A Walk with Moses (Psalm 90)
“What do you see?” asked the optician. His patient replied, “I see empty restaurants, stadiums and airports,” which prompted a wry return: “You have perfect 2020 vision!”
A kind of 2021 vision not found in ophthalmology is with us in chronology. “Twenty-twenty” usually refers to hindsight, but even then, not perfectly so. At least not in the case of the past several months.
It has been over a year since the most recent specter of mass illness and death first visited the human race. As I write, the world is not yet out of the woods. For the longest time, my birthland and adoptive land competed for first place in the horrific trifecta of infections, hospitalizations and deaths. With family and friends affected by the virus, the “competition” has touched my life as well.
A six-decade friend had reminded his son daily, “Check the newspaper. If your name is not in it, there’s still a purpose for you.” Alas, the dad, younger than I, succumbed to the dreaded disease in 2020.
Regardless of how we exit, the statistical exit average never changes. Add up and divide the total numbers of all people who have lived, and you’ll find those exact numbers have also departed this earth.
If our hindsight is imperfect, our foresight is impossible. Foresight will always be faulty for all but God. But with forethought, we can make good use, and much, of our remaining days. Unknown as to the when, where and how of our upcoming deaths, we may give only forethought to the rest of our lives.
After three months of inhabiting an emptied office, I stirred out last June to meet a few friends. On the way, the flip chart from a previous meeting in the boardroom caught my attention. I saved a picture of it. A rather well-known prayer, the Bible verse would come to mean a lot through this season of potential sickness and death.
Psalm 90:17 (NASB95):
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us;
And confirm for us the work of our hands;
Yes, confirm the work of our hands.
I quoted Psalm 90’s climactic verse in my 2021 first quarter “opportunity” letter. I promised to expand on the psalm in a later article. So here it is.
It’s a life and death psalm, a time and eternity psalm, and best of all, it is a God and man psalm. It is the oldest datable psalm, for the title reads, “A Prayer of Moses, the man of God.” I divide the poetic words into two large segments for reasons of hymnic genre and easier exposition with a number of smaller groupings of “literary envelopes.”
It’s theme and thrust: The favor of the Lord our God is necessary for life to last past death.
Can we outlast our days?
God as He Is
The psalmist introduces the matter of “God as He is.”
Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were born
Or You gave birth to the earth and the world,
Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God. (vv. 1–2)
God is all-generational (v. 1). My peers send emails regaling our generation that spans from gramophones to digital streaming, from handwritten letters to What’s App, and from riding everywhere on bikes to lining up for space trips to Mars. Surely my generation has crossed more time transitions than the youth of today will—except none of us have seen or written their futures yet. Who knows what wonders will come next for their generation to make ours pale by comparison?
Regardless of our generational location, the Lord is our dwelling place—our home, not merely where we are housed. German philosopher Martin Heidegger distinguished a building from a dwelling, for the latter assumes the former, but the former does not translate into the latter. Everything positive about home—refuge, rest, reference—is true about the Lord, our dwelling place in all generations.
Time is relative to him. God is eternal, an essential attribute of deity. If God’s essence and attributes can’t be separated—they can’t—every attribute of God must be eternal. He is the self-existent one, above time. Time is not absolute to him, as it is with us.
Moses illustrates the “everlastingness” of God in relation to creation: He created time along with the rest of reality. He existed as God even before the birth of the earth (v. 2).
Among the many orders and species of natural creation, Moses appeals to the mountains to reflect the immensity and infinity of God. Not long ago, I was overwhelmed on a “rooftop of the world” flight from Paro, Bhutan, to Kathmandu, Nepal. The gate agent graciously gave me a window seat. With 8 of the world’s 10 tallest peaks in that region, only those over 20,000 feet are considered mountains. All others are mere hills! Let me know if you want to see the video I took.
God is our dwelling place in view of space—immense—and cross-generational in terms of time—infinite. It is no wonder the psalmist declares his ultimate identity unequivocally—You are God. Full stop.
I become more and more convinced that the Bible’s theme is that very assertion—establishing the identity of God in the minds and hearts of creation. The identity of God climaxes in the Lord Jesus Christ, who concretized it in human time and space.
Hence, God is not looking for a divine position to open up on any of the job-boards. He doesn’t need to interview for the God-job. He is not unemployed. He already is God—the eternal dwelling place of mortal and sinful humans. God is God. Redundant, but a needed reminder.
People as They Are
The psalmist moves on to people as they are, humans as we are, man as he is.
