God the Eternal, Man the Ephemeral: Psalm 90

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Today’s Sunday Psalms entry is written by Timothy Tennent.

Psalm 90 (NIV)

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
    throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
    or you brought forth the whole world,
    from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You turn people back to dust,
    saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
A thousand years in your sight
    are like a day that has just gone by,
    or like a watch in the night.
Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—
    they are like the new grass of the morning:
In the morning it springs up new,
    but by evening it is dry and withered.

We are consumed by your anger
    and terrified by your indignation.
You have set our iniquities before you,
    our secret sins in the light of your presence.
All our days pass away under your wrath;
    we finish our years with a moan.
10 Our days may come to seventy years,
    or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
    for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
11 If only we knew the power of your anger!
    Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due.
12 Teach us to number our days,
    that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

13 Relent, Lord! How long will it be?
    Have compassion on your servants.
14 Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
    that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.
15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
    for as many years as we have seen trouble.
16 May your deeds be shown to your servants,
    your splendor to their children.

17 May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us;
    establish the work of our hands for us—
    yes, establish the work of our hands.

Sing this psalm with the Seedbed Psalter today! Visit the resource here.

CONSIDER THIS

Book Four of the Psalms opens with Psalm 90, the psalm of Moses. This makes this psalm very ancient, since it precedes the life of David and the exile out of which most of the other psalms arise. This psalm is a wonderful way to begin this book because it is both a historical and spiritual “stepping back” to capture a renewed perspective on life apart from the day-to-day challenges we face. Thus, this psalm serves as a kind of reset button after all the anguish and trials of Book Three.

The grandeur and majesty of this psalm is powerful and inspiring. The opening line, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations” (v. 1), sets the tone for Psalm 90. This psalm reasserts the eternality and majesty of God: “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (v. 2).

The psalm then begins to offer a contrast between God’s grandeur, eternality, and majesty and our own fleeting existence. In contrast to his lofty grandeur, verse 3 reminds us that we are but dust, an obvious reminder of the creation account in Genesis, in which we are made from the dust of the earth (Gen. 2:7).

The eternality of God is then contrasted with our temporality. About God, Moses declares, “For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night” (Ps. 90:4). In contrast, “the length of our days is seventy years—or eighty, if we have the strength” (v. 10). Even those days are full of “trouble and sorrow” and “quickly pass” away (v. 10).

This psalm is an important reality check, much like Job 38–41. It reminds us of who God is, and who we are. We are not God; he is. It teaches us humility. It grants us much-needed perspective. It enables us, to use the words of this psalm, “to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (v. 12). In the hymn tradition, Isaac Watts set this psalm into hymn form with the beautiful text, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” In several of the monastic traditions, this psalm, quite appropriately, is sung or recited at the dawn of each day. The intention, in whatever way we encounter Psalm 90, is to enable the worshipper to gain a proper perspective at the start of the day, before all the distorted adorations and skewed perspectives of this world begin to bombard us.

With this renewed perspective, our daily frailty is met with his enduring strength; our life in the press and rush of time is tempered by the sure knowledge that God is eternal and outside of time. He meets us “in the morning” with his “unfailing love” (v. 14) and enables us to be his regents and ambassadors in the world. Knowing who God is and who we are enables “the favor of the Lord our God [to] rest upon us” and assures us that he will “establish the work of our hands” (v. 17)

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Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.

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