Psalm 90: Place for Pessimism
In the village of Chikaldara there is a place which my Indian friends called “the fort.” The fort is a great structure built years ago, which they promised I would see before I left. When we arrived at the outer gate of the fort, it was like a great medieval castle, with what looked almost like a moat at one side. We left our car at the entrance and had nearly three miles of hiking from the outer gate until we reached the remains of the palace. It was built on the highest mountain in the area, about 4,000 feet in elevation. Some magnificent building structures stood within the walls of the fort. There were two beautiful pools built as reservoirs of water. On one of the pools there was a structure where the royal family could sit in the shade and watch the children swim in the reservoirs. To build these structures, great stones must have been carried for miles, and then fitted together with hardly any gap between them. Although the buildings were centuries old, one could see the great affluence and ease of life for the royal family that had once lived there. It was apparent however, that these were by-gone days. Pieces of angle iron now reinforce parts of these buildings to keep them from collapsing. Looking up, I wondered if it was wise to stand beneath it.
The fort is a monument to a great civilization, but I do not know who the king was or any of the royal family. All around the world, one can see many such structures. Often they are but tombs, containing the remains of someone who has gone on before. They are a testimony to the brevity of man’s life and to the futility of man’s efforts to gain immortality. Like the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) man’s efforts to etch his memory in history often end in frustration.
Psalm 90 deals with the dark side of life, one we don’t like to focus on. Given the choice of Psalm 90 or Psalm 91, we would gladly choose Psalm 91, for its message is one of confidence. This is the other side of the coin. There is also a dark side of life. Just as we find it difficult to look into the brightness of the sun’s rays, we find it equally unpleasant to dwell on the dark side of life. Psalm 90 tells us there is a place for pessimism, a very important lesson to learn.
Notice, as well, that even in its somber thoughts, God is described as Israel’s dwelling place. Psalm 90 is unique in that it is the only psalm attributed to Moses. Conservative scholars accept Moses’ authorship; others do not. They see the Psalm written much later after the era of Moses. I understand it to be written by Moses. As such it makes a unique contribution in what it tells us about Moses himself, something we do not see anywhere else.
In verses 1-10 we see the problem which I refer to as “Man’s Plight.” In verses 11-17 I see “Man’s Petition,” which Moses expresses for us to God, enabling us to deal with the dark side of life.
1 A Prayer of Moses the man of God. Lord, Thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations. 2 Before the mountains were born, Or Thou didst give birth to the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God.
3 Thou dost turn man back into dust, And dost say, “Return, O children of men.” 4 For a thousand years in Thy sight Are like yesterday when it passes by, Or as a watch in the night. 5 Thou hast swept them away like a flood, they fall asleep; In the morning they are like grass which sprouts anew. 6 In the morning it flourishes, and sprouts anew; Toward evening it fades, and withers away.
7 For we have been consumed by Thine anger, And by Thy wrath we have been dismayed. 8 Thou hast placed our iniquities before Thee, Our secret sins in the light of Thy presence. 9 For all our days have declined in Thy fury; We have finished our years like a sigh. 10 As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years, Or if due to strength, eighty years, Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow; For soon it is gone and we fly away. (NASB)
Verses 1 and 2 depict the greatness of God as Israel’s dwelling place. The Berkeley Version translates this, “Lord, Thou hast been our home …” It is interesting to refer to God in this way; He is also called man’s dwelling place in Psalm 91:9. Moses, the author of this psalm, is a man without a country. Moses was a fugitive from Egypt and he died without entering Canaan. Israel also was a people without a country. The Israelites had not yet possessed the land of Canaan when this Psalm was written. Therefore one would expect Moses to have described the land of Canaan, the Promised Land, as Israel’s dwelling place. Yet Moses knew that ultimately man’s dwelling is not a place but a Person. It is God who is our Dwelling Place and in Him we find security, safety and peace. God is described this way throughout all generations (v. 1). Literally the text reads “in generation and generation,” or as the Berkeley Version translates it, “in successive generations.”139 When Moses came on the scene of history a number of generations had already existed, beginning with Abraham (or should I say Adam?). It is therefore fitting that he said “from one generation to the next God has been our dwelling place.” This verse speaks historically of Israel’s experience with God as her dwelling place. It also speaks prophetically of Israel’s future security. In verse 2 God’s eternity is emphatically described. While God has proven to be Israel’s dwelling place throughout the generations of her existence, verse 2 assures Israel that her security is as lasting as God’s existence. He is from everlasting to everlasting. Israel’s dwelling place is God and God is eternal. Therefore Israel has a dwelling place that is both certain and continuous.
I find several references and allusions to the events described in the early chapters of the Book of Genesis (there are no allusions to Exodus). There is a reference to the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 in verse 2: “Before the mountains were born Or you brought forth the earth or the world, From everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” God is Israel’s dwelling place, the same God who created the universe long before He created Israel through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God is the dwelling place that is eternal, past, present and future. The first two verses provide the backdrop against which Moses contrasts man’s finiteness and limitations in verses 3-6. In verse 3 we read, “You turn men back to dust, Saying, ‘Return to dust, O sons of men.’”
Not only is an allusion to Genesis 1–2 made in Psalm 90:2, but a reference to Genesis 3 is referred to in Psalm 90:3. This verse mentions man’s limitations in the wake of the fall. Actually the statement “Return to dust, sons of men,” can be translated, “Return to dust, O sons of Adam,” an even more specific allusion to the fall.140 Man, who was created from the ground is cursed so as to return to it, due to his sin. I find an allusion to Genesis 5 in verse Psalm 90:4, which says, “For a thousand years in your sight Are like a day that has just gone by, Or like a watch in the night.” This verse is familiar because it is cited by Peter who uses it to prove his point in 2 Peter 3:8, that God’s perspective of time is vastly different than man’s. While some were saying, “Where is this ‘coming’ He promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation” (2 Pet. 3:4). Peter said in effect, “You don’t understand, God does not look at time the same way we do. We view time from a human perspective, God from a divine one.”
If Moses is thinking of the history of mankind as it was recorded (by him) in the Book of Genesis, it is interesting that he uses the term “a thousand years” in Psalm 90:4. Why a thousand? In Genesis 5 we read about the “golden age of man” after the fall. Men lived longer then than at any other time in history. Methuselah lived 969 years (Gen. 5:27). I understand this thousand years, as Kirkpatrick does,141 to be a reference to the days of Methuselah. Moses is saying that even if man and his life span are looked upon in his greatest span of years, it is only a thousand years. That thousand year period which Methuselah almost broke is a very short span to God. Man is finite, God is infinite. So we have a reference to creation in verse 2, one to the fall in verse 3, and an allusion to the long life of man in verse 4. I also observe a reference to the flood in verse 5: “You sweep men away in the sleep of death.”
This translation142 is an attempt by the translators of the NIV to translate the Hebrew, “You flooded men away.” The NASB renders it, “You sweep men away like a flood.” The Berkeley Version translates the verse, “Thou carriest them away as with a flood.” I believe this as an allusion to the flood as recorded in Genesis 6 and 7. Moses surveys man’s early history as he recorded it in Genesis, to illustrate man’s finiteness as a biblical fact. Man is condemned to return to the dust. Even during the days of long life, a thousand-year span was to God as a passing, fleeting moment. Today the brevity of life is more apparent. Whether or not these are all allusions to Genesis is insignificant; the point is, life is short. God’s eternity is contrasted with the brevity of man’s life on earth.
In the remainder of verse 5 and verse 6 Moses uses the image of grass to portray the brevity of earthly life. The figure of grass is a poetic description common in the Bible depicting man’s state (cf. Ps. 37:2; Isa. 40:6ff.; 1 Pet. 1:23-25). Each new generation sprouts up like grass in the early morning; no matter how long it survives, ultimately it perishes. This cycle is demonstrated in the life of Abraham and his descendants. Abraham seems to possess a bright hope based on the covenant God made with him in Genesis 12:1-3. We sense that in his lifetime “something good is about to happen,” but it doesn’t. The covenant blessings, while kept alive through the birth of Isaac, are not realized in his life span. Abraham had to buy a burial plot for his wife. Abraham himself never possessed the land that God promised. Isaac then came along, rising like a new crop of grass. He passed on and God’s covenant promises were yet to be fulfilled. This cycle continued through each succeeding generation. With the appearance of each generation there seemed to be new hope, but it disappears as they pass off the scene.
Notice in verses 3-6 that the shortness of man’s life is not only contrasted to the eternity of God, but it is caused by God. Moses did not say that man, in and of himself, passes away; man returns to dust because it is God who said, “Return to dust, O sons of Adam” (v. 3). It is God who sweeps man away as with the flood (v. 5). The question therefore must be asked, “Since God is Israel’s dwelling place and since God is infinite and eternal, why are His people subject to such brevity in this life?” And even more pointedly, “Why does God actively cause man’s death?” The answer to these questions is given in verses 7-10.
In this section man’s shortness of life is shown to be a result of his sin. Verses 1-6 contrast God’s infinity and man’s finiteness. Moses proceeds to contrast man’s sinfulness with God’s righteousness in verses 7-10. Man’s life is “short and sour” because we are sinners living under the righteous judgment of God: “We are consumed by your anger And terrified by your indignation. You have set our iniquities before you, Our secret sins in the light of your presence” (v. 7).
God is fully aware of our sin and the shortness of life is a proof of this. Even those secret sins, the sins which we do not ourselves perceive or which we have successfully rationalized, are evident before an all-knowing and righteous God.
Not only is life shortened by sin, it is also soured by pain and sadness: All our days pass away under your wrath; We finish our years with a moan. The length of our days is seventy years—Or eighty, if we have the strength; Yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, For they quickly pass, and we fly away (vv. 9-10).
Here again we are reminded of the Book of Genesis. We know, for example, that the consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin was not only to return to dust, but to live in toil and pain. Adam had to labor (Gen. 3:17-19) and so did Eve, for it was through pain that her children would be born (Gen. 3:16). That was a consequence of sin. As the Book of Genesis proceeds Jacob is seen standing before Pharaoh. At the age of 130 he says, “My life is not like the life of my forefathers for it has been short and full of sorrow” (cf. Gen. 47:9).
Here is the grim reality of life. Life is marked by limitations, toil and suffering. This is the dark, yet real side of life. This is man’s plight as described by Moses. God is eternal, He is man’s dwelling place, but man is limited, his life is short and marked with sorrow, suffering and labor. If Moses stopped here, this would be a dim picture indeed.
11 Who understands the power of Thine anger, And Thy fury, according to the fear that is due Thee? 12 So teach us to number our days, That we may present to Thee a heart of wisdom.
13 Do return, O LORD; how long will it be? And be sorry for Thy servants. 14 O satisfy us in the morning with Thy lovingkindness, That we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. 15 Make us glad according to the days Thou hast afflicted us, And the years we have seen evil. 16 Let Thy work appear to Thy servants, And Thy majesty to their children. 17 And let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us; And do confirm for us the work of our hands; Yes, confirm the work of our hands. (NASB)
Verses 11-17 are the response of Moses to the dilemma of mankind. Here he makes two requests: first he petitions God to give men the grace to live life wisely, in view of its limitations and frustrations (vv. 11-12); secondly he petitions God to ultimately remove the limitations and frustrations of life (vv. 13-17).
If life really is as Moses has described it verses 1-10, man needs God’s help. God’s help is the object of man’s petition in verses 11 and 12. “Who knows the power of your anger? For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you. Teach us to number our days aright, That we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
Man does not fully grasp the reality of what Moses has said in the first part of this psalm. We stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the dark side of life. We refuse to acknowledge the eternality and the righteousness of God. We do not focus fully on the sinfulness of man and the sufferings of life, because that is not what we want to hear.
Proverbs teaches us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10). The first aspect of the wisdom for which man petitions God in verse 11 is the wisdom to acknowledge the righteousness and the holiness of God. I believe that when Moses requests God to “teach us to number our days aright,” he asks that God would enable men to see life as it is and man as he is. Numbering our days involves seeing life as God has described it. We must acknowledge that God is eternal and man is mortal; God is righteous and man is sinful.
We can only see ourselves as we really are when we come to see God for who He actually is. Isaiah gained an awareness of his own sin when he was granted a vision of the righteousness and holiness of God (Isa. 6:1-4). It was then that he cried out, “Woe to me! … for I am a man of unclean lips …” (Isa. 6:5). Like Isaiah, the first thing that we must acknowledge and understand is the holiness and righteousness of God. Only then will we correctly perceive our own sinful condition.
Second, verse 12 teaches us that we must live our life in the light of its limits. We must “number our days.” Most of us in dealing with life tend to focus either on the past or the future. Young people usually focus on the future looking forward to the “good life.” Older folks reminisce about the past knowing the future is shorter and less certain. We reluctantly focus on the present. Verse 12 states that since life has its limits and is so short, we do not have any assurance of tomorrow nor do we dare waste today. We must live wisely, understanding life’s limitations and its brevity. God has given us the ability to serve Him for a season. We do not know about tomorrow. We should not presume upon an uncertain future and thus procrastinate with respect to our present obligations.
Moses’ first petition in verses 11 and 12 is that God will change us, giving us the wisdom to discern life as it is, to see the righteousness of God, the shortness of life, and to live our lives in the light of life’s limitations. Moses makes a second request in verses 13-17. He petitions God to change this life and remove its limitations. Most of us would agree with this request, but our problem is that we want God to change this life without confronting the issues presented in verses 11 and 12. We don’t want to persevere and endure through difficulties, we want a life of ease so we don’t have to change ourselves. Moses prays for God to change life only after he has asked for the grace to live in this life, as God has given it. I have chosen four words to describe the petition that is found in verses 13-17.
The first word is relent. This term describes Moses’ petition that God would change in His response toward men. While God has been righteous in judging men for their sin, now Moses implores God, not for justice, but for mercy and grace. In verse 13 Moses pleads, “Relent, O Lord! How long will it be? Have compassion on your servants.” God is a God of salvation and here Moses petitions God to save, to turn to the help of His people.
Next is the word reveal. He says in verse 16, “May your deeds be shown to your servants, Your splendor to their children.” It is as though God’s face, His personal intimate contact with His people, has been veiled. God’s righteous power has not been employed for a considerable period of time. God has been standing distant and aloof from His people and so Moses asks that now God would intervene, breaking into history, that God would reveal His might, power and salvation to men.
Third, Moses asks God to restore. This life is not the ultimate purpose for which man was created. What we have seen described is a result of man’s sin and the fall. Moses cries out to God to restore all creation and mankind to what it could and should be. Life ought not to be futile, but it is. Life ought not to be short, but it is. God is besought to remove the stigma of sin, the futility of life, to restore and renew. We read in verses 14 and 15, “Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, That we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, For as many years as we have seen trouble. Exchange sorrow for joy, frustration for fulfillment, fruitless toil for meaningful labor.”
The last word is reward. While Moses looks forward to God again breaking into history, revealing His strong right hand, he does not see God’s actions as totally unrelated to man’s activity. We read in verse 17, “May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; Establish the work of our hands for us—Yes, establish the work of our hands.” While this life may be characterized by limitations and frustrations, we are not only able to pray that God will change us, but that He will change life. In addition, we may even pray that God would bless the work of our hands by allowing us to accomplish eternal results.
In summary, while God is eternal, man is mortal and his life is severely limited by God’s righteous judgment upon sin. In the psalm Moses petitions first, that God would give us the wisdom to live in this life as it is and in the light of who He is, and secondly, that God would change life to what it should be.
A Suggested Historical Setting
I want to say something briefly about the historical setting of this psalm. First and most importantly, within the psalm no setting is presented. When the historical setting of a psalm is given it is usually included at the beginning in the superscription. In Psalm 90 we are only told that the psalm was written by Moses, the man of God. Thus all suggested historical settings are conjectures.
The liberal scholar denies that Moses wrote this psalm. Those who believe in Moses’ authorship of the psalm almost universally agree that Moses wrote this during the 40 years of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. Moses is thought by most conservative scholars to have penned this psalm in response to the dismal experience of witnessing the deaths of an entire generation of Israelites after Kadesh-Barnea, when they failed to capitalize on the promises of God and go in and possess the promised land.
I have serious problems with this interpretation, for two reasons. First, if the psalm was written during the wilderness experience, why is the exodus never mentioned by Moses? Moses alludes to the creation, the fall, Methuselah, and the flood. Moses never alludes to the exodus. This is especially significant because the exodus experience became the pattern for God’s deliverance of His people. The prophets describe God’s deliverance of Israel from captivity and their return to the land in terms of the exodus motif. They see God acting in the return from Babylon as He did in the exodus.143
While Moses was up on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments, the people below were sinning. Consequently God said to him, “Moses, I’m going to destroy those people and make a new nation out of you” (cf. Exod. 32:9-10). Moses did not plead with God on the grounds of men’s merits, but on the basis of God’s actions at the exodus. He reminded God that He had promised Abram and his descendants that He would make them a great nation and would bring them into the land of Canaan (Exod. 32:11-13). God’s reputation was at stake. At the exodus God established a reputation which must be preserved. Moses pleaded with God on the basis of the exodus. If Moses wrote Psalm 90 during the 40 years of their wilderness wanderings we would expect him to have said “God, please act as you have just acted in the exodus.”