Remember that logic syllogism based on the major premise “All men are mortal”? (The minor premise “Socrates is a man” leads us to “Socrates is mortal.”) The psalm’s next several verses emphasize not only the validity of that syllogism but also the truth of its reality.
All people are under a death sentence (vv. 3–6).
You turn man back into dust,
And say, “Return, O children of men.” (v. 3)
“Dust to dust,” a common phrase in burial services, draws partly from this psalm and stresses life’s finiteness and frailty.
Death defeats us all, including the powerful and wealthy. The Roman emperor Vespasian’s last words went, “Dear me, I think I am becoming a god.” God turned him to dust. He bit the dust. We will all hit the dust, defeated by death.
For a thousand years in Your sight
Are like yesterday when it passes by,
Or as a watch in the night. (v. 4)
If we were not mortal, time would not be a challenge. It’s only because we are finite and frail that we must deal with this thing called time.
Cultures handle time differently. Time is of high value in “just-in-time” Japan. India, on the other hand, exhibits little reverence for punctuality. Indian Standard Time (IST) is often joked about as Indian Stretchable Time, or ISH time, as in “I will meet you noon-ish.”
Thinkers have discussed the nature of time, primarily because everyone runs out of it. Our eventual death, thoughtfully considered, concentrates the mind. Philosophers debate whether time exists and its linear or circular nature and so on.
Deeper is the question of our existence in time and how we use it.
We think about time and its use only because we are human. Helen Sword notes in her work on academic writing (Air & Light & Time & Space, 26) that we look at time as an adversary to be vanquished (“race against time”), a criminal to be tracked (“fugitive time”), an employee to be disciplined (“time management”) or a commodity to be squandered (“wasted time”). Time is “an expensive fluid entity that will always resist our efforts to contain it.” Time can also enrich our lives (“quality time”).
Animals do not watch the clock as people do when I am preaching. Sometimes my audiences even look at the calendar. Humans are aware of the tenses of time as it passes. Yesterday has passed by permanently. Moses’s readers measured the passing as “watches” in the night.
What is always true about individuals nearly became true en masse through our most recent global near-death experience. I hope it can be spoken about in the past tense soon.
You have swept them away like a flood, they fall asleep;
In the morning they are like grass which sprouts anew.
In the morning it flourishes and sprouts anew;
Toward evening it fades and withers away. (vv. 5–6)
This human simile, repeated elsewhere as “All flesh is like grass” (cf. Isa. 40:6 and 1 Pet. 1:24), grounds Brahms’s A German Requiem. Someone has noted the composition could have been titled the Human Requiem, the lamentable fate and frailty of all humankind.
Only God, to whom time is relative, is the master of time. A thousand years is like a day, or the part of a day. He always has time on his side.
Look up Master Clock at the U.S. Naval Observatory, synchronized with a 24-satellite GPS constellation. In “How the Master Clock Sets Time for the World,” Alex Pasternack describes the clock’s authoritative role:
Here, the number of satellites in view from a given point on the Earth’s surface changes with time… Getting precise location depends upon getting precise time. If one GPS satellite is off by a billionth of a second (nanosecond), your GPS receiver will be a foot off. If the satellite’s clock were off by one full second, your location on Google Maps would appear to be about two-thirds of the way to the Moon.
Our God is master even of the master clock.
In the next few verses, Moses focuses on God’s people. He uses first person plurals. They form an “anger and fury envelope” ending with a question. Indeed, all humanity is under a death sentence. Mortal. What about us, God’s people?
God’s people are under a life sentence (vv. 7–11).
Being fallen, we are not only headed to death, we are also under judgment. We experience God’s anger.
For we have been consumed by Your anger
And by Your wrath we have been dismayed. (v. 7)
At the start of the 2020 pandemic, I had barely been picked up at the main airport in tiny Botswana. The first question a well-known pastoral and political leader asked was simply: Is this God’s judgment upon us?
Moses the psalmist answers:
You have placed our iniquities before You,
Our secret sins in the light of Your presence. (v. 8)
God is fully aware of our sins and iniquities. We all have blind spots. Others who have their own blind spots have to point ours out to us. Often we are eager to return the favor! The God without blind spots sees our sins and iniquities in plain, bright view all the time. His visual field is acute and complete concerning our secrets.
The fall has not only endowed in us the tendency to sin, but to hide sin as well. Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, is to have said, “Secret sin on earth is open scandal in heaven.”
Hiding sin catches up to us eventually, even after our life-term is done. It brings down families and nations, organizations, even civilizations. We put our lives, works and others in danger all because of the wrath of God against sin. Here’s a sobering truth: If I confess sin, God will cover it. If I conceal sin, God will reveal it. We need the favor of the Lord our God for our foolish, fickle fallenness before being wiped off the face of the earth.
