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Turn, O Lord! How Long?

Review and Expositor, 100, Summer 2003

Turn, O Lord! How Long?

Samuel E. Balentine*


Psalm 90, the only psalm attributed to Moses, reflects the torah that instructs who
God is and who God's people are to be. The focus is the tension of hope and lament
before God in the face of suffering. From this tension rises the question of whether
God will respond. There is exploration of the reverberations in Psalm 90 of Exodus
32:7-14, where Moses prays for God's faithfulness to God's own character for the sake
of the people. The essay considers tensions faced in contemporary exegesis and
liturgical leadership, concluding that those who hear this Psalm are enjoined to live as
mortals before God and pray as servants of God and God's people, wrestling with hard
questions; honest about pain while hopefully insistent upon faithfulness to the divine

In an editorial written in the aftermath of yet another Palestinian suicide

bomber who had killed innocent people in Jerusalem, Shmuley Boteach
strains to find meaning in the conventional observance of Yom Kippur ("Day
of Atonement"). As he contemplates the personal and corporate rituals of
repentance the Jewish High Holy Days require, he cannot silence questions
that the liturgy does not seem prepared to ask. "Is G-d watching all this?"
"Can't G-d prevent it"? "How can He be so silent?" Boteach then recalls
the story of the Hasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. On the
eve of Yom Kippur, as hundreds of people waited for him to begin the Kol
Ntdre prayer, Rabbi Yitzchak stood silently facing the holy ark, his back to

'Samuel E. Balentine is Russell T. Cherry Professor of Old Testament Studies at Baptist

Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.

the congregation, for more than two hours. When the people
began to grow restless, the rabbi turned to his congregation
and explained:

I want to bring you into the conversation I was having

with G-d. I said to G-d, "I come here before you on Yom
Kippur, the Day of Atonement to ask that You atone for
my sins." But then it suddenly struck me that in the past year, I haven't
brought any plagues upon any part of the world. Nor have I made any
woman a widow. Nor have I made any child an orphan. Nor have I
caused anyone to go bankrupt and thereby not be able to sustain and
support their children. Yet, G-d has done all these things. And then it
struck me, why isn't He coming to ask us for forgiveness. So I said to
G-d, "In the past year, I have caused no death. I have brought no plagues
upon the world, no earthquakes, no floods. I have made no women
widows, no children orphans. G-d, you have done these things, not
me! You should be asking forgiveness from me. So Γ11 make a deal.
You forgive us, we'll forgive you, and we'll call it even." 1

"You forgive us, we'll forgive you, and we'll call it even." It is only a
story, of course, one of the many delightful, if unsettling, legends of the
rabbis. "People of the book," both Jews and Christians, may easily discount
it. At best it is irrelevant; at worst, blasphemous. Either way, we need not
bother with it for very long. Or should we?
Near the middle of Psalm 90, at the critical turning point between a
lament about the sinful and sorry predicament of h u m a n beings and a
supplication for God's favor, Moses, the putative speaker of the prayer,
speaks these words: "Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on
your servants!" (v. 13). The words are jolting. Given the confessed
sinfulness of the human condition, there seems no justification for either
the imperative or the question. And yet, the
words linger as sacred scripture, as if awaiting, Moses plants the seed for the
perhaps even inviting, the ruminations; of Rabbi g ^ ™ ^
Yitzchak. No less a luminary of Israel s faith than then challenged to turn away
Moses plants the seed for the thought that God from divine decisions that
deny future
may legitimately be questioned, then challenged P0ssibj,it¡es-
to turn away from divine decisions that deny
future possibilities. Psalm 90 invites the community of faith to ponder its
stewardship of Moses' prayer.

Turn, O Lordi How Long?
Review and Expositor, 100, Summer 2003

Praying Like Moses, "the Man of God"

