Moses, the author of Psalm 90, reminded us of man’s frailty (vv 1-6). Like grass, man will flourish for a short while but soon perish. The psalmist also humbly acknowledged God’s prerogative to consume sinful man because they had rebelled against Him (vv 7-8). He confessed that the disobedient Israelites in the wilderness justly deserved God’s righteous judgment. In His wrath, the Lord sent plagues and pestilences to consume them, and to cut short their lives: “… in this wilderness they shall be consumed, and there they shall die” (Num. 14: 35).
Though God is merciful, He will not wink at sin nor overlook it: “Thou hast set our iniquities before thee” (v 8a). The murmuring Israelites learnt painful lessons when they had to face God’s wrath and His rod of discipline in the wilderness.
What further lessons can we learn from Psalm 90?
o A brief life of labour and sorrow (vv 9-11)
“For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told. 10 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. 11 Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath”
Time and again in the wilderness, the Israelites had provoked God to anger by their murmurings and unbelief. Here in verse 9a, the psalmist lamented over their miserable years of aimless wanderings when their sins brought them under divine displeasure: “For all our days are passed away in thy wrath.” Because of God’s sentence of death upon “the evil congregation” (Num. 14: 35), their years in the wilderness became weary and burdensome.
C H Spurgeon gives a succinct description of Israel’s sad state: “Justice shortened the days of rebellious Israel; each halting place became a graveyard; they marked their march by the tombs they left behind them. Because of the penal sentence their days were dried up, and their lives wasted away” (Treasury of David). The psalmist added that the thirty-eight years they spent in the wilderness were “as a tale that is told” (v 9b) – as a sighing or moaning. This expression reflects a vain and fleeting life that passes away rapidly and meaninglessly.
Continuing his prayer, Moses noted the brevity of man’s existence – “threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years” (v 10a). It may surprise us that Moses limited the age of man to seventy or eighty years. Perhaps he had in mind, the Israelites “who being twenty years old, and some, thirty, some forty, some fifty years old, when they came out of Egypt, and dying in the wilderness, as all of that age did, Numbers 14: 29, a great number of them doubtless died in their seventieth or eightieth year” (Matthew Poole).
The psalmist conceded that, with unusual strength, a man’s life might be extended to eighty years. But his prolonged years would be full of “labour and sorrow” because of his declining health and bodily infirmities (v 10b). Albert Barnes explains the reasons for the “labour and sorrow” that accompany old age: “The ordinary hopes and plans of life ended; the companions of other years departed; the offices and honors of the world in other hands; a new generation on the stage that cares little for the old one now departing; a family scattered or in the grave; the infirmities of advanced years on him; his faculties decayed; the buoyancy of life gone; and now in his second childhood dependent on others as he was in his first; how little of happiness is there in such a condition! How appropriate is it to speak of it as a time of ‘sorrow’! How little desirable is it for a man to reach extreme old age! And how kind and merciful the arrangement by which man is ordinarily removed from the world before the time of ‘trouble and sorrow’ thus comes!”
Soon enough, and often without warning, our earthly life will end – “for it is soon cut off” (v 10c). Like chaff driven by the wind, “we fly away”. Such is the frailty of our flesh. God determines the length of a man’s life. When his time is up, “his breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish” (Ps. 146: 4), “and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it” (Eccl. 12: 7). At death, a man’s plans, hopes, designs and ambitions vanish into thin air.
In Psalm 144, David described man’s life as insignificant, and his days as a fading shadow, yet the Almighty God took an interest in him: “LORD, what is man, that thou takest knowledge of him! or the son of man, that thou makest account of him! 4 Man is like to vanity: his days are as a shadow that passeth away” (vv 3-4). May these thoughts humble us and help us to appreciate God’s love and mercy upon us. Let us be reminded of our need to depend upon Him to sustain our lives each day.
In the next verse, Moses spoke as one who feared to incur God’s wrath and the power of His correcting rod: “Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath” (v 11). Indeed, no one can fully comprehend the extent of the power of God’s anger, and how deeply and painfully it can wound.
Fearing therefore “the power of thine anger”, let us, like the psalmist, not incur God’s wrath. Let us not mock at sin or take it lightly, “for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12: 29). (… to be continued)