Psalm 90 – The Prayer of Moses in the Wilderness
This psalm is titled A Prayer of Moses the man of God. Some commentators think this was not the same famous and familiar Moses, but the evidence is much stronger for believing that this was indeed the great leader of Israel. This is the only song of Moses in the psalms, but there are two other songs in the Pentateuch (Exodus 15 and Deuteronomy 32), as well as the blessing of the tribes of Israel in Deuteronomy 33.
If we connect it with any particular time in the life of Moses, the best suggestion is the time described in Numbers 20. “The historical setting is probably best understood by the incidents recorded in Numbers 20: (1) the death of Miriam, Moses’ sister; (2) the sin of Moses in striking the rock in the wilderness, which kept him from entering the Promised Land; and (3) the death of Aaron, Moses’ brother.” (James Montgomery Boice)
Charles Spurgeon wrote of the phrase, The man of God: “Moses was peculiarly a man of God and God’s man; chosen of God, inspired of God, honoured of God, and faithful to God in all his house, he well deserved the name which is here given him.”
A. Finding refuge in the eternal God.
1. (1) Yahweh the refuge and protection of His people.
Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.
a. Lord, You have been our dwelling place: This prayer of Moses was almost certainly written during the wilderness years on the way to Canaan. In all those years Israel lived in constant need of refuge, shelter, and protection. More than their tents and their armies, Israel had God as their dwelling place, their refuge and their protection.
i. Lord: The psalm “begins with this great affirmation concerning the relation of man to God. Addressing Him, not as Elohim the Mighty One, nor as Jehovah, the Helper, but as Adonai, the Sovereign Lord, the singer declares that He has been the dwelling-place, the habitation, the home of man in all generations.” (Morgan)
ii. Our dwelling place: “The Hebrew word for ‘dwelling place’ may also be translated ‘refuge,’ which is how it appears in Deuteronomy 33:27, one of the other songs of Moses.” (Boice)
b. Our dwelling place in all generations: Moses understood that Yahweh’s help to His people did not begin with the exodus from Egypt. From their pilgrim beginnings under their patriarch Abraham to the days of Moses, God had been their dwelling place, their refuge and protection.
i. It isn’t a good thing to refer to anyone as homeless. Spiritually speaking, that never needs to be the state of the believer. We have our home in Him, and home should be a place where we rest, where we can be ourselves, where love and happiness dominate. All this should mark our relationship with God.
ii. “In this Eternal One there is a safe abode for the successive generations of men. If God himself were of yesterday, he would not be a suitable refuge for mortal men; if he could change and cease to be God he would be but an uncertain dwelling-place for his people.” (Spurgeon)
iii. “He that dwelleth in God cannot be unhoused, because God is stronger than all; neither can any one take another out of his hands, John 10:29. Here, then, it is best for us…to seek a supply of all our wants in God alone.” (Trapp)
2. (2) The eternal origin of Yahweh.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
Or ever You had formed the earth and the world,
Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.
a. Before the mountains were brought forth: In the wilderness on the slow route to Canaan, Moses saw mountains on the horizon and reflected on the truth that God existed before those mountains. It was God who formed the earth and the world.
b. Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God: Before anything existed, God was. From eternity past through eternity future (everlasting to everlasting), He exists, independent of all His creation.
i. “This is the highest description of the eternity of God to which human language can reach.” (Clarke)
ii. “The Psalmist, about to describe man’s fleeting and transitory state, first directs us to contemplate the unchangeable nature and attributes of God.” (Horne)
3. (3) The judgment of the eternal God.
You turn man to destruction,
And say, “Return, O children of men.”
a. You turn man to destruction: Moses had seen the judgment of God turn man to destruction. He saw it with wicked Egypt and disobedient Israel. The eternal God who created all things was and is a God to be appropriately feared and respected by man. God takes interest in the affairs of men and exercises His holy judgment.
b. Return, O children of men: This was not a call to repentance; it was a command of man to return to the dust from which he came, an echo of Genesis 3:19: For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.
i. “Although dust is a different word from that of Genesis 3:19 (‘you are dust, and to dust you shall return’), the idea of returning to it (Turn back) almost certainly alludes to the curse of Adam, and uses the same verb.” (Kidner)
ii. “If we had no Scripture at all to prove this, daily experience before our eyes makes it clear how all men, even the wisest, the strongest, the greatest and the mightiest monarchs and princes in the world, be but miserable men, made of red earth, and quickly turn again to dust.” (Smith, cited in Spurgeon)
B. Man before the God of judgment.
1. (4-6) God’s perception of time and our perception of time.
For a thousand years in Your sight
Are like yesterday when it is past,
And like a watch in the night.
You carry them away like a flood;
They are like a sleep.