A second problem surfaces in Psalm 90. God is addressed as though He had not recently acted in behalf of His people. “How long?” (v. 13) implies just that.144 Moses is not just speaking to God as though a few years has passed since God had revealed His power and salvation but as if God had long been silent—too long.
In light of these difficulties I suggest that this psalm was not written after the exodus, but before it. I believe Moses wrote it during his 40 years exile from Egypt while tending the flocks of his father-in-law (cf. Exod. 2:15-25). The suffering to which Moses refers is due primarily to Israel’s sin. We may, at first, think this hardly appropriate to the sufferings of Israel in the land of Egypt. However, Ezekiel (20:7-9) speaks of the period of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt as one that was marked by sin and idolatry. It was sin that brought Israel to Egypt (for example, the sin of Joseph’s brothers, Genesis 37). It was sin, in part, that kept Israel in Egypt. Ezekiel speaks of Israel’s sin after the exodus as that which they brought with them from Egypt (23:8,9,27; cf. also Exod. 20:4-6). The time of Israel’s sojourning in Egypt was a time of sin and the consequences of it, suffering.
No historical time fits Psalm 90 better than the period just preceding the exodus. God had been silent for a long time and had not recently revealed His mighty arm. God’s answer in part, to the petitions of Moses in this psalm, was the exodus. God did reveal His mighty arm and great power through Moses.
Psalm 90 therefore tells us something about the heart of Moses. When we look at Moses standing before the burning bush, there seems to be no reason for God’s selection of him to lead His people out of captivity and into Canaan. Suppose this psalm was written a week before Moses was arrested by the sight of the burning bush. God would then have spoken to Moses from the burning bush, “Moses I heard your prayer. Go deliver your people!” If this is what happened, then God answered Moses’ prayer through him. Such a historical setting is at least a possibility. It helps me understand the agony of soul with which Moses wrote the psalm, as well as the appropriateness of God’s selection of Moses to deliver His people.
The message of Psalm 90, while it is a somber theme, is one that is both true to reality and foundational to a healthy perspective on life. Those who wish only to think positively will not want to ponder this psalm long, but are the very people who need most to grasp its message.
We have all heard the saying “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” Although there is a measure of truth to this statement, Moses informs us in Psalm 90, “In this life there is sadness and shortness, there is frustration and failure.” From a biblical and theological point of view this is not the purpose for which life was first created (Gen. 1–2), nor is it the way life will always be (Rev. 21–22), but in the days between paradise lost (Gen. 3) and paradise regained (Rev. 4–20), this is the way it is.
Noah, who was spared from the destruction of the flood, nevertheless was seen in a drunk and disgusting state afterwards (Gen. 9:18-29). Man’s effort to find security and significance through the building of a city and tower were futile (Gen. 11:1-9). Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, while trusting in the promises of God to give them a land and a great nation (Gen. 12:1-3), did not see it fulfilled in their lifetime. Moses, who led the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, did not himself enter into the land of Canaan (Deut. 31:1-2; 32:48-52; 34:1-8). The Israelites who experienced God’s deliverance from Egypt did not themselves enter into the land (Deut. 1:19-36). Those who did eventually enter into Canaan did not trust God fully and live according to His commandments (e.g. Judges). The prophets who faithfully proclaimed God’s word seldom had great success (cf. Isa. 6:1-10).
Even in the New Testament this present earthly life is not described in euphoric terms. Jesus spoke frequently of the difficulties which His disciples would face (cf. Luke 9:23-26, 57-58; John 15:18-25). Paul (2 Tim. 3:10-13) and Peter (1 Pet. 1:6; 2:18-25; 4:12-19) in their epistles also wrote about the dark side of life.
