Psalms 90 styles itself as a psalm written by Moses or passed down from Moses. The authorship is interesting concerning the content. The theme of the psalm is how man lives for a short time, yet God lives forever. In the author’s time, Israel had undergone hardships and experienced death. Israel was humbled, and this psalm asks that God once again turn His favor to Israel.
Psa 90:1 A Prayer Of Moses the Man of God. LORD, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Moses begins this psalm by affirming that God is a God of Israel. Since their inception with Abraham, God has been the focal point and Israel’s safety. It is safe to say that “us” and “our” refer to Israel due to Israel’s reoccurring group status within the Psalms and the particular content of this chapter.
Psa 90:2 Before the mountains were brought forth, Or ever You had formed the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.
Moses next affirms God’s power while at the same time affirming His longevity. Notice that the author is claiming that God existed before the creation of the world. The phrase “from everlasting to everlasting” deals with timeframes. God has always existed and God always will exist. The context and face value meaning is not about timelessness. The following verses clarify, if there was any reasonable doubt. In fact, God being “everlasting” is contrasted with humans who live and then die:
Psa 90:3 You turn man to destruction, And say, “Return, O children of men.”
God kills people and then proclaims their deaths. Their body decays. The assumption is that this is contrasted with God who does not decay. The entire chapter is a long contrast between God and man. Even without being explicit, the reader understands this contrast.
Some say that “Return, O children of man” is a resurrection, as opposed to God declaring someone’s death. A third option is that the verse could be rendered: You turn a dying man into dust, but then can save him. The context (in which people die and fade away) gives support to the first option (God declaring death). But as the end of the chapter is about reconciliation, it could also be about salvation from death.
Psa 90:4 For a thousand years in Your sight Are like yesterday when it is past, And like a watch in the night.
Again, the author is contrasting time elements with God. Men come and go. God lives forever. It is not that God is “outside of time”. Instead, the author is adamant that God passes time as if it were nothing. All the imagery is about God living forever, watching men die.
This verse is explicit. This is not from man’s perspective. The verse is claiming to show God’s perspective. Time passes for God. Once one thousand years passes, in God’s view it is only as if a day has elapsed. This is the opposite of God being outside of time. Instead, this is talking about how God experiences time.
The idea of the verse is not at all alien to human understanding. As people age, the years seem to go faster and faster. When people are young, they feel that time stands still. When people are old, years pass by at an astonishing rate. If God has always lived (per verse 2), then time is of little notice to God. A hundred generations can die, and it would be a blip in God’s experience. This is really the point the author is trying to make:
Psa 90:5 You carry them away like a flood; They are like a sleep. In the morning they are like grass which grows up:
Psa 90:6 In the morning it flourishes and grows up; In the evening it is cut down and withers.
Men are compared to grass which quickly dies. They are a phantom dream in the night. They dissipate in the morning. They are washed away with the water. The contrast with verse 4 is apparent.
Psa 90:7 For we have been consumed by Your anger, And by Your wrath we are terrified.
Psa 90:8 You have set our iniquities before You, Our secret sins in the light of Your countenance.
Psa 90:9 For all our days have passed away in Your wrath; We finish our years like a sigh.
In these verses, God is portrayed as the one killing those who are wicked. God’s wrath consumes the sinners who believed their secret sins would go unpunished. Their lives end in a breath. The theme is a fleeting life. While we die, God lives on.
Psa 90:10 The days of our lives are seventy years; And if by reason of strength they are eighty years, Yet their boast is only labor and sorrow; For it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
This is a very telling verse. It appears that those who made it to adulthood, in the time of Moses, held an average lifespan between 70 to 80 years. This would not be inconsistent with early lifespan studies done elsewhere. But even at 70 years, this is nothing. People soon die.
Psa 90:11 Who knows the power of Your anger? For as the fear of You, so is Your wrath.
Psa 90:12 So teach us to number our days, That we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Psa 90:13 Return, O LORD! How long? And have compassion on Your servants.
In these verses, the author implores God to cease punishment on Israel for their sins. Israel has gained wisdom by seeing the death of their people. The people have been humbled by their own frailty. The previous contrasting of man’s days with God’s days might serve a second purpose. The author asks God “how long?” This serves almost as a reminder that although God will live forever and might not regard the years, that God’s servants are very sensitive to time.
The author asks to spend his remaining days in peace:
Psa 90:14 Oh, satisfy us early with Your mercy, That we may rejoice and be glad all our days!
Psa 90:15 Make us glad according to the days in which You have afflicted us, The years in which we have seen evil.
The author asks for as many years of blessings as Israel has experienced in affliction. The affliction is attributed to God. God has the power to afflict and the power to bless. The author implores God to change His curses to blessings.
Psa 90:16 Let Your work appear to Your servants, And Your glory to their children.
Psa 90:17 And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us, And establish the work of our hands for us; Yes, establish the work of our hands.
This psalm ends on a hopeful note. God has cursed and God has killed, but God should return to Israel. God needs to create prosperity such that people can praise God. God can then be experienced by all. Once God has returned, then Israel’s projects and plans would be blessed. God would ensure Israel accomplishes their goals.
To Moses, God had power. God was causing afflictions in response to sin. But God could be moved to change. God could be moved to grant untold blessings and prosperity. The psalm starts by humbling mankind. The psalm debases man as a dying plant or fleeting dream. The psalm, at the same time, exalts God as the God who lives forever. With adequate praise and humility, God may be moved to mercy.