On the threshold of the Promised Land, disaster strikes. Hardened with unbelief and the fear of the Canaanites, the Israelites refuse to go on. Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb, who try to persuade the people of God’s faithfulness, face a lynching. Just as the tension and turmoil are as great as they’ve ever been on this people’s faithless and complaining journey out of Egypt and into Canaan, the glory of the Lord roars into the camp, and He pronounces their doom: they will wander aimlessly in the wilderness for 40 years; all Israelites aged 20 and up (save the faithful few) will die within that time; the children whom they thought would be prey to the Canaanites will inherit the land (Num. 14).
Moses, the man of God, now leads a people whose sole expectation for the next 40 years is to litter the desert with their corpses. Heartsick with deferred hope, he prays. What does one pray—can one pray—at a time like this?
A Prayer of Moses the Man of God
Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.
(Ps. 90:1–2, KJV)
The 90th Psalm is a psalm for the people of God (note the plural pronouns, different from the many psalms written for the individual) claiming God’s faithfulness even in times of judgment. God has proven His faithfulness to His people by being their dwelling place in all generations. This goes beyond “in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28), itself a grand metaphysical proposition. However, Psalm 90:1 is a statement of personal relationship. To illustrate: when working as a church intern, I lived alone. “Coming home” meant going back to the nice, convenient, utilitarian house owned by the church for use by visiting missionaries and evangelists. Now that I am married, “coming home” means returning to a wife and daughter. The apartment is incidental. It could be a house, a hotel room, or a cardboard box. They are home to me. Similarly, my infant daughter knows my arms or my wife’s arms as a kind of home. Whether we’re in a quiet living room at night, out visiting, or at a church function with a lot of hubbub, she is at home in our arms.
Moses, the chronicler of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, remembers their apparent homelessness (e.g., Abraham had to shell out money to buy a burial plot for Sarah) and God’s faithfulness. The Patriarchs “confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Heb. 11:13); and even upon arrival in the land, the Israelites remained—upon God’s insistence—“strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev. 25:23). However you interpret the land promises of Scripture, don’t miss the fact that the point has never been about real estate. Our dwelling place is something—Someone—far more real than dirt. He made the dirt and formed it into both mountains and man.
The everlasting God is Lord. His personal attention and faithfulness to His people are not restricted by depth, or height, or time, things present or to come (Rom. 8:38–39). Day after day, we go to bed and wake up in Him (Ps. 3:5) because He neither slumbers nor sleeps (Ps. 121:3–4). What a comfort to traveling ministers, to people who move often for work, for people in a state of doubt about where they should be or how they fit in! We frail creatures can get “creeped out” (philosophically, feel a sense of the numinous) just by looking up at the night sky or by thinking of the profound war between good and evil taking place around us. But not God. Or … has He?
Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men. For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night. Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up. In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth (Ps. 90:3–6).
The first two verses inspire awe. The next four inspire fear. The Maker can and does destroy. He doomed Adam and Eve to return to dust (there is probably an allusion to Genesis 3:19 here), and He has been doing it to successive generations. Leveling a millennium of history is all in a day’s work from His perspective, or even a quick night shift. Here the fact of judgment emerges, and the punishment is unsettling, a contrast. Our longings for the eternal meet the withering blast of God’s fury, and we go down like grass to the compost pile. You hit 60, and the obituary page becomes a matter of interest as a way of keeping up with old friends. You hit 70, and you’re well-rehearsed at listing which siblings are living and which are dead. Does the world think God takes sin lightly? What do they think a graveyard is?
For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled. Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance. For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told. The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away (Ps. 90:7–10).
Not only are we under divine judgment, but we really deserve it. God is holy and fiercely displeased with our sin; He is eternal and omniscient and omnipresent, and no sin is secret from His burning, holy gaze, unblinking as He metes out judgment to generation after generation. The pains of death and the fear of hell make for an awful groaning and sighing as we struggle to continue, but God is relentless. “Nothing gold can stay,” Robert Frost tells us. T.S. Eliot ends the world with a whimper. More prosaically, as a bumper sticker, “Life’s short, then you die.” More seriously, no civilization of man has lasted very long. The buzz of current politics becomes a matter of archaeology and history.
Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath. So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom (Ps. 90:11–12).
A reader can, more or less, catch the drift of verse 11, but it’s somewhat difficult to pin down exactly what is being said. Matthew Henry has an excellent amplification. He writes,
Who knows how far the power of God’s anger can reach and how deeply it can wound? The angels that sinned knew experimentally the power of God’s anger; damned sinners in hell know it; but which of us can fully comprehend or describe it? Few do seriously consider it as they ought. Who knows it, so as to improve the knowledge of it? Those who make a mock at sin, and make light of Christ, surely do not know the power of God’s anger. For, according to thy fear, so is thy wrath; God’s wrath is equal to the apprehensions which the most thoughtful serious people have of it; let men have ever so great a dread upon them of the wrath of God, it is not greater than there is cause for and than the nature of the thing deserves. God has not in his word represented his wrath as more terrible than really it is; nay, what is felt in the other world is infinitely worse than what is feared in this world. Who among us can dwell with that devouring fire? (Commentary on the Whole Bible [n.p.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991], 876)
In light of death, Moses asks that God let death motivate His people not to despair, but to wisdom. Solomon tells us, “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart” (Ecc. 7:2). If we must die soon, we had best live well. If we are wise, we will take this to heart. The message of Ecclesiastes and of this psalm is that while death drains life of meaning, the eternal God infuses it with far more meaning than life alone would have had apart from Him, and what we do with life matters. So Moses thinks to make this small prayer, not much bolder than making lemonade of lemons. But Moses is not finished.
Return, O Lord, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants. O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil. Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children. 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 (Ps. 90:13–17).
Moses proceeds from a plea for mercy to a plea that his people may again be satisfied with God, that they may return to rejoicing, not just sporadically, but for all their days, however short each generation may be. Moses gets bolder. He wants a complete reversal of the judgment and horror and calamity that they have brought upon themselves and asks for proportional gladness on the other side. Has Moses had one too many? Someone had better rein him in before he goes to far … But now he’s pleading for more of God’s mighty acts, more of God’s self-revelation in salvation-history, to these stiff-necked people and their offspring. His thoughts turn to the children who will enter the land. They must know. They must learn. They must take advantage of the wisdom gained from this experience. There’s no stopping Moses now. He wants to see God’s beauty. And despite having just described life’s ephemeral nature, he pleads with the eternal God to actually establish the work of their hands, to do something lasting in and through them.
What cheek! Where did it come from? One moment Moses is lamenting God’s judgment, and the next he’s building momentum with bold supplication.
We are told to interpret the Bible christologically. Where is Christ in this psalm? He is in the white space somewhere between verses 11 and 13. If Christ’s cross-work is both a satisfaction of God’s justice and an offering of God’s mercy, then it draws together a psalm that would otherwise fall apart. This psalm holds together—it is coherent—because of Jesus Christ. A bold approach to the throne of grace is possible only because of our Priest the Messiah (Heb. 4:14–16). Jesus Christ entered and participated in a world under judgment and experienced it as true man. So in a sense, God in Christ has been numbered among transgressors and felt the sense of homelessness, having nowhere to lay His head (Isa. 53:12; Luke 9:58). Without Christ, Moses’ cheekiness would have been intolerable. With Christ, it is invited. Without Christ, the abyss of hell. With Christ, an eternal, established kingdom. Without Christ, weeping and gnashing of teeth. With Christ, “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). Even under the severest judgments, the human race has recourse to the grandest prayers, in Christ.
Mike Osborne received a B.A. in Bible and an M.A. in Church History from Bob Jones University. He co-authored the teacher’s editions of two BJU Press high school Bible comparative religions textbooks What Is Truth? and Who Is This Jesus?; and contributed essays to the appendix of The Dark Side of the Internet. He lives with his wife, Becky, and his infant daughter, Felicity, in Omaha, Nebraska, where they are active members at Good Shepherd Baptist Church. Mike plans to pursue a further degree in apologetics.