For all our days have declined in Your fury;
We have finished our years like a sigh.
As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years,
Or if due to strength, eighty years,
Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow;
For soon it is gone and we fly away. (vv. 9–10)
Our subjection to time and divine fury is again expressed with words like “days” and “years.” Our years will finish. Our days decline. Even if our days are extended by 3,650 more, those days will still feature labor and sorrow. Moses knew about an extended life; he wrote this prayer when he was well into his hundreds. The longer the life, the longer the labor and deeper the sorrow. We need God’s favor into our final days, indeed our last day.
Who understands the power of Your anger
And Your fury, according to the fear that is due You? (v. 11)
A leading servant of Christ, well-known in America, asked me, “Are we under God’s judgment?” I said, “No, but we are under God’s justice.” Both atheist and theist want God to be just. In fact, the atheist rejects God because he or she considers God unjust, a position prompted by experiencing consequences of God’s justice.
We distinguish between justice as a divine attribute and God’s judgment as divine action (i.e., between justice and His wrath, which is the consequence of justice). God can’t but be just, so the consequences are real. My bigger question is why I haven’t been destroyed yet. Also, why haven’t the mockers and scorners of God been judged yet?
The apostle Peter advises from this psalm, with hope and welcome given to fallen mortals:
But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. (2 Pet. 3:8–9)
We need the favor of the Lord our God to face our death-and-life sentence.
Five Prayers for Favor
One COVID-19 day, I gingerly headed out to lunch with a fine friend of mine. His dear wife “crashed” our lunch. She wanted to get out of the house during the pandemic. We sat in a lovely but quiet room, with adequate distance, over a delicious meal and deep conversation. After our time she wrote a note about our current world situation: “I don’t get this. I don’t know what we are supposed to learn from all of this.” A good aspect in that comment was that she was so willing to learn something out of this.
And that’s the spirit that will help us as we deal with our fallenness. For that kind of learning, we need the favor of the Lord our God. Toward that end, Moses leads us in five short communal prayers of lament. (Remember this whole psalm is a prayer.)
As eminent as Moses was—we even name a biblical/theological covenant after him—he hardly knew what believers today know in the New Moses, the favor of God in our Lord Jesus.
Old Testament believers mostly validated God’s “favor” circumstantially and subjectively, but were never sure of its durability; for them, God’s wrath was not objectively and permanently addressed. (That indeed is the argument of the book of Hebrews.)
For us, on this side of the cross, we know that the anger of the Lord toward the human race has been appeased, the wrath of God has been propitiated, all our sins have been covered, paid for, expiated, atoned. Everything pertaining to God’s favor is already ours in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:3–8).
So we confidently enter into these five favors which Moses directly asks of God concerning living under the unchangeable realities of a death-and-life sentence.
Isaac Watts tenderly captured the prayer of Psalm 90 in hymn form.
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.
Within the shadow of thy throne,
Still may we dwell secure.
Sufficient is thine arm alone,
And our defense is sure.
Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting thou art God,
To endless years the same.
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be thou our guide while life shall last
And our eternal home.
“O God our Help in ages past” (1708, Isaac Watts)
- Favor of instruction in view of our ignorance
So teach us to number our days,
That we may present to You a heart of wisdom. (v.12)
Who does not wish to live a wise life? Who has not desired God’s instruction? The verse is a favorite prayer of many a believer, since we don’t know how many days we have, as yet.
The closest way I know to “number” my days is through a death-clock app. Upon entering my tobacco and alcohol habits (none), blood pressure and bad cholesterol levels (varying), and my parents’ ages when they died (clear), the algorithm calculates the number of my days remaining according to average life spans in this country, although I was born elsewhere!
With my mother passing away in her 90th year, and my father 17 days short of 95, my phone app joins well-wishing friends to assure me of a long life. Only there are no guarantees. At best I can assume a longer than average life, but I cannot presume anything at all.
Since we can’t number our days that remain, Moses is asking for divine instruction to seize each day as an urgent opportunity to live wisely before God. To value each day and not squander it in foolishness, to make the most of the time (Eph. 3:16–17).
- Favor of compassion in view of our transgressions
Do return, O Lord; how long will it be?
And be sorry for Your servants. (v. 13)
Who has not felt distant from God’s compassion? We wonder if God has departed from us. Verse 13 asks God to feel sorry and return to His servants.
