A dark meditation on human frailty


Scripture: Psalm 90 Nigel Bunce

Psalm 90 is a dark meditation on God and human frailty.  But the psalmist’s cry for help resonates strongly with our situation amid today’s pandemic.

Familiar phrases in Psalm 90

Sometimes (I suspect oftentimes) we rattle through the day’s psalm without giving it much thought. In my Bible, Psalm 90 has the heading God’s eternity and human frailty. We can pick out some familiar phrases from both the psalm and today’s hymn, O God our help in ages past.  Verse 3 of the hymn echoes verse 4 of the psalm. “A thousand ages in thy sight are like an evening gone.”

Verse 10 might make us feel a bit smug. It begins, “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eight, if we are strong …” Medical science has improved Canadian life expectancy to average eighty, not just seventy. Many of us have already exceeded the proverbial three score and ten. Most younger people can hope to get to fourscore.

But the verse concludes, “… they are soon gone and we fly away.” Those “thousand ages in thy sight” may be merely like yesterday evening to God. But for us, life is short. It can seem like a plant that flourishes in the morning but fades away by evening. Like the angel trumpets we have in our garden. Their beautiful white flowers open up in the morning, but do not last even a day.

A dark meditation

This is not the cuddly side of God. This psalm’s message is dark. “God is eternal, but we are ephemeral.” It reminds me of the messages of the prophets – Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea … Our hymn focusses on the first part: “God is eternal.” OK; we can live with that. But the second part, our ephemeral, transient, nature is much less comforting. Dust to dust and ashes to ashes!

I appreciated this psalm better to remember that the psalms were written to be prayed corporately. I imagined the whole community saying or singing these words together at a time of hardship. Much, in fact, like the time we are living through now. In this time of pandemic. There seems to be no end to it. We are fearful about that “second wave”.

And we wonder whether this may be the time when we complete our tally of years and “soon fly away.” That’s why the last section of the psalm [vv 12-17] is a cry for help. Not just “ in ages past” but in the here and now. Richard Nyssa considers this “dark side of God” in an essay with that title. 

The section begins, “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” It’s not a casual encouragement not to fritter away our time on earth. It’s a cry of desperation. I imagine that the psalm was written during a time of intense trouble. Perhaps during the Israelites’ exile in Babylon, or during a time of famine from drought or from swarms of locusts. Or, for that matter, a time of plague or pandemic.

Fear that we will be forgotten

The psalm continues. “Turn to us, O Lord! How long will this time of trouble go on for? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work be manifest to your servants.”
Sounds familiar? You bet; right now, in these COVID-afflicted days! How long will it last? Let’s have some certainty for the future. Have compassion for us. Make everything right again, so that we can “return to normal! If you’re really there, now’s the time to show us!” 

You don’t have to be religious, or to believe in God, to have thoughts like these. We can petition God all we like, but remember, God is the one who is everlasting. We just have our 70 or 80 or however many years, before we must fly away. And the worst of it is, as the hymn has it: “We fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.”

Surely, this is the great fear we all have about dying. Who will remember us? Pharaohs built giant pyramids so that people coming after them would not forget them. Artists and architects presumably hope that their work will live on after them.

In our small way, we do the same. Think of St. George’s cemetery. Its headstones and markers say, “Here lie the mortal remains of XXX, who lived from this date to that date. Remember them.” Or, “Please don’t forget them.”

Drawing comfort from this dark meditation

Richard Nyssa views the last verses of Psalm 90 as a forceful petition to God. It’s not begging, but a bold prayer. The author of the psalm hurls imperative after imperative at God. Petitioning takes the dark side of God seriously. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask, “Save us from the time of trial.” We petition God to teach, turn, have compassion, satisfy us, make us glad. God must favour us and prosper our work, even in this time of trial.

And that, I believe, is where we can draw comfort from the psalmist’s dark meditation on the nature of God. And on our own experience in these pandemic-ridden days. We cannot know how long this time of trial will last.

Nyssa says that God must teach us. I think that I’d say, “God must move us.” Move us to find the compassion the psalmist wrote about within ourselves. God’s work then becomes our work. Because then we can feel that our lives are worthwhile. To satisfy us and make us glad.

That maybe, after all is said and done, we can use our three score years and ten (or however many) to make the world a slightly better place. That’s “our hope for years to come.” And it’s the example I believe that Jesus gave us. Amen.