A Bible Lesson on Psalm 90

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

This is a Bible lesson on a passage outside the current ISSL schedule, Psalm 90.  This is a psalm that Christian people have traditionally read at funerals (along with 1 Corinthians 15).  It is one that reminds us of what is eternal and what is not, of what matters, and what does not.  It is sober and serious.  And it is good.  It’s not pessimistic, but rather completely realistic.  Let us hear it and allow it to do its work in us.

Psalm 90:1  A Prayer of Moses, the man of God. Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.

This is a “A Prayer of Moses.”  This is the only Psalm attributed to Moses.  It’s not the only piece of Biblical poetry attributed to him.  There is the “Song of Moses” in Deuteronomy 32-33.  The probable context of Psalm 90 is the time of Numbers 20 to the time of Deuteronomy 33.  The wandering in the wilderness is near its end.  In accord with God’s judgment pronounced on the people in Numbers 14:20-23 (when they are unwilling to go into the promised land) nearly all who were adults at the time of the Exodus have died in the wilderness.  Miriam and Aaron have died and Moses knows he is next.  He prays to the One he knows to be sovereign over all.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.  This “Lord” is “Master” rather than “LORD” (the personal name of the God of the Universe, the “I AM”).  He is our king as well as our shelter.  Moses says here what he said in the song of Moses:

Deuteronomy 33:27a  The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms …

Moses and the people have wandered in the desert with no permanent home.  In fact, the whole history of the Jewish people since the call of Abraham to this point where Moses speaks has been without a place to call “home.”  But the truth is that they have been shown that God’s great presence is “Home.”

This Psalm is going to go on to reflect on the transience of earthly life, and the frailty of mankind.  But remember where it starts and know that in the end it will come back to where it begins.  And remember that you and I, with Moses and the saints of all time are “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10).  Our Master Himself is our eternal dwelling place.  Our eternal existence is in Him.

2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

The Scriptures are unashamed in declaring that “In the beginning God created”  He formed the “earth,” and the “world” or cultivated part of the earth.  And they declare that He is the eternal One.  He is from everlasting to everlasting.  He stands outside of time, distinct from, and infinitely bigger than His creation.  You and I, we’re not like this, not at all like this.

3 You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!”

God formed our first father, Adam, from the dust and breathed into him the breath of life.  In Genesis 3 at the fall, God told Adam and Eve that part of the curse was going to be their return to dust.  Humans were created, and will every one return to the stuff from which their first parent was made.

4 For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.

Contrast the Almighty.  He has no beginning and no end.  There is nothing that is in any way impermanent about Him.  He is the constant, and as the events of our lives and whole periods of human history go racing by, He stands fixed and immutable.  We think of chunks of time as amounting to something.  But our lifetimes are nothing in comparison to the permanence of God.  If we lived as long as Methuselah, it would be a blink of the eye to our God.  This is humbling to human pride, and it is meant to be so.

5 You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning:

Not only are our lives on earth short, amounting to nothing in comparison to eternity, but we are frail, without any real substance while we are on the scene.  We think of people and institutions as strong and powerful, but God can and does wash them away as with a hurricane storm surge.  We are no stronger in the grand scheme of things than is grass that springs up in the morning and withers by night.  There is not one of us humans that is really substantial.

6 in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.

Morning holds promise.  There are things to do.  Some of those things are genuinely good and should be done.  Moses’s life has been filled with those things.  He’s been faithful, he’s lived right and obeyed God.  But that doesn’t change the fact that his earthly existence is as insubstantial as a dream.  That’s true for every human being that has ever lived, the greatest to the least, the good and holy as well as the evil.  There is real reason for humility here.  Those who understand what Moses is saying live quiet sober lives, gratefully doing the next thing that God gives them to do, knowing that while they are beings of worth and loved by God, they are not the stars of the show.

7 For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed.

We are brought to an end/consumed/finished/spent.  We have nothing left in light of your wrath.

Moses has seen a whole generation die in the wilderness.  He’s probably seen both Miriam and Aaron die by this point, and he knows that he too will die before seeing the promised land.  There is nothing unjust about that.  The origin of death is sin and God’s just wrath against sin.  God’s wrath against sin is completely right and good.  We know that and will admit it if we are at all honest.  But that doesn’t diminish our misery in knowing.  The best of us is miserable in our knowledge of our sin and God’s just displeasure.  In and of ourselves we are without resource, undone.  And we are without excuse.

