“Relent, O LORD! How long will it be?
Have compassion on your servants.” Psalm 90:13
For too many years—and not always by choice—I’ve held on to a novel that wouldn’t sell. It’s gone by a couple of titles, but the verdict, whenever it’s been submitted, has always been the same: “not quite, got something else?”
I don’t obsess about it. I’ve got plenty other projects to keep me awake at night. But last week I woke up hearing a voice in my head, so I trotted downstairs, pulled the opening pages up on the screen, and started telling the story with this new voice and a slightly adjusted motivation.
Will it go? I don’t know. If it does, will I get a New York Times review? I doubt it. The narrator hasn’t changed, but suddenly I know more about him. I know where he is and why he’s telling the story the way he is telling it. And that helps. Same thing happened, years ago, with another novel, and that one did well, years after a first draft. So, here goes and here’s hoping. Sometimes what might seem a fragment of additional truth can fill out a voice, make that voice become a human being.
And so it is, I think, with this verse from Psalm 90. The very heart of the poem is “how long?” If you want to understand Psalm 90, its centuries’-old soulful appeal, then understand this about Moses, who’s singing: he has fallen deeply into the black hole of God’s absence. “Relent, O LORD! How long will it be? Have compassion on your servants.” He is estranged, as all of us are at one time or another. He’s in the mode of Mother Teresa, who spent much of her life feeling somehow estranged from God’s own presence. God is gone.
And what happens to us when we’ve arrived in that kind of black hole? What happens when we understand our days are, in fact, as numbered, that we won’t escape the sentence of death? Our values alter. Our vision seems skewed.
Every single one of the dozen verses that precede this line proclaim God’s omnipotence, testify to his eternal strength, his timeless care; but Moses isn’t sweet-talking. He’s not just a politician currying favor. He’s throwing himself before a God who he seemingly can’t help believing isn’t there, who therefore seems to have turned his back.
What this line explains is the doleful emotional color of all of the whole psalm. Moses is sure he has been rejected, forgotten; and the desperation which God’s absence creates prompts the self-less prayer of the first dozen verses. “Without you we are nothing, Lord—please return to our lives.” That’s the story.
That may well be why this old Psalm reads so rewardingly at a funeral. It isn’t just the references to sixty or seventy years; it’s more than that. With death’s imminence setting beside us—the coffin itself—grief discolors every joy. Christ may well have conquered death when he arose on Easter, but death’s sting is never insignificant. We feel left behind, the world more dismal.
The power of this old psalm is created by the despair Moses feels in thinking himself and his people abandoned, as we do when we lose someone we love. In the entire poem, he seems to be telling God what God must do, not because he fears God won’t, but because he can’t hold back his own tongue. That’s how much he hurts.
“How long?” he says in verse 13. “Have compassion on your servants.”
He’s begging, imploring, demanding. His back is to the wall.
Where there’s probably a casket. “You are our everything, Lord—please come back? Where on earth are you?”
He awaits some kind of new vision, the return of his loving Creator's hand.