We thank God for the many lessons we have learnt from Moses’ prayer in Psalm 90. In our first three articles we considered some precious truths pertaining to the frailty of man and his brief earthly life. Coming under divine displeasure because of their sins, the Israelites had to face a dreary and burdensome life in the wilderness. Even their short lives of seventy or eighty years were filled with “labour and sorrow” because of God’s chastising hand upon them (v 10). What further lessons can we learn from the psalmist in his closing petitions in verses 12-17?
o Closing petitions (vv 12-17)
“So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom. Return, O LORD, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants. O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil. Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children. And 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.”
Verse 12 – the theme verse of the psalm – is often quoted in year-end sermons and Christian wakes. No sooner had Moses concluded his thoughts of God’s wrath and man’s oppressive days on earth than he began to be concerned about death. Man is a frail, helpless creature whose earthly existence is but for a time. Like the green grass that flourishes in the morning and soon withers, a man’s physical body declines with age (vv 5-6). As the years pass us by, there will come a day when our time in this world will be no more. Soon enough, and often without warning, our earthly life will end – “for it is soon cut off” (v 10c).
With these sobering thoughts in mind, Moses humbly prayed that God would “teach us to number our days” (v 12a). “To number our days” is to be mindful of the brevity, vanity and uncertainties of life – “to live under a constant apprehension of the shortness and uncertainty of life and the near approach of death and eternity” (Matthew Henry).
Sadly, most people make plans as if they are going to live forever. They forget that their tomorrows are in God’s hand. It is He Who determines the length of our days. In numbering our days, we must not be presumptuous but be conscious of our brief earthly stay. Let us therefore receive each day as a gift from the Lord, and live as if the present one were the last day of our lives. Let us not boast of tomorrow for we may not see it: “Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that” (Jas 4: 13-15).
We “number our days” for a godly end – “that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (v 12b). This means living with our end in constant view, so that we may devote ourselves wholly to loving God and doing His will. This requires us to make the best use of our God-given time – spending it wisely to the glory of God and the blessing of our fellow men. As exhorted by the apostle Paul, let us “walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, Redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is” (Eph 5: 15-17).
In the next two verses, Moses boldly pleaded with God for mercy upon the Israelites. He prayed for speedy deliverance from their present suffering, and restoration to God’s favour: “Return, O LORD, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants. O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (vv 13-14). It is likely that “the psalm was composed in a time of pestilence or raging sickness, which threatened to sweep all the people away – a supposition by no means improbable, as such times occurred in the days of Moses, and in the rebellions of the people when he was leading them to the Promised Land” (Albert Barnes).
Though God had smitten Israel many times for their disobedience, Moses humbly acknowledged that the Israelites were still “thy servants”. “Will not a man spare his own servants? Though God smote Israel, yet they were His people, and He had never disowned them, therefore is He entreated to deal favourably with them. If they might not see the Promised Land, yet He is begged to cheer them on the road with His mercy, and to turn His frown into a smile” (Treasury of David).
The Israelites had endured forty years of misery in the wilderness because of God’s chastising hand. Hence, Moses’ next plea was for God to give them as many years of peace and joy as they have had of adversity: “Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil” (v 15).
Moses desired that God’s work might continue in their midst notwithstanding their sins: “Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children” (v 16). Most commentators believe that “thy work” refers to God’s providential care over His people in the wilderness. Moses yearned that the future generation – “their children” – would behold the manifestation of God’s character, goodness, power, and give Him due glory. “Their children” must not forget the wondrous things which God had done for His people.
Concluding his plea, the psalmist asked that “the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us” (v 17a). This implies “God’s favorable countenance, gracious influence and glorious presence” (Matthew Poole). The Israelites had experienced God’s presence as He led them through the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of light by night. Recalling those precious moments, Moses longed for the same presence and comfort of God in his present day.
In the second part of verse 17, Moses seemed to be repeating himself: “and establish thou the work of our hands upon us: yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.” The repetition indicates an intense desire for God’s help to fulfil His plans and purposes. Here, Moses affirmed that unless God be their Guide and Help, all their work would come to nothing. “The repetition shows that a continual course of perseverance in the grace of God is required. It would not be enough for us to be brought to the midst of our journey. He must enable us to complete the whole course … God would direct to a prosperous issue all the actions and undertakings of His people” (John Calvin).
Brethren, like the psalmist, let us be mindful of life’s brevity. Let us “walk circumspectly” and live each day unto the Lord. Are we struggling with our lot in life? Our God is ever merciful to His children. Let us plead for His deliverance. Pray for our children that they might behold the sovereign and providential care of God and give Him due glory. Like Moses, let us also seek God’s help and strength to accomplish His will in our lives. May the Lord help us to apply the lessons learnt from this meaningful psalm. Amen.