8 You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.

There is no hiding from the eternal One.  We can no more hide our sinfulness and sin from Him, than could Adam and Eve in the garden.  Even the stuff we would try to hide from ourselves and justify to ourselves, He knows.  It is there in the light of His presence, in the light of His “countenance.”  C.S. Lewis said, “In the end that Face which is the delight or terror of the Universe must be turned on each of us … either conferring glory inexpressible or inflicting shame that can never be cured or disguised.”  Our lives are short, our existence is insubstantial in comparison to God’s.  But those aren’t the real/fundamental problems.  Our problem is sin.

9 For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh.

Human beings that are at all paying attention live lives groaning under the weight of real guilt and the knowledge that it is not inconsequential to God, that He truly hates sin, that His wrath is both real and just.  We bring our years to an end like a sigh.  Long life is a mixed blessing.  With it comes years of knowledge of the misery of sin and wrath.

10 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.

There is joy in life, as we spend it in fellowship with Christ.  But the truth is that life wears us out.  It’s hard.  And it is, again, short.  Their (our years’) “span” is but toil and trouble.  Literally this is their “pride” is but toil and trouble.  What folks prize in life, their health, joys, riches, and honor are all nevertheless touched by toil and trouble.  The years are soon gone and we fly away.

11 Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you?

All of this should be most obvious to anyone who is paying attention to the Scriptures.  But, Moses asks, “Who is paying attention?”  The implied answer is “Nobody!”   The message of this Psalm is not often heard in our time.  Our time is too busy in amusements, self-indulgence, and pleasure, and just plain noise.  Outside the church and inside the visible church, people in our time are living for this life alone.  Moses would plead for our attention, and tell us that to live a shallow self-indulgent existence, oblivious to these matters is both insane and ultimately suicidal.  So he prays for us:

12 So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Teach us to number our days.  Teach us to think it through, the infinite eternal nature of God and the finite, frail, and sinful nature of humanity.  Teach us to compare our days to His.  Teach us to reckon correctly.  Everyone ought to know his or her few days, or he or she will play the fool and ignore mortality and accountability to God.  Teach us to get wisdom, to fear the LORD.

And he prays for mercy for all of us.  With boldness made possible by the truth of verse 1, that God has been our dwelling place, Moses essentially prays for the reversal of the misery he’s laid out.

13 Return, O LORD! How long? Have pity on your servants!

God says to man in verse 3, “Return” to the dust, Moses prays to God “Return” and give mercy.  Have pity.  Humans deserve wrath, Moses asks for mercy.  He doesn’t have the whole of the Gospel picture, but he can confidently plead for mercy.  Moses knows that he belongs to God, that he is God’s servant.  He knows that God has been his dwelling place through all of life.  He knows God will hear and answer, but he can’t know how graciously his prayer will be answered in Christ.

14 Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

In verses 5 and 6, the morning brings promise that fades by evening as our frail attempts at significance come to nothing.  All our days under God’s just wrath from verse 9 are few, and full of misery and terror.  But Moses dares here to pray for satisfaction in the morning, rejoicing, and gladness for all our days, all of this on the basis of God’s steadfast love for His servants, for those who truly love Him and serve Him.  He almost surely speaks beyond his own understanding by speaking of an eternal morning when God’s servants wake on the other side of death.

15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil.

On the basis of God’s steadfast love, Moses can dare to pray for gladness to at least balance misery.  What he can’t imagine is the wonder of the Gospel and the complete overpowering of the tough stuff of life by gracious promises of eternity.

2Corinthians 4:17  For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,

16 Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.

What you and I do in this world in our own strength is transitory.  What God does is permanent.  So Moses prays for God’s permanent work to be seen by God’s servants and their kids.  Here’s something that lasts beyond a person’s life.  Moses saw through a glass darkly.  The glory of it is that there is eternity “at home” awaiting us and all those of all generations who love God.

17 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!

Let the delight of the Lord our God be upon us.  And here is a prayer that instead of our work being pointless and profiting nothing, as it looks in verses 5 and 6, that it having lasting consequence.  We long to be home and to have meaning.  Those things are in God alone.

Moses began reckoning from the truth that God has been his dwelling place, his only home on earth.  In all probability, nearing the end of his life, he thinks about human transience, frailty and its relation to sin and punishment and misery.  He wonders that many pay these things no attention and prays for wisdom for people to see how things are.  He ends with this series of petitions for mercy and reversal of misery, petitions that are made more glorious by the Gospel, petitions grounded in God’s steadfast love for His servants.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

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