Psalm for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Psalm 90: 3-6, 12-14, 17

This week’s responsorial psalm comes from Psalm 90, a psalm with elements of a lament, but with a primary theme from the Wisdom tradition.

You turn man back to dust, saying, “Return, O children of men.”

The issue that seems to consume the psalmist is the transitoriness of human existence. God formed man from the dust of the earth (Genesis 3:19); the fate of humanity lies with God.

For a thousand years in your sight are as yesterday, now that it is past, or as a watch of the night.

Unlike God, for whom a thousand years are but a blink of an eye, humans have a very brief life span.

You make an end of them in their sleep; the next morning they are like the changing grass, which at dawn springs up anew, but by evening wilts and fades.

When the brevity of human life is spent in suffering and misfortune, life can seem futile. The images presented depict this: dust, grass that wilts and fades.

Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.

The psalmist prays for wisdom of heart, the kind of interior insight that will enable the people to live the few days they have committed to the things of God.

Only God’s wisdom lets one make sense of human life, short as it is and marked by toil and trouble.

Return, O LORD! How long? Have pity on your servants!

This prayer comes from a community in great distress. Apparently the people have been suffering for some time, for they cry out to God in prayer: “How long?”

Fill us at daybreak with your kindness, that we may shout for joy and gladness all our days.

The people’s confidence in God’s willingness to relent from chastising the community and to grace it with kindness (hesed) is based on the covenant relationship that it shares with God. God has made a promise, and even in the face of the people’s infidelity, God will honor that promise.

Daybreak usually brings thoughts of hope. The gradual appearance of light dispels the darkness of despair and speaks of promise and well-being.

Make us glad, for the days when you afflicted us, for the years when we saw evil.

Israel’s way of understanding suffering was quite complex. They seldom questioned why their enemies were burdened with misfortune. The reason for this was obvious to them: enemies of God were enemies of God, and so they deserved to suffer hardship.

The misfortune that befell Israel was quite another matter. If it was a punishment for ungodly behavior, it was seen as necessary recompense meant to restore the harmony that had been disturbed by the sin. However, even this kind of distress was thought to be only temporary. The people expected that the guilty ones would recognize their error and reform their ways, and then good fortune would return.

The pleading found in this psalm arises from a situation from which relief has been long in coming — too long, in fact.

Let your work be seen by your servants and your glory by their children; and may the gracious care of the LORD our God be ours; prosper the work of our hands for us! Prosper the work of our hands!

God’s deliverance of the people will glorify God in the eyes of those who are set free and of those from whom they are set free. Everyone will see and acknowledge God’s graciousness toward his people. God will be known as the one who hears the cry of the afflicted and who rescues them.

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