Psalm 90 is the only psalm that is ascribed to Moses. The
ascription does not indicate Mosaic authorship, but it is as
an important clue for reading this prayer in the context of
the stories about Moses in the Pentateuch. Against this
interpretive backdrop, the psalm offers an imaginative
example of how Moses might have prayed as he endeavored to be faithful
to God's command to lead the people from the bonds of Egyptian oppression
to the freedom that awaited them in the land of Canaan. Israel came to
understand this deliverance story as torah, the foundational instruction that
constantly teaches them who God is and who they are to be as a people
entrusted with God's hopes and expectations. Moses' prayer belongs to
this torah; in essence, Moses' words to God become God's words to
successive generations of faithful travelers on the road from slavery to
The psalm is a corporate prayer for help, which is composed in three
parts. It begins with an assertion of trust in the God whose presence in the
world, conveyed through the images of God's "place" and "time," is beyond
the limits of all human calculation (vv. 1-2). The affirmation signals at the
outset that there would be no prayer, no expectation of a hearing, no reason
to hope for help, if people did not believe and trust that "God is Lord of
the universe."2 The chiasmus that frames the beginning and ending of
these verses underscores this abiding confidence: "Lord, you ...(v. 1) ...
you are God" (v. 2).
The second part (w. 3-12) shifts the focus from the limitless presence
and power of God to the transience and tragic vulnerability of mortal human
beings. The radical gulf between God and human beings occasions both
awe and anxiety. Praise is the joyful response to the God whose "place" in
creation is at the beginning point, "before" the mountains, the earth, the
world ever existed, the God whose "time" can barely be conceptualized
with the words "from everlasting to everlasting." Praise bleeds into distress
at the thought that the gap between Creator and creature may be too great
to bridge. The "place" of human beings is ephemeral; we are like a "dream,"
a fleeting sensation the mind cannot retrieve; like "grass" that flourishes
for a moment, then withers away without a trace. Our "time" is measured
in segments of days—"morning" and "evening" (w. 5-6)—and "years" (v.
9). The number, at best, is seventy or eighty years; whatever the total, the
end comes with a "sigh." A thousand years may be nothing in God's time

(v. 4); for human beings, a mere fraction of that time seems
like endless "toil and trouble" (v. 10).
Two aspects of the human condition aggravate the distress.
First, the speaker imagines that it is God w h o " t u r n s
humankind back to dust" (v. 3). The Hebrew word for "dust"
( t O l I ) likely carries a double meaning. It refers to something
that has been "crushed" or "pounded," perhaps painfully so,
as in the crushing of testicles (Deut 23:1 [MT 23:2]). Given the imagery in
this psalm, the reference may connote the painful weight of time upon
human existence. 3fcO*ïJalso means "contrition," in which case there may
be an echo here of God's post-Eden disappointment concerning the human
experiment (Gen 3:19: "dust p S J ? ] you are and to dust p 2 Ì ? ] you shall
return;" cf. Isa 53:5,10; 57:15). The two meanings may convey a distinction
without a difference. In either case, the speaker seems to suggest that
turning human beings to dust or contrition through suffering is part of
God's plan. 4 Second, the speaker discerns that God equates the toil and
trouble of human existence with sin, sin that results in God's wrath and
anger (vv. 7-8,11) and ultimately, death.
By the end of the second section of the prayer, the convergence of trust
and fear, praise and awe-filled respect, in the presence of God has reached
critical mass. Should human beings cling resolutely to hope or yield in
despair to lament? The speaker ponders the situation with a question that
strains to remain merely rhetorical: "Who can know the power of your
anger?" (v. 11). A single petition follows, suspended in the lingering
wonderment about what wisdom is available to human beings, given the
undeniable limitations of our time and place in this world: "Teach us how
to count our days" (v. 12).
The final section of the prayer (vv. 13-17) makes a decisive turn toward
The initial petition of verse 12 is buttressed with a string of additional
supplications: "turn," "have compassion," "satisfy us," "make us glad,"
"let your work (and glory) be manifest," "let
the favor of the Lord our God be upon us," The final section of the prayer is
"establish the work of our hands." Each ^I^^^^J^ÎÎ1
transform the days and years of
petition is now invested in the hope that God i¡fe, however limited they may
will transform the days and years of life, be, with new possibilities for joy,
ι Ί.
.. -, .·, ι ..i fulfillment, and God's abiding and
however limited they may be, w i t h n e w sustaining love.
possibilities for joy, fulfillment, and most
importantly, God's abiding and sustaining

Tum, O Lord! How Long?
Review and Expositor, 100, Summer 2003

love. Of these supplications, the first two, interrupted by a

freighted question—"How long?" (v. 13) —are the most
crucial. If God will not hear and respond positively to these
pleas, then all that follows is "work without hope," as
Coleridge puts it, like "draw[ing] nectar in a sieve." The
effort, and the faith that endeavors to undergird it, is
pointless, for "Hope without an object cannot live."5
There are several places in Psalm 90 where rhetoric and thematic focus
invite us to hear this prayer with one ear cocked toward the stories about
Moses in the Pentateuch. None is more important than the reverberations
between Ps 90:13 and Moses' prayer in Exod 32:7-14. The prayer occurs at
the critical intersection between Israel's sin in the making of the golden
calf (vv. 1-6), which violates the covenant and jeopardizes the future with
God, and God's ultimate, and surprising, decision to renew the covenant
(Exodus 34). The sequence of events in Exodus 32-34 represents therefore
a moment of high drama in Israel's journey with God. The people have
gathered at Sinai to receive instructions that will enable them to become "a
priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Exod 19:6). Those instructions take
the form of covenant commandments for moral and ethical fidelity to God
(Exod 20:1-17) and for worship that demonstrates this fidelity, both inside
the holy sanctuary (Exodus 25-31,35-40; Leviticus 1-16) and in the common
world outside the sanctuary, where everyday actions must be consonant
with the rites and rituals of faith (Leviticus 17-27). In the Torah's vision of
who Israel is to become, all these commandments and instructions are
presented as a grand Sabbath-day liturgy, some eleven months long (!),
that prepares them for the journey to the promised land of Canaan (Exodus
19-Numbers 10) .6 This liturgy, which embodies all the hopes and promises
of Israel's journey in covenant partnership with God, now hangs in the
balance. Israel's future, if it has one, depends in large measure on what
Moses will say or do in the tensive interim between sin and judgment...
and on how God will respond.7
On first reading, the report in Exodus 32 suggests Moses' options
are severely limited. Israel's disobedience is clear; so too is God's decision
to punish: "Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn against them
and I may consume them" (v. 10). And yet, the words "let me alone" seem
a curious way for God to introduce what by all accounts sounds like a final
Why should God need to be left alone? Might Moses say something
that changes the decision? If so, why should God resist such input? Would
changing the decision compromise God's character or freedom? Would it

compromise God's justice? And if Moses can contribute
nothing that changes the decision, then why should it matter
to God what he says or does? The questions become more
difficult, not less, if we suspend our knowledge of the end of
the story and, for a moment, imagine ourselves to be in Moses'
place. How could we know what God means by the words
"let me alone"? To return to the imagery of Psalm 90, if God's
power to mold the world in accord with divine purposes is "from
everlasting to everlasting," and if we are mere mortals whose capacity is
for little more than brief lives of "only toil and trouble," then should we
yield to God's directive, or not? Once more the plaintive question: "Who
can know the power of God's anger?"
Moses does not yield to God's directive. He does not
leave God alone. Israel's future is at stake, so Moses prays Moses prays, ¡n a
for them. Moses believes that the decision God has ^God ^ ^
announced will have important consequences for God,
so Moses also prays, in a very real sense, for God. His prayer comprises a
number of questions and petitions, two of which repeat in the poetic version
of Moses' prayer in Psalm 90. He implores God to "turn away from" the
wrath that fuels God's assessment of Israel's failures Ç2*W; Exod 32:12a; Ps
90:13a). And he implores God to "change the mind," that is, reverse the
decision to punish (ΕΠ2τΠ; Exod 32:12b; Ps 90:13b [NRSV translates "have
compassion"]). Both petitions employ rhetoric commonly used, especially
in prophetic literature, to summon human beings to repent, that is, to turn
away from sin and towards God p ^ Ö ) , and to do so with such emotional
intensity that the repentance is sustained by both mind and heart (the niphal
form of the verb ΕΠ j , which is used in Exodus 32 and Psalm 90, means "to
feel pain/regret" about something). And both petitions, explicitly so in the
Exodus account, make no less a claim on God than on Israel. God has
promised a future for these people, a promise that rests on the integrity of
God's own character (Exod 32:13: "you have sworn to them by your own
self"). If God is to be true to God's own self, then repentance must be an
option not only for Israel, but also for God.
By addressing the language of repentance to God, Moses bets on the
possibility that God's decision to punish Israel is not irrevocable, that God
is still open to consider other possibilities, that God will welcome and
respond to suggestions from ordinary mortals like Moses. Moses dares to
believe that in the moment of decision, when God assesses Israel's failures
and how to respond to them, God does not want to be left alone. In sum,
Moses invests in the hope that God's invitation to covenant relationship

Turn, O Lord! How Long?
Review and Expositor, 100, Summer 2003

means that "God is not the only one who has something
important to say."10 When Moses steps into the breach of
brokenness and implores God to change, he risks believing
that God prefers the partnership of honest dialogue to the
proprietary isolation of making decisions by divine fiat.
God's response to Moses' prayer indicates that Moses was
right: "And the Lord changed his mind about (DPI 3*1) the
disaster that he planned to bring on the people" (Exod 32:14). What such a
decision means for God is stated clearly by Terence Fretheim:

