Reflection on Psalm 89(90)

Misery of Man’s Life Is Turned Into Glory by God, Says John Paul II

Share this Entry

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 26, 2003 ( Here is a translation of the address John Paul II gave at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to a reflection on part of Psalm 89(90).

* * *

1. The verses that have just resounded in our ears and in our hearts are a sapiential meditation, which has, however, the tone of a supplication. In fact, the man praying Psalm 89(90) puts at the center of his prayer one of the topics most explored by philosophy, most sung by poetry, most felt by the experience of humanity of all times and all regions of our planet: human transience and the passing of time.

Suffice it to think of some of the unforgettable pages of the Book of Job, in which our fragility is presented. In fact, we are like “those that dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is dust, who are crushed more easily than the moth! Morning or evening they may be shattered; with no head paid to it, they perish forever” (Job 4:19-20). Our life on earth is “but a shadow” (see Job 8:9). And Job continues to confess: “My days are swifter than a runner, they flee away; they see no happiness. They shoot by like skiffs of reed, like an eagle swooping upon its prey” (Job 9:25-26).

2. At the beginning of his song, which is akin to an elegy (see Psalm 89[90]:2-6), the Psalmist contrasts insistently the eternity of God with man’s ephemeral time. This is his most explicit declaration: “A thousand years in your eyes are merely a yesterday … [as] a watch passes in the night” (verse 4).

As a consequence of original sin, man by divine order returns to the dust from which he was taken, as already affirmed in the account of Genesis: “For you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return” (3:19; see 2:7). The Creator, who molds the human creature in all his beauty and complexity, is also the one who “turns man back to the dust” ([see] Psalm 89[90]:3). And “dust” in biblical language is also a symbolic expression of death, of the infernal, of sepulchral silence.

3. The sense of human limitation is intense in this prayer. Our existence has the frailty of the grass that sprouts at dawn; suddenly it hears the whistle of the sickle that reduces it to a pile of hay. The freshness of life very soon is followed by the aridity of death (see verses 5-6; see Isaiah 40:6-7; Job 14:1-2; Psalm 102:14-16).

As often happens in the Old Testament, the Psalmist associates this radical weakness with sin: In us there is finiteness but also culpability. Because of this, the wrath and judgment of the Lord also seem imminent in our existence: “Truly we are consumed by your anger, filled with terror by your wrath. You have kept our faults before you … Our life ebbs away under your wrath” (Psalm 89[90]:7-9).

4. At the dawning of a new day, with this Psalm the liturgy of lauds shakes our illusions and our pride. Human life is limited — “Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong,” the Psalmist affirms. Moreover, the passing of the hours, of the days, and of the months is laced with “sorrow and toil” (see verse 10) and the years themselves seem like “a sigh” (see verse 9).

Here, then, is the great lesson: The Lord teaches us to “count our days” so that, accepting them with healthy realism, “we may gain wisdom of heart” (verse 12). But the Psalmist requests something more of God: that his grace sustain and gladden our days, yet so fragile and marked by affliction. That he make us taste the flavor of hope, even if the wave of time seems to drag us away. Only the grace of the Lord can give consistency and perpetuity to our daily actions: “May the favor of the Lord our God be ours. Prosper the work of our hands! Prosper the work of our hands!” (verse 17).

With prayer we ask God that a reflection of eternity penetrate our brief life and our actions. With the presence of divine grace in us, a light will shine on the passing of the days, misery will be turned into glory, that which seems deprived of sense will acquire meaning.

5. Let us conclude our reflection on Psalm 89(90) leaving the word to the early Christian tradition, which comments on the Psalter, having in the background the glorious figure of Christ. Thus, for the Christian writer Origen, in his “Treatise on the Psalms,” which has reached us in the Latin translation of St. Jerome, the resurrection of Christ gives us the possibility, perceived by the Psalmist, to rejoice and be “glad all our days” (see verse 14). Because Christ’s passion is the source of our life beyond death: “After being gladdened by the resurrection of our Lord, through which we believe we have been redeemed and will ourselves also resurrect one day, we now live in joy the days that remain of our life, exulting because of this confidence, and with spiritual hymns and songs praise God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Origen — Jerome, “74 Omelie sul Libro dei Salmi” [74 Homilies on the Book of Psalms], Milan, 1993, p. 652).

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father gave this summary in English:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Psalm 89 is a prayer that focuses on an experience that is common to all people: human frailty and the passing of time. Our existence is fragile like the grass that sprouts in the morning and withers in the evening. We are called, therefore, to recognize the shortness of our lives so that we may gain wisdom of heart.

It is the grace of God which alone gives meaning and continuity to our actions; through grace eternity enters into our lives and transforms us. In fact, it is the resurrection of Christ that makes this possible: Christ’s Passion is the source of our life after death. In him we have been redeemed and our lives are filled with joy and praise.

I extend a special welcome to the priests from the Institute for Continuing Theological Education at the Pontifical North American College and to the visiting Lutheran pastors from Helsinki. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims, especially those from England, Denmark, Finland, and the United States of America, I invoke the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation