The Beauty and Wisdom of Psalm 90
The five-parts series: The Beauty and Wisdom of Psalm 90 emphasizes man’s need for God and His answers. Psalm 90 speaks truth and hope into the lives of hurting people whether due to their own sins or the sins of another. It was especially important to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament and the Church, the new Israel, as descried in the New Testament (Galatians 6:16; Ephesians 2:11-15).
Psalm 90 is the only psalm attributed to Moses. It is the most personal, sober, and somber song of Moses that is hope filled. Other poetry of Moses includes Exodus 15:1-18; Deuteronomy 32:1-43; and Deuteronomy 33:1-29. There are many connections that link Psalm 90 with these poetries.
For instance, see the heading of Psalm 90 and the heading of Deuteronomy 33 – Moses as the man of God. Both Psalm 90:2 and Deuteronomy 32:18 refer to God’s creative work; and both Psalm 90:13 and Deuteronomy 32:36 refer to and ask for God’s compassion; and in both Psalm 90:13 and Exodus 32;12, Moses pleads with God to turn and relent from His anger because the people were His people
Psalm 90 is the first psalm of book IV (Psalm 90-106). Its placement at the beginning of book IV was no accident. The people of Israel were in need of hope and the God of true hope. Who better to convey hope and the God of hope than Moses! Such is Psalm 90: its beauty and wisdom!
The theme and contents of Book IV are in contrast to the turmoil noted in books I (1-41: the Davidic kingdom (DK) is on the rise, but it is in the milieu of battles and confrontation that David establishes his and God’s kingdom); book II (42-72: these highlight the glories of the Davidic king but it is amid continued struggles and conflict with enemies outside of and within Israel including his own household; and book III (73-89: these refer to the time of the collapse of the DK at the hands of international enemies and the resultant devastation).
In contrast, book IV opens with Psalms 90 and 91 which breathe a breath of fresh air into the hearts of the Israelites. Up to this point in the psalter, the emphasis had been on David, his kingship and descendants.
Moses, the man of God, mediator, and deliverer, authored Psalm 90 such that the reader must change his focus of history. His attention moves away from David and to Moses. The time period that Psalm 90 reflects was before the judges, before the settlement in of the Promise Land, and before the Davidic kingship.
Yet Both Moses and David point to the greater Moses and to the greater David. This movement highlights Psalm 90: its beauty and wisdom. It was a most fitting gift to the true Israel.
During the time of Moses, God himself was declared to be King (Deuteronomy 33:5). It was necessary that the people in every age know and act upon the fact that God is King. Now in exile, God’s people must remember that God is still King – of the universe and of Israel!
Moses had learned that life (God’s providence) has its uncertainty. He also learned that life lived apart from obedience and trust of God has its own consequences; in Israel’s case, it was the exile and in Moses’ case, he was barred entrance into the Promised Land.
If Moses is the author and many think he is, the historical setting is most likely contained in the book of Numbers chapter 20. It begins with the death of Miriam (verse 1 and only one verse) and concludes with the death of Aaron (verses 22-28). In between is recorded Moses’s sin. He struck (not spoke) the rock as an act of distrust of God. God prevented Moses and Aaron from entering the Promised Land (verses 9-12).
Yet Psalm 90 contains no trace or element of bitterness and resentment. It highlights man and his sinfulness as the problem (v.3-6, 7-11). Moses owns and acknowledges sin personally and corporately. He had experienced sinfulness in himself and in the people. Moreover, the psalm does not contain a note of defeat, but it concludes (verses 13-17) on a note of victory that matches the introduction (verses 1-2). Such is Psalm 90: its beauty and wisdom.
God’s people need God. These facts are expressed in Isaac Watts’ hymn: Our God, Our Help in Ages Past. The first verse is as follows: Our God, our Help in ages past, Our hope for years to come, Our Shelter from the stormy past, And our Eternal Home.
Moses had experienced the truth that God exists and has something to say about every thought, desire, and action of man. This truth is an aspect of fear of the Lord which is the very foundation of life lived Coram Deo – in God’s presence – before His face. Moses began poorly (Exodus 3-4), but he grew in wisdom and stature. He led the people out of bondage, deadness, and darkness as a prelude to the greater Moses, Jesus Christ and the new exodus.
Moses, as the author of Psalm 90 and its placement in the Psalter, was suited to give hope and encouragement. Again, such is Psalm 90: its beauty and wisdom. In it, Moses accentuates the eternal grandeur of God (Psalm 90:1-2). Moses had experienced the presence of God, meeting with Him face to face and not dying (Exodus 3-4; Numbers 12:8).
But as a nation (Exodus 19:5-6) before and after Sinai (Exodus 15:22-27; 16:1ff; 17:1-7; 32-33; Numbers 11, 14, 21), the people had gone their own way. As a result, God disciplined them eventually with the exile. However, Moses knew that Israel’s God was and is a covenant-making-keeping God. These facts are addressed throughout Psalm 89 which ends (verse 52) with a declaration of praise: Praise be to the Lord forever. Amen and Amen. Book III closes on a sour note: where is God – all the while trying to convince the people that God is here!
The answer addressed by Moses is that God is alive and well! He still reigns, is in control, and has His remnant. Circumstances don’t change those facts. Moses gave truth in Psalm 90 which was to enable God’s people to live by truth and not the lie. Yet this truth would be grasped only by those with ears to hear and eyes to see.
Part of the beauty and wisdom of Psalm 90 rests in the fact that God through Moses gave the people further study in proper theology. Moses, God’s agent, had laid out this theology in Egypt and throughout the wilderness wanderings. He was always calling the people back to God – a personal God – and the beauty and joy of their relationship with Him. Book IV begins a low point in the history of Israel. Only truth would set the people free.
- What is the significance of Psalm 90 in terms of its author (Moses) and its position in the Psalter – the beginning psalm in book IV?
- What is the presumed setting of Psalm 90?
- Review the themes of the books of the Psalter as a backdrop for correctly interpreting the psalter.
The Beauty and Wisdom of Psalm 90: Part I
God’s Grandeur and Man’s Frailty: verses 1-2, 3-6
We continue our study of Psalm 90: Its beauty and wisdom. A simple outline is as follows: Moses reflects on the eternal grandeur of God (verses 1-2) in the context of the frailty of man (verses 3-6), man’s sin and God’s wrath (verses 7-11), and man’s need of God and His grace (verses 13-17).
Moses opens the psalm (verses 1-2) with a clarion call that is simple and profound. Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting you are God. These opening verses highlight the Person of God and Psalm 90: its beauty and wisdom.
Moses begins with a statement of fact: God is. He exists and is active. He gets personal! God is their dwelling place and refuge. However, their feelings and circumstances said otherwise. They were in danger of living the lie: is God really trustworthy?
Moses begins by reflecting on God’s being as the sure refuge for God’s people. The Triune God existed and was personal. He related to His people. Those truths were remarkable. They were taken for granted as if it was God’s duty to deliver the people out of their mess.
Moses sound a little like the author of Ecclesiastes. He had experienced the uncertainty and even absurdity of life . Only five people (Aaron, Miriam, Caleb, Joshua, and himself) of the original group that left Egypt neared the Promised Land but only Joshua and Caleb entered it.
Yet he knew God existed and appealed to Him for himself and for the people (Exodus 32-33). God was his and the people’s dwelling place (Deuteronomy 33:27; Psalms 46:1-3, 10; 71:3 and 91:9-10). Moses is speaking of a relationship that puts the believer in an unbreakable union with the Triune God. It is the source of hope, joy, and comfort. Moses imperfectly lived and died based on that union.
You may ask: how does union with Christ give you those things. On earth, the believer has a taste of heaven – heaven came to the believer and the Church in Christ by the Holy Spirit.
Believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit who enlightens, illumines, sustains, and motivates the believer. He does not work for, apart from, in place of, or against the believer. Yet the believer thinks thoughts, desires what God desires, and acts according to biblical truth because the Holy Spirt has graced him and poured out His love into his heart (Romans 5:5).
The reality of life here is that believers are mere pilgrims, passing through to the celestial city. They have no permanent home on earth, but they have an eternal inheritance kept by God (Philippians 3:19-20; Hebrews 11:24-27; 1 Peter 1:3-5). The significance of these facts is monumental. Such was the case with the wilderness. Moses headed them to the Promised Land.
Jesus, John, Paul, and Moses lived with a vertical gaze as all believers are called to do (Hebrews 12:1-3; 1 John 3:1-3; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18; Philippians 3:19-21; Colossians 3:1-3). This enabled them to be of earthly good. Jesus finished the race and returned home as Lord of Lord and King of kings. All saints are to live in the present life energized and motivated to please God. They live joyfully here as they anticipate heaven. Life is simplified. The believer lives as a victor in Christ because Christ is and he is in Christ (Romans 8:35-39)!
Moreover, Moses in these opening verses declared that God is Israel’s God even though he knew Israel had not acted like it. Such is Psalm 90: its beauty and wisdom which accounts for its placement in the Psalter. Moses knew that God is God no matter the circumstances or how His people think, desire, and act at the moment.
Moses, the people, and all believers in every age, must know and respond to these truths. The Triune God will continually bring His people face to face with Him. In that way, they will know who He is and who they are.
In verses 3-6, Moses points out the frailty of man which contrasts the stability and eternity of God:
v.3: You turn men back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, O sons of me
v.4: For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by or like a watch in the night.
v.5: You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass in the morning –
v.6: Though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered.
Peter uses verse 4 in 2 Peter 3:8. God is not slow in bringing His decrees to come to past including Jesus’ return and the final judgment. God is timeless and does not keep time as we do! Time does not pass for God but it passes quickly or slowly for mankind depending on one’s perspective!
Forty years seemed like a life time to the people but was but a vapor for God. Moses was encouraging the people to view things from God’s perspective. He did not want them to live the lie. Such is the beauty and wisdom of Psalm 90! Moreover, death will come in the end no matter how long a person lives here. Such is the plight of fallen man (Romans 5:12-14).
- What is the emphasis of verses 1-2? How was that emphasis to be a blessing to the people and to the Church today?
- What is the emphasis of verses 3-6? How was that emphasis to be a blessing to the people and to the Church today?
- How is the presence of God to be a blessing? What does that fact indicate regarding God?
Psalm 90: Part II
Man the Sinner, God the Judge: verses 7-12
This is the third installment in the series: The Beauty and Wisdom of Psalm 90. Moses began with the eternal grandeur of God (verses 1-2). His splendor and presence marked Him as Israel’s God and Israel His people. However, there is a greater issue. It is not simply the frailty of man (verses 3-6) but the fact that man is a sinner and God is the holy Judge. Psalm 90 displays its beauty and wisdom as it looks at the “deeper things of life.”
v.7: We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation.
v.8: You have set our inquiries before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.
v.9: All our days pass away from under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan.
v.10: The length of our days is seventy years – or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for quickly pass, and we fly away.
v.11: Who knows the power of your anger? For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.
v.12: Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Verses 7-12 picture highlight man’s primary problem: his status as a sinner in Adam and his own personal sins. Man’s frailty and limited lifespan on earth is traced to the fall and God’s judgment (Romans 5:12-14; 6:23). God is the just Judge of the universe (Genesis 18:25). He must judge according to His perfect standard or He would not be God!
Man’s mortality, frailty and sinfulness (in Adam and his own sins) must be understood in the context of God’s holiness and eternality. God does not die – He is eternally sinless – pure holiness! In contrast, man dies because he is a sinner under God’s curse. Man the sinner has a limited life on earth and is subject to God’s wrath and judgment. God is Creator, Controller, Judge, and Redeemer. Man does have an eternal destiny. This teaching helps demonstrate the beauty and wisdom of Psalm 90.
Moses is teaching a linkage of profound truths. Israel, and the Church, must take sin and sinfulness seriously. These two are linked. Moses, as God’s mediator, escorted the people along a journey through the wilderness. The setting was not simply a physical one. The people were experiencing a spiritual journey – they moved away from God or toward God in the context of their physical surroundings and God’s providence. There were to be blessings for trust and obedience and consequences for rebellion as described in Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 27.
David gives evidence of taking sin and sinfulness seriously as described in Psalm 19:12-13 and 139:1, 23-24. The author of Hebrews builds on that truth in Hebrews 3:12-13 and 4:12-13. Taking sin and sinfulness seriously means taking self seriously which is via God’s perspective. You examine yourself to see what changes need to be made in thoughts, desires, and actions for God’s honor and glory (1 Corinthians 11:28-32; 2 Corinthians 13:5; James 1:2-4).
Taking sin and sinfulness seriously requires taking God seriously (see Psalms 111-112). God is holy and because He is He judges evil and evildoers. He has zeal for Himself (Exodus 20:4-6). The fact of God’s holiness did not control Israel. It did not control Moses when he struck the rock (Numbers 20) or Uzzah when he touched the Ark (2 Samuel 6).
Denying the holiness of God functionally denies God. Yet He will not be undone! Isaiah was correct: he was undone not God (Isaiah 6:1-5)! The story of God’s holiness and victory is recorded in the book of Revelation.
Therefore, Moses prayed and asked God to teach the people to number their days for the purpose of gaining wisdom. Psalm 90: its beauty and wisdom helps the believer in every age to move toward God as Moses did.
Moses asked God to teach him and the people to assess Him, themselves, and life from His perspective. The believer is a learner and is to function as God’s kind of learner! One goal for the believer is gain a heart of wisdom! The believer is to live as wise people (Ephesians 5:15-18).
Psalm 90: its beauty and wisdom incorporates these truths. Therefore believers are to think God’s thoughts, take every thought captive, and grow in grace and knowledge because we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16; 2 Corinthians 10:3-5; Philippians 4:8; Titus 1:1-2; 2 Peter 3:18).
- Two simple yet profound truths are: God is holy and man is not. How do you process those truths?
- How do you take sin and sinfulness seriously? What does that mean to you?
- What is your view of God’s holiness? How do you respond? How has your life changed as a result?
Psalm 90: Part III
God’s Satisfaction and Favor: verses 13-17
This is the fourth installment in the series: The Beauty and Wisdom of psalm 90. In these verses Moses moves to direct communication with God. The believer knows that God is the Giver of life, grace, and wisdom (1 Timothy 6:13; James 1:5-8; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5; 2 Peter 3:18). Wisdom demands that the believer appeal to God for grace.
Grace can be defined as God’s favor. Blessed is the man who …is a common refrain found the Psalms. The refrain acknowledges that the unsaved person is in an unfavorable position with God. In fact, he is a dis-favorable position! He is in grave danger.
Fallen, unsaved man is out of favor and out of a graced and favored position with and toward God. Only God supernaturally can grace man and place him in a position of favor. Such it was with Noah (Genesis 6:9). Such it is for every believer (Ephesians 2:8-10).
The grace of God brings man into a saving relationship with the Triune God. As a result, the believer desires more and more of God and not simply for what He gives (Psalm 34:8; Philippians 3:8-11).
The verses before teach that every man is a seeker, searcher, and longs to be satisfied. As Augustine wrote: You made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in thee (page 21, Confessions). Others offer his thoughts this way: Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee. That had not been the case with Israel. They were restless for self and self-satisfaction: to self and for self! Now in the midst of God’s chastening, Psalm 90: its beauty and wisdom was being used to breathe hope, comfort, and satisfaction into the people who God had called His own. It was a godly wake-up call!
v.13: Relent, O Lord! How long will it be? Have compassion on your servants.
v.14: Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.
v.15: Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble.
v.16: May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children.
v.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.
These verses are interesting in that they ask things of God. Moses does not repent for the nation as we read in Ezra 9, Nehemiah 9, and Daniel 9. However, Moses is familiar with rebellious people. He knows the necessity of repentance and confession. Moses is pleading on behalf of a rebellious bunch much as he did in Exodus 32-33. He knew the consequences of the failure to repent of rebellion. Moses appealed to God. The psalmist wanted the exiles to follow suite.
Two words stand out: in verses 14, satisfy and in verse 17, the word favor. The word satisfy is used about 100 times and carries the meaning of being filled to the brim, enough, plenty, and even overwhelmed. This is a brave request. Israel as a nation had not been satisfied or overwhelmed with God. Israel was interested only in self and what God gave.
Moses prayed for a reversal of Israel’s thoughts, desires, and actions. As he had done throughout the wilderness, he pointed the people in the right direction – toward God. Such is the beauty and wisdom of Psalm 90. He was repeating David’s request given in Psalm 27:4: One thing I ask of the Lord; this is what I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. David wanted more of God! That is what Moses wanted for his people. Circumstances should not and do not change the desire to be satisfied with God.
The second word is favor (verse 17). In the original, the word is used only fifteen times and carries the idea of pleasant, pleasing, and beauty. It is not the usual word for grace (hanan). The Septuagint translates it as brightness and it is derived from the Greek word group meaning lamp. Moses wanted the people to come into the light of God’s countenance as His children not as His enemy. He wanted them to experience what David prayed in Psalm 27:4.
Moses knew what it meant to come into God’s presence unclean (Leviticus 10:1-3). He knew the constant refrain be holy as I am holy throughout the book of Leviticus and 1 Peter (11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7, 26; 21:8, 15; 22:9, 16, 32; 1 Peter 1:15-16). Coming into God’s presence was a blessing and privilege reserved only for God’s people through the blood of the Sacrifice, Jesus Christ, and its application by the Holy Spirit. Moses prayed to establish and encourage believers to grow and change into Christlikeness.
Sin and sinners never exhaust God’s graciousness and generosity. Believers are victors only in Christ by the Holy Spirit. They are to think, desire, and act like God’s children. This completes the true circle of life: loved by God to love God and others (1 John 4:7-12, 19); comforted by God to comfort others (2 Corinthians 1:3-4); and forgiven by God to restore relationships (Matthew 5:23-24; 18:21-35).
- How do you link grace and holiness?
- Moses prayed for his people: he wanted the people to be satisfied with God. How do you apply Psalm 27:4 and 34:8 to yourself daily?
- Read Job 40:1-5 and 42:1-6 and answer: how are you like Job? Give examples.
The Beauty and Wisdom of Psalm 90: Part IV
Questions and Answers for Application
Consider these final thoughts regard Psalm 90: its beauty and wisdom. How do you view the Psalter helps determine your view of individual psalms. If the individual psalms are simply letters from here and there, you will have the tendency to use them according to yours or another’s wisdom. However, many theologians believe the Psalter has an organized structure with themes.
The theme of Book IV (Psalms 90-106) is life in the exile. The false prophets – Jeremiah took them on – were predicting only a short time for the people in the exile. The idea was: do not sweat it! It is OK, It will be over soon and you can go back to your ways. But God intended there to be maturation of His people. He had promised the continuation of the Messianic Kingdom. Circumstances seemed to indicate otherwise.
In their situation which is God’s providence, the people did not have their attention on God. Rather it was on self. They lived the lie! The question raised in Psalm 89 and answered by Moses: Was there still hope for Israel? Was God faithful and trustworthy? Some of the people may have wondered: Was their situation similar to the flood – would there be a wiping away and starting over so to speak? Would God really do that? Moses appeals to God the Giver!
How would you answer those questions? As a country, we are not there yet but the country seems to be on the downward slope. The Church is moving along the lines of losing its favored position in God’s eyes. The Church does not seem to care! Please answer the question as you face Psalm 90: its beauty and wisdom.
We are not told but I wonder if the people considered how God could be covenantally faithful when they were so unfaithful, when His people were not His people as Hosea taught regarding the Northern kingdom (1:4, 6, 8)! Sadly, the Southern Kingdom did not learn from their sister in the north.
As you look at the history of Israel, both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, how do you view yourself and the Church? Which one are you: for self or for God? Put yourself in their places. Are you gripped by God’s glory and greatness or by the circumstances without considering how the Church and the United States arrived in its position before God?
Think about Psalm 90: its beauty and wisdom as you think about the phrase living the lie. Earlier I mentioned that Israel had and was living the lie. The lie was thinking God owed them and His holiness did not matter! There are examples of the psalm writers not living the lie such as the son of Korah in Psalms 42-43 and Asaph in Psalm 73. Each of them came to their senses when they considered who God was and who they were (42:5, 11; 43:1, 5; 73:21-26)!
Psalm 89 which closed book III asked if the covenant God was alive and well. Circumstances dictated otherwise. Yet the psalmist assured the people and himself that God was still the trustworthy One as judged by His nature and by past actions!
With the approach that the whole of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms had as a unit, you would think that God owed them and not the other way. Therefore, when they don’t get what they want, they conclude that they are free to respond in a way that they think is appropriate for themselves and for God’s failures. This is heavy theology but necessary! Therefore, write out your view of living the lie, how Israel did, and how you might.
It is interesting that in the psalm there is no call by the psalmist for people to repent and to learn the lessons God had for them. Moses the author of the Psalm focused on God. He asked God to relent (verse 13). He appeals to God’s mercy as he did in Exodus 32-33. Moses knew God and he knew the people. He grew weary of ministering to them. Perhaps that is why he appealed to God! Such is the beauty and wisdom of Psalm 90!
Moses as he did in Egypt recognized and witnessed God’s covenantal faithfulness and the people unfaithfulness. The people continued to rebel. They were a grumbling, unrepentant lot. God was disciplining them but they seemed oblivious. In fact many Israelites stayed in Babylon including the priests after the 70 years of captivity ended. They continued to live the lie! They lived as God was not worthy of their total submission and consecration of every thought, desire, and action. Babylon was not the Promised Land!
In verses 7-12, Moses focuses on another of man’s problems: his sinfulness. Man’s greatest problem is not frailty and the shortness of life. His greatest problem no matter his strength and length of life is sin and sinfulness. The reason it is a problem is because of the just Judge of all the world calls all people to account before Him (Genesis 18:25; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10). As a result of sin and God’s curse, sin, misery, and death entered into the world, and then judgment (Romans 5:12-14; 6:23; Hebrews 2:14-18; 9:27).
Please yourself: what is your view of sin? How was Moses using it in verses 7-12? The people needed a different view of God, themselves, and His ways. How about you? Verses 13-17 emphasize man’s need for God, His mercy and grace. The people did not need a new, physical Jerusalem – they missed the point of God’s discipline and lived the lie!
Moses closes with petitions and what I call focuses: 1.They are to beseech God, the Giver realizing He has given them Himself. He had no reason to put up with Israel except for His covenantal faithfulness; 2. They are to have God teach them, but He had! They needed to ask God to please continue; 3. Moses instructed them to ask God to “make us glad and satisfy us” but with what? It is with HIM and so it should be for every believer; 4. And they are to ask God to establish the work of His hand by the4ir labors. They were to be God’s people and agents to further the kingdom.
This last request/petition is based on the fact that Israel recognized and repented that it had not been what God intended. The people wanted to blame God and circumstances! On the contrary, the people were to bow the knee and profess the Triune God so the world would see, God’s work would be manifested in them and by them!
In closing and considering Psalm 90: its beauty and wisdom, ask yourself: Do you need a different view of God and yourself? Write out your answer and the basis for them. Then find truth to replace the lie. Don’t be like Israel!