Studies in the Psalms

Psalm 90 (KJV)
To the chief Musician

  1. Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.
  2. Before the mountains were brought forth,
    or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world,
    even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.
  3. Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.
  4. For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past,
    and as a watch in the night.
  5. Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep:
    in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.
  6. In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up;
    in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.
  7. For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.
  8. Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.
  9. For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.
  10. The days of our years are threescore years and ten;
    and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years,
    yet is their strength labor and sorrow;
    for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
  11. Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.
  12. So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
  13. Return, O LORD, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants.
  14. O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
  15. Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us,
    and the years wherein we have seen evil.
  16. Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.
  17. And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us:
    and establish thou the work of our hands upon us;
    yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.



Psalm 90

by Floyd Brand

A Prayer of Moses, the man of God.

To other prophets God spoke in visions or in dreams. To Moses God spoke face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses, the Lord gave rapid-fire testimony in behalf of his servant: “He is faithful in all my house.” “With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly.” “He beholds the form of the LORD.” (Num. 12:6-8). Moses was the mediator of the Old Covenant, which God established with Israel at Mt. Sinai. Moses was the intercessor whose plea saved the whole people from destruction after the catastrophe of Golden Calf. Moses had seen the glory of the Lord, a limited vision, but still a vision granted no other mortal. The Prologue to the Gospel of John defines the role of Moses in the history of salvation: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). And the Lord did hear Moses’ prayer and did establish the work of his hands. At the beginning of his career Moses had taken it upon himself to free his people from Egyptian oppression, but God had not yet called him to that work, and his endeavor crashed. After God did call him, forty years later, only the threat of imminent death moved Moses to fulfill the condition of the covenant and circumcise his son. Well into the forty years in the wilderness Moses, unequaled in all the earth for meekness, lost his patience and struck the rock from which the water then came forth for the parched people and their livestock. God had instructed him, in effect, to preach the Gospel but Moses had preached the Law instead. For this act of disobedience he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. But grace triumphed over judgment. God had called him to a labor pivotal in the unfolding of the kingdom of God, and Moses was faithful in his calling. God did establish the work of his hands, and he is honored as “the man of God.” For it was Moses together with Elijah who met with Jesus on the Mount of the Transfiguration.

The Psalm is a prayer. Prayer is addressed to the living God in the conviction that God is a merciful God. Moses, standing in the cleft of the rock, had heard the Lord proclaim his own name and the interpretation of it: “the LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious“ (Ex. 34:6). The Lord will hear this prayer, grant its petitions, and accept its praises.

Verse 1

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.

“Lord” (spelled in our translations with only the initial “L” capitalized), is the ruler of all that he has created.  Literally the verse reads, “Lord, a dwelling place you have been for us in all generations.” God the great and the holy has proven himself the dwelling place for his small, frail, and sinful creatures, those who take refuge in him.  He is their home, the place where they belong. In him they live their life; in him they are safe. Such has he been through all generations. A “generation” is the span of time from a man’s birth to the birth of his children, and Moses had lived to see the coming and going of three or four or even five generations. During this time the people of God through their rebelliousness deserved to be evicted from their dwelling place, and nearly were. But they remained under his guidance and protection. At every point in time there has been a people of God. There are no gaps in history where the church of God did not exist. “In all generations”: from the first Gospel to the last trump. In spite of violence at the hands of the enemies of grace, in spite of the enervation of the faithful, the church shall never perish.


Verse 2

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

Both verbs in this sentence liken the creation to the birth of a child. The mountains were “brought forth,” as a child is brought into the world. God “writhed in labor” as he formed the earth and the world; the whole of God’s attention, energy, and heart was invested in this great work, a massive effort, sublimely joyful. The material world issued from the person who is spirit. But before God created anything, he was there, because he is there from everlasting. From everlasting he is God, without starting point or end.  As the span of God’s life is infinite, so it is with everything else about him. His power, his presence, his knowledge, his wisdom, his goodness, his holiness, are boundless. God is the Absolute. We may and must speak of his attributes one by one, because our limited minds cannot fathom the whole of God. As God is absolute in one attribute, he is absolute in all. In this passage his eternal-ness is in view. But God is equally absolute in his holiness. Thus man, sinful and mortal, finds himself in an awful situation.


Verses 3-4

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.

God the holy Creator is eternal and absolute; man the sinful creature stands before him mortal, weak, insignificant, and helpless. The Eternal calls man back to the dust, material that has been pulverized. The divine summons, echoing Gen. 3:19, reduces a man to the “dust of the ground” from which he was made. God the Eternal beholds the generations as they come and go; time means nothing to him. To him a thousand years are like yesterday in the recollection of mortals, or like a few hours of the night, not remembered by those who slept peacefully, hardly remembered by the watchman himself, fighting sleep as he was. St. Peter extends the vision both ways: “With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Pet. 3:8). God is never hurried, is never pressed for time, never runs out of time. God is never bored either. Time does not pass slowly for him. He is never the one asking, “How long?” The hymn gives the thought very well when it describes God as “unresting, unhasting.” To Moses the forty years in the desert must have seemed like eternity as the Israelites wandered from place to place,  encamped at times for long stretches, and waited for the forty years to end. The adults of the generation that left Egypt knew that they would die and never see the Promised Land. Through the latter part of that banishment, Moses was aware that he himself would not enter the land. It broke the shepherd heart of Moses over and over as the people rebelled against the Lord, and again and again were mowed down by the thousands by his wrath. What truly hurt was that God so gracious was so furious with the people he had chosen for himself.

