A Song of Realities
1 Lord, you have been our dwelling place
throughout all generations.
2 Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
3 You turn men back to dust,
saying, "Return to dust, O sons of men."
4 For a thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
5 You sweep men away in the sleep of death;
they are like the new grass of the morning-
6 though in the morning it springs up new,
by evening it is dry and withered.
7 We are consumed by your anger
and terrified by your indignation.
8 You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.
9 All our days pass away under your wrath;
we finish our years with a moan.
10 The length of our days is seventy years—
or eighty, if we have the strength;
yet their span is but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
11 Who knows the power of your anger?
For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.
12 Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
13 Relent, O 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 upon us;
establish the work of our hands for us—
yes, establish the work of our hands.
We have come now to the psalm which introduces the fourth book of Psalms, the ninetieth. You may be interested to learn that this is the oldest, i.e., the earliest, of the psalms. According to the inscription, this was written by Moses, and is one of possibly two psalms which Moses wrote. Some scholars feel that he also wrote Psalm 91, which ties in somewhat with Psalm 90. But there is little question but that Moses is the author of this ninetieth psalm. This is probably the pattern psalm upon which others are based. It corresponds to the book of Numbers in the Pentateuch.
The book of Numbers is the book of wilderness wanderings, the story of the failure of man, and it is most fittingly introduced by this ninetieth Psalm. It is very likely that Moses wrote this psalm at the end of the wilderness wanderings, just before he died. This is, in my judgment, one of the greatest of the psalms. In its scope, its range of thought, and its vastness of concept, it is a marvelous statement of divine glory.
It opens with a powerful declaration of the greatness 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,
from everlasting to everlasting thou art God. (Psalms 90:1-2 RSV)
In that brief sentence are three great facts that mark the greatness of God. The Psalmist begins by declaring that God has been the dwelling place of man in all generations. What is a dwelling place? Well, it is where you live. It is your home. This statement declares that God has been man's home ever since man has been on the earth. In all the generations of man it is where he continually lives. You will recognize that this is the same truth Paul uttered when he addressed the Athenians on Mars Hill. He said to them, God is not far from any of us (even pagans, he points out), for "in him we live and move and have our being," (Acts 17:28). God exists as a home for man.
That is a tremendous thought, is it not? Here Moses is looking back over the course of human history and declaring that God is great because he is the God of history. Moses had seen the Pharaohs live and die. Perhaps he had often crossed the Nile River and gone over to that Valley of the Kings which tourists now visit, where the tombs of the Pharaohs are located and there had noted the many who through past history had been laid to rest. Yet, despite the passing centuries there is no change in the relationship of man to God. He has been the home of man for all the generations of history.
Then the Psalmist points out that God is the God of creation.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world. (Psalms 90:2a RSV)
Notice the order of events here. He is beginning with the latest geological fact: the mountains were formed. They were formed after the earth itself had been created and are last in the geological record. Moses here is looking back across that record and saying, the mountains were formed, but before that, God was. Then before that, he "formed the earth and the world." Now to us that is saying the same thing but in the Hebrew it is literally, "the earth and the land." God formed the earth first and then later brought out the land from the waters, as the book of Genesis makes clear. The land emerged from waters that covered the earth. So Moses is gradually moving back in time from the formation of the mountains to the emergence of the land and finally the creation of the earth itself. Before all this, God was. Then he takes a longer leap into timelessness and says,
from everlasting to everlasting thou art God. (Psalms 90:2b RSV)
Surely here is the greatness of God. He is the God of history. He is the God of creation. But beyond all that, he is the God of eternity. He is beyond and above his creation. He is greater than the universe he produced, and before it existed, he was. In fact the Hebrew here is again very interesting. It suggests the translation "From the vanishing point in the past to the vanishing point in the future," thus, from everlasting to everlasting God exists. How great he is!
This is far different from any pagan concept of God. Plato, the great Greek philosopher, was the only one of whom we have record in the ancient world who held some concept of the timelessness of God. In the eyes of others, the pagan gods all had a beginning. Read the pagan myths and you will find that all the gods started somewhere. But here is a God who never begins, a timeless endless God who is beyond and above his creation, and beyond and above all the events of history. That mighty God, that tremendous Being, who is so far different, above, and "other" than ourselves, is now brought close to us in the rest of the psalm.
Here the Psalmist is examining the relationship of God to man. That is the theme of this psalm. How do you and I relate to the greatness of God? Again he gives us three great facts, beginning with Verse 3.
First, there is God's sovereignty over man:
Thou turnest man back to the dust,
and sayest, "Turn back, O children of men!"