God’s servants have been severely reminded—all around us, over the last year, across the world, in very high numbers—about the terrible consequences of death and sin. It does feel like God has abandoned us to our trickeries and absconded from us in His just anger.
However, God did return to his servants in answer to Moses’s prayer time and again throughout the history of Israel. The cross became the greatest demonstration of God’s compassionate favor, when God poured out His wrath on His servant, our Lord Jesus, instead of on us. On that basis, we appeal for God’s merciful favor to return to us right away, even when we feel forsaken by Him (Heb. 4:16).
- Favor of satisfaction in view of our responsibilities
Who has not wondered if his labors were worthwhile, let alone satisfying? Life at work can quickly get meaningless, even harsh, in hamster-wheel monotony. These prayers of Psalm 90 were daily rehearsed on account of the agricultural grind facing workers setting out each morning facing its hard labor. Without the favor of God’s satisfaction, work can be misery and fruitless. So Moses prays,
O satisfy us in the morning with Your lovingkindness,
That we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. (v. 14)
We, too, can daily ask for God’s lovingkindness to provide us satisfaction in our labors, that we will experience joy at work, and that throughout each day and all our days we will be filled with joyful labor rather than sorrowful labor (cf. v.10). Paul, the apostle in a Roman prison still calls on us to rejoice always, with the source of joy being the Lord Himself in each dreary day (Phil. 4:4).
- Favor of jubilation in view of our affliction
Make us glad according to the days You have afflicted us,
And the years we have seen evil. (v. 15)
Who among us has not been afflicted? Who of us has not been grieved with the sorrow mentioned earlier in this psalm? I remember some stark and dark days that Bonnie and I have gone through. I call them the years of God’s crush!
“Joy and gladness” continue from the previous verse, now inviting God to number the days of our affliction, and if He would make up for the grief with elation. We can picture a scale that currently leans toward anguish as our portion in life. If God would kindly only balance it with equal jubilation.
Bonnie and I have been burdened to minister to the number of close friends recently bereaved. Yesterday we stood by the graveside of a lovely woman who had been a few months younger than my wife. I put my arm around my friend, the woman’s widower, in prayer. He wiped away a tear. It has been more than a year since her departure, and my prayer for him and many others is simply verse 15. And when it is our turn to be widowed, barring an accident that takes us both together, Bonnie or I will be asking God to somehow mysteriously and miraculously make up for any and all kinds of suffering. In some ways, we have already experienced the balancing of the scales. One day the scale will permanently favor jubilation, in a place without tears (Rev. 21:4).
- Favor of intervention in light of our needs
Let Your work appear to Your servants
And Your majesty to their children. (v. 16)
Who has not prayed for a miracle from God? Who has not asked God to do something so incredible that He will get the glory? I have.
God is not only good all the time, He is also working all the time—except God’s work is at most times invisible. He allows us to participate in the weaving of the underside of the circumstantial quilt of our lives.
The psalmist wishes to see the invisible, the incredible other side of the quilt. For when it is shown to His servants, they will feel its majestic impact. Our superlatives will be at a loss. Will God ever give us a peek into His meticulous providence, always marvelous, and sometimes miraculous?
In Hebrew theology, nothing is random. The intentional coordination, not an accidental coincidence of circumstances, is part of God’s activity on behalf of His servants and their children. We will fully view the fabulous quilt in heaven, when among our first words will be these: “Of course, now we understand.” Until then the secrets belong to Him (Deut. 29:29), but the psalmist wishes for divine intervention as soon as it is right. Moses invites God’s invisible work to appear to His servants and take their breath away, so that he and his family will revel in wonder and praise for God’s imagination and creativity, just slightly revealed now.
Lord, would you intervene on our behalf in light of our needs and our inability to cope with difficulties? Let your work appear in all its glorious majesty, and we will be thrilled and enthralled! Display your splendor, Lord.
Note that we are servants, albeit God’s servants, who labor through all of this life discovering God’s providential assignments for us. What a relief it would have been for His disciples to hear Jesus’s words, “I no longer call you servants.… Instead, I have called you friends” (John 15:15 NIV). Jesus had made everything He learned from the Father known to them. Friends first. Servants next. They would be accompanied in their daily and lifelong assignments with divine instruction, compassion, satisfaction, jubilation, and intervention.
Can we outlive our death?
Can we outlive our days? No! But God’s servants can outlive their death. How so?
Let’s look at the climactic conclusion to the prayer. I grouped verses 12–16 together because of a Hebrew preposition translated as “so” at the beginning of verse 12. Another preposition, often untranslated, sets verse 17 on the peak of this prayer mountain. The phrase “Lord our God” parallels verses 1 and 2 in literary strategy.