Paul especially parallels the teaching of Psalm 90 in his letters. In 2 Corinthians 4–5 he speaks of the present tribulations of this life and of the fact that our “outer man” is slowly decaying (4:16). In chapter 5 of the Book of Romans, after introducing the glorious doctrine of justification (3:21-4:25), Paul begins to speak of the hope of the Christian in times of tribulation (5:1-11). It is obvious that our salvation is not immediate deliverance from the trials of life, but rather a deliverance through them.
The clearest word comes from the pen of Paul in Romans 8. After introducing the marvelous ministry of the Holy Spirit, in whom we can live victoriously (8:1-17), Paul goes on to describe a facet of the Spirit’s present ministry, that of sustaining the saint in suffering (8:18-39). In verses 19-23 Paul talks about the whole creation (including man), which presently endures the consequences of the fall of man and expectantly looks for a future deliverance. In verse 20 Paul says that the whole creation “was subjected to futility.” I believe this is the same futility which Moses has poetically described in Psalm 90.
My point is this: life, both in the days of Moses and in the present, is marked by a certain frustration and futility, which are the results of man’s sin. This futility is the theme of the Book of Ecclesiastes—the vanity of which Solomon spoke. The Book of Job presents the same dismal picture of life: “For a man is born for trouble, As sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7, NASB).
I believe that men today spend most of their energy striving to deny this reality of life and to rationalize that with just a little more effort life can be fulfilling. They deceive themselves by thinking that frustration and futility can be eliminated. This world view is best designated by the term “hype.” Life is portrayed in the media in terms of hype. Upbeat music, a denial of the unpleasant, a distorted view of happiness, and a preoccupation with pleasure all are a part of this self-deception.
The Bible doesn’t peddle “hype,” but it does offer hope. The Scriptures do not offer man an immediate deliverance from toil and tribulation, but rather the promise of sins forgiven, of knowing God and of supernatural sustenance in the trials and adversities of life. In the end, we are assured of an eternity in which all of the frustration and futility of life will be done away with.
“Hype” is not only promoted by the world—it is also very popular among Christians. Now none of us really prefers frustration and futility to fulfillment and unbounded happiness, but this is nevertheless the way things are and the way the Bible describes them. Some Christians evangelize with the promise that a faith in Christ is the solution to all of our problems. Some teach that if we only live our lives as Christians by certain formulas, we can be assured of victory and success. Others tell us that if we only have enough faith, no suffering or sorrow needs to be a part of our experience. This, my friend, is worldly “hype,” not Christian hope.
The denial of the truth taught in Psalm 90 leads to devastating consequences. Those who choose to glamorize life and to look at the world through “rose-colored glasses” tend to be unduly optimistic. The result is that rather than turning to God for forgiveness and salvation, they place their trust in themselves and sacrifice a future hope for present pleasures. A false sense of optimism turns men’s minds from God. This is why the good news of the Gospel begins with the bad news of men’s sin and its ugly consequences (Romans 1–3). This is also why our Lord Jesus could say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:3-4, NASB).
Those who see life as bad as it really is will turn to God for help and for hope. Only those who realize they are sick seek healing; only those who know they are lost find salvation.
Whenever we base our faith and our hope on our abilities and our goodness, we are destined for great disappointment. Those who live only for the present set themselves up for a great fall. Human hype is truly false and we must sooner or later see its futility. I personally believe that this greatly helps us to explain the phenomenon which is now called the mid-life syndrome. It is at this stage in mid-life that a man sees his physical strength declining, his aspirations becoming mere dreams and his death approaching. No wonder so many are devastated. Their whole world view has been shattered by the very reality which Moses was teaching.
Another result of the false optimistic view of life is that it creates unrealistic expectations. If life can be beautiful (in the incorrect sense) and if my marriage isn’t everything I had hoped for (and my only hope is for the present), I had better divorce and try again. If my church is not completely satisfying me and meeting my needs, I had better move on. If my job is not totally fulfilling, I should look for something better. Psalm 90 tells us that marriage won’t always be ecstasy, that no church will live up to our (or the Bible’s) ideals, and that work will be frustrating. Since this is to be expected, we should learn to be content with life that is less than ideal, rather than to always be looking for the ideal. (This should not be confused with sinful complacency.) If life is indeed frustrating at times, then we had better not attempt to deny it, nor to escape it, but rather to live in the face of life’s sadness and shortness.
