Facing the Facts (Psalm 90:1–17)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Psalm 90 is probably the oldest of the psalms. It was written by Moses, “the man of God.” That is a rare designation in the Bible, which describes one who belongs to God and who is characterised as such.

Moses wrote this while in the desert at some point during the wilderness wanderings. Some, including Boice, believe that he wrote it in association with the events recorded in Numbers 20, where both Aaron and Miriam died and where Moses himself was excluded from entering the Promised Land as a result of his sinful (because angry, because faithless) smiting of the rock. This may very well be the case, because the sombre tone and sobering truths addressed in this psalm would certainly be apropos to such an occasion.

Regardless, the psalm is an honest facing of the facts of life. It is the kind of sobering assessment of reality that we all need to be confronted with and guided by.

One helpful way to study this psalm would under a broad fourfold division:

  1. The Worship of God, vv. 1–6
  2. The Wrath of God, vv. 7–11
  3. The Wisdom of God, v. 12
  4. The Work of God, vv. 13–17

But for our purposes, I want to view it more practically as we come face to face with the fact of death.

Throughout the centuries, this psalm has been known as “the Funeral Psalm.” An examination of the text will reveal why: It speaks about the certainty of death. This psalm, perhaps more than any other, highlights the major truth that one of the most significant facts of life is the fact of death. As wags have said, there are two things that are certain in life: death and taxes. Well, you might be exempt from the latter, but never will you be from the first. You are going to die.1 Death is a fact of life.

You might be able to plan how to avoid taxes but you will never come up with a plan that will enable you to escape death. You can joke about it and you can enrol in all kinds of fountain-of-youth schemes, but one day you will die. As the writer of Hebrews put it, “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgement” (9:27). This is one appointment that you cannot avoid; it is one appointment that you will keep. You will not postpone it; you will not be late for it.

But there are two fundamental questions that this psalm raises concerning your death.

The first question is, are you prepared to die? That is the most important question. As noted you will keep your appointment with death because God has scheduled you in. Your death is not pencilled it; it is chiselled in.

The second question depends on your answer to the first: How will you live? The two are intimately connected. You can discern whether a person is ready to die by how he lives. Tell me how you live and I will tell you whether you are ready to die. This psalm realistically helps us to assess our answers to these questions.

For our purposes, I want to ask the question, how can we fruitfully face the fact of death? I will seek to answer it using the structure of the psalm. This psalm provides at least three fruitful responses to this question. We face death by being worshippers (vv. 1–11), learners (v. 12) and believers (vv. 13–17).

So, let’s face these facts of life and death and leave this psalm prepared both to die and to live before we die.

Be a Worshipper

The first way to fruitfully approach death is to be a worshipper.

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, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God. You turn man to destruction, and say, “Return, O children of men.” 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.

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. 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 labour 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.

(Psalm 90:1–11)

In this very sombre psalm, Moses indicates no bitterness whatsoever. Leupold observes, “There does not appear to be any trace of bitterness or of undue pessimism. Just plain, realistic thinking marks these words.”2 In fact, upon contemplating the death and destruction (even division/dissension) he has experienced, nevertheless he begins this psalm acknowledging God’s sovereignty, His majestic lordship.

This is the way we must face difficulties, including death: in humble submission to God.

The word “worship” means “to bow.” Like Job, when faced with the reality of death, we are to humble ourselves before the Lord and acknowledge that He gives and He takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord. And, like Job, we should be careful not to sin or to charge God foolishly (Job 1:21–22). Moses faces death realistically and therefore worshipfully.

Therefore “with all its plaintive tone of sadness, the Psalm betrays no trace of murmuring or impatience. It breathes a spirit of perfect submission to the Will of God.”3

Moses acknowledges three things that are essential for us to register if we will face death, and its related heartaches, worshipfully.

God’s Eternality

Verses 1–2 highlight God’s eternality: “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, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.”

We must recognise that everyone is a worshipper. We all worship something. The issue is, do we worship the true God? This is the God of vv. 1–2: the God who creates because He is eternal.

Moses speaks of God as his “dwelling place.” This is a good translation of the Hebrew term, though the idea of refuge is close at hand. Isaac Watts captured this well in his beloved hymn:

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

The Lord is a refuge “in all generations.” As Moses surveys history of Israel he can only but conclude that God has been faithful to them. “He … has proven Himself to be Israel’s home, age after age.”4 But he recognises that God’s faithfulness to them as a people is because this is God’s eternal character: He is everlastingly faithful.

Moses continues in v. 2: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.”

The title “God” is a translation of the Hebrew word Elohim, and it speaks of God as almighty God. This awareness is not merely academic but rather speaks of submissive, worshipful acknowledgement that God is God and we are not.

The productive way to face the difficulties of life is to begin with God. When we see His eternality, when we come to grips with His aseity, then our hearts are guarded from bitterness and can then be guided into blessedness.

When we come to grips with God’s eternality, then we know who it is that we can and must trust.
When we come to grips with God’s eternality, then we will trust His wisdom.
We must come to grips with God who is the “great other” if we will properly handle our challenges. He is in control. We need to know this.

