Psalm 90 is ascribed to Moses as one of his prayers. Therefore when we study this Psalm we should keep in mind him and the Pentateuch (i.e. the first five books of the Bible) which he was inspired by God to write. In verse 12 of this Psalm a concluding exhortation is given which says, “So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” How we live our lives is important. That is the crux of this verse. Wisdom is not the mere accumulation of knowledge and facts; it is processing knowledge in a way that solves the problems and questions of life. Moses addresses this question as a prayer to God. This is important. The only way we can answer questions concerning the meaning and purpose of life is by turning to the One who created us, God. Therefore it shouldn’t be surprising to us when Moses begins this Psalm by doing just that.
Moses opens Psalm 90 with the words, “LORD, You have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God” (90:1-2). Referring to God as “LORD” is significant because it points us back to Moses first encounter with God. In the wilderness God revealed Himself to Moses by way of a burning bush. Moses had been brought up in Egypt for forty years which climaxed with his futile attempt in his own strength to free his people who were in bondage. The result was a murder that caused him to have to flee for his life. The next forty years were spent in the wilderness of Midian as a sheep herder. God gave Moses a lot of time to think about his life and the meaning of it. At eighty years of age God appeared to Moses and called him to be an instrument of liberation for His people. Moses resisted, but God can be pretty persuasive. At one point Moses said to God, “When I come to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” God’s answer was, “I AM WHO I AM . . . . Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3). “I AM” means I Am eternal and I Am all that I ever need to be. It is a name that expresses God’s eternal nature; He has no beginning or end. It is a name that expresses God’s total sufficiency; He is eternally all He ever needs to be to fulfill His will in all circumstances. That is the name Moses is inspired to use in the opening words of this Psalm. And that eternal sufficiency is what is expressed in these verses. That is why we need to turn to God first when considering questions on the meaning of life.
The next thing Moses does is contrast this eternal God with temporal humanity. He is inspired to write:
Psalm 90:3-6 - 3 You turn man to destruction, And say, “Return, O children of men.” 4 For a thousand years in Your sight Are like yesterday when it is past, And like a watch in the night. 5 You carry them away like a flood; They are like a sleep. In the morning they are like grass which grows up: 6 in the morning it flourishes and grows up; in the evening it is cut down and withers.
God is not limited by time. A “thousand years” are nothing to Him; a mere “watch in the night.” God is omnipotent, all powerful and He is Sovereign. God holds our destiny in His hands. “You turn man to destruction. . . .You carry them away like a flood.” Perhaps Moses was reminiscing about when God parted the Red Sea to let His people through and then closing it in on and vanquishing the pursuing Egyptian army (Exodus 14). God is eternal. Humanity is so very temporal and transient, “like grass” that grows and withers so weakly. By making this contrast Moses is subtly pointing out that we humans are very fragile. Our lives are short. Therefore, we need to rise above the mundane present and consider the serious matter of the meaning of life. Before we know it, our end will be here.
The import of considering the meaning of life is amplified by viewing our destiny from the perspective of God as a Sovereign Holy Judge. God is not a deistic distant God who has no interest in the affairs of humanity. He is a Sovereign Royal Overseer who is very much attendant to our lives. Moses continues:
Psalm 90:7-12 - 7For we have been consumed by Your anger, And by Your wrath we are terrified. 8 You have set our iniquities before You, Our secret sins in the light of Your countenance. 9 For all our days have passed away in Your wrath; we finish our years like a sigh. 10 The days of our lives are seventy years; and if by reason of strength they are eighty years, yet their boast is only labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. 11 Who knows the power of Your anger? For as the fear of You, so is Your wrath. 12 So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
When Moses speaks of God’s “anger . . . and . . . wrath” he is pointing out that God is providentially involved with us; the way we live matters to God. “Our iniquities . . . our secret sins” are “before” God. He is omniscient or all knowing. Nothing is hidden from God (cf. Heb. 4:13). The way we live can anger Him and cause Him to respond in wrath. We live “seventy . . . eighty years,” and there are some who live those years with no thought of God in “labor and sorrow” and are “soon cut off . . . and fly away.” Life without God is meaningless. Life without God is sinful. Sin separates us from God (Ps. 66:18; Isaiah 59:2; Hab. 1:13). Those who live in sin, separate from God are destined to experience or know the “power of” God’s anger. Those who live in sin are “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:1-3). Moses says in light of this, “For as the fear of You, so is Your wrath.” In other words we need to live in reverent awe of God who holds such sovereign power over our eternal destinies.
For contemporary eyes the mention of God’s “anger” and “wrath” are often unfamiliar and even unwelcome. Such thoughts don’t jive with the “God” they have conjured with personal opinion. But any view of God that does not depend on God’s own revelation is idolatry. God is not who we say or think He is. God is who He has revealed Himself to be. The prime instrument of God’s self-revealing is His word the Bible. The truth about God is found in His word of truth (John 17:17). These realities may make us uncomfortable, but they are truths we need to factor into our thoughts on the meaning of life. They are not the only factors, but they are factors the wise person needs to consider. Without the revealed just anger and wrath of God we remove the reason for salvation. When the question arises, “What do we need to be saved from?” We are left to shrug our shoulders. No, God is a just judge and man is appointed to die once and then come before God for judgment (Acts 17:31; Heb. 9:27). This is a reality and we would be wise to consider it.
