Psalm 90 begins the fourth book of Psalms, and with this collection a new tone in the selections can be observed. Books four and five, the last two in the fivefold collection of Psalms, were compiled after the exile from the promised land. It is interesting to note that a Psalm of Moses was chosen to begin this section. Israel was experiencing a casting-out from the promised land. The last time these people had experienced something like that was when they had come to the land, doubted God’s ability to give it to them, and were turned out for forty years until that generation died. It was at the end of these years that Moses wrote this psalm. This is why this psalm serves as such a great lesson to the exiled nation.
Imagine what Moses must have been experiencing as he wrote these words that focus on death and the brevity of life. Moses had seen God perform incredible miracles to deliver the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt, and he had seen Israel complain and belittle the works of God. He had seen God dictate His precious law and had seen Israel rebel immediately against it. He had seen God promise great victory and prosperity in the land, and, after all the incredible works of God, he had seen Israel run scared from the people God promised the victory over. Then, Moses lived with these people for forty years and watched each one slowly age and then die. It was after this lesson in mortality that he writes the following words.
Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
The first four stanzas of this psalm are couplets and are followed by stanzas five and six which are a bit longer. These short statements add visualization to the brevity of life that Moses explores in these words.
Moses recognizes that though the Hebrews did not have a physical home as they wandered through the wilderness, they found their dwelling place in the Lord. This was not something new for the people of God; Abraham wandered on his way to Canaan, Jacob ran and wandered from home, and his sons would sojourn to Egypt after Joseph’s journey there. There had been many times in which the people of God were not in His promised land for them, yet through it all they dwelled with Him. We can claim this promise even more strongly, because we know God has made His dwelling in our hearts.
This psalm will explore the brevity of the life of man, but it will also put that temporary nature in contrast to the eternity of God. Moses begins to do this in the last line of this stanza.
You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
We were made from the dust, and here we are reminded that God will return us to it. Remember, that God is not cruel for causing our decay and return to the ground. When Adam and Eve brought sin into the world it was no longer a place in which anyone would really want to live forever. So often men seek for and dream of immortality without realizing what a shadow of true eternal life it would be if it were confined to this sinful world forever. Again, Moses contrasts this imminent end of man with the eternality of God.
You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
We must remember it is not Satan that brings our lives to an end as we might mistakenly believe. It is the Lord. This is kindness to His children and judgement for those who have turned from Him. This imagery of a deluge is appropriate to describe how we come to an end; it comes swiftly, powerfully, and we have no control over it.
The picture of grass is often used in the psalms to describe the wicked, as in Psalm 1, but here it is applied to everyone. It is hard to see the full picture of eternity and our lives in context, and for most of our lives we think only of the flourishing. The grass does fade quickly, and this is a good reminder that we are only here for a brief time.
For we are brought to an end by your anger;
by your wrath we are dismayed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.
All are sinners, and Moses was privy to seeing the sins of Israel time and time again. Their end was a clear punishment by God’s anger for their unbelief and griping hearts. However, all are brought to an end by God’s wrath. Yes, it is kind that God removes His people from a sinful world, but it is also punishment for sin. In death both God’s kindness and wrath are seen. God sees not only Israel’s sin, but all of our sin, so He brings all to an end.
For all our days pass away under your wrath;
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?
Moses has observed much suffering as the Hebrews wandered for forty years dying. He knew the full extent of man’s days passing under God’s wrath. Each day is lived in a world sick and filled with sin because of God’s curse. And, as the last line reminds us, there are few who think about this. Moses has spent a good deal of this psalm meditating on this truth. Who considers these things? It should be God’s people to whom He has revealed these truths.
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Return, O Lord! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands!
Moses now responds to these musings in a prayer to God. He wants to be someone who considers these things and who recognizes the brevity of life. We too should ask God to continue to instruct us in this perspective. Moses also begins to realize that in order to live with this perspective, he needs God’s love. It is easy to become pessimistic and jaded when considering these matters, but with God’s steadfast love it is possible to see them in His truth and live our days in joy.
Israel had been severely afflicted by God for a long period of time, and we too can experience a degree of these things. We know that God will reward our present sufferings with an eternity of Himself, the completion and fullness of our joy. It is interesting that Moses ends by asking God to show His work and power. They had seen it already, and it didn’t seem to make much of an impact, but Moses has hope that this upcoming generation would not be like their parents. He prays that they would succeed in the land where their parents had failed. We should pray for God’s favor for ourselves and our children.
This psalm is often used in funeral services to recognize the realities of death, but it is much more helpful for us living than them. Reflect on these truths and ask God to give you this perspective now. May He fill our days with joy as we strive to serve Him faithfully.
All Scripture is quoted from the ESV.