In the Old Testament, God never repents of sin; all of God's actions are
considered appropriate and justifiable. Rather, divine repentance is
the reversal of a direction or a decision made. But God does repent...
of anything in life that makes for less than total well-being, including
divine judgment and its effects (cf. Jer 18:7-10; 26:3,19).11

Gwendolyn Brooks, another poet who wonders whether God ever "tires
of being great in solitude," offers a suggestive invitation to preachers who
may wish to step into the breach and pray like Moses. The question in the
last stanza—"who knows?"—like that of the psalmist (v. 11), remains
rhetorical... until one risks betting on the answer.

I think it must be lonely to be God.

Nobody loves a master. No. Despite
The bright hosannas, bright clear dear-Lords, and bright
Determined reverence of Sunday eyes.

Picture Jehovah striding through the hall

Of His importance, creatures running out
From servant-corners to acclaim, to shout
Appreciation of His merit's glare.

But who walks with Him? - dares to take His arm,

To slap Him on the shoulder, tweak his ear,
Buy Him a Coca-Cola or a beer,
Pooh-pooh His politics, call Him a fool?

Perhaps—who knows?—He tires of looking down.

Those eyes are never lifted. Never straight.

Perhaps sometimes He tires of being great
In solitude. Without a hand to hold.12

Living As Mortals, Praying as Servants

In his commentary on Psalm 90, James Luther Mays offers

two observations that deserve careful consideration, if we are
to take seriously our stewardship of Moses' prayer. The first is particular
and relates to the ministry of faithful exegesis.
Psalm 90 asks to be interpreted as a whole. ^ e x e g e t e m u s t work |ns¡de t h e
This means the exegete must work inside psalm's tension between its
the tension between its affirmations of both affirmations of both awe and
, . , ,, tT . t . anxiety, of both its summons to
awe and anxiety, of both its summons to praise t h e God w h 0 is eternal and jts
praise the God who is eternal and its candid candid acknowledgment of the huge
acknowledgment of the huge gap between ^ ^ n S d e ° d S **™ί*/ **
God's eternality and human finitude. In this
connection, Mays notes that the
congregation in Psalm 90 approaches God with two identities. They pray
as "mortals" (vv. 3-12) and as "servants of God" (vv. 13-17; see especially v.
Praying as mortals is of course simply a fact of the human condition.
Our mortality means necessarily that we stand naked and exposed before
the Creator of the world; however fervent the piety we profess, it will not
and cannot cover the frailties, the failures, and the myriad of fears that
define who we are. The meditations of our hearts and the words of our
speech are an irremediable mixture of belief and doubt, of trust and
bewilderment. Psalm 90 does not ignore this truth. If it did, it would be
Nor does it concede that this is the whole truth about the human
condition. If it did, it would offer little more than a counsel to despair.
Instead, it boldly ponders the meaning of this truth in light of a still larger
one that broadens the horizon of its full meaning. We pray, by God's
invitation, as servants, which means we pray believing, trusting, and
expecting that God's ultimate will is to fill us each morning, full to over­
flowing, as the Hebrew verb suggests, with "steadfast love" Π 0 Π ; v. 14)
that opens new possibilities for mortal existence. The tension between
who God is and who we are, between God's hopes and expectations for
our fidelity and our aspirations to be more faithful than we are, is nowhere
so great as when we implore God to make changes in order to be true to
God's unchangeable love.14