It’s interesting and important to realize that the awareness of the “anger . . . and . . . wrath” of God mentioned here by Moses does not drive the inquirer away from God but instead toward God. Moses, in light of this awesome depiction of God and His Sovereign rule over us, goes to God, saying, “So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” We might interpret that to mean, “God, in light of this precarious position we find ourselves in teach us how we should live our relatively short lives. Give us the wisdom to live life in a way that is pleasing to You.” This marks a transition in the Psalm. Moses has laid out the plight of humanity; the problem. He has addressed the wrong way to live life; life characterized by “iniquity” and “secret sins” separate from God. Now he directs us to the wise solution.
What is the solution to finding meaning, purpose and satisfaction in life? Moses is inspired to write:
Psalm 90:13-17 - 13 Return, O Lord! How long? And have compassion on Your servants. 14 Oh, satisfy us early with Your mercy, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days! 15 Make us glad according to the days in which You have afflicted us, the years in which we have seen evil. 16 Let Your work appear to Your servants, and Your glory to their children. 17 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.
The life of iniquity and secret sin inevitably results in distress and misery. There is a penalty for living in sin. If a person lives in sin they reap corruption (Gal. 6:7-9). Living in sin has its own correction and consequences (Jer. 2:19). This is the life principle God has ordained and to which Moses refers to when he says, “according to the days in which You have afflicted us, the years in which we have seen evil.” God allows sin’s consequence. But man’s extremities are God’s opportunities. Turning to the LORD is our only hope.
Moses wonders how long this situation of living under the anger and wrath of God will go on. He turns to the LORD seeking His “compassion.” Moses directs us to turn from our sins to God and seek a change in our relationship with Him. He turns to God knowing and relying on the compassion or consolation of God. God is a God of love. He is Holy, Just, Sovereign and All Powerful, but He is also a God of Holy Love. God is love (1 John 4:8). There is no love like the love of God. Furthermore, Moses points us to God referring to himself and those he represents as “servants.” We need to come before God humbly as servants ready to do whatever He directs us to do. We need to raise the white flag of surrender when we come to God. This is repentance and this is the path to understanding the meaning of life.
Moses cries out, “Oh, satisfy us early with Your mercy.” Satisfaction and fulfillment are found in God’s mercy. Justice is getting what we deserve. This is what Moses described earlier in the Psalm when he spoke of God’s anger and wrath on the sinner. Now he comes humbly to God seeking God’s “mercy.” Mercy is not getting what we deserve. We deserve condemnation for our sins but God has made a way that we don’t get what we deserve. Here is where we must introduce the work of Christ. The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed. The New Testament is the Old Testament revealed. The wages of sin is death; we deserve eternal death; separation from God. But God in His grace has provided a means of escape from that debt of a death penalty for our sins. Grace is getting what we don’t deserve. Grace is God’s redemption at Christ’s expense. Jesus has gone to the cross and died as our substitute. He paid the penalty for our sins so that when we put our faith in Him and ask God’s forgiveness for our sins based on His work on the cross and His work alone, God has promised to forgive us (John 3; Rom. 6:23; 5:1; 10:9-10). God is a Just Judge. He rules righteously. He does not merely overlook sin. He applies justice in judgment of sin. He forgives our sin by applying justly the righteous payment for our sin by Christ on the cross to our account when we place our faith in Him. This is the only way we can receive God’s mercy and avoid the death penalty we deserve. No one comes to the Father except though Jesus (John 14:6). God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died or us” (Rom. 5:8). “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). That is the doorway we must pass through to begin to understand and experience fulfillment and meaning in life (John 10:7, 9).
Experiencing the loving compassion and mercy of God through faith in Christ leads to fulfillment and purpose in this great salvation. Moses directs the reader to follow this path so, “that we may rejoice and be glad all our days!” Joy is not mere happiness; it is ultimately an inner assurance and strength rooted in the inner presence of Jesus. This presence of God in us comes when the Holy Spirit dwells in us to give us new life at our conversion (John 14:26; Rom. 8:9-11). The words Moses uses here mean literally to shout for joy. When we deal with our sin problem through the gospel of Christ the burden of sin is lifted and we can jump for joy. Do you have this joy of Jesus in you? Have you experienced this meaningful blessing in your life?
Experiencing the compassion and mercy of God in Christ leads to gladness (vs. 15). It results in changed lives that now see life’s meaning in light of God’s work (vs. 16). The meaning of life is found in first focusing on the work God has done; His work in Christ. Life becomes a beautiful thing when we wisely factor in God as the center of it. “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” (vs. 17). Here is the climax and answer to our questions on meaning in life. The answer to these life questions are rely on God’s work in Christ first, then trust Him to lead you and to “establish the work of our hands for us.” God works in us for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13). His pleasure is a good thing. It’s in seeking His pleasure, not our pleasure in life that we find meaning, purpose, and satisfaction in life. Therefore our prayer should be for God to teach this to us and those around us. Our prayer should be, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”