Man’s Mortality

Only after worshipfully acknowledging God’s being does Moses speak about man’s mortality—his proneness to death and decay (vv. 3–6). But this is how it must be, for the point is not merely to contrast the eternality of God with man but to drive home the point that man is completely dependent upon the Lord and completely at His disposal.

You turn man to destruction, and say, “Return, O children of men.” 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.

(Psalm 90:3–6)

We need to keep in mind that Moses is not writing with full revelation of Christ and the resurrection as we have it. Nevertheless, what he says here is of great use for the new covenant believer, and it speaks powerfully just as well to those who are unbelievers. In fact, they desperately need to hear this.

“You turn man to destruction, and say, ‘Return, O children of men’” (v. 3) reminds us of Genesis 3:19 where God said to Adam, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” It is highlighting the truth that we so often hear proclaimed at funeral services: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

This is a reality that each of us must listen to. One of the most powerful memories I have of a funeral service was standing around the gravesite and hearing the pastor, as the coffin was lowered into the ground, ask, “Is this what it all comes down to?” His point was that life for all of us heads in the same direction. There is great debate in theological circles concerning whether believers should be buried or cremated, but without adding to that debate, let me just state the obvious: The body returns to dust regardless.

Importantly, we see that God is the one who decrees that we must “return.” God has set our appointment with death, which is why we are certain that we will keep it.

But in vv. 4–6, Moses presents a helpful and necessary contrast: “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.”

With God, a thousand years is as a day. Even Methuselah, who died aged 969, lived only a day in God’s sight. Life is like grass that is here today and gone tomorrow. It is like a night’s sleep that comes and goes and it seems as if no time has transpired. The point is simply this: In the big scheme of things, man, in contrast to God, is insignificant.

Psalms, of course, is part of the Old Testament category of Wisdom Literature. The epistle of James is often called the Wisdom Literature of the New Testament, and James makes the same point:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.

(James 4:13–17)

You are going to die and, for the most part, you will not even be remembered. Few people’s names are remembered down the annals of history. As VanGemeren says, “Each human being is a drop in the giant stream of time.”5 That may not be very flattering, but it is a fact nonetheless. Some will leave a mark but eventually it will ancient history.

This psalm must impress us with the mortality, frailty and brevity of life. The important principle is this: Our lives are in God’s hands. We need to confess our dependence upon Him. This is the way of wisdom (see v. 12).

Man’s Accountability

In vv. 7–11 we have the matter-of-fact revelation of the reason for the mortality of man: man’s sin and God’s just wrath.

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. 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 labour 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.

(Psalm 90:7–11)

Man’s Depravity

Moses speaks of human “iniquities” and “secret sins.” Before we can understand the references to God’s anger and wrath (see vv. 7, 9, 11), we need to see the reason for it. Man’s depravity, his sinfulness, is the reason for God’s wrath.

Of course the wilderness wanderings were the result of Israel’s sinful unbelief. The only ones now living after that ugly episode—if this was indeed written around the events of Numbers 20—were Moses, Joshua and Caleb. Moses reflects on this and notes that the death and decay in all he sees is the result of God’s wrathful response to sin.

Note that Moses nowhere complains against the wrath of God. Apparently, he saw it as the just response of God to sin.

He notes in v. 8 that, wherever they turned, they realised that they were under the gaze of God and that He saw their sin(s). He found this terrifying (v. 7), as well it should be.

Man’s Vulnerability

Moses further points to man’s vulnerability: “For all our days are passed away in Your wraith; we finish our years like a sigh” (v. 9).

Sin wearies. The word translated “sigh” could be translated “whisper.” At the end of the day, our last breath is just that: a mere breath and then we are gone. I vividly recall sitting by my dad’s bedside as he was dying. He suffered from apnoea, and he would often stop breathing for a few seconds before he would start again. Even though I knew that death was coming, my heart leaped every time his breathing stopped. And while it stopped and started frequently, he did eventually breathe his past.

This psalm describes in particular the death of those being judged in the wilderness. At the same time, every death, in some measure—even the death of Christians—points to the wrath of God against sin. Nevertheless, this paints a significant picture of the end of one’s life as a whimper, even though he may have spent his days blasting away defiantly at God. There is little by way of bravado for the unbeliever on his deathbed—despite what you may see in the movies. The same can be said for the believer.

Moses speaks of “the days of our lives” as “seventy” or perhaps “by reason of strength … eighty years.” (The KJV sounds somewhat more poetic when it speaks of “threescore and ten years.”) Moses was an exception, living to the ripe old age of 120 (Deuteronomy 34:7), but the expected age is here given. Of course, there have been times throughout history when average expected life expectancy has been significantly lower, and this often even alters from culture to culture. Regardless, the point is that, even if we live to be very old, we will still die, and the days leading to our death will still, to some degree, be wearisome. In other words, life is hard.

