In Psalm 90, in the only psalm attributed to him, we encounter Moses, man of God, reflecting on long and painful years where, along with God’s people, he had experienced both the sustained hardship of their wilderness wanderings, as well as the heavy hand of God’s discipline in the face of their sin.
In this melancholy remembrance, Moses considers both the brevity of his own and all human life, as well as the great power and mercy of God, who alone he looked to for hope and meaning, even in the darkest of days.
For many of us, 2020 has been a dark and difficult year – a year of widespread sickness and public strife, of lost jobs and lost lives, of confusion and disruption to all our plans, of isolation and added responsibility for many who are staying at home, and of uninvited risk to life and health for many who must work away from home. In the face of these and other very real challenges, many of us find ourselves grasping for handholds as the deck of the ship we are on lurches in the storm – we find ourselves reaching for hope and stability, and for wisdom not only to live well in these evil days, but to rest confident that our labors and trials are not in vain. In days like these we have much to learn from Moses’ prayer.
(Consider pausing here to read Psalm 90 before continuing.)
To begin with, it is worth noting that two-thirds of this psalm are devoted to an extended meditation on God’s greatness and our insignificance, and on God’s righteous judgment and anger in light of our sin. Moses does not shrink from sitting in this place of sober sadness or from allowing the full weight of these realities to rest heavy upon him. He does not rush on to simple solutions or to the distraction of more pleasant considerations, but rather allows the very gravity of his situation to shape his prayer. And he begins his petition this way: “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to you a heart of wisdom” (v. 12). It is only in light of and not in spite of the weighty realities that Moses holds before us that he is even able to rightly begin his prayer, which at its core is a prayer for wisdom.
Qoheleth, the worldly-wise Preacher of Ecclesiastes, tells us: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart” (Ecc. 7:2), and the Apostle Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15b). Along with the words of Moses, we learn from texts like these that we too are called to choose to sit with our sorrows and feel their full import for a time, as well as to willingly enter into the tears and sorrows of others. In days like our own, we are often quick to avert our gaze from the pain so evident around us, and yet God invites us both to embrace our own and others’ suffering, and to find wisdom even in our weeping.
Yet both in this psalm and in our own experience of suffering and insignificance, it is easy, especially in days like these, to find ourselves sinking under the weight of our own or others’ sorrows, and to lose sight of God, who has been “our dwelling place in all generations” (v. 1). And so Moses, who along with the people of God were sorely tempted to despair, nonetheless continues his prayer with this cry: “Do return, O Lord: How long will it be? And be sorry for Your servants” (v.13). Even as we ourselves wonder how long this present pandemic, political upheaval, and racial injustice will persist, we are called to cry out to God not only for relief from these very real wrongs in the world, but also for wisdom in our waiting, as we persevere until God answers our prayers.
David writes in Psalm 27 that: “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; Be strong and let your heart take courage; Yes, wait for the Lord” (Ps. 27:13-14). And Moses cries out: “O satisfy us in the morning with your lovingkindness, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days” (v. 14). And: “Make us glad according to…the years we have seen evil” (v. 15). We ourselves are called to join with David and Moses in raising a prayer to God in hope for the relief to come to us from his hand – the “not yet” of God’s kingdom that we all long for in days like these.
And in the end, it is only in light of this hope that we can press on with the “fruitful labor” that the Apostle Paul speaks of (Phil. 1:22 NASB), and that must also form part of every day that God appoints for us as well. When hope is hard to lay hold of, and when our dreams and desired outcomes are so long in taking shape, we can be tempted to despair in the worth of our own work, and in the value of our own lives and labors as beloved daughters and sons of God. And so we are invited to join Moses in prayer: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us; And confirm the work of our hands; Yes, confirm the work of our hands” (v. 17).
As we seek God together in this time of great trial and transition both in our own church and in the world, as we remember and celebrate the birth of our Lord in days every bit as dark as our own, and as we step together from one year into another, let us consider Moses’ words together, and let us also number our days, that we too may present to God a heart of wisdom – in our weeping, in our waiting, and in our work.
Image by Winslow Homer - National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Public Domain, wikimedia.org