Reading through Psalms is like walking through a library. Chapters vary as much as books on a shelf. We have looked at several psalms that reflect moments or seasons of pain and discouragement. As we continue to look at different psalms, we will look at several chapters of exuberant thanksgiving, joy and praise. This change is not a coincidence. The early editors of this book divided the psalms into five books, and each book has specific characteristics. The earlier books contain more psalms of David, and they often reflect the trials that those of faith encounter. On the other hand, the call to “Praise the Lord” (Hallelujah!) fills the later chapters.
As the first psalm of the fourth book, Psalm 90 is in some ways like a hinge. The inscription that the psalm is of Moses indicates that this psalm is the earliest in the Psalter. If the psalm sounds familiar, then you may be thinking of “O God, our Help in Ages Past” by Isaac Watts, which is based on this psalm. Psalm 90 is a song of momentary creatures like ourselves wrestling with the brevity of life in the presence of an eternal God.
We can divide the psalm into that which speaks about the past, present and future. The contrast between God’s eternity and our frailness dominates the first section. The psalm begins by calling God “our dwelling place in all generations” (Psalm 90:1). Since the verse refers to multiple generations, “our” refers to God’s people throughout history. When, through Christ, we enter God’s family, we join the saints of every generation. To face the trials of the present — to face our own mortality — we must see God as our permanent home. Although we humans will return to dust, God experiences a millennium like we experience a “watch” of three hours: as no time at all.
Sin dominates what the psalm says about the present. The statement in verse 3 that we will return to dust echoes God’s curse in Genesis 3:19. It’s not accurate to say that every person’s individual death is a result of every person’s individual sin. The fact, however, that we age and die is a consequence of being sinful humans (Psalm 90:7-8). “Toil and trouble” fill our 70-80 years (90:10), and our lives often end with a sigh (90:9).
Petitions for the future fill the last section. One obvious consequence of thinking about our short lives is taking the brevity of life seriously, yet we need God’s help to “number our days” and thus gain wisdom (Psalm 90:12). More importantly, a psalm that contains earlier statements about God’s wrath moves to pleas for God’s mercy, steadfast love and favor (Psalm 90:13-14, 17). Experiencing God in this way will satisfy us, gladden our hearts, and outweigh the pain that life has brought.
If we take the message of this psalm seriously, we can avoid two dangerous traps. The first trap is to ignore our own mortality. People who neglect the shortness of life will always be taken by surprise by something: sickness, injury, death, or (worst of all) the judgment of God. Numbering our days keeps us from this trap. Second, however, this psalm helps us to avoid the paralyzing despair of people whose hope was something in this life that is now gone. We can come to grips with death because our Savior has conquered it.