Remembering their frailty, their relatively short time on earth, people pray for God’s compassion and that their lives and their work matter.
Book IV opens with this rehearsal of human frailty, but then moves on in the psalms that follow to praise God’s good and enduring rule.
A psalm is a song of praise. In the Old Testament 150 psalms comprise the psalter, although some of the psalms are laments and thanksgivings. In the New Testament early Christians gathered to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. 90’s masterful poetry recalls that humans are mortal and short-lived. “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong…they are soon gone, and we fly away” (v. 10). So, what are they to do? Since God is the lord of life and death, who says, “Turn back, you mortals”–that is, turn back to dust (v. 3)–people have no recourse but to ask God also to turn (v. 13, the same Hebrew word) and have compassion. The psalmist recognizes there is nothing to be done about the brevity of human life, but he or she prays for some experience of fairness (v. 15) and that what people do might matter, for them and presumably for God (vv. 16-17). Not much to ask, fairness and meaning, but that would be a great and compassionate gift. True, we “fly away” all too quickly, but in praying this psalm we ask that we make a difference while we are here, confident that God will hear and answer.