The Book of Psalms: Composition and Reception

By Peter W. Flint; Patrick D. Miller Jr. | Go to book overview

PSALM 90:
WISDOM MEDITATION OR COMMUNAL LAMENT?

RICHARD J. CLIFFORD, S. J.

Readers through the ages have found in Psalm 90 a rich and diverse trove of sentiments. The author of 2 Pet 3:8 discovered in its portrayal of God's nature an explanation for the apparent delay of the coming of the Lord: “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century regarded Ps 90:11-12 as an invitation to remember our mortality and gain wisdom, “Teach us, O Lord, to number well our days … for that which guides man best in all his ways, is meditation of mortality.” Isaac Watts in the early eighteenth century emphasized the contrast between the eternal God and ephemeral human beings: “Time, like an ever-flowing stream, bears us all away.” The psalm is no less fascinating to modern readers as the continuing stream of scholarly studies makes clear.

In an important study that appeared in 1994, Thomas Krüger of the University of Zurich described the scholarly consensus regarding the interpretation of Psalm 90: it laments the transience of human beings, a transience that is attributed to God's anger at human sin. The major disagreement among commentators is whether guilt and transience are to be accepted as part of the human condition or are to be protested against.1 Since Kriiger's assessment, studies and commentaries have added nuance, but have not significantly departed from the consensus. Klaus Seybold regards Psalm 90 as a late and much redacted prayer on the “wisdom-philosophical” theme of time (God's and ours), which is provoked by a severe crisis or by an “experience of loss of time or life.”2 Johannes Schnocks disregards genre considerations as unhelpful for analyzing what is essentially a wisdom meditation on time and eternity.3 To James Luther Mays, the psalm is “the theological ac-

1 “Psalm 90 und die 'Vergänglichkeit des Menschen,'” Bib 75 (1994) 191-219.
Professors John Kselman, S. S, and Michael Barré, S. S., have read earlier ver-
sions of the manuscript and offered helpful suggestions.

2Die Psalmen 0HAT1/15; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1996) 356-57.

3 “Ehe die Berge geboren wurden, bist du”: Die Gegenwart Gottes im 90.

-190-

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