Turn, O Lord! How Long?
Review and Expositor, 100, Summer 2003

The second observation Mays offers is more general. It

is in fact the first sentence in his treatment of Psalm 90, and
as such it targets an important objective of faithful biblical
exegesis: the ministry of theological reflection that issues a
summons to appropriation. "Psalm 90," Mays writes, "has
unusual liturgical and theological significance." 15 Mays calls
particular attention to the appropriation of this psalm at
funerals, when it traditionally comprises one of the biblical readings that
ministers use to offer a context for reflecting on the stark and often grievous
reality of our inescapable finitude. Other commentators, with an eye toward
similar evidence for the relevance of these words, cite the appropriation of
Psalm 90 by Isaac Watts (1674-1748) in the familiar hymn " O God, Our
Help In Ages Past." Both examples are instructive, not only for their
confirmation of the liturgical and theological significance of these ancient
words, but also because they shed light on the selective ways we exegete
and appropriate scripture.
Standing over the grave of a loved one is clearly a time for taking stock
of our mortality. Death is no respecter of persons. Whether it stakes its
claim at the end of a long life or intrudes prematurely, its purchase on our
existence is undeniable. People of faith are indeed comforted by Psalm
90's affirmation that death, while common to us all, does not separate us
from the love of God who is "from everlasting to everlasting." To be
reminded that we must both "count our days" and "make our days count"
is a summons to believe that God desires to "prosper the work of our hands"
with sustaining mercies unbound by ordinary time. It is understandable,
perhaps, that readings from Psalm 90 at funeral services typically do not
include the petitions in verse 13. Still, it
The ministries of biblical exegesis should give us pause that most lectionaries
and theological reflection should at J _ J . I I · ι ^ £ -J. J Í.
least invite us to consider praying ^τη to this psalm, or portions of it, only at
these words with Moses "inside funeral services. The ministries of biblical
the claims of time and sorrow" exegesis and theological reflection should at
where spiritual truths must vie for , ° . . ° ., . ,
our trust against the hard realities least invite us to consider praying these
of life. words with Moses "inside the claims of time
and sorrow," as Wendell Berry puts it, where
spiritual truths must vie for our trust against the hard realities of life. Our
use of the psalm, however, suggests that its truths have more influence on
our thinking about death than life. We seem to have settled, like Berry's
fictional preacher, Brother Preston, for truths that connect us to the
"hereafter" but sever us from the grief and despair of the "here and now."
Sadly, such ministry leaves far too many unaddressed, uncomforted. Berry's

assessment of the choices ministers make is haunting: "This
[emphasis on the 'hereafter'] is the preacher's hope, and he
has moved to it alone."16
Watts' paraphrase of Psalm 90 might at first thought
appear to offer a counter to the observations above. Surely
the wide usage of this great hymn confirms that diverse
ecclesiastical communities have long treasured core
sentiments in the psalm. It is instructive nonetheless that Watts drew upon
only the first five verses of the psalm. His focus on the assurance of God's
presence, in some ways equal in hymnic beauty to the sacred words that
inspires it, achieves its impact by omitting almost every hint of the psalm's
witness to life's troubled fragility. Further, apart from the single address
in the last line—"Be Thou our guard while life shall last, and our eternal
home"—Watts finds no place for any of the petitions to God in third part
of the psalm, including the daring imperatives for divine repentance in
verse 13 that stand at the top of the list. Perhaps the omission of these
verses is nothing more than benign neglect; it might well be evidence of
nothing more than the composer's creative adaptation of ancient Israel's
psalmody. Still, it is hard to discount the likelihood that Watts had
theological reasons for selecting some verses of the psalm and ignoring
others. In the preface to his 1707 hymnal, Watts concedes that he has no
tolerance for "the Jewish and cloudy ideas" of some of the Psalms. He
elaborated on this elsewhere by saying that his intention was not to exegete
the psalmists but to Christianize them.17 His hope was that "the Jewish
Psalmist may plainly appear, and yet leave Judaism behind." He believed
that the "brighter discoveries" of Christianity, exemplified in Christ's
redemption, permitted, indeed required, that he lead "the Psalmist of Israel
into the Church of Christ without anything of a Jew about him."18 To
question Watts' assumptions about what is and is not appropriate for
Christian worship implies no denigration of his important contributions
to hymnody. It is to say, however, that the theology we sing deserves and
requires a ministry of faithful exegesis and faithful appropriation no less
critical than that of the sacred scripture that is its source and inspiration.
It has for some time now been common in academic circles to criticize
the neglect of Israel's vigorous lament tradition, nowhere so forcefully
present as in the Psalms.19 If our use of Psalm 90 is any guide, the impact
of these scholarly critiques on the faith community has been minimal, at
best. Mays and others may argue that the psalm has "unusual liturgical
and theological importance," but the way we read and sing the psalm's
truths has deviated little from Watts' eighteenth-century interpretation.