Many respond to man’s plight by some kind of denial; others react with utter despair. While they see through the empty effort of hype, they fail to find hope. Their philosophy is a form of “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” The message of the Bible is the promise of hope. There is salvation for a lost world (man and the creation) which is made possible through the redemptive work of Christ on the cross of Calvary: not only is there hope for the future, but hope for the present. Let us turn our attention to the two petitions of Moses in verses 11-17 to see those things for which man can petition God in order to have hope in a world of frustration and futility.
From verses 11 and 12 we see that we can ask God to provide us with the wisdom to live life in a way that is pleasing to Him. This wisdom begins with a realization of God’s holiness, with a godly fear (v. 11). Wisdom also is manifested by an awareness of the shortness of life and the need to live day by day, numbering and ordering our days so as to please Him (v. 12). This is not something we do in and of ourselves, but something which we seek from God, which we accomplish by His power and for His glory.
In New Testament terms I believe the petition of Moses in verses 11 and 12 can be summed up by the word sanctification, the process of renewal brought about by the power of the Spirit of God in the life of the saint. It involves walking in the Spirit (Romans 8:1-17), putting off the old man and putting on the new (Col. 3:1-17), and the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:1-2).
Second, the futility and frustration which we see about us should not only motivate us to petition God to change us, but also stimulate us to pray that God will eventually change the entire creation. This is the petition of Moses in verses 13-17.
While I personally believe that the exodus was God’s immediate response to Psalm 90, I also understand that His ultimate response is only partially complete. God has “returned” (v. 13) in the Person of His Son at the incarnation. Nearly 2,000 years ago Christ came to the earth and redeemed the saints and the creation through His death on the cross (Col. 1:13-23, cf. especially v. 20). The full and final transformation is yet to come, both for man (1 Cor. 15:50-58; 1 Thess. 4:13-18) and for creation (Rom. 8:18-23; Rev. 21–22). It is for this final renewal and restoration that we are encouraged to pray: “Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’” (Matt. 6:9-10, NASB).
It is only when our Lord returns that final time to rid the universe of all evil and to renew the heavens and the earth that the futility and frustrations of life will be removed. Toward that end we should work and pray (2 Pet. 3:12); work for the rewards of Christ’s future kingdom and pray for it to come quickly. In the meantime, let us look to Him to renew our hearts and minds to live righteously in a way which pleases Him. Let us neither deny that life is frustrating, nor let us be in despair over this reality. Rather, let us depend upon God for the wisdom and grace required to live in the world as it is, as well as to renew it to what it should be.
139 Some scholars reason that the expression “in all generations” argues against the Mosaic authorship of this psalm, which they would suggest fits better into the period of the Babylonian Exile. They contend that the expression “in all generations” necessitates a longer period of Israel’s history than that which could have occurred by the time of Moses. Let us remember, first of all, that many generations had passed in that period of time covered in the Book of Genesis. Let us also note that the expression not only looks back, but forward (cf. v. 2).
140 Of the first term, “men,” in verse 3, enosh, Leupold comments, “For ‘man’ the appropriate word enosh is used, signifying the ‘frail one.’” H. E. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House [reprint], 1969), p. 649.
Of the second term, also rendered ‘men’ in the NIV but the Hebrew word adam, Kidner says, “Also children of men could be translated ‘sons of Adam,’ but the allusion, if it is there, is not emphasized.” Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150 (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975), p. 328, fn. 2.
141 Kirkpatrick writes, “… though a man should outlive the years of Methuselah, it is nothing in comparison with eternity.” A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House [reprint], 1982), p. 550.
143 I must confess here that the subject of my Master’s thesis in seminary was “The Exodus Motif in Isaiah 40–55.” Moses himself interpreted Exodus as a pattern for future deliverances (cf. Exod. 15:1-11; Deut. 4:32-40; 7:17-19). The “Former Prophets” (the historians) and the “Latter Prophets” (cf. Hos. 7:16; 8:13; 9:3,6; 11:5,11; Jer. 16:14ff.; 23:7ff.; Ezekiel; Isa. 40—55) used the exodus theme and language extensively to picture the future deliverance of Israel, both from her bondage in Babylon and from her bondage in sin. Likewise, our Lord’s work is also described in “exodus” terminology (Luke 9:31). The exodus motif occurs also in the Psalms (cf. 74:12-14; 77:11-20).
144 Westermann writes, “The question ‘How long?’ implies distress of some duration. It is not complaining about a sudden blow just suffered but about constant duress.” Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), p. 177.