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Psalm 90, The Prayer of Moses

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Moses and the Burning Bush (detail), William Blake (English; 1757−1827), c. 1803.

THE following meditation,  inspired, wise and beautifully written, comes from the pen of Rev. William Stratton Pryse (1849−1928), an American Presbyterian minister; and a prize indeed it is.  Other homilies of his on the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer which appeared in the same volume of the Herald and Presbyter are equally profitably.

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Psalm 90, A prayer of Moses the man of God. KJV

  1. LORD, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.
  2. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.
  3. Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.
  4. For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.
  5. Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.
  6. In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.
  7. For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.
  8. Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.
  9. For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.
  10. The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
  11. 11. Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.
  12. So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
  13. Return, O LORD, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants.
  14. O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
  15. Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.
  16. Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.
  17. And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.

A
N IMPRESSIVE and beautiful prayer is that of the great lawgiver Moses, which is contained in the 90th psalm. There seems to be no reason to question the correctness of the title, “A Prayer of Moses,” and the psalm therefore is the oldest extant poem in the world, by many centuries older than the other psalms and the poems of Homer.

It is a noble psalm, solemn and majestic in tone and movement, and it fits well our estimate of the character of Moses. It is also a true memorial of the forty years of desert wandering. As has been said, it “faithfully reflects the long, weary wanderings, the multiplied provocations and the consequent punishments of the wilderness.” [1]

The psalm comprises two parts, of which the first is the longer, consisting of a meditation upon human life as contrasted with that of God. In a tone of deep sadness it dwells upon the brevity, uncertainty and tribulations of man’s earthly life. But coupled with this sadness is a firm confidence in God, who is from everlasting to everlasting, and in whom is our dwelling place forevermore. This meditation is a true part of the prayer of which the whole psalm consists, for while it is not in the form of petition it is, throughout, a cry of the soul after God.

Beginning with the 12th verse, the remainder of the psalm is composed of petitions which spring naturally out of the preceding reflectings. These petitions are seven in number, and thus conform to the symbolism which throughout Scripture attaches to that number. For the trend of these petitions is in precise accord with the symbolical meaning of that number, as indicating a work of God for man. Such a divine working for help and blessing is the burden of the petitions from the first to the last. And they conform to the arrangement of the seven units, which is found in every instance of the symbolical use of that number in Scripture.

The seven fall into the two groups of four and three, and the other division of six and one, the petitions in each case corresponding with and illustrated by the significance of these divisions. The order of the four and three however, the world-human number four coming first and followed by the divine number three, reverses the order of the Lord’s Prayer, which is three and four. This order grows out of the previous meditation, which leads up to the petitions of human need. The grouping of four and three is indicated by the pronouns “us” and “thy.” Teach us, return unto us, satisfy us, make us glad; and thy work, thy beauty, thy establishing power.

It is to be noted that Moses in this prayer nowhere speaks of himself alone, but includes all his people with him. It is nowhere “I” but always “we,” nowhere “me” but always “us.” It is as mediator and intercessor for the people that he utters the prayer. Is he not in this an example for every praying Christian? Upon the truly praying heart rests not only the wants of self, but the burden of humanity’s need. So also the Lord in his model prayer taught us to pray.

The first of these petitions is profoundly beautiful, but it is also vitally essential in human life. “So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.” Here is the vital lesson of human life, upon which turns the success or failure of each and every one, not only for time but for eternity. He who learns so to number his days as to acquire this heart wisdom, secures true and high success; he who does not so do makes a disastrous and hopeless failure. And that lesson God, and God alone, can teach us to learn, through his Word and by his Spirit.

But in teaching us God deals with us in discipline, and this leads to the second petition. Out of life’s trials and sorrows we are moved to pray for a turn in our experience, bringing a merciful relief and a happier state. “Return, O Lord; how long? And let it repent thee concerning thy servants.” God “repents” when a change comes from severe trials to peace and happiness.

In the third petition there is progress in definite and positive desire. Not only relief but soul-satisfaction is sought. As the brightness of morning follows the darkness of night, so hope reaches out to such a morning of satisfaction and joy. “Oh, satisfy us early with thy mercy, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” Only in God, in his love and kindness, can this blessing be realized and become our abiding portion.

