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The Spirituality of Psalm 90 *

by Berry Friesen (October 30, 2017)

“You turn us back to dust, and say, ’Turn back, you mortals’.”
Psalm 90:3

Psalm 90 is first of all about time—from the everlasting presence of YHWH (“a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday”) to the short span of our lives (“the days of our life are seventy years, perhaps eighty if we are strong”).

More precisely, it is about running out of time.  Human life is “like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes . . . in the evening it fades and withers.” Traditionally, the psalm is attributed to Moses, the man who climbed to the top of the mountain and looked out over the Promised Land. He saw but never entered that lovely land; he ran out of time.

I will soon run out of time, not only because days on the calendar are ticking by, but because of a terminal cancer first diagnosed in May, 2016. As I read Psalm 90, my approaching death is foremost on my mind.

Of course, the experience of running out of time is built into the human condition. It is utterly unremarkable. Yet the psalmist identifies it as a deep—almost bitter—disappointment. “You sweep (our years) away; they are like a dream.”  How can we live with the burden of this hard reality?

As a first response, the poet blames YHWH, the everlasting one.  “We are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed.”  The psalmist isn’t referring here to any sort of divine retribution or punishment, but to the implacable limits that define our existence.   And yes, the psalmist also is referring to how YHWH “set(s) our iniquities” in front of us, giving us no respite from the awareness of how our sin and the sins of others define and circumscribe our lives.

Thus, our time is quickly spent, consumed—used up—by “toil and trouble.”

But then the tone of the psalm shifts. “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”  In these words, we hear not bitterness, but a yielding to YHWH.  The psalmist is making an appeal to the source of his frustration—not for the erasure or easing of life’s limits, but for wisdom in living “so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”

Let’s not paint this yielding to YHWH as solely a religious event; the psalmist is simply being consistent here. Blaming YHWH for our frustrating finitude and seeking YHWH’s help to cope with it are all of a piece.

So yielding to YHWH is a prominent aspect of Psalm 90’s spirituality.  Yet there is more.

First, notice the complete absence of personal pronouns throughout the psalm.  It’s all “we,” “us” and “our.”  The psalmist is speaking out of a collective consciousness, not an individual orientation, and expressing hope only for the social “we,” not the solo “I.”  This consciousness is what prompts the psalm’s strongest assertion of faith:  “LORD, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.”

Second, notice how the psalmist ends not on a philosophical or metaphysical note, but with a plea to YHWH “to prosper for us the work of our hands—O prosper the work of our hands!”

In my experience, it is rare to speak about our finitude and our labor in the same conversation; they are commonly assumed to be entirely different topics, far removed from each other.  Yet within the spirituality of Psalm 90, they belong together.  Shared labor can bear witness to a conviction that “our life" is important.  It will go on, notwithstanding the fleeting quality we experience as individuals.

Important, yes, even to the everlasting one:  “Let the favor of the LORD be upon us.”

Yieldedness to YHWH, a collective consciousness and shared work:  these together make up a spirituality that has helped sustain me these past 18 months.

I don’t know how much time remains for me, but life has already narrowed in many ways.  Reading and writing for this blog is becoming more difficult and so I do not expect to post regularly in the future. As you can imagine, I am pleased John can carry on.

As for the purpose of this blog—the formation of a non-imperial identity, capable of contributing to a world put at grave risk by the US-led empire**—I join the prayer of Psalm 90: “O prosper the work of our hands!”
*   For prior reflections on my illness, see "The Spirituality of Psalm 103" and "So Sweet and Such a Mess."
** For a short review of the scope of the empire's military footprint, see Sheldon Richman's "New York Times Acknowledges US Global Empire."


  1. Berry, Thanks for your reflections. May you know the Lord's Presence and Peace as you continue your journey. Don

  2. "In My Father's house are many rooms. Were it not so, Iwould have told you." "Today, thou shalt be with Me in Paradise."

  3. Berry -- I have cherished our friendship even though I now recognize how seldom it was that we met personally from your MCC days to working on food and hunger issues in Pennsylvania. I'll miss your blog and may God, family and church give you much favor and hope. Levi

  4. You are finishing well, Berry. I will miss you and your thought-provoking, prophetic ideas and reflections. May the Lord contine to equip you for the challenging road ahead and surround you and Sharon with His peace.

  5. Berry -- Thank you for the mark you have made in this world. Our family holds you, Sharon and your children in our hearts. May God's love and peace embrace you.

  6. May God sustain you and Sharon during this time which we shall share with you, which Christ shared with us and for us. And I do look forward to the timeless celebration and contemplation of The Lamb with you, who have so faithfully, profoundly and prophetically written, lived and spoken against all the enemies of God and of our selves that oppress, degrade, distract and divide us. "The last enemy to be conquered will be death."