This situation would be bearable still if this were the end of the matter, if people could only get through it and then ever after all would be well. Not so. Moses is speaking of eternal death. The faithful of the Old Testament were well aware that after this life there is either a life under wrath or a life under grace, without end. Hence the gravity of this Psalm and of all Scripture.


Verses 5-6

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.

The old generation is swept away suddenly, as though by the waters of a flood; it is like a dream that lasts a moment and is over. A new generation arises, youthful, fresh, vigorous, promising; it too lasts but a moment. It lasts a day, flourishing in the light and the dew of the morning, parched and withered ere evening by the searing desert wind. What has been gained? What progress has been made? “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it” (Ec. 1:3, 4, 8). Meanwhile God presides in the majesty of eternity. Nothing diminishes God; nothing alleviates the lot of man. “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass” (Is. 40:6-7).


Verses 7-8

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.

Moses is speaking in the name of those who do trust in God. He does not stand apart, pointing a self-righteous finger at people over there who are the cause of all the trouble. He includes himself among those deservedly subject to divine anger. Judgment begins in the house of God. It begins with the penitent. Here Moses demolishes the view that suffering and death are built into the order of creation, that life and death are a perfectly normal natural cycle. God is angry, and the conscience is dismayed. It knows that God has reason to be angry, as expressed in the confession of sins,  “we have justly deserved thy temporal and eternal punishment.” God sweeps away one generation after another because he is angry. He does not simply brush aside the iniquities of his people. God lays out the sins of men, his people included, where he can see them in their sinfulness. There they are, and they must be punished. The expression “secret sins” does not indicate that these sins are hidden from other people; rather they are hidden from the one who commits them. This is finally true of all sins. Even when the sinner repents of them, he does not fully realize how hateful they are to God. Even the sins that trouble the conscience are to a degree “secret sins.” In the light shining from the face of God upon the sins of men, there is no hiding their ugliness. It will not help the sinner to plead that he could not help it, or that little or no harm was done anyone. It will not do to think that nothing can harm God anyway and therefore sins against the First Table of the Law are minor matters.


Verses 9-11

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?

For the faithful as well as the faithless, day after day goes by under the wrath of God because of iniquities and secret sins. Life goes by swiftly, and ends neither with a bang nor a whimper, but with an exhalation expressing frustration, regret, helplessness, resignation, enervation. Held against the life of God from everlasting to everlasting, the seven or eight decades of human life are insignificant. The additional decade when granted is another ten years of increasing decrepitude and often bodily suffering. “Span” could well be translated “pride” or ”boasting;” “trouble” could be “vanity” or “emptiness.” Our departure is not a dignified retreat; we are gone in a flash.

Who can imagine the anger of God and the power of his wrath? Who takes any of this to heart? God is a jealous God; he is not bluffing. The Word that commands and creates the fear of God is not overstated, and they who fear God are not paranoid. “The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever” (Ps. 19:9). Those who see clearly are they who fear the Lord. One must not limit the word to mean mere respect or even reverence. “Fear” is a deep and genuine dread of losing God’s favor and of bringing on his wrath and punishment. The New Testament wording, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), indicates the intensity of this emotion.

The Old Testament depicts the infancy and childhood of the people of God. St. Paul explains that the purpose of the Law was to be the guardian for the church until it attained the age of majority with the coming of Christ. Thus, during the time before Christ, temporal blessing and temporal judgment alike, in point of time, followed closely upon the heels of righteousness and disobedience, respectively. In the same way parents and teachers respond to the behavior of children quickly with encouragement or correction respectively. Moses witnessed and felt the immediate consequences of sin, disobedience, and idolatry throughout the forty years in the desert. But though the lesson was clear, the people would not learn. They could not learn, because the various afflictions were only the surface of God’s judgment upon them. The God who is jealous was hardening their hearts, and visiting their sins upon their children, in that the children continued in those sins and advanced even further into iniquity. Here too the faithful are included. Years ago someone wrote in Faith-Life that every Christian hardens his heart against the Word of God every day. The decline of the church, in numbers, in vigor, and in faithfulness, is the wrath of God at work.“Who knoweth the power of thine anger? Even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath” (KJV).

What becomes then of the grand truth expressed in Romans: “You are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14),  and, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1)? Let the mystery stand and the paradox be striking. To have God and his works and his ways figured out is to have lost one’s way. The grace expressed in Romans does not nullify the truth expressed in this Psalm, that sins do anger God, be they the sins of his foes or the sins of his children.

