“Teach Us To Number Our Days”

“Teach us to number our days”. I have often heard verse 12 of Psalm 90 quoted by preachers, and it has always resonated with me. It is a prayer for guidance—that God give us wisdom so that we may rightly value and live out our days, in the light of our lives’ temporalness and brevity this side of eternity.

So I thought it would be appropriate to meditate on Psalm 90 and make it as one of my prayers to God at the start of the year.

But as I was translating it so that it would be my personal prayer, I was stuck at v. 11.

In Hebrew, it looks like this:

Psalm 90 v11


 
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Literally translated, the above is:
Who knows the strength of your anger
and like the fear of you your rage?

Now that didn’t seem to make sense.

I turned to other English versions, to see how they handled this verse.

The Revised Standard Version (RSV), which is actually the one I regularly use in Bible study, has:
Who considers the power of thy anger,
and thy wrath according to the fear of thee?

The New American Standard Bible (NASB) seems to have a similar thought:
Who understands the power of Your anger
And Your fury, according to the fear that is due You?

In both RSV and NASB, the objects of the verb yada (know/understand) are both the power of God’s anger and His fury/wrath. This understanding is supposed to be in accordance with the fear that men ought to feel towards God. So according to RSV and NASB, the verse is asking: who understands God’s anger and wrath in the same measure as they fear God? (I take this to be a rhetorical question where the expected answer is “no one”.)
 
The New International Version (NIV) has:
Who knows the power of your anger?
For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.

This seems to be similar to the thought in the Contemporary English Version (CEV):
No one knows the full power
of your furious anger,
but it is as great as the fear
that we owe to you.

NIV and CEV are asking: who understands the power of your anger? It is actually as great as the fear that is due you.

Today’s English Version (TEV) or the Good News Bible has:
Who has felt the full power of your anger?
Who knows what fear your fury can bring?

Very different from the rest is the message in The Message:
Who can make sense of such rage,
such anger against the very ones who fear you?

Verses 11 and 12 are pivotal. The Psalm turns around them.

The verses that precede them tell how sinful human beings live their fleeting lives incurring the wrath of the eternal God, who has always provided refuge for them since time began.

The succeeding verses are a plea to God to turn His face again to His fallen creatures, bless them, enable them to appreciate His splendor and His glorious works, and also grant their own works more than temporal significance.

The key, I think, lies in understanding why the writer has made the wrath of God correspond to the fear of God.

I agree with the thought behind the RSV and NASB translations, although the way they have been rendered is not so easily understood.

The object of yada (know/understand/comprehend) is not just God’s wrath/anger, but also the fear of God. That is, no one fully comprehends God’s anger because no one has yet fully experienced it. And because of this, no one truly fears God the way they should.

That is why the writer of the Psalm asks God to enable  human beings to understand and fully appreciate that they are living their fleeting lives mostly in sin, because they do not truly fear God. This lack of fear is because no one has yet fully experienced God’s anger. But a day will come when God’s wrath against sin will be finally and fully poured out. God will not be mocked!

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. When we properly fear God, then we will be able to present to Him a heart of wisdom—fully comprehending His eternal nature and His holiness, and our own finiteness and sinfulness.

It is then with such a heart that we can ask God to turn His face towards us again and bless us, and grant us more wisdom, so that we can fully appreciate, more and more, God’s glory and splendor.

A prayer based on a loose translation of Psalm 90

O Lord, you have been our dwelling place
from generation to generation.
Before mountains were born,
even before you created the earth,
from everlasting to everlasting—
You are God!

You make human beings return to dust.
You say, “Return, children of men!”
A thousand years in your eyes are like a day,
like yesterday—it passes quickly,
even like a watch in the night.

You put them to sleep.
They are like grass which sprouts up in the morning.
In the morning it sprouts and blooms,
but in the evening it withers and dries up.

We are consumed by your anger.
We are terrified by your wrath.
You have set our transgressions before you.
Our secret sins are laid open before the light of your face.

All our days turn under your wrath.
We finish our years like a sigh.
The days of our lives are but seventy years
or if we are strong, eighty.
But even their best is full of toil and trouble;
they pass away quickly…and then we fly away.

Still, who fully comprehends the power of your anger?
Who fully comprehends the fear that is due you?
Enable us therefore to understand how fleeting our lives are,
so that we may bring to you a heart of wisdom,
giving to you the fear and reverence that is due you
.

Return, O YHWH! Until when?
Have pity on your servants!

Satisfy us in the morning with your covenant love
so that we may shout for joy and rejoice all our days.

Make us rejoice according to the days
that you have humbled us,
the years that we have seen evil.

May the glory of your works
be comprehended by your servants,
and your splendor by their children.

May the favor of our Lord God be upon us.
Make permanent the works of our hands for us.
Make permanent the works of our hands.

Amen.

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How Long, O Lord? (part 2)

(…continued from earlier post How Long, O Lord?)

All of these reminded me of the psalms of lamentation, where the psalmist cries “How long, O Lord?” in the midst of suffering and pain.