One step further in the fourth petition crowns the series, compensation, gladness for affliction. “Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.” And why should it not be so? Is it not the very purpose of discipline? Is it not a part of God’s plan concerning his people, that by trial they shall be prepared for good? The Master himself gives assurance that it shall be so: “Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you and persecute you—for great is your reward in heaven.” [cf. Mat 5:11−12] For all life’s sufferings the believer shall receive great and glorious compensation, of which no small part may be hoped for in the present life.

But now the flow of petition turns to things divine, the supreme things of God. The fifth rises to the very pinnacle at once of human aspiration and divine manifestation. “Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.” The work and glory of God are inseparable, for his work is full of his glory, and his glory flames through all his work. It is this glory shining in his work that puts all meaning and purpose and hope into all things that exist. And it is the vision of this glory-filled work of God, and of his own glory revealed in it, that puts all exalted meaning and blessed hope into human life. He who is blind to it is poor indeed, but he to whom God has shown it is rich with the unsearchable riches of Christ. And the vision most clearly appears in the person and work of him who is himself the shining forth of the glory of God.

Exquisitely beautiful and in the same line is the next petition, the sixth: “And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us.” All the endless beauty that appears in nature is but his own, the reflection of the ineffable beauty of himself, the beauty that most brightly shines in him who is the express image of his person. The beauty of God, everywhere, in all things, how it reveals him and how it glorifies human life. What a prayer, that this beauty may be upon us, that it may crown us with its radiance, that it may clothe us as with a garment. His beauty upon us for assurance and hope; his beauty upon us for joy and peace; his beauty upon us for strength and power; so is our life exalted and beatified. Beauty is the revelation of divine goodness and eternal glory.

These six petitions lead up to and are crowned by the seventh; “Establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.” Here is the final essential without which all our work must come to nothing, with which our work shall succeed gloriously and stand forever. The finishing, confirming touch of God upon our work, what can human effort avail without this? No work conducted without God, in human wisdom and power alone, is completed at all. It is but a house built upon the sand, which can only fall. If men would accomplish any good and abiding results, they must co-operate with God, and look to him to establish their work upon them. The only hope of the world is in the leaders and people of the nations recognizing this fact.

We can not fail to see that this seventh petition is truly Sabbath, in the sense of completing all the rest. The whole prayer would be incomplete without it. In it the prayer reaches its true culmination and completion. God’s establishing touch alone brings our work to a successful end, and ushers us into our hoped-for rest. In all true effort and progress our attitude must be that of “looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.” [Heb 12:2]

Moses, we are grateful unto you under God for this wondrous prayer. We see that you are not only lawgiver, leader, governor, commander; you are also a true poet, one divinely inspired. Yours is the poetry of the heart and soul, poetry of spiritual understanding, poetry of the profound insight and exalted inspiration, poetry of true sympathy with man and communion with God.

Source: Pryse, W. S. The Prayer Of Moses. The Herald and Presbyter, Vol. XCIII, No. 29 (July 19, 1922), pp.5−6.

Notes.

  1. Smith, William (Ed.), ‘Psalms, Book of’, Dictionary of the Bible, Hartford: Scranton Co., 1908. (p. 775)

 

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Book: Metamorphosis: the Transfiguration in Byzantine theology and iconography

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Metamorphosis: the Transfiguration in Byzantine theology and iconography
Andreas Andreopoulos
St Vladimir’s Seminary (SVS) Press, 2005
ISBN: 0881412953, 9780881412956

cover_Metamorphosis_Andreopoulos_smBook description:

“This book taps the vein of the blending of theology and art in the Middle Ages, in particular, the evolution of the imagery and theology surrounding the Transfiguration Of Christ. In this well-researched volume, Andreas Andreopoulos discusses in detail every philosophical and ritual application of the Transfiguration icon – the mountain, the cloud, the mandorla, the positioning of the apostles, the Old Testament prophets, and the image of Christ himself – taking the reader through an illustrated historical journey. The author simplifies the complex relationship between the dogma of the church fathers and Byzantine art and makes it understandable to a non-specialist audience. Nevertheless, theologians, historians, and art historians alike will appreciate the interdisciplinary value of this clearly presented documentation. Andreopoulos’s expert use of patristic texts and Jewish sources, as well as the New Testament and apocryphal writings and pagan sources, elucidates the development of art and doctrine that surround this scriptural epiphany.”
– Book jacket