Turn, O Lord! How Long?
Review and Expositor, 100, Summer 2003

"Critical" appropriations of the psalm are not much different

than non-critical ones. We return again and again to the same
affirmation that we should pray as mortals, submissive to God's
eternality, the same neglect of the invitation to pray as servants,
with imperatives and questions that dare to believe God
never wants eternality to be inscrutable.
Our reluctance to change conventional ways of
appropriating the Psalms, to risk praying (and singing) imperatives and
questions as servants, has not gone unnoticed
Our reluctance to change by those who sit in the pews. Kathleen Norris
conventional ways of speaks for many when she concedes that as a
a lmS t0 UtÜe i r 1 c h u r c h baSÍCall m e a n t ädn 8:
p?a7ngTaSgiS ' "*
imperatives and questions as
8 ' y
"dressing up and singing." The singing came
*"° 8
servants, has not gone unnoticed
naturally; the dressing up seemed more a
by those who sit in the pews.
c Λ . . ¡f .. ,
formal requirement, a matter of wearing
'Sunday besf and sitting up straight." She
yielded to the Church's expectations for a while, but as she matured, she
found them more and more unsatisfactory.
I have lately realized that what went wrong for me in my Christian
upbringing is centered in the belief that one had to be dressed up, both
outwardly and inwardly, to meet God, the insidious notion that I need
to be a firm and even cheerful believer before I dare show my face in
'His" church. Such a God was of little use to me in adolescence, and
like many women of my generation I simply stopped going to church
when I could no longer be "good," which for girls especially meant not
breaking rules, not giving voice to anger or resentment, and not

It was not until she spent two nine-month sojourns with the Benedictine
community of Saint John's Abbey (Collegeville, Minn.), immersed in the
monastic tradition of reading and singing through all of the Psalms every
three or four weeks, that she discovered what she had not been permitted
to see as a girl. She learned that not only does "God behave differently in
the psalms" than the ways Church conventionally allows; God's servants
also behave differently in the Psalms. Doubt, anger, and "bold and
incessant questioning of God" were all part of the faith they offered God.
She learned of a God and a faith that the creeds and the liturgies of her
church had tried, but failed, to censor out of her experience. Once she
found permission to stand before the holy ark and speak what she felt, not

what she ought to say, as the Duke of Albany puts it in the
poignant last lines of King Lear, she rediscovered a longing to
remain in the presence of God, which has stayed with her
ever since.21

Who Can Know the Power of God's Anger?

How should servants of God respond to those who yearn for liturgy
that provides a place for their questions and petitions, however unorthodox
they may be? Affirmations about God's transcendence are expected and
vitally important. Confessions of sin, incarnate in human finitude, are
necessary and redemptive. But what of the hard questions, like "Why?"
"How long, O Lord?" What of the petitions, like "Turn, O Lord!" "Repent!"
Dare we interrupt our generically calm litanies with discordant words such
as these, however earnest they may be? Who knows whether it is faithful,
let alone wise, to do so? Who knows how God will respond? The
wonderment is authentic. It is echoed by biblical servants like Moses, by
"ordinary" servants like Gwendolyn Brooks, Kathleen Norris, and no doubt
by a host of others unnamed.
On the eve of Yom Kippur, Rabbi Yitzchak stood before the holy ark
and wondered if he should not summon God to repentance. Should he
demand that God pay attention to innocent suffering? Should he dare to
hold God accountable for injustice that constantly exceeds any plausible
justification as punishment for sin? In reflecting on Yitzchak's ruminations,
Boteach, a rabbi himself, notes that the idea of summoning God to
repentance has a long, if largely neglected, history in Jewish tradition. In
addition to Moses, he singles out Abraham, who when faced with God's
decision to punish the righteous in Sodom along with the wicked, asked,
"Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" (Gen 18:25); Isaiah,
who in the aftermath of the destruction of the temple, asked, "After all
this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you stand idly by and let us
suffer so greatly?" (Isa 64:12); the psalmist, who complained of suffering
despite fidelity to the covenant, and asked God, "Why do you hide your
face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?" (Ps 44:24); and
Job, the prime exemplar of the faithful servant who demands a hearing
from God, betting his life on the promise that God will not remain forever
indifferent to the prayers of the righteous: "As God lives, who has denied
my justice and made my soul bitter, as long as my breath is in me ... my
lips will not speak falsehood .... Far be it from me to say that you are right;
until I die I will not put away my integrity" (Job 27:2-5). In view of this