For a thousand years in thy sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
Thou dost sweep men away; they are like a dream,
like grass which is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers. (Psalms 90:3-6 RSV)
Three things about God mark the limits of life for man. These are the three greatest facts of human existence:
First, we must live within the sovereignty of God. It is God who controls human life. As the Psalmist points out, "Thou turnest man back to the dust, and sayest, 'Turn back, O children of men!'" God sets the limits to life. There are certain things he will not let us do. Many people today are asking, "Is it right for man to explore space? Is it right for us to go up to the moon? Is this a proper activity of man?" The answer is "Yes." If it were not, God would simply say, "Turn back, O children of men," and that would be as far as we could get. What he has allowed as possible is something he obviously permits. The very fact that man is now exploring space makes it clear that this is within the limits of God for man. We could never explore what God does not permit us to explore. But throughout the Bible we find two or three things reserved from man's knowledge. The understanding of time is one. God says, "The times and the seasons are not for you to know." Again and again he hints that time is a mystery which man will never understand. The nature of the occult world is also a secret hidden from man. Thus God sets certain limits to human life. He says to man, Turn back to the dust for you came from the dust. To each individual, at some time or another, God says, "Go back to dust."
Do you remember the story of the little girl who learned in Sunday school that man came from the dust and eventually returns to the dust. She looked under her bed one morning and said, "Mother, mother, come! There's someone under my bed, but I don't know whether he's coming or going!" That is a child's way of underscoring this great truth. God sets limits to life. Man comes from the dust but he must return to the dust.
There is suggested in Verse 4 the thought that God had originally intended a greater span of life for man. In connection with his word about the limits of life, the Psalmist says, "For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night." In reading that I have often wondered if a thousand years was God's originally intended limit for the life of man.
That is, incidentally, the length of the Millennium. According to Revelation 20, the coming Golden Age of earth will be a thousand years long. That this suggestion may be true is strengthened by the fact that early man, as recorded in Genesis, lived almost a thousand years. The oldest man who ever lived, Methuselah, lived 969 years. Before sin began to spread through the earth it is quite likely that God intended that man should live a thousand years. But even a thousand years, even the longest possible lifetime of man, compared with the greatness of God is "but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night."
Then the Psalmist points out that man also is suddenly taken from the earth. "Thou dost sweep men away; they are like a dream." Again it is clear that we live within the sovereignty of God. We have no control over how long we are to live. History confirms to us the fact that men can very suddenly disappear from the scene. We all remember how, less than ten years ago, it looked as though the Kennedy family would be prominent in politics in the United States for many years to come. When John F. Kennedy was elected President news of the Kennedy tribe filled the papers. It looked as though they would be a force to reckon with for decades of American history. But how suddenly the picture changed. "Thou dost sweep men away," says the Psalmist. No one's life is at all certain. Men can suddenly disappear from the scene.
But even if they do not, they are but as grass which is renewed in the morning, "in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers." Even the normal span of life is one of gradually increasing decay and deterioration until, like the grass, it is there in the morning but is gone in the evening. The grass he is talking about here is not marijuana. Any plant will do. It grows up in the morning but by evening it is cut down and disappears. This is a picture, he says, of the life of man. Again, history confirms this. We think of Ho Chi Minh and how he has dominated the scene in Vietnam. He was a threat to many, but now he is gone, his life has deteriorated. Mao Tse-tung has been tottering on the brink of disappearance for many months. The course of history has been the story of the rise and fall of men who appear for a brief time and then disappear, exactly as the Psalmist says. So man lives within one great fact about God: his sovereign control over man.
But there is another relationship which concerns the Psalmist, God's wrath. He moves on to that in Verses 7-12:
For we are consumed by thy anger;
by thy wrath we are overwhelmed.
Thou has set our iniquities before thee,
our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.
For all our days pass away under thy wrath,
our years come to an end like a sigh. (Psalms 90:7-9 RSV)
Here the Psalmist, in all the honesty of his outlook on life, is facing a reality that many of us try to avoid. He is dealing with what we might call, the tragic sense of life: the fact that every moment of enjoyment is tinged with something sorrowful, tragic, or unhappy. There is a bittersweet quality about life, and these Psalmists realistically face it. They are quite ready to come to grips with the problem of evil. Why is human life tinged with a dark side? Why do we have these tragedies, irritations, injustices, and the catastrophes that strike both innocent and guilty alike?