Verse 12

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

Numbering our days to acquire a heart of wisdom is not calculating as best we can how much longer we may expect to live. It is seeing ourselves in comparison to God the eternal, the incomprehensible Ancient of Days. “Teach us to number our days” not in the way of those who do not know God, but as those who do know him and his promise. There is eternal salvation, and there is eternal perdition, and for this reason it makes all the difference whether or not we get a heart of wisdom. Ahead there lies a good life for those who have acquired a heart of wisdom, a heart whose character through and through is wisdom. Wisdom begins with the fear of God. The ancients may not have foreseen the future with the same clarity as New Testament Christians. They did not learn the doctrine of the resurrection in so many words from their catechism. Yet, knowing the character of God, they discerned that life would be good for those who were faithful to God, and not good for the faithless. They drew on their knowledge of God as he had made himself known to them, the jealous God who punishes those who hate him and honors those who love him and keep his commandments. He is the faithful God who carries out his promises and his warnings to the fullest. Hence the urgency and the value of gaining a heart of wisdom.


Verse 13

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

God had turned his back on his people because of their sins. The worship of the Golden Calf at Sinai a year after the Exodus, and the defection at Baal-Peor near the end of the forty years in the desert, were the outstanding provocations, bookends to a generation marked by repeated instances of apostasy. How many times Moses pleaded with the Lord to relent, notably his intercession at Sinai! Such praying was one of the themes of his life. For the people were experiencing a foretaste of hell until the Lord turned again to face them with his absolution, and with his outstretched arm to deliver them from the calamities which he himself had visited upon them. The second imperative, “have pity,” has a range of meanings, from sorrow over another person’s suffering to sorrow over one’s own sins. Hence the variety of translations, for “have pity” and “repent” both have claim to validity in the translation of this verse: let God take pity on his servants and change his mind and not carry out the punishment called for in his Law. Moses prayed that God would have a change of heart toward his people, and reverse his severe treatment of them. He had chosen them to be his servants; therefore, he must regard them and treat them as such. He had made a covenant with them, and he must be bound to honor his covenant.

The imperative “Return” can also be translated “turn back,” or “turn away,” that is, that God would turn away his anger or turn from his anger (Ex. 32:12), then turning toward his people with his favor. But the above interpretation seems more natural.


Verses 14-15

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.

The one thing that can satisfy the restless, empty, guilt-tormented conscience is the love and faithfulness of God. This does satisfy. Moses prayed that God would manifest his abiding love “at morning-dawn,” without delay. Let us not live any more of our life under wrath. The forty years were darkness and night. Moses prayed for the dawn, the new day. As God had afflicted Israel for a long generation, so let him give his people peace and rest, fulfilling his promise to be their God and to dwell among them. Initially God would bring them into the land he had promised them, and in due time, the “fullness of time,” Shiloh would come, the Prophet to whom the people would hearken. Then the longing of Israel would be fully satisfied. The time of God’s favor ought not be any shorter than the time of his severity.

Verse 16

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

For forty years the Lord had carried out great works and manifested his glory, but he had not yet done his greatest work nor manifested the fullness of his splendor. What he had shown his people so far was not yet adequate for their need nor for his purpose. The next great work of God for his people would be giving them possession of the Land of Canaan. But even this was only instrumental; it was preparation for the atonement, to be carried out in this land, in the midst of this people, and yes, in part by this very people. The appeal in this verse is a specific petition. It is the plea that God would carry out the greatest of his works ever, the Incarnation of his Son. This was the central longing of the Old Testament faithful, as expressed by Jacob in his deathbed prophecy, “I wait for your salvation, O LORD” (Gen. 49:18). Moses was praying for the coming of the Seed of the woman, who would crush the Serpent’s head; for the Seed of Abraham, in whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed; for Shiloh who would wield the scepter of everlasting peace; for the Prophet like Moses, except that to him the people would listen. Moses understood that God must and God would do something far greater than anything he had done before, something that would sanctify his people and secure his perpetual favor. “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). His work is salvation; his glory is his grace.

Verse 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 favor, the graciousness, the beauty of the Lord our God be over us, delivering us from evil, bringing us the total blessing of God, and yes, refashioning us in the image of God that we become the reflection of his beauty.

At the end of forty years of ministry, Moses was tempted to look back and ask whether he had accomplished anything at all. At the end of the forty years Israel committed the same idolatry and lewd rites that they had at the time of the Golden Calf, only this time without the Calf. The work of our hands is specific, like the work of God in the preceding verse. It is the work which the servants of God carry out for the honor of God and the salvation of people. It is the work which God does through his people for his people. Moses could ascend Mt. Nebo and lie down in peace and joy, in the confidence that the Word of God would not return empty and that labor in the Lord is not labor in vain. As Moses closed his eyes for the last time, he had no idea what great things God would do for the generation he had trained, and the far greater blessings to come through all ages through the Pentateuch, the fundamental Scriptures from the pen of Moses.

(Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations in the body of the column are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)


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