Turn, O Lord! How Long?
Review and Expositor, 100, Summer 2003

legacy of faith, Boteach wonders, where are the modern-day

servants who pray like Moses,
Where are the modern- Abraham, and Job?
day servants who pray Qnce again,
σ the rabbis may
like Moses, Abraham, ., . . , . · . , ,, /
an(j M)? provide a way to think about this
question. The instructions for the Day
of Atonement in Leviticus 16 detail the rituals by which the
high priest is to purge the sanctuary and the people of the sins that have
violated the holy and compromised God's presence in Israel. The
instructions curiously omit any mention of the high priest's own preparation
for the liturgy of penitence. On this point, however, the Talmud offers an
additional word. Before the rituals for the Day of Atonement begin, the
priest must observe a seven-day period of contemplation. During this time
the priest is to immerse himself in readings from the books of Job, Daniel,
Ezra, and Nehemiah (m. Yoma 1:6). The rabbis do not explain their selection
of these texts. We might suppose that Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah are
included because they each contain models for the prayers of personal and
corporate repentance the priest will require from a sinful people (Dan 9:4-
19; Ezra 9:6-15; Neh 1:5-11; 9:6-37). The readings from Job may be for the
same reason, since Job is highly revered as one whose intercessory prayers
for his misdirected friends make a difference with God (Job 42:7-9). But
we may wonder if reading Job might also prepare the priest for other
responsibilities.23 Might Job's resolve to lay his case before God, his
determination to fill his mouth with arguments, questions, and petitions
that God should hear and address, be part of the priesfs preparation for
the Day of Atonement? When the priest ponders for himself Job's version
of the weighted question in Psalm 90:11 —"Would he [God] contend with
me in the greatness of his power?" (Job 23:6)—how will he respond? Rabbi
Boteach's wonderment lingers. Where will we find modern-day servants
who will pray like Moses, Abraham, and Job? Who will stand before God
and say, "Turn, O Lord! How long?" Such questions, of course, only beg
another; who knows how God will respond to those who dare to do so?
I close with words from another priest, R. S. Thomas, a Welsh clergyman,
who understands clearly what it means to minister at the "threshold,"
between the eternal God and the supplications of frail human beings.

I emerge from the mind's

cave into the worse darkness

outside, where things pass and
the Lord is none of them.

I have heard the still small voice

and it was that of the bacteria
demolishing my cosmos. I
have lingered too long on

this threshold, but where can I go?

To look back is to lose the soul
I was leading upwards towards
the light. To look forward? Ah,

what balance is needed at

the edges of such an abyss.
I am alone on the surface
of a turning planet. What

to do but, like Michelangelo's

Adam, put my hand
out into unknown space,
hoping for the reciprocating touch?24


The grammar of the question "Who can know (5ΠΤ,""Ό) the power of
God's anger?" indicates not only anxiety but also tentative confidence.25
The question remains rhetorical, but it is still actionable. Moses' petitions,
both in Exodus 32 and in Psalm 90, show how and why. Who can know?
The answer, already validated by servants of God like Abraham, Moses,
and Job, is "we can." If we reach out, there will be a reciprocating touch.

Thus says the Lord,

I was ready to be ready to be sought out, by those who did not ask,
to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, "Here I am, here I am,"
to a nation that did not call on my name. (Isa 65:1)

Turn, O Lord! How Long?
Review and Expositor, 100, Summer 2003

Shmuley Boteach, "Is It Time For God to do Teshuvah?" Tikkun
(September-October, 2002): 68-69.
James Luther Mays, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 291.
J. Clinton McCann, Jr., "The Book of Psalms," in The New Interpreter's
Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 4:1042.
Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books,
1985), 127.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Work Without Hope," Selected Poems, ed. R. Holmes
(London, New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 25.
See further, Samuel E. Balentine, The Torah's Vision of Worship (Minneapolis: Fortress
Press, 1999), e.g., 59-77.
Space permits no more than a note to add that Psalm 90's position in the canonical
arrangement of the Psalter corresponds both structurally and theologically to the tensive
interim suggested in Exodus 32. As the editorial center of the Psalms, Psalm 90 stands at
the introduction to Book IV (Psalms 90-106). It follows the sustained lament that concludes
Book III (Ps. 89:38-51), which climaxes in the pained question, "Lord, where is your steadfast
love OQ0) of old?" (v. 49). Following Moses' petition in Ps. 90:14, "Satisfy us in the morning
with your steadfast love ΟφΠ)," Books IV (Psalms 90-106) and V (107-150) of the Psalter,
which contain more than sixty references to God's "ΤΟΠ (see especially Psalm 136, with
twenty-six occurrences), suggest that Moses' appeals to God have been successful. The
literature addressing the theological significance of the Psalter's canonical arrangement is
extensive. For a general and accessible introduction, see J. Clinton McCann, Jr., A Theological
Introduction to the Book of Psalms: The Psalms as Torah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).
The only other exact occurrence of the phrase is in Judg. 16:26, where Samson asks
the lad who has led him into Dagon's temple to leave him alone so that he may feel the
pillars of the house. The boy does so, and Samson proceeds to pull down the temple, thus
executing his plan for revenge against the Philistines. Since the data is so slim, we must be
cautious in assuming that the phrase applied to God in Exod.32:10 necessarily means the
same thing. Still, the parallels are suggestive: the boy leaves Samson alone, and Samson
executes his plan; if Moses leaves God alone, God will presumably execute the planned
On this and other examples of prayers that argue God's character is part of the calculus
of repentance, see further Samuel E. Balentine, Prayer in the Hebrew Bible: The Drama of
Divine-Human Dialogue (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 118-45.
Terence Fretheim, Exodus (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991), 284.
Ibid., 286 (emphasis added). On the theological significance of God's repentance,
see further, Terence Fretheim, "The Repentance of God: A Key to Evaluating Old Testament
God-Talk," Horizons in Biblical Theology 10 (1988): 47-70; David Noel Freedman, "Who Asks
(or Tells) God to Repent?" Bible Review 1 (Winter, 1985): 56-59.
Gwendolyn Brooks, "The Preacher Ruminates Behind the Sermon," Selected Poems
(New York: Harper and Row, 1944), 8.