In the morning they are like grass which grows up:
In the morning it flourishes and grows up;
In the evening it is cut down and withers.
a. For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past: Having introduced the idea of God’s eternal being, living outside of time with no beginning or end, Moses poetically repeated the idea. For the eternal God, a thousand years seems like a single day, and a single day in the past, not the present.
i. “He is raised above Time, and none of the terms in which men describe duration have any meaning for Him. A thousand years, which to a man seem so long, are to Him dwindled to nothing, in comparison with the eternity of His being. As Peter has said, the converse must also be true, and ‘one day be with the Lord as a thousand years.’” (Maclaren)
b. You carry them away like a flood: From God’s eternal perspective, the days and the years and each millennium pass quickly. For Moses and Israel in the wilderness, time seemed to pass slowly, but Moses knew this was not God’s perspective. From God’s perspective, a thousand years passes quickly like a sleep.
c. Like grass which grows up: Moses used many poetic pictures to describe God and time. In God’s sight a thousand years was like yesterday, like a watch in the night, like a flood, like a night of sleep. He added this picture: a thousand years is like grass which grows up in the morning and in the evening it is cut down and withers. God’s perspective of time’s passing is very different from ours.
2. (7-8) God’s judgment on their open and secret sins.
For we have been consumed by Your anger,
And by Your wrath we are terrified.
You have set our iniquities before You,
Our secret sins in the light of Your countenance.
a. For we have been consumed by Your anger: In the first section of this psalm, Moses connected the idea of God’s eternal nature with His judgment upon man. In this section the two ideas are repeated. The God who stands over time and sees a thousand years as yesterday certainly has the right and the authority to judge mankind, especially His own people.
i. In the wilderness Moses and the people of Israel felt consumed by God’s anger and terrified by His wrath. It must have been crushing for Moses to see a whole generation melt away in the wilderness, dying away under the judgment of God.
ii. “This was specially the case in reference to the people in the wilderness, whose lives were cut short by justice on account of their waywardness; they failed, not by a natural decline, but through the blast of the well-deserved judgments of God.” (Spurgeon)
iii. “Consumed; either naturally, by the frame of our bodies; or violently, by extraordinary judgments. Thou dost not suffer us to live so long as we might by the course of nature.” (Poole)
b. You have set our iniquities before You: The judgment of God came against His people because of their iniquities. When the eternal, holy God saw and considered them, His response was anger and wrath. Moses understood that God’s anger against His people was not unreasonable or unearned.
i. “We do not understand the full blessedness of believing that God is our asylum, till we understand that He is our asylum from all that is destructive…nor do we know the significance of the universal experience of decay and death, till we learn that it is not the result of our finite being, but of sin.” (Maclaren)
c. Our secret sins in the light of Your countenance: It was not only their obvious iniquities but also their secret sins that God saw. Such sins were not secret before God and His judgment.
3. (9-11) Man’s frailty understood against the eternity of God.
For all our days have passed away in Your wrath;
We finish our years like a sigh.
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.
Who knows the power of Your anger?
For as the fear of You, so is Your wrath.
a. All our days have passed away in Your wrath: With poetic power, Moses compared the eternal nature of the holy God with the frail, temporary nature of sinful man. God stands forever, but long days have passed away in Your wrath and we finish our years like a sigh.
i. “It was toward the close of the desert wanderings that Moses wrote this sublime psalm, all the imagery of which is borrowed from the wilderness. The watch around the campfire at night; the rush of the mountain flood; the grass that sprouts so quickly after the rain, and is as quickly scorched; the sigh of the wearied pilgrim.” (Meyer)
b. The days of our lives are seventy years: Moses lived 120 years according to Deuteronomy 31:2 and 34:7. He did not say seventy years as either a promise or a limit, but as a poetic estimate of a lifespan. The emphasis is on the futility of life; even if one should live past the norm of seventy years and live eighty years, the end of it all is only labor and sorrow.
i. Seventy years: “Which time the ancient heathen writers also fixed as the usual space of men’s lives.” (Poole)
c. For it is soon cut off, and we fly away: Moses described the short and often futile sense of this life. The deep cry of Moses seems to anticipate important themes in Ecclesiastes.
d. Who knows the power of Your anger? Moses connected the ideas of a relatively short and frustrating life to the fact of God’s righteous judgment. Moses especially saw and lived this in the wilderness.
i. “Moses saw men dying all around him; he lived among funerals, and was overwhelmed at the terrible results of the divine displeasure. He felt that none could measure the might of the Lord’s wrath.” (Spurgeon)
C. A prayer in light of who God is and how He deals with man.
1. (12) Praying for wisdom.