“How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?”*
“How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever?”*
“Why have you rejected us forever, O God? Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture?”*

The above questions are contained in what is called Book 3 of the Psalter, a section which includes several lamentations and cries for help. The three psalms from which the questions come, for example, are calls for national deliverance of Israel.

Still, just as Israel is considered as God’s special people, I suppose human beings can similarly be considered as God’s special creation. After all, we are the only beings whom God created in His own image. And just as the Israelite psalmist wonders how long God will allow His people Israel to suffer, I also wondered, while in the ER, how long God will allow human beings to suffer—from diseases, accidents, and from their own evil deeds against each other.

The Bible says that God is love. If so, how come He does not intervene when a being He created in His image suffers? How can He watch people hurt, maim, and kill each other, and not be moved to intervene? How can He bear to watch a daughter cry over her father, slowly dying from a gunshot wound in the head? How can He give Satan such free rein to inflict damage to His creation? Like the psalmist, I want to ask “How long will the enemy mock you, O God? Will the foe revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand? Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!” **

I want to cry out, “What’s holding you back, God? Why don’t you retake your creation now? Why don’t you throw Satan and his devils into the pit, now? Why don’t you stop the destruction, the pain, and the suffering, now?” My soul cries out in the words of St. Paul, “Come, Lord Jesus, come!” Come and retake your kingdom, throw out the usurper!

Then, by His grace, I am reminded that God IS already on the throne. Satan HAS been deposed. The Kingdom of God HAS come with the coming of Jesus. Since then, all the suffering and destruction wrought on God’s creation have been the last, vicious, dying throes of a defeated enemy, wanting only to destroy as much as he can before it is finally over and he is completely bound, unable to inflict any more damage.

Because He is gracious, instead of being angry, God enables me to do what the psalmist did: I call to mind the deeds of the Lord. I remember what God has done. I meditate on His goodness. As the psalmist meditates on how He has fulfilled His promises to Abraham and to Israel, I remember how God has provided for those who have put their trust in Him, how many times He has protected them and guided them. I remember that, if it were not for Him, I would not even be able to think about Him or write about Him. I could have been born with no mental capacity at all to appreciate Him. I could have died in my sleep last night, and not be typing what I am writing now. The fact that many are suffering does not negate the truth that many have been blessed, and that all of us who are recipients of His blessings have never deserved the good things we have received from our Creator.

I had known all this before. But I had never actually seen a person shot through the head before. I had never experienced being confronted with hurting people every five to ten minutes or so (and my experience even now was only indirect, as a spectator!). And to think that this was only an ordinary weekend morning in a public hospital. I cannot imagine what the effects are on people who work in calamity areas where there are dozens, even hundreds, of dead bodies, or on soldiers and doctors in the battlefield. I realize that, like Job, I have only been hearing about God; I still have to truly see Him.

In the end, I realize that I am too small and stupid to question God, much less tell Him when and how to intervene in His created world. After all, if it were up to me, I would never have thought of the sacrifice of His beloved Son as THE way to save all people who believe in Him. Truly, His ways are higher than my ways, and His thoughts are infinitely higher than my thoughts.

Through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, God has already shown His love. Through the resurrection of Christ, God has already shown His power. Through my death and resurrection in union with Christ, He has already demonstrated His mercy and grace. Through His past provisions He has already shown His faithfulness. I call to mind the deeds and faithful character of the Lord, and my disturbed spirit is calmed. And even this calmness, I know, is not of my own doing, but is a gift from His Holy Spirit.

My prayer is that, by His grace, He will enable me to see Him more clearly and thus trust Him even more. And this prayer is not only for myself, but also for the patients and the staff at the ER that Saturday morning, that we will all learn to trust Him even when it seems that the enemy has free rein.

I pray that God will give us so much assurance, evidence, and personal experience of His goodness, power, and justice, that when things seem to go all wrong, we will still trust Him because we will remember that He is good, faithful, just, loving, and all-wise.

I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands
and my soul refused to be comforted.

I remembered you, O God, and I groaned;
I mused, and my spirit grew faint.
You kept my eyes from closing;
I was too troubled to speak.
I thought about the former days,
the years of long ago;
I remembered my songs in the night.
My heart mused and my spirit inquired:

Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?

Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will meditate on all your works
and consider all your mighty deeds.

Your ways, O God, are holy.
What god is so great as our God?
You are the God who performs miracles;
you display your power among the peoples.
With your mighty arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.

The waters saw you, O God,
the waters saw you and writhed;
the very depths were convulsed.
The clouds poured down water,
the skies resounded with thunder;
your arrows flashed back and forth.
Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind,
your lightning lit up the world;
the earth trembled and quaked.
Your path led through the sea,
your way through the mighty waters,
though your footprints were not seen.

You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Psalm 77 (NIV)

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*   From Psalms 89:46, 79:5, and 74:1, respectively.
** From Psalm 74:10-11.

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