The Fear of the Lord

VanGemeren helps us to understand v. 11 when he writes, “His question, ‘Who knows…?’ is to be understood as a strong affirmation: ‘Nobody knows the power of your anger!’”6 And Kidner comments, “Perhaps nowhere outside the book of Ecclesiastes is the fact of death so resolutely faced, or the fear of God so explicitly related to it.”7

The point that the writer is making is that, in actual fact, we have very little appreciation for how wrathful God is in His settled determination to punish sin and sinners because, in fact, we have very little appreciation for the holiness of God. If we truly feared the Lord, we would not so easily sin against Him. But because we do not properly fear Him we live lightly, not properly weighing the heaviness of God’s holiness. His point is doubtless that we learn to fear the Lord before, in death, we face the Lord. This brings us to the next verse and to the next major point of the psalm.

Be a Learner

Worship leads to wisdom, and wisdom leads to worship. Moses wants us to be learners: “So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (v. 12).

We might say it this way: Honestly facing the facts will develop our fear of the Lord, and this is the path to wisdom (Job 28:28; Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10; 1:7; 2:25; 14:26–27; 15:33).

How should we respond to these facts of life, which in reality are facts of death? Like Moses, the man of God, we should give due consideration to the reality that we are going to die, and therefore we must make sure that we both live and die well. This is precisely what he is saying here. Herbert Lockyer wrote, “We cannot apply our hearts unto wisdom, as instructed by Moses, except we number every day as our possible last day.”8 Boice adds, “Of all the mathematical disciplines this is the hardest: to number our days.”9

The fear of the Lord is wisdom. He has just spoken of the fear of God. Those who are truly wise—the people of God—worship and serve the Lord. They make sure that they are rightly aligned to the one who has all authority over life and death.

Contrast how simpletons, scorners and fools live. Think of the man whose only thought was to build bigger barns to store his wealth (Luke 12:13–21). Consider those whose only fear is what men can do to them, when they ought instead to be fearing the Lord, who is able to punish them eternally (Luke 12:4–7).

Verse 12 is really the goal of a funeral service. When we attend a funeral, we have opportunity to gain a heart of wisdom. That is why Solomon said it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting (Ecclesiastes 7:1–5).

Be a Believer

Finally, Moses exhorts us to be believers:

Return, O Lord! How long? 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.

(Psalm 90:13–17)

Though this psalm has been pretty sombre, it is not hopeless. In fact, the sombreness is necessary to experience in order to appreciate the conclusion. Boice sums it up nicely: “Psalm 90 does not have a defeated or bitter tone, only the recognition that man is frail and sinful and that he needs the eternal God as his only possible hope and home.”10

The writer now plays on a word. In v. 13 he cries to the Lord to “return.” Understanding that God says, “Return to the dust” (v. 3), here the suppliant sinner and trusting saint asks, “Lord, please return to this dust and render our lives useful.”

Leupold helpfully summarises this closing stanza when he writes, “These verses offer the potent and effective antidote against hopelessness and discouragement. They raise the eyes of him who prays thus from the puny and ineffective work that man toils over down here on earth to the great and successful work that God does both here and in heaven.”11

When we realise that we are completely dependent upon the Lord (vv. 1–2), we should also be encouraged that He can make something good out of that which otherwise would be merely a mess (vv. 3–11). We call this the gospel.

Moses employs covenantal language. He asks for God’s chesed—His merciful kindness and steadfast love—to be his experience (vv. 13–14). Nowhere does he plead innocence, and at no point is he demanding. Rather, he asks the Lord to do what He does best: to restore the otherwise ruined.

Twice he pleads, “Establish the work of our hands” (v. 17). Moses desperately desires the Lord to use what is left of His people for the glory of God. He honestly admits that the past years have been troublesome—by their own fault (v. 15). Yet he also knows that the Lord can make them glad once again with the beautiful glory of His presence (v. 16).

Moses knew something deep of the presence of God. The Lord, in fact, had spoken to him face to face (Numbers 12:6–8). He had seen the glory of God to such a degree that his face even shone (Exodus 34). He wanted to see this again. He wanted again to experience this glory. And so here he pleads for grace.

When we face the fact of death squarely and biblically by believing the gospel, we will face life with a determination to live for God’s glory. But we will also be able to die well with the conviction that God’s merciful kindness, His steadfast love will usher us into His glorious presence.

But one more thing needs to be noted: When we properly face the facts of life and death, we will believe God to continue to do His glorious work long after we die. In other words, we can trust the Lord that, not only has He been our God in our generation, but He will be the same faithful God to the next generation as well.

Let me put it this way: If we live for God because we are motivated by a right response to the facts of life and death, we will teach the next generation to do so as well.

May God give us the grace and mercy to faithfully face the facts of life.

Show 11 footnotes

  1. Of course, believers alive at the return of the Lord will be exempt from death, but since we have no idea when that will happen, we should live with the assumption that we will die.
  2. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 645.
  3. A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms (Cambridge: Scripture Truth, n.d.), 547.
  4. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 548.
  5. Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 12:594.
  6. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12:596.
  7. Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 330.
  8. James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 2:744.
  9. Boice, Psalms, 2:744.
  10. Boice, Psalms, 2:740.
  11. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 648.