The other day I succumbed to family pressure and a long-standing interest on my part and bought a small motor boat, to use for water skiing, fishing, and other things. Of course I couldn't wait to see how the boat would run. I took it down to the Palo Alto Boat Harbor and launched it in the bay. My wife and youngest daughter were aboard and we went out for a spin on the bay. We took right off and headed for the Dumbarton Bridge. But out in the middle of the bay, almost under the Dumbarton Bridge, we ran aground! The motor hit bottom and before I could lift it up the shear pin had severed and there we were, powerless in the middle of the bay. Fortunately I had taken along a couple of paddles that belonged to a little rubber boat we had, but all I had were these little paddles that fit together like a kayak paddle. When I fully realized that we were adrift in the middle of the bay I was a bit concerned as I didn't know which way the tide was running and I had read stories in the paper about people who spent the night on the mud flats.
The thought crossed my mind, "Is this really fair? Should a thing like this happen to the pastor of the Peninsula Bible Church?" The longer I paddled toward the disappearing shore, the more convinced I was that it was unfair treatment. We finally landed at the only place on the lower western side of the bay where there was a telephone, and some people, so we didn't spend the night on the bay. But it served to underscore to me the fact the Psalmist is facing here.
There is a dark side to life. There come sudden occurrences that cast a cloud over the sunshine. Sometimes they are much more serious than my boat incident. There is a family here on the Peninsula that is grieving over the loss of a little eight year old girl whom some sex deviate apparently has kidnapped for she has been gone for several days now. We all know how frequently these things happen. What is the reason for them?
The Psalmist says it is because of the wrath of God. He ascribes them directly to God. Surely this phrase, "the wrath of God" is greatly misunderstood by many people. Many think invariably of some sort of peeved Deity, a kind of cosmic Terrible-Tempered Mr. Bang who indulges in violent and uncontrolled displays of temper when we human beings do not do what we ought to do. But such a concept only reveals the limitations of our understanding. The Bible never deals with the wrath of God that way. According to the Scriptures, the wrath of God is God's moral integrity. When man refuses to yield himself to God, he creates certain conditions (not only for himself but for others as well) which God has ordained for harm. It is God who makes evil result in sorrow, heartache, injustice and despair. It is God's way of saying to man, "Look, you must face the truth. You were made for me. If you, in the dignity of human choice which I have given you, decide that you don't want me, then I will leave. But you will have to bear the consequences." The absence of God is destructive to human life. That absence is God's wrath and God cannot withhold it. In his moral integrity God insists that these things should occur as a result of man's choice. See how the Psalmist links these two together. He sets man's sin and God's wrath within the same frame.
For we are consumed by thy anger;
by thy wrath we are overwhelmed.
Thou hast set our iniquities before thee,
our secret sins in the light of thy countenance. (Psalms 90:7-8 RSV)
The cause of God's wrath then, is always human sin. The manifestation of God's wrath would never be apparent were it not for the secret sins that are set in the light of God's countenance. God knows our inner sins, our secret inner thoughts. The Scriptures never teach that a passing thought is a sin. A thought that comes to your mind unbidden, remains there for a moment tempting you to do something wrong, is only a normal exposure to temptation. Even the Lord Jesus experienced it. But here the Psalmist refers to thoughts that we harbor, that we mull over and play with, that we take great pleasure in and often summon up ourselves if they do not come to us unbidden. God is aware of these inner defilements of life, and they are all contributing to the tragic sense of life.
It is amazing how blind we are in this area. Every now and again someone will ask the question, "Why doesn't God kill the devil? If it's the devil that is doing all this to us, why doesn't God get rid of him?" That same question appears often concerning a human being." Why didn't God kill Hitler? Look at all the terrible things Hitler did, and the awful bloodbath to which he subjected the world. Why didn't God kill him before he could do this?" We ask such questions with great ease, but when we ask a question like that we should also ask, "Why didn't God paralyze my hand when I filled out my income tax and put down a wrong figure?" We should ask, "Why did not God strike me dumb when I yelled at my wife, or my children?" And "Why didn't he send a stroke when I said that catty thing over the phone to my neighbor? Why didn't he paralyze my tongue?" If God is going to deal with sin he must deal with it in everyone, not just the Hitlers, and not only in its extreme forms. So the Psalmist faces the fact that God allows his wrath, his moral integrity against sin, to be manifest precisely because it affords him opportunity for the exercise of his love.
