Psalm 90: Song of Moses

‘Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.’ (12)

This first song in Book IV of the Psalter is the only one said to be by Moses. If it is the voice of Moses, his experiences of leading desperate people through the wilderness, ultimately reaching but not entering the promised land, added fervour.

However, authorship is not a major consideration in the singing and hearing of the resultant psalm and its thoughts and message each time it is opened. As in many others, the writer is deeply thankful for divine protection (1), loving kindness (14) and grace (17).

Time

Time is an important thread in this poem, in several different ways. First, the psalm emphasises that these divine attributes are timeless, in every generation (1), from age to age (2). God’s time-line is long, infinite, eternal:

For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, and like a watch in the night. (4)

Secondly, by contrast human life is short and passes quickly. (5, 6, 10) Moses concludes from this intersections of time frames, an eternal spirit meeting with a temporal and transient soul:

So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom. (12)

Psalm 90 (89 Vulgate) Gregorian chant; ‘Return O Lord, how long?’ verse 13.

Thirdly, the song recognises that sometimes we need to wait for this congruence, inspiration or guidance. Like Psalm 13 and many others, the author wonders how long he or she must wait for alignment. (v. 13)

And finally, the psalmist realises that we only have the present, asking for a joyful awareness of love and life each morning and each day as they slide by. (14)

A promise, a prayer, a connection, if not the full state of grace. In times of darkness we can still feel hope, in touch with life and people. This is applying our hearts to wisdom.

Music

Such grand vision seems to call for a broad historical perspective in the choice of music, whether Gregorian chant such as that shown above from the Liber Usualis, through Orthodox drawing on rich early harmonies, to African-American and the simple tone. Varied offerings from different eras form a dialogue of musical traditions. In the primary modern sources used in this study, several useful refrains are offered. In the classical area there are at least thirty SATB settings for Psalm 90 on the Choral Public Domain site, many employing the well-worn Isaac Watts paraphrase O God our help in ages past. There are also several for larger choirs and groups such as those for six voices by Lassus and Matthieu Le Maistre, both published around 1566.

From the major cultural centre of Byzantium, the Eastern Orthodox Church spread in its various forms, largely through south-east Europe, Greece, Turkey, Eastern Europe and Russia, now rejoicing in some 300 million adherents. How many psalm singers in such lands draw on this rich historical culture? Orthodox music is rich. Think Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s All-night Vigil, the ‘Vespers’. Modern singers and listeners alike still savour this ancient spiritual and musical stream.

Tucked away in Chevetogne in Belgium is a Catholic monastery that devotes considerable effort to bridging the gap between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches caused by divergent calendars, traditions and observances. These many differences have caused competition over centuries, but many shared beliefs and practices remain. The Benedictine monks of Chevetogne have made a contribution to this cause by recording some great songs of the Slavonian and other Orthodox liturgies. A local arrangement of one of their chants, originally a setting for the Beatitudes but here employed for Psalm 90, starts thus:

This tune is best presented by four similar voices. For those without such resources to hand:

  • The old favourite hymn O God our help in ages past, found at Together in Song 47 is an easy solution. However, the text covers only the first six verses, missing much  poetry of value.
  • The antiphons in The Emergent Psalter and New Century, both using the opening verse savouring the eternal nature of God, are fine.
  • For a more personalised and intimate refrain, with pleasing tone harmony for the verses, Psalms for All Seasons 90C calls attention to verse 12: ‘Teach us to know the shortness of our days; may wisdom dwell within our hearts.’
  • PFAS 90D is a nice tune by John Bell, Wildflowers bloom and fade.