We know that Psalm 90 was written by Moses, but even if the superscription did not provide that information, we might well have guessed it. These words were clearly written by a man who was intimately acquainted with death. He contrasts the eternality of God with the non-eternality of humanity. God is “from everlasting to everlasting” (v. 2) while man’s years are “like a sigh” (v. 9) and “soon gone” (v. 10). He poetically reflects on the brevity of human life.
Moses, of course, wrote in a particular context. We remember that he led a rebellious generation through a forty-year wilderness wandering. God’s judgement had been pronounced upon that generation, assuring them that only Joshua and Caleb would enter the Promised Land. For that entire generation to have perished within that forty year span means that, on average, upward of a hundred people must have died every day. Moses was well acquainted with death as the result of divine judgement. No wonder he lamented being brought to an end by God’s anger and being dismayed by his wrath (v. 7).
But in the midst of this reflection of human mortality, we find a surprising tone of faith: “Return, O LORD! How long? Have pity on your servants!” (v. 13). This is a plea for God to change his mind and to show favour to his people once again. Moses is pleading with God to relent from the disaster he had promised.
For many, the thought of God changing his mind produces a nervous tic. “God does not change his mind!” they object. They launch into explanations about the permissive and the prescriptive will of God. They argue from Scripture that God has determined what he will do taking into account his knowledge that people will pray so that a change of mind is only an apparent change of mind.
But let’s not allow our insistence on technically correct theology to override the heart of this psalm. Moses knew what it was for God to change his mind in response to prayer. After the golden calf incident, God had expressed his commitment to destroy the entire Israelite generation and begin afresh with Moses and his sons (Exodus 32:9–10). His intercession resulted in God relenting from this action (vv. 11–14). Again, we might argue that God never intended to completely destroy the people anyway and the apparent change of mind was only for Moses’s benefit.
But that is exactly the point. It is what texts like Psalm 90 want to teach us. These texts want to drive us to our knees with confidence that prayer changes the very heart of God. It may be true that such a change is only from our experience and not from God’s actual character, but it is our experience that counts in this matter. Psalms like this are given to encourage us to pray boldly, believing that our prayers move God to action.
Moses knew very well what God had ordained. He knew that the entire generation of Israelites who had distrusted him in the wilderness had been condemned to death. But he still prayed—full of faith—that God would relent and return his favour to his people.
Psalm 90 should not drive us to philosophical and theological debate over divine ontology. It should, instead, encourage us to pray boldly, believing that God is honoured to graciously answer the bold prayers of his people.
As you reflect on Psalm 90 today, allow it, with many other texts of Scripture, to drive you to your knees. Come boldly to the throne of grace, believing that you will find help there in the time of need.