Then he goes on to consider the universality of this:
The years of our life are threescore and ten,
or even by reason of strength fourscore;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away. (Psalms 90:10 RSV)
"Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward," says the book of Job (Job 5:7). Job, of course, is the clearest demonstration of this very thing. Here is a statement of the length of life to which man is reduced under sin. At best we live to seventy years of age, and if by reason of strength we reach eighty, still it is filled with trouble. This was written by Moses, remember, and Moses himself lived to be one hundred twenty years of age. Surely that was a remarkable extension of time, beyond the ordinary for his own day. It is striking that two thousand years the other side of Calvary, man's span of life was only seventy, or at the most, eighty years. We really have not made much progress, have we? All our vaunted achievements in medical science have not quite reached this figure as the average span of life for man today. But still the Psalmist is right. No matter how long man lives, his days are filled with trouble and the tragic quality of life that marks the presence of the wrath of God. So the Psalmist closes this section with a question,
Who considers the power of thy anger,
and thy wrath according to the fear of thee?
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom. (Psalms 90:11-12 RSV)
Now he is facing the strange indifference of man. Why do we ignore the fact of the wrath of God? Why do we try to pretend it does not exist? Why do we not face up to these great relationships: the sovereignty of God over man and the ever-present justice of God working in human society? Why do we struggle so to blame other conditions in human life, or to blame everyone but the one who is most to blame, ourselves? In answer, the Psalmist prays, "Lord, help me to number my days, (i.e., to be aware of the limitations of life), that I might get a heart of wisdom." What is a heart of wisdom? Well, it is a realistic outlook on life. It is facing life the way it is, and fully reckoning with the relationships of man to God.
In the last section the Psalmist moves to the third of these relationships. It is a declaration of what a heart of wisdom will bring us to. It is the declaration of God's love for man. This is rather unexpected, is it not? Most of us think of man's relationships to God only in terms of God's justice and God's wrath. He is the great Law Giver watching over us, and we are responsible to fulfill his law -- or else. But here is a closing section in which the Psalmist speaks of the love of God.
It begins with a cry for a personal God:
Return, O Lord! How long?
Have pity on thy servants! (Psalms 90:13 RSV)
You cannot experience the love of God unless you are ready to cry out like this for a personal relationship to God. "Return, O Lord! This great and mighty God who rules the universe, may he come back to me," says the Psalmist. "Enter my heart and have pity upon me, thy servant." That cry for a personal relationship is the key to the results that follow, as set forth in the following verses:
Satisfy us in the morning with thy steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. (Psalms 90:14 RSV)
Supposing now you have come to a relationship with God personally. You know him, he has returned to your spirit where he was intended to dwell. What has really happened of course is that you have returned. From our human point of view we think that God has come to us. We cry out for him to come to us, when all the time he is saying to us, "Come unto me." But, as James says, "Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you," (James 4:8 RSV). Now supposing this has happened in your life, what can you expect?
First, you can expect to know a satisfying love:
Satisfy us in the morning with thy steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. (Psalms 90:14 RSV)
You will notice that in the RSV all through the Psalms there is a repeated reference to the steadfast love of God. In the Authorized Version it is translated, "loving kindness." I admit I have an emotional preference for the term loving kindness. I often think of the little boy in Sunday school who was asked to describe loving kindness. He said to the teacher, "Well, teacher, if I ask my mother for a piece of bread and butter, and she gives it to me, that's kindness. But if she puts jam on it, that's loving kindness." That is striking very closely to what the word really means.
The Revelationisers are quite right in noting that there is a time quality about it. It is continuous love. It is love that does not change. It is, in other words, unqualified acceptance. That is love that satisfies. It is a love that does not depend on whether I am good or bad but is ready to receive me and forgive me and set me back on my feet again. That is the kind of love God shows -- unqualified love; love that has already dealt with our behavior, already dealt with our misdemeanors and our rebellion -- and still loves. We sing the hymn, "O love that will not let me go." It is that kind of love that the Psalmist is talking about. That is satisfying love.
Then he speaks of recompensing joy:
Make us glad as many days as thou hast afflicted us,
and as many years as we have seen evil. (Psalms 90:15 RSV)
There is a joy that makes up for the past, a joy that "restores the years which the locusts have eaten," to use the beautiful phrasing of one of the Minor Prophets. It looks out upon the field of life and sees it eaten of locusts, all its value gone, all its worthwhileness ended, but then it sees God coming in and restoring, planting a new crop, bringing it to fruition and to harvest, so that one may look out across a full field blowing in the wind, every head laden with grain, and rejoice over the fact that God has restored the years which the locusts have eaten. One of the greatest joys of my Christian life is to look back upon the wasted moments and years of my past, and set in contrast to it the fruitfulness of my present experience. God is continually correcting what once looked like a hopeless situation, restoring to me the years that the locusts have eaten. A recompensing joy, that is part of the glory of God's love.