Let the Favor of the Lord Be upon Us
Shall we finalize Moses’s prayer and pray it together?
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us;
And confirm for us the work of our hands;
Yes, confirm the work of our hands. (v. 17)
One commentator notes that the word “favor” is too monochromatic to apprehend all that the psalmist desires. It carries the meaning of the delight and beauty of the Lord our God to be upon us. It applies to all the requests of the psalm (vv. 12–16). Bless our lives and labors, Lord, in both worthwhileness and long-lastingness.
No, we can’t outlast our days, but yes, we can outlive our death. Take a look at the word “Yes,” which begins the last line. In the repetition is an affirmation: do confirm of the work of our hands-our lives and our labors.
Indeed, life is work, though work is not life. Any and every kind of work can be blessed and favored of the Lord. I once used to serve as the janitor of the historic chapel at Dallas Seminary. Whether janitor then, teacher now, or any leadership service at our school, the work would have been real and hard—and all of it favored of the Lord.
Bonnie signs off her annual family epistle with, “Blessed and Highly Favored by the Lord God Almighty.” She encountered that pregnant phrase in Trinidad at our nephew’s wedding. Upon greeting the housekeeping lady at our simple hotel with a “How are you?” she received not the perfunctory “good.” Instead, she heard a potent declaration with genuine confidence: “Blessed and highly favored by the Lord God Almighty.” The echo of that response has never left my wife.
And Confirm the Work of Our Hands
The next line, reading “confirm the work of our hands,” ends with a pregnant phrase. The work of our hands is any endeavor and enterprise that is uniquely ours, primed from eternity for eternal impact. God prepares and defines, shapes and accepts, gifts and grows, carries and uses, establishes and extends the work of our hands.
At the end of that June 2020 meeting, I deliberately pointed businessmen-friends to the flip chart and said, “There’s not a single one of us here who would not want to offer that prayer.” I have actually adopted it as my verse for 2021 and send it to family and friends on birthdays for each one to read slowly, absorb deeply, and claim fully.
The powerful word “confirm” carries two dimensions to it.
One, he requests God to establish his lifelong work. Without God granting us favor, everything will be weightless and wasted. God needs to stabilize our work and grant it success, not unlike Jesus’s plain-spoken assertion: “Apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). It takes God’s favor for our labors to carry spiritual significance.
Two, Moses invites God to extend our work beyond our lives. The line is repeated for emphasis; without God we can do nothing of value or eternal consequence.
In a final segment of Scripture and history itself, those who struggled in labor and sorrow and yet remained faithful hear an amazing pronouncement:
Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”
“Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.” (Rev. 14:13–14 NIV)
That promise can be brought forward canonically to all believers. I often tell teachers, mentors and tutors that their impact never ends. An ancient Greek proverb runs, “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.”
My mentor wall at RREACH features 10 people who decisively influenced me. The last of my mentors died in early 2021. I look on their pictures, and they are empty of life, but not empty of use. They outlive their death through me. I get to extend their work beyond their lives.
Note the “Yes” at the start of the last line? We can easily overlook it, a miniscule particle in Hebrew, a small conjunction emphasizing a big concept.
In the simplest form, “yes” is an affirmation of the previous line mentioned above, but in its serious sense, a dedication of life and labor to the Lord.
Can you outlast your days? No! We are mortal and fallen.
Can you outlive your death? Yes! We can engage in the eternal.
In 1706 two young Germans, aged 24 and 29, set out to the southeastern corner of India with missional intention. They made every mistake novice missionaries could make, and even worse. One of them died at the age of 36. But the fanner to the king of the region encountered the gospel through them and embraced its message.
Were these two lives fruitless? Well 315+ years later, you are reading the words of a descendant. The fanner has been identified by genealogists as a forefather on my dad’s side. Though it did not make me a Christian, their work was confirmed. It gave me an inclination and an advantage toward the Christian faith. Yet neither would have known this, that their work was established and being extended by the favor of the Lord their God.
Today would have been my mother’s 97th birthday. A dozen precious memories flood my soul. Even while using her walker she would prepare and serve me a scrumptious lunch each Saturday. At eye level from her sofa, the famous words of C. T. Studd, world-class athlete (cricketer) and later missionary to China, would catch my sight and heart: “Only One Life ’twill soon be past, Only what is done for Christ will last.”
Engage in the eternal, and your works will last past the grave.
Can you outlast your days? No! Can you outlive your death? Yes!