The Struggle to Cope with Time

The prayer, “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart,” serves as the turning point in the larger prayer of Psalm 90. The human experience of time is a major theme of the psalm as a whole. The first line of the psalm bears the title “The Prayer of Moses, the Man of God.” It is the only writing in the book of Psalms attributed to the greatest leader of ancient Israel and the fountainhead of Jewish faith. As a prayer from start to finish, the psalm addresses God directly throughout its seventeen verses. It sparkles with the captivating imagery and emotional energy that characterize the Psalms as a whole while its unique content takes the reader on a journey from praise to plea to petition.

Psalm 90 is a prayer almost entirely about time. The opening verse praises God as the eternal dwelling place of God’s people. St. Augustine expressed the main thought of this verse in the opening book of his Confessions. There he asked how he could call God to come to him in prayer since there was neither a place in Creation that could contain God nor a place within himself where God was not already present. “Where do I call thee to, when I am already in thee?” Augustine asked. “Or from whence would thou come unto me? Where beyond heaven and earth, could I go that there my God might come to me—he who hath said, ‘I fill heaven and earth?’” Psalm 90 praises God as a sanctuary both in space and in time: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, you are God” (v. 2). Isaac Watts captured the eternal dimension of the opening doxology in his hymnic paraphrase: “O God, our help in ages past/ our hope for years to come; / our shelter from the stormy blast / and our eternal home.” The praying community in Psalm 90 locates itself within the boundary of God’s eternal horizon.

Beyond the opening lines of praise in vv. 1-2, vv. 3-6 compare the boundless dimensions of God’s eternal nature with the challenges that arise from the human experience of finitude. Echoing God’s punishment of the first humans in Genesis, the psalm complains that God has set a limit to human life that divides humanity from God. Even a thousand years of human history are in God’s eyes like a single day that has already passed. When compared to God’s eternal nature, a millennium in human experience flourishes and fades like the desert grass that springs up with the morning dew and withers in the noonday sun. Given these differing time perspectives, God’s eternal horizon for carrying out the work of redemption may easily exceed the limits that a time-bound community has to witness God’s work firsthand. While God has all the time in the world, people do not. This is not a problem for God, but it is for us.

Psalm 90’s description of limited human time in relation to God’s unlimited perspective is similar to a concept from astronomy known as the Copernican Principle. Prior to the work of Nicolaus Copernicus, the dominant model of the universe held that the earth was at the center of a perfectly circular system and that all observable heavenly bodies orbited around it. Copernicus observed that this was not so. The Copernican Principle, derived from his discovery, states in its simplest form that the earth and its inhabitants do not occupy a special point of observation in the universe. Astrophysicist Richard Gott extended the use of the Copernican Principle to describe our place in time. Gott paraphrased the Copernican Principle in relation to his own lifetime to mean “I’m not special.” The point in time from which we observe history is not a privileged point in the sweep of time. Psalm 90 makes a similar observation. God’s designs for the unfolding of human time are known only to God. The praying community of Psalm 90 cannot assume that their limited life span occupies a special place within the span of God’s activity throughout history. Like a life raft adrift on a seemingly boundless ocean, time-bound mortals live without a shoreline in sight.

Although the idea of our exceedingly brief life in relation to God’s eternal horizon is discouraging, vv. 7-11 point out that the actual situation is even worse than it appears. The problem of God’s limitless horizon and humanity’s brief life span is compounded by another factor that the psalmist calls “the wrath of God.” The concept of God’s wrath is an awkward and uncomfortable topic for many modern religious people. The Christian understanding of God as one whose love and mercy are revealed in the sacrificial death and victorious resurrection of Jesus creates tension with the idea of a God who acts on the basis of hostile emotions to punish and to harm. While there is much to be explored about the meaning of the language of divine wrath in the Bible, for now it is enough to say that the Old Testament uses the figurative language of the wrath of God very broadly to describe a wide range of negative experiences, including disasters, hardship, struggle, pain, and suffering.

Psalm 90:7-11 describes little of the specific circumstances that the community experiences as God’s wrath. The primary problem with God’s wrath addressed in these verses is its duration. The community’s prolonged struggles threaten to overwhelm the maximum time frame, seventy or eighty years, that an ordinary person can normally expect to live. The general difficulty of managing the unceasing flow of time is compounded by a vague and prolonged experience of affliction. “All our days pass away under your wrath” (Ps 90:9).

It is in this context of feeling lost in the vastness of time and forgotten in the lingering silence of God that Psalm 90 turns from complaint to petition: “So teach us to count our days so that we may gain a wise heart.” Verse 12 asks for help to cross an unmarked ocean of time under a sky of bronze through the divine gift of wisdom. Wisdom comes from learning from God how to count one’s passing days.

The petition for divinely given wisdom serves as a turning point in the psalm. It unleashes a series of urgent requests, beginning with the plaintive lament, “Turn, O LORD! How long?” This echoes a prayer of Moses when he prayed that God would turn and relent from wrath in the wake of the Israelites’ idolatry in the wilderness when they created and worshiped a golden calf (Exod 32:11-12). In the spirit of Moses’ prayer, Psalm 90 urges God to turn, have compassion, and restore favor and mercy to a people living under wrath (v. 13). The psalmist asks for times of joy equal to the days and years of affliction. The psalm seeks some sense of proportion in time between suffering and joy (vv. 14-15). It also voices a hope that the favor of the Lord would be revealed to present and future generations as they had been revealed to generations past (v. 16). The psalm ends with a plea that the deeds of the very fragile and fleeting creatures who pray this prayer might somehow endure for future generations in God’s sight. The final words of the psalm seek God’s favor for ages to come in ways that reaffirm its earlier praise of God’s help in ages past.

Psalm 90 is a profound prayer. It seeks a way to live wisely in time while holding together the extremes of God and humanity, mortality and eternity, suffering and joy, judgment and grace, despair and hope. It does so in conversation with major biblical themes of creation, redemption, covenant, and wisdom, all under the name of Israel’s most important leader. Yet, to this point, I have described only the major landmarks of the text. How can a person come to know and appreciate all of the features of the world that Psalm 90 reveals in order to learn more fully about how to make each day count toward gaining a heart of wisdom?

This post originally appeared in Gaining a Heart of Wisdom: A Model for Theological Interpretation of Scripture by Barry A. Jones.

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