Then the third element the Psalmist sees is in Verse 16.
Let thy work be manifest to thy servants,
and thy glorious power to their children. (Psalms 90:16 RSV)
This is an amazing request. It envisions what I would call, hereditary healing. We moderns are inclined to see life out of focus. We seldom think of ourselves as being part of a bundle of life which goes back to the very beginning. Americans, particularly, are very individualistic. We like to think of ourselves as individuals almost as though we were the first men in the world. It is part of the American dream to feel we are starting all over. We can correct all the mistakes of the past. We can change everything within our lifetime. But the Bible never takes that view. The Bible recognizes the fact that man is tied to his past and it is affecting the immediate future. God himself stated it in the giving of the Law, in Exodus 20,
" ... for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments." (Exodus 20:5b-6 RSV)
There is something in human life that persists from one generation to another. Though you or I may become a Christian and God begins to heal our personal life, we will never experience the full effect of that healing in our lifetime. But our children will! That is what the psalmist is saying here. Notice how he puts it. "Let thy work be manifest to thy servants," i.e., his own generation. Let me understand how you work, Lord, give me an understanding of your methods in society and life, and then let the effect of that understanding be evidenced in my children." That is what often happens. I have seen young men and women beginning a family, as new Christians. They are discovering for themselves the healing power of God to change a wretched, miserable, and wasted life, and they experience much of the loving grace, kindness, and restoration of God. But their children go on to even greater and richer experiences than the parents had. They are benefiting from the change and understanding that has come into the lives of their parents. That benefit can be passed on, say the Scriptures, to the third and fourth generations. That is why, oftentimes, children are either much worse or much better than their parents.
Then the fourth thing:
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us. (Psalms 90:17a RSV)
Here I would like to revert to the Authorized Version; it is much better.
Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us. (Psalms 90:17a KJV)
This is a prayer for the visible manifestation of God's beauty. It is what the New Testament calls "godlikeness," or godliness. What is the beauty of God? God is beautiful because he is two things: truth and love. Truth is always necessary to beauty. You can never have anything beautiful that is not true. And love is warmth, graciousness, and attractiveness, which, added to truth, constitutes beauty. A man or woman, boy or girl, whose life is characterized by truth and love is a beautiful person. We hear much about beautiful people today. The world uses that term. What does it mean? Basically it means to them someone who pleases me, whom I like; that is a beautiful person. But in the understanding of life which the Scripture represents, beauty is the manifestation of truth and love. The only place you can get those, in the ultimate sense, is from God. So the Psalmist prays, "Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish thou the work of our hands upon us,
yea, the work of our hands establish thou it. (Psalms 90:17b RSV)
What does this mean? The last result of God's love is to make our labor, our work, meaningful, valuable, and enduring. It will not be something wasted, or frantic and frenetic, spent in a moment. The work of our hands becomes an enduring thing, impressive, affecting others, having in itself great value. Who does not long for this?
Here, this morning, in everyone's heart, is there not a longing that your life will be worthwhile, that you will be the kind of person who will be worth something; others will value you and your life. Well, that is the great promise of God's love. That love is available to any who are ready to say, as this Psalmist says, "Return, O Lord! How long?" Come back, O God. Come back into my life and work through me. God is ready to produce in you that kind of love.
Here then, are the three great facts that relate to God and man: God's sovereignty, within the limits of which we all live, whether we like it or not; God's wrath, which we all experience, whether innocent or guilty, because we are living in a world in which God is allowing man's sin to have its full expression. But in the midst of all this is the glory and wonder of God's love, manifesting itself to us in terms of these qualities of satisfying love: recompensing joy, hereditary healing, visible beauty, and meaningful labor. All is available to those who love him.
We never fail, Father, to be awed and humbled by the words of Scripture. When we think that Moses, so many long centuries ago, understood these great facts about you, we are inclined to cry with him , "O Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place throughout all generations!" Thou art the same God, the eternal unchangeable God, the Rock upon which any life may be built. Lord, we pray that none of us will be so foolish as to try to build on any other rock, but that each of us will give ourselves to establishing our life upon Thee, our rock and our strength. We ask in your name, Amen.
Message transcript and recording © 1969, 1995 by Ray Stedman Ministries, owner of sole copyright by assignment from the author. For permission to use this content, please review www.RayStedman.org/permissions. Subject to permissions policy, all rights reserved.