“This book is a valuable addition to the literature on this subject. No one has treated it in depth before, and the work is a substantial contribution to the understanding of the evolution of the theology and visual representation of the Transfiguration.”
– Sheila Campbell, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies

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Written by John Uebersax

August 7, 2009 at 5:02 pm

St. Gregory Palamas’s Sermon on the Transfiguration

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On the Transfiguration

St Gregory Palamas, (Γρηγόριος Παλαμάς) Archbishop of Thessalonica (1296 – 1359)200px-Gregor_Palamas

For an explanation of the present Feast and understanding of its truth,it is necessary for us to turn to the very start of today’s reading from the Gospel: “Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James and John his brother, and led them up onto a high mountain by themselves” (Mt 17:1).

First of all we must ask, from whence does the Evangelist Matthew begin to reckon with six days? From what sort of day be it? What does the preceding turn of speech indicate, where the Savior, in teaching His disciples, said to them: “For the Son of Man shall come with his angels in the glory of His Father,” and further: “Amen I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death, until they have seen the Son of Man coming in His Kingdom” (Mt 16:27-28)? That is to say, it is the Light of His own forthcoming Transfiguration which He terms the Glory of His Father and of His Kingdom.

The Evangelist Luke points this out and reveals this more clearly saying: “Now it came to pass about eight days after these words, that He took Peter and John and James, and went up the mountain to pray. And as He prayed, His countenance was altered, and His raiment became a radiant white” (Lk 9:28-29). But how can the two be reconciled, when one of them speaks definitively about the interval of time as being eight days between the sayings and the manifestation, whereas the other (says): “after six days?”

There were eight on the mountain, but only six were visible. Three, Peter, James and John, had come up with Jesus, and they saw Moses and Elias standing there and conversing with Him, so altogether there were six of them. However, the Father and the Holy Spirit were invisibly with the Lord: the Father, with His Voice testifying that this was His Beloved Son, and the Holy Spirit shining forth with Him in the radiant cloud. Thus, the six are actually eight, and there is no contradiction regarding the eight. Similarly, there is no contradiction with the Evangelists when one says “after six days,” and the other says “eight days after these words.”

But these twofold sayings as it were present us a certain format set in mystery, and together with it that of those actually present upon the Mount. It stands to reason, and everyone rationally studying in accordance with Scripture knows that the Evangelists are in agreement one with another. Luke spoke of eight days without contradicting Matthew, who declared “after six days.” There is not another day added on to represent the day on which these sayings were uttered, nor is the day on which the Lord was transfigured added on (which a rational person might reasonably imagine to be added to the days of Matthew).

The Evangelist Luke does not say “after eight days” (like the Evangelist Matthew says “after six days”), but rather “it came to pass eight days after these words.” But where the Evangelists seem to contradict one another, they actually point out to us something great and mysterious. In actual fact, why did the one say “after six days,” but the other, in ignoring the seventh day, have in mind the eighth day? It is because the great vision of the Light of the Transfiguration of the Lord is the mystery of the Eighth Day, i.e., of the future age, coming to be revealed after the passing away of the world created in six days.

Preobrazhenie_transfiguration_iconAbout the power of the Divine Spirit, through Whom the Kingdom of God is to be revealed, the Lord predicted: “There are some standing here who shall not taste death, until they have seen the Son of Man coming in His Kingdom” (Mt 16:28). Everywhere and in every way the King will be present, and everywhere will be His Kingdom, since the advent of His Kingdom does not signify the passing over from one place to another, but rather the revelation of its power of the Divine Spirit. That is why it is said: “come in power.” And this power is not manifest to simply ordinary people, but to those standing with the Lord, that is to say, those who have affirmed their faith in Him like Peter, James and John, and especially those who are free of our natural abasement. Therefore, and precisely because of this, God manifests Himself upon the Mount, on the one hand coming down from His heights, and on the other, raising us up from the depths of abasement, since the Transcendent One takes on mortal nature. Certainly, such a manifest appearance by far transcends the utmost limits of the mind’s grasp, as effectualized by the power of the Divine Spirit.

