God's Glory and Man's Frailty
Lessons from Psalm 90
Psalm 90 is not a Psalm written by David; rather, it is a prayer that God inspired Moses to pray. The reflections in this Psalm are designed to lead our thoughts to God—the eternal God who never dies—and to think of man, the frail being that he is.
Human beings are cut down like grass, but God remains the same from age to age. Every generation finds Him the same as the generation before had found Him—unchanged, and still worthy of our confidence and hope.
There are three basic truths stated in the first 12 verses of the Psalm: the eternity of God (90:1-2), the frailty of man (90:3-8), and the brevity of life (90:9-12).
- The Eternity of God (90:1-2)
Psalm 90 focuses on death as the judgment of a holy God upon sin, but it also points to the Lord as the One whose power extends beyond death.
Verses 1-2 exalt the glory 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.”
The term “dwelling place” refers to “the place where you live.” It is your home—the place to which you come after traveling on a long journey. Those who have traveled often know that the most delightful part of the whole trip is driving down that last road which leads home. Arriving at our home (our dwelling place) is something we eagerly look forward to.
But Moses never had a fixed dwelling place when he lived here on earth. When he was born, his mother refused to pay heed to the edict of Pharaoh—which demanded that every Israelite male child should be put to death. She made a little basket for the baby Moses, and put him into it. Then she placed the basket in the Nile River, praying that the life of her child would somehow be preserved.
Many of us remember the story of how Pharaoh’s daughter came down to the riverside, and the sister of baby Moses was close by. We remember that she suggested a nurse from among the Hebrew women. God arranged that the baby’s own mother would nurse him for a while, and then he was taken to Pharaoh’s palace and became the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.
But Moses had no abiding dwelling place even in the court of the Pharaohs—for he soon found himself on the backside of a desert, tending sheep. Later, Moses dwelt with the children of Israel in tents all during their Wilderness journeys.
The point is this: Moses (the writer of the 90th Psalm) had no fixed dwelling place here in this life. As a small child—he lay among the bulrushes in the Nile. As a little boy—he grew up in Pharaoh’s court. In young manhood—he was a shepherd on a Palestinian desert. In later life—he wandered for forty years in the wilderness, dwelling in tents.
The word translated “dwelling place” (in verse 1) can easily be translated “home.” The eternal God has always been our “home.” There are many pictures representing God in the Psalms: Father, Mother, Shepherd, and King. Here, God is pictured as home. Isaac Watts caught the sense of verse 1: “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.”
Even while Moses was a small child, floating in the cradle on the Nile River, his dwelling place was in God—in the sense that God was taking care of him. And the New Testament says that during each stage of life we have our dwelling place in God. “In Him, we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
All of us need to be thankful for every breath of air that we breathe, for it is only by the permission of this eternal God that we are sustained from day to day. The same God who protected the baby Moses stands ready today to display His power in each of our lives.
Verse 2 says that Jehovah (the Lord God of Israel) has existed from eternity past, and will always be the sovereign God—on into the everlasting future. “From everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.”
The pagan gods of the Greeks and the Romans all had a beginning. Greek mythology speaks of gods which started somewhere. But Jehovah God never had a beginning. He is the timeless, endless One who is beyond and above all creation.
We human beings experience change and decay. Our God remains unchanged. Before the earth was created, and long after it is gone, God will always be the same. The true and living God always was. He never began to be. He never came into being. He always will be!
The eternal, immutable God controls every detail of the universe of which the earth is a small part. We cannot fully comprehend the greatness and glory of God—but we can bow before Him with a sense of awe and devotion.
Many in our day disregard God and become absorbed with the material things of this world. To even mention faith in God—and to lift up Jesus as God the Son, the only Savior—will cause some eyebrows to be raised. Yet, not a single one of us will escape a meeting with the eternal God some day, for it is appointed unto man once to die, and after that the judgment.
- The Frailty of Man (90:3-8)
Verses 3 and 4 tell us how fragile human life is. “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.”
Moses uses three symbols in verses 3-6 to show us how frail human life is. The word “destruction” (verse 3)—in Hebrew, literally means “dust.” In God’s plan, our bodies will eventually turn to dust. We are reminded of this every time we stand by a grave side. In verse 4, we are told that with God “a thousand years are but as a day.” In the early part of Genesis, humans lived almost one thousand years. Methuselah was 969 years old when he died. Before sin had spread through the earth, it is altogether possible that God intended man to live for one thousand years. But even one thousand years—even the longest possible life span, compared with the eternity of God—would be as “yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.”
In verses 5-6 we are told that God “carries them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: In the morning they are like grass which groweth up . . . it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.”
If you have marginal references in your Bible, you’ll find that the term “a sleep” (in the middle of verse 5) literally means “a dream.” This is the second symbol used by Moses to describe the frailty of man.
A dream is vividly present in the nighttime, but often it quickly disappears with the morning light. That’s how human life is. Again, Isaac Watts catches, in one of his hymns, the thought of verse 5. “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, soon bears us all away; we fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening (of the) day.”
Another symbol for the frailty of life is found in the use of the word “grass.” The Psalmist says “The grass grows, and soon it is cut down, and by evening-time it is dry and withered.”The grass—fresh and green in the morning—after it is cut, is soon dried up and gone. Our lives on earth are like that. The Bible says that our lives, which seem so well established and so important today, are really only like a fragile blade of grass. We are not like massive oaks and cedars, but only as a delicate blade of grass. We may boast of our good health, and exceptional strength, and long years of sound life—but our bodies which are active and energetic today, will one of these days lie cold and still. Our strength, our voices, and our senses—will be gone forever! Our physical frames will disintegrate and return to the dust of the earth. Each of us (barring the soon return of Christ) will have an inescapable appointment with death. If you have not already done so—I beg you, get right with God, so that when the moment of death comes, you’ll have nothing to do but to lie down and die.