Mays, Psalms, 291.
On this way of conceptualizing God's openness to change as
consonant with God's unchangeable objectives, see Fretheim's lucid
statement (Exodus, 287):
... human prayer ... is honored by God asa contribution to a
conversation that has the capacity to change the future directions for
God, people, and world. God may well adjust modes and directions
(though not ultimate goals) in view of such human responsiveness.
This means that there is genuine openness to the future on God's part, fundamentally
in order that God's salvific will for all might be realized as fully as possible. It is this
openness to change that reveals what it is about God that is unchangeable: God's
steadfastness has to do with God's love; God's faithfulness has to do with God's
promises; God's will is for the salvation of all. God will always act, even make changes,
in order to be true to these unchangeable ways and to accomplish these unchangeable
Mays, Psalms, 289.
Wendell Berry, A Place on Earth (San Francisco: North Point, 1983), 94.
"O God, Our Help In Ages Past," written in 1714, was first published in 1719 in The
Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. Watts revised all but 12 of the
150 psalms in order "to make David speak like a Christian." The twelve psalms omitted
(28,43,52,54,59, 64,70,79,88,108,137,140) include imprecatory psalms and a number of
lament psalms.
Each of these quotes I take from David Nelson Duke's article, "Giving Voice To
Suffering in Worship: A Study in the Theodicies of Hymnody," Encounter 52 (1991): 265.
Duke documents the sources for the citations and provides astute discussion of the
assumptions about Christian worship that governed Watts' hymnody.
E.g., Claus Westermann, "The Structure and History of the Lament in the Old
Testament," Praise and Lament in the Psalms (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), 165-213; Walter
Brueggemann, "The Costly Loss of Lament," JSOT 36 (1986): 57-71; Balentine, Prayer in the
Hebrew Bible, 272-95.
Kathleen Norris, "The Paradox of the Psalms," The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead
Books, 1996), 90-91.
Norris ends her essay by citing, and embracing, the confession of a Benedictine
sister who wrote to her about what she had learned from immersing herself in Psalm 42:
"The longing for God expressed at the beginning of Psalm 42, Tike the deer that yearns /
for running streams, / so my soul is yearning / for you, My God,' has stayed with me ever
since" (Ibid., 107).
Boteach, "Is It Time For God to do Teshuvah?" 68-69.
See further, Samuel E. Balentine, "Job as Priest to the Priests," Ex Auditu 18 (2003):
R. S. Thomas, "Threshold," Poems ofR. S. Thomas (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas
Press, 1985), 149-50.

Turn, O Lord! How Long?
Review and Expositor, 100, Summer 2003

James L. Crenshaw, "The Expression miyodea' in the Hebrew Bible,"
VT 36 (1986): 274-88. Crenshaw notes that the expression Ρ 1 Τ " Ή , "Who
knows?" occurs ten times in the Hebrew Bible. Of these, five "leave a door
open to possible response that will change the situation for human good"
(2 Sam 12:22; Joel 2:14; Jonah 3:9; Esth 4:14; Ps 90:11). Five, all but one in
Ecclesiastes, "seem to assume a closed door to any redeeming action" (Prov
24:22; Eccl 2:19; 3:21; 6:12; 8:1). The occurrence in Ps 90:llappears to stand
with one foot in both categories; as Crenshaw puts it, "The sorry human
predicament almost has a sense of inevitability—although not entirely, for appeal does
eventually form on the lips of the poet" (278; emphasis added).

^ s
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