Thus, the Light of the Transfiguration of the Lord is not something that comes to be and then vanishes, nor is it subject to the sensory faculties, although it was contemplated by corporeal eyes for a short while upon an inconsequential mountaintop. But the initiates of the Mystery, (the disciples) of the Lord at this time passed beyond mere flesh into spirit through a transformation of their senses, effectualized within them by the Spirit, and in such a way that they beheld what, and to what extent, the Divine Spirit had wrought blessedness in them to behold the Ineffable Light.

Those not grasping this point have conjectured that the chosen from among the Apostles beheld the Light of the Transfiguration of the Lord by a sensual and creaturely faculty, and through this they attempt to reduce to a creaturely level (i.e., as something “created”) not only this Light, the Kingdom and the Glory of God, but also the Power of the Divine Spirit, through Whom it is meet for Divine Mysteries to be revealed. In all likelihood, such persons have not heeded the words of the Apostle Paul: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love Him. But to us God has revealed them through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God” (1 Cor 2:9-10).

So, with the onset of the Eighth Day, the Lord, taking Peter, James and John, went up on the Mount to pray. He always prayed alone, withdrawing from everyone, even from the Apostles themselves, as for example when with five loaves and two fish He fed the five thousand men, besides women and children (Mt 14:19-23). Or, taking with Him those who excelled others, as at the approach of His Saving Passion, when He said to the other disciples: “Sit here while I go over there and pray” (Mt 26:36). Then He took with Him Peter, James and John. But in our instance right here and now, having taken only these same three, the Lord led them up onto a high mountain by themselves and was transfigured before them, that is to say, before their very eyes.

“What does it mean to say: He was transfigured?” asks the Golden-Mouthed Theologian (Chrysostomos). He answers this by saying: “It revealed something of His Divinity to them, as much and insofar as they were able to apprehend it, and it showed the indwelling of God within Him.” The Evangelist Luke says: “And as He prayed, His countenance was altered” (Lk 9:29); and from the Evangelist Matthew we read: “And His face shone as the sun” (Mt 17:2). But the Evangelist said this, not in the context that this Light be thought of as subsistent for the senses (let us put aside the blindness of mind of those who can conceive of nothing higher than what is known through the senses). Rather, it is to show that Christ God, for those living and contemplating by the Spirit, is the same as the sun is for those living in the flesh and contemplating by the senses. Therefore, some other Light for the knowing the Divinity is not necessary for those who are enriched by Divine gifts.

That same Inscrutable Light shone and was mysteriously manifest to the Apostles and the foremost of the Prophets at that moment, when (the Lord) was praying. This shows that what brought forth this blessed sight was prayer, and that the radiance occured and was manifest by uniting the mind with God, and that it is granted to all who, with constant exercise in efforts of virtue and prayer, strive with their mind towards God. True beauty, essentially, can be contemplated only with a purified mind. To gaze upon its luminance assumes a sort of participation in it, as though some bright ray etches itself upon the face.

Even the face of Moses was illumined by his association with God. Do you not know that Moses was transfigured when he went up the mountain, and there beheld the Glory of God? But he (Moses) did not effect this, but rather he underwent a transfiguration. However, our Lord Jesus Christ possessed that Light Himself. In this regard, actually, He did not need prayer for His flesh to radiate with the Divine Light; it was but to show from whence that Light descends upon the saints of God, and how to contemplate it. For it is written that even the saints “will shine forth like the sun” (Mt 13:43), which is to say, entirely permeated by Divine Light as they gaze upon Christ, divinely and inexpressibly shining forth His Radiance, issuing from His Divine Nature. On Mount Tabor it was manifest also in His Flesh, by reason of the Hypostatic Union (i.e., the union of the two perfect natures, divine and human, within the divine Person [Hypostasis] of Christ, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity). The Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon defined this Hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures, divine and human, as “without mingling, without change, without division, without separation.”