Verses 7-8 are a reminder of the holiness of God. “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.”
Moses speaks in these verses about our iniquities and our secret sins.
There is a dark side to life. A family grieves over a 10-year-old girl, kidnapped by some sex pervert. A friend is killed instantly in a motorcycle accident. A daughter learns that she has a rare brain tumor. Is God punishing us for our iniquities and secret sins?
It’s not that God storms around in the heavens, indulging in uncontrolled displays of temper whenever we human beings don’t do what we’re told to do. But God does have a fixed attitude of displeasure with sin—and the great tragedies of life are the result of man’s sin down through the years. The cause of God’s wrath is always human sin. The Scriptures never teach that a mere passing thought is a sin. A thought that comes to your mind unbidden, and tempts you to do something wrong—is only a normal exposure to temptation. But when we harbor wrong thoughts, and mull over them, and play with them, and take great pleasure in them—then indeed we are contributing to the tragic events of life.
- The Brevity of Life (90:9-12)
Verses 9-10 state an obvious truth. “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.”
One of the oldest men in the world (during the last century) was well over 100 years old; he grew up in the mountains of Columbia, South America. Yet, only a few years before his death, he said that it seemed but yesterday that he was a mere boy.
Just so, it seems but yesterday that I was a child, walking barefooted through the fields of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, with the carefree abandon of childhood. Then came youth with its mingled joys, and then suddenly I crossed the bridge into adulthood—and the time seems to have gone so fast that I still have trouble getting myself to believe that I’ve grown up and become an adult. Now I’m an older man—and the years seem to move with increasing speed as I plunge toward old age.
Year after year, life smoothly runs its course. We read of thousands dying from starvation in North Korea, and others dying from disease in much of Africa. But these places are far away, and the people are unknown to us. Then a neighbor down the street dies. That causes us to stop and think, but still it does not affect us directly. We develop a kind of immunity to tragedy and death. Then one day the bottom drops out of our world. A close friend, a precious child, or a marriage partner is taken from this life. We hear the shocking news. We’ve watched the face of the one who was dying. We listened helplessly to their gasping for breath. We spoke the last good-bye—and in a moment, our loved one passed out into the great beyond. The body, which only yesterday was full of life, now lies before us—cold and still.
The Bible is the only book in the world that has solid answers to the questions that perplex us at moments such as those we’ve just described. Life, in the Bible, is described as a mist, as a shadow, as a dream, as a fading flower, and as a tale that is told.
It’s Christmas; then it’s New Year; then it’s Easter, and Thanksgiving—and then it’s Christmas all over again! And so it continues year after year; and in just a few short years, every one of us will be wearing shrouds and sleeping in coffins.
Our bodies will turn back to dust and another generation will take our place. And our souls will either be enjoying the bliss of the Redeemed, or suffering the untold miseries of Hell. Our eternal destiny will be determined by what we have done with Jesus, the Savior—the only Name under heaven given among men whereby we can be saved.
None of us knows when the moment of death is coming—but when God calls your number you’re going to go! There will be no turning back. You will have finished your test and handed in the answers. The corrections you will want to make and the paragraphs you would like to rewrite will be of no concern to death. There will be no second chances. Your report card will be ready. The grades will be final. The answers you have given will stand for eternity.
No wonder verse 12 (of the 90th Psalm) says, “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” That is—teach us to make each day count; to reflect on the fact that we must die—so that we might deal wisely with the issues of life. The words of verse 12 should be underlined, highlighted, or perhaps marked in red in our Bibles.
Do you stop occasionally and take time to number your days? If you live the full number of years allotted to man, you will have (from the day of your birth) 25,567 days to live.
We are not told to number our years. We are to count the days. If you are 30 years old, and you live the full life-span, you have a little more than 14,000 days to live. And all of us know how quickly a day flies by.
The primary lesson is this: since we have only one life to live, and that life is short, we should use it to gain the wisdom which comes from God. It is the part of wisdom to hear the message of the Gospel—and to receive the forgiveness of sins through faith in the work completed by our Lord Jesus Christ when He came to earth to die in our place.
If you’ve never done it—be wise; repent of your sins, and your rebellious self-centered pride—and make a commitment to follow the Lord Jesus Christ as the Master of your life, and to walk in His commandments.
We conclude with a reminder that there is great joy in following the Lord Jesus down through the years. I accepted Jesus as my Savior on Monday, September 28, 1942 (more than 60 years ago)—and I have never, even for one day, regretted that decision.
The Lord has promised to be the Shepherd, watching over His sheep. Sin brings sorrow. Death is sure. But the promises of God are also sure!
Our sins can be forgiven (1 John 1:9). The sting of death is taken away when we let Christ become our Savior (2 Timothy 1:10). We are given the promise of an incorruptible inheritance in Heaven (1 Peter 1:4).
For all of us, the time is coming when we must bid farewell to this world and to this life. When that hour comes, it is my prayer that every reader will have the peace and calm that only Jesus can bring—the assurance He brings to those who receive Him as Savior, and set out to follow Him in daily life.
BIBLE HELPS | Robert Lehigh, Editor | PO Box 391, Hanover, PA 17331 United States of America