Reflecting on the Psalms: Divine Splendour and Human Frailty

People are often worried about how long they will live on this earth. We care for our health in many ordinary and extraordinary ways.

Sep 11, 2021

By Msgr James Gnanapiragasam

People are often worried about how long they will live on this earth. We care for our health in many ordinary and extraordinary ways. We can even become unduly absorbed in the many issues of personal health that could affect our dealings and conversations with others, especially those closest to us. All the time we are subconsciously aware that everything will come to an end one day. As the poet says, “Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” This poem, No Man is an Island, shows how we are all part of the universe and that we are not alone. We are affected by those around us. When a friend dies it affects and even ‘diminishes’ us.

Many philosophers have tried to explain the absurdity of life in this world. The psalm which we are about to read speaks in a certain way about this aspect of our human condition. However, as a man of faith, the psalmist composes a meaningful poem showing the stunning contrast between the great God and our puny lives.

Psalms of Supplication (4) Psalms 89 (90) Week 4 Monday Morning Prayer

The psalm is a community lament, neatly divided into two parts, Verses 1-10 and 11-17. The first speaks about the eternity and greatness of God while the second part expresses man’s weakness and fragility before God. God has been a refuge and a fortress for man from the beginning because he was there right at the beginning. The language of birth is used for both the mountains and the earth. God is said to have given birth to these. The mountains in ancient times were considered to be the dwelling place of the gods. God is even greater than these gods as he is eternal, without any beginning or end.

Verses 3-6 speak of God telling man (enosh = man in his frailty) to return to the dust from which he was created. Man’s life, however long, can be compared to be just a part of the night watch in God’s eyes, or a dream which is soon forgotten when one awakes, or beautiful green grass and flowers which just wither away by the evening. Verses 7-10 highlight the reason why our lives come to an end like a sigh. We have incurred the wrath of God because of our sins and our failings. He is putting an end to our days which have been empty and bereft of joy because we had forgotten God.

The composition of Verses 11-17 is a masterly stroke of genius where the author lines up a language of contrast with the preceding verses. The lament changes from the idea of mortality to human misery. The psalmist first asks for wisdom to understand himself so that he can understand the anger of God. The contrasts are played out accordingly: Verse 13 “Lord, relent”, that is “return” to us is in opposition to Verse 3 “Go back”, that is “return” to dust. Verse 14 “In the morning fill us with your love” is in contrast to Verses 5-6, where the grass and flowers which bloom in the morning will wither by the evening. “Rejoice all our days” of Verse 14 stands in opposition to Verse 9 “All our days pass away…” And therefore, the psalmist appeals for a balance of joy in his life as much as he has endured sadness and pain. Thus, the psalm ends with a confident prayer to God to bless the work that fills our human endeavour in this world.

Christ cautioned us not to stake our all on earthly values nor “build bigger barns”, Lk 12:18. He invited people to be “poor in spirit”. He even requested a prospective follower to sell everything and give to the poor and then come back to follow him. The sermon on the mount insists that God is aware of what is going on in our lives. He can never be absent.

In our own prayer we can recognise our frailty and our fragility. We need to have the confident hope that God is present in our weaknesses. God is angry with Satan, not with the sinner for whom his Son has already won the victory. We can meditate on grace and freedom in our lives. Perhaps it is sometimes helpful to begin our prayer focusing on our sinfulness and being filled with the hope of his unbounded love and forgiveness.

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