It is often said that there are two certainties in life – death and taxes. Psalm 90 speaks of a far greater certainty that Western society is rapidly overlooking – the everlasting God. Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God, the Psalm begins (90:1-2).
In the same way that Isaiah 40 paints a big picture of a majestic God, so in broad brush strokes verse 2 of the Psalm speaks of the magnificence of the Lord God: He is the everlasting One. Unlike his creation which is subject to constant change, God’s very being, his essence, remains the same throughout eternity.
Written by Moses, who is spoken of as ‘the Man of God’, Psalm 90 is possibly the oldest Psalm. A prayer for wisdom, the opening lines express an assurance that God has been the dwelling place for his people throughout all generations because he himself exists in eternity – he is from everlasting. As the psalm unfolds the significance of God being our dwelling place becomes clear: without God, we are truly without a sure home.
But God’s majestic eternal nature opens up three themes we need to consider: our transience, the depth of our broken relationship with God, and our need for mercy.
Transient. 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. 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 (90:3-6).
Compared with God, from whose perspective a millennium is but a day, our life is brief. Like new grass we flourish one day and are gone the next. Yet ironically, we tend to live as though we will live for a thousand years.
John Calvin comments: ‘Although we are convinced from experience that men and women… are taken out of this world,… yet the knowledge of this frailty fails in making a deep impression upon our hearts , because we do not lift our eyes above the world’ (Calvin, Psalms).
Broken. The psalm seems to move abruptly to the theme of God’s justice and anger. But there is a logical flow – from the theme of God’s eternity to our all too brief life-span. Drawing from Genesis 2 and 3 Moses refers to the way we were designed as the glory of God’s handiwork and yet we became the shame of his creation. The shadow of death now hovers over us all (Genesis 3:19).
Verses 7 and 8 tell us: 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. Again, this is not said out of bitterness or anger: it is the reality. We have justly brought God’s condemnation upon us. So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom, must be our prayer (verse 12).
Within us all, there is an awareness of eternity. Augustine, the 5th C Bishop of Hippo said, “God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”
Mercy. The concluding verses become a prayer for God’s mercy. With a boldness that reflects the opening line of the Psalm, Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations, Moses prays that God will reverse our situation. In verse 3 he had echoed God’s words to humanity: You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!” Now his prayer is that God will turn back (return) in mercy towards us so that we might live (verses 13-17).
Acknowledging the reality that life is not easy for anyone, Moses boldly prays for a reversal of life’s experience in verses 14 and 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 New Testament reveals how God has opened a further dimension in answer to this prayer. In 2 Corinthians 4:17 we read: …This slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4:17). Outwardly we experience pain and suffering now, but inwardly, through the Holy Spirit working within us, we begin to taste the glory and joy of eternal life.
The unbelieving world whose eyes are glued to the material things of life, will not understand how God’s people cope with life. But God’s people press on because we have the power of Jesus’ resurrection at work within us. We see that the troubles of this world are like a drop in the bucket compared with the greatness of the glory to be revealed.
Moses’ prayer concludes: Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. 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! (Psalm 90:16-17). Certainty. We have it in Christ the Lord.