We believe that at the Transfiguration He manifested not some other sort of light, but only that which was concealed beneath His fleshly exterior. This Light was the Light of the Divine Nature, and as such, it was Uncreated and Divine. So also, in the teachings of the Fathers, Jesus Christ was transfigured on the Mount, not taking upon Himself something new nor being changed into something new, nor something which formerly He did not possess. Rather, it was to show His disciples that which He already was, opening their eyes and bringing them from blindness to sight. For do you not see that eyes that can perceive natural things would be blind to this Light?

Thus, this Light is not a light of the senses, and those contemplating it do not simply see with sensual eyes, but rather they are changed by the power of the Divine Spirit. They were transformed, and only in this way did they see the transformation taking place amidst the very assumption of our perishability, with the deification through union with the Word of God in place of this.

So also she who miraculously conceived and gave birth recognized that the One born of her is God Incarnate. So it was also for Simeon, who only received this Infant into his arms, and the aged Anna, coming out [from the Jerusalem Temple] for the Meeting, since the Divine Power illumined, as through a glass windowpane, giving light for those having pure eyes of heart.

And why did the Lord, before the beginning of the Transfiguration, choose the foremost of the Apostles and lead them up onto the Mount with Him? Certainly, it was to show them something great and mysterious. What is particularly great or mysterious in showing a sensory light, which not only the foremost, but all the other Apostles already abundantly possessed? Why would they need a transforming of their eyes by the power of the Holy Spirit for a contemplation of this Light, if it were merely sensory and created? How could the Glory and the Kingdom of the Father and the Holy Spirit project forth in some sort of sensory light? Indeed, in what sort of Glory and Kingdom would Christ the Lord come at the end of the ages, when there would not be necessary anything in the air, nor in expanse, nor anything similar, but when, in the words of the Apostle, “God will be all in all” (1 Cor 15: 28)? That is to say, will He alter everything for all? If so, then it follows that light is included.

Hence it is clear that the Light of Tabor was a Divine Light. And the Evangelist John, inspired by Divine Revelation, says clearly that the future eternal and enduring city “has no need of the sun or moon to shine upon it. For the Glory of God lights it up, and the Lamb will be its lamp” (Rev 21:23). Is it not clear, that he points out here that this [Lamb] is Jesus, Who is divinely transfigured now upon Tabor, and the flesh of Whom shines, is the lamp manifesting the Glory of divinity for those ascending the mountain with Him?

John the Theologian also says about the inhabitants of this city: “they will not need light from lamps, nor the light of the sun, for the Lord God will shed light upon them, and night shall be no more” (Rev 22:5). But how, we might ask, is there this other light, in which “there is no change, nor shadow of alteration” (Jas 1:17)? What light is there that is constant and unsetting, unless it be the Light of God? Moreover, could Moses and Elias (and particularly the former, who clearly was present only in spirit, and not in flesh [Elias having ascended bodily to Heaven on the fiery chariot]) be shining with any sort of sensory light, and be seen and known? Especially since it was written of them: “they appeared in glory, and spoke of his death, which he was about to fulfill at Jerusalem” (Lk 9:30-31). And how otherwise could the Apostles recognize those whom they had never seen before, unless through the mysterious power of the Divine Light, opening their mental eyes?

But let us not tire our attention with the furthermost interpretations of the words of the Gospel. We shall believe thus, as those same ones have taught us, who themselves were enlightened by the Lord Himself, insofar as they alone know this well: the Mysteries of God, in the words of a prophet, are known to God alone and His perpetual proximity. Let us, considering the Mystery of the Transfiguration of the Lord in accord with their teaching, strive to be illumined by this Light ourselves and encourage in ourselves love and striving towards the Unfading Glory and Beauty, purifying our spiritual eyes of worldly thoughts and refraining from perishable and quickly passing delights and beauty which darken the garb of the soul and lead to the fire of Gehenna and everlasting darkness. Let us be freed from these by the illumination and knowledge of the incorporeal and ever-existing Light of our Savior transfigured on Tabor, in His Glory, and of His Father from all eternity, and His Life-Creating Spirit, Whom are One Radiance, One Godhead, and Glory, and Kingdom, and Power now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.