So teach us to number our days,
That we may gain a heart of wisdom.
a. So teach us to number our days: When Moses considered the frail nature of humanity and the righteous judgment of God, it made him ask God for the wisdom to understand the shortness of life.
i. “To number our days; to consider the shortness and miseries of this life, and the certainty and speediness of death, and the causes and consequences thereof.” (Poole)
ii. “Of all arithmetical rules this is the hardest – to number our days. Men can number their herds and droves of oxen and of sheep, they can estimate the revenues of their manors and farms, they can with a little pains number and tell their coins, and yet they are persuaded that their days are infinite and innumerable and therefore do never begin to number them.” (Tymme, cited in Spurgeon)
iii. “To live with dying thoughts is the way to die with living comforts.” (Trapp)
iv. So teach us means that this wisdom must be learned. It isn’t automatic. Most people live with little awareness that life is short, and their days should be numbered. Young people especially often think their days have no number and give little thought to what lies beyond this life.
b. That we may gain a heart of wisdom: Learning to number our days will give us a heart of wisdom. This is wisdom not only for the mind, but for the heart as well.
i. “Let us deeply consider our own frailty, and the shortness and uncertainty of life, that we may live for eternity, acquaint ourselves with thee, and be at peace; that we may die in thy favour and live and reign with thee eternally.” (Clarke)
2. (13-17) Praying for mercy and blessing.
Return, O LORD!
And have compassion on Your servants.
Oh, satisfy us early with Your mercy,
That we may rejoice and be glad all our days!
Make us glad according to the days in which You have afflicted us,
The years in which we have seen evil.
Let Your work appear to Your servants,
And Your glory to their children.
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.
a. Return, O LORD: This psalm of Moses carefully considered the judgment of God, and yet his prayerful response to that consideration was a plea to God for His presence, for His compassion, and for His mercy – the hesed of Yahweh, His loyal covenant love.
i. In verse 3 God spoke to mankind in judgment, telling him to return to destruction (or, to dust). Now, in prayer, Moses asked God to return. It was as if Moses said to God’s people, “If you continue in sin, you will return to the dust; your only hope is for God to return to you.”
b. How long? This was a meaningful question. Moses asked God not to delay in bringing His presence, compassion, and mercy to His people. It was a bold question, as if accusing God of being late in His help.
i. “When men are under chastisement they are allowed to…ask ‘how long?’ Our fault in these times is not too great boldness with God, but too much backwardness in pleading with him.” (Spurgeon)
c. Satisfy us early with Your mercy: Moses understood that true satisfaction was not rooted in money, fame, romance, pleasure, or success. It was satisfied with God’s mercy, His faithful, covenant goodness to His people.
i. “Alexander Maclaren said, ‘The only thing that will secure life-long gladness is a heart satisfied with the experience of God’s love.’ This means that nothing will satisfy the human heart ultimately except God.” (Boice)
ii. This mercy should be sought early. “There is no hour like that of morning prime for fellowship with God. If we would dare to wait before Him for satisfaction then, the filling of that hour would overflow into all other hours.” (Meyer)
iii. “The renewal of his love is associated with “the morning” (cf. Psalm 30:5; 49:14; 143:8; Lam 3:23), as the light of day is contrastive with the darkness (gloom) of the night. Thus the psalmist prays for a new beginning, which the Lord alone can open up for his people.” (VanGemeren)
d. Make us glad according to the days in which You have afflicted us: Many were the days of their affliction; Moses asked that the days of their gladness would also be many. He hoped the days of gladness would be so long that God’s glory would be evident even to their children.
i. “The New Testament, incidentally, will outrun verse 15’s modest prayer for joys to balance sorrows, by its promise of ‘an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison’ (2 Cor. 4:17).” (Kidner)
ii. “The time of our pilgrimage upon earth is a time of sorrow; we grieve for our departed friends and our surviving friends must soon grieve for us; these are days wherein God afflicteth us.” (Horne)
iii. “Lord, if we must die in this desert, if this whole generation (except Caleb and Joshua) must pass away in the wilderness, then, at any rate, give us the fullness of Thy favor now, that we may spend all our remaining days, whether they be too few or many, in gladness and rejoicing.” (Spurgeon)
iv. According to the days: “The good Lord measures out the dark and the light in due proportions, and the result is life sad enough to be safe, and glad enough to be desirable.” (Spurgeon)
e. Let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: Earlier in this psalm Moses spoke of God’s people being consumed and terrified. He prayed that the gracious God would exchange that misery for His own beauty.
i. The beauty of the LORD our God is great beauty. It is impossible to think of a higher level of beauty or goodness.
ii. The beauty of the LORD: “His favourable countenance, and gracious influence, and glorious presence.” (Poole)
iii. “The faithful beseech God to let his ‘beauty,’ his splendor, the light of his countenance, his grace and favour, be upon them.” (Horne)
f. And establish the work of our hands for us: The final aspect of blessing Moses prayed for was for the permanence of the work of God’s people. Without this blessing in our lives, our work and its effectiveness pass quickly and are of little impact.
i. Essentially, Moses asked that God would work with man. “Fleeting as our days are, they are ennobled by our being permitted to be God’s tools.” (Maclaren)
ii. “Good men are anxious not to work in vain. They know that without the Lord they can do nothing, and therefore they cry to him for help in the work, for acceptance of their efforts, and for the establishment of their designs.” (Spurgeon)
iii. “Satisfaction, gladness, success in work must all come from the right relation of man in his frailty to the eternal Lord.” (Morgan)
(c) 2020 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – firstname.lastname@example.org