fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
Psalm 90 begins with a comforting line of praise: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” But it ends in communal lament. Like other communal lament Psalms, it calls on God to change the reality of the people’s pain. It calls on God to restore life to its original created goodness. “Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants!” (verse 12)
The first half of the Psalm set the backdrop for this lament. It starts with praise to God, the Dwelling Place, and continues with reflection on the people’s mortality and God’s eternity. Before we complain to God, we remember that God’s plans are bigger than our own. We begin by remembering that God is in control and we are not.
I heard Dr. Kristen Deede Johnson speak at a virtual event this past week about faith and politics. She ended with advice for followers of Jesus about how to approach political discussions as a community. She gave a few suggested practices, the first of which was sabbath-keeping.
The way she described it sounded like the wisdom of Psalm 90. When we keep the sabbath, we cease our own work for a day and trust that God’s work will sustain the world. Like Psalm 90, sabbath-keeping reminds us of our limits and places us in the care of a limitless God.
But good Christian political conversations don’t stop there, Dr. Johnson said. They continue with difficult, intentional, and loving engagement. And Psalm 90 says this, too, when it turns to lament. At the beginning of the Psalm, we affirm with the Psalmist that God is so vast and we are so small; God is not bound by our desires. Then the end of the Psalm, the lament, moves to a reminder that God has in fact bound Godself in covenant with us. Lament calls on God to keep God’s promises.
Although God didn’t have to, God chose to be limited by love for us. God chose to care about our complaints. God chose to listen to our longings. Once we’ve remembered that God is ultimately in control, we then call to God for a better world and seek our own limited, active role in bringing that world about.
As we stood at the graveside yesterday, we knew that ninety years is too short when it marks the death of someone we love. But we didn’t just mark our own mortality and God’s vast eternity. We also marked God’s covenant promises to this child of God.
We gave thanks that God fulfilled the prayers of this now-deceased servant to “satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love” (verse 14) and to “prosper for us the work of our hands” (verse 17). And we committed ourselves anew to the prayer of Psalm 90:12: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be thou our guide while troubles last,
And our eternal home!