Monday, May 11, 2015

The Context and Structure of Psalm 90

The title tells us that the psalm is a prayer of Moses, making it probably the oldest psalm in the book. But it gives us no direct evidence of when in the life of Moses it was written. But the content itself and the structure of the psalm can lead us to some consideration of a good possibility for the context. This in turn can assist us in our reflections on the psalm, and its application for us.

The psalm breaks down into three sections: 1-2, 3-11, and 12-17. The first section proclaims God and his eternality. The second section portrays man in his brevity. The third section is a prayer that springs from the first two sections, emphasizing a desire for God himself to establish our work.

A further consideration of the second section is perhaps the key to the entire psalm. It focuses on God’s wrath against our sin as the cause for the brevity of our lives. We see this especially in vss 7-9. Verse 7 is particularly acute here, as it is a little self-contained chiasm (an X-structure). In this case, the English translations enable the reader to see the chiasm that is in the original.
For we are brought to an enda by your anger;b
And by your wrathb1 we are dismayed.a1
The center of the chiasm is the wrath/anger of God, and the following verse emphasizes our sins as the cause of the wrath. The section ends with a restatement of the incomprehensible wrath of God.

In reflecting particularly on this center section, it appears to me likely that this prayer came out of the final months of Moses’ life. He has watched an entire generation of God’s people be swept away in his wrath due to their rebellion, and refusal to enter the land of promise. Given the count of the two censuses in Numbers (chs 1 and 26), it is likely that Moses oversaw the death of some one to two million people during that forty years. On average that would be seventy to one hundred forty people dying per day; day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. No wonder Moses speaks in terms of them being swept away like a flood (vs 5: the word that the ESV translates as “sweep them away” occurs only here in the Old Testament, so the meaning is not precisely clear; it may mean simply “to bring to an end”).

That image of an entire generation brought to an end by the wrath of God anchors the psalm. It is from that context that Moses’ plea comes as the psalm ends. It is not just the generation lost in the wilderness, but every generation of God’s people that comes on the scene, and then just as quickly is swept away. Thus we are to number our days, to count them carefully, to take the brevity of our lives seriously, and pray that God would establish the work of our hands. Again here, I imagine Moses on the plains of Moab now thinking about the generation to come, not the generation gone. His plea is that the days of affliction and evil might not continue in the next generation, but rather that they might be days of gladness; that God might so work among his people that the labor of their years would stand. May that be our prayer as well.

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