The subject of Psalm 90 is time. It is a profound meditation, described in its superscription as “a prayer of Moses,” on the brevity of human life in contrast with God’s eternity. If you are not a believer in God, you can think of it as contrasting the length of our human life with that of the world, nature, or the cosmos.
I spent at least some time almost every summer for over thirty years on Passamaquoddy Bay in New Brunswick, Canada. Each summer there, I could see and feel the physical differences, small and large, that had occurred in me since the year before. I did this while sitting on a beach that appeared not to have changed at all—the tide rose and fell regularly, gulls screeched above me, seals swam in the bay. The sun shone brightly on family picnics and hikes. But I had less hair, and what I had was changing color, and my eyes didn’t see as well as they once did. I felt myself aging, was made more conscious of it by the seeming stability of the sea.
Psalm 90’s mood is not so pessimistic as it is pragmatic or, better, realistic. It is because of the time limits to human life, precisely because of those limits, that life is so precious. The limits lead the Psalm’s author to ask a favor of God. “So teach us to number our days,” he writes, “that we may get us a heart of wisdom.”
Two temporal scales are portrayed in the Psalm—human and divine. A thousand years in the eyes of God “are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.” (Ps. 90:4.) For humans, though, time is much different. Our days are like grass that grows up in the morning, but withers and is cut down by evening.
In his introductory comments to Psalm 90 in the first edition of Soncino’s The Psalms, the editor, Jewish-British scholar Abraham Cohen (1887-1957), reminds us that Psalm 90 was the inspiration behind one of the finest hymns written in English, “O God, our help in ages past.” The lyrics appear in The Psalms of David (1719) by Isaac Watts (1674-1748), English theologian and prolific hymn writer. There, the hymn’s first line is given as “Our God, our help in ages past.” Watts’ psalms are beautifully written paraphrases, not translations.
Not long ago, I wrote a poem titled “The Sign.” My inspiration was one particular verse in Psalm 90, verse 9: We bring our years to an end as a tale that is told. Others, the great translator and scholar Robert Alter among them prefer “as a sigh” to “as a tale that is told.” But I like the idea of thinking of my life as a story, a tale; hopefully, not one full of sound and fury signifying nothing.
I was pleased to learn at the end of Rosh HaShana that Poetica Magazine: Contemporary Jewish Writing published the poem online.
The poem begins:
If you like, you can read the entire poem here.
One of my favorite musicians is Carole King. I have been fond of one of King’s compositions, “Tapestry,” from the first time I ever heard it. She released the song on an album of the same name in 1971. I was twenty-one years old. Fifty years later, it still speaks to me. My life has been a tapestry, a tale that is told. You can hear King sing the song here.
All the best,