Theme: A Serious and Personal Psalm
This week’s psalm shows us how to look at our earthly life from the Bible’s point of view, with God as the center and focus of it.
Scripture: Psalm 90:1-17
Psalm 90 is the only psalm in the Psalter that is attributed to Moses, but it is not the only piece of poetry Moses wrote.1 There are two other “songs of Moses” in the Bible. One of them was the hymn the Jews sang after their deliverance from Egypt and the drowning of Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea (Exod. 15:1-18). The other was the song Moses recited to the people before his ascension of Mount Nebo, where he died (Deut. 32:1-43). The first song is pure praise, a joyful celebration. The second is a reminder of Israel’s past rebellion against God and of God’s resulting judgments. Psalm 90, the song we are to study now, is the most sober and also the most personal of these poetic compositions.
If the psalm really is by Moses, as I believe (though this is doubted by many scholars), the historical setting is probably best understood by the incidents recorded in Numbers 20: 1) the death of Miriam, Moses’ sister; 2) the sin of Moses in striking the rock in the wilderness, which kept him from entering the promised land; and 3) the death of Aaron, Moses’ brother.
These sad events are reflected throughout the psalm. Yet Psalm 90 does not have a defeated or bitter tone, only the recognition that man is frail and sinful and that he needs the eternal God as his only possible hope and home. H. C. Leupold wrote of Psalm 90, “There does not appear to be any trace of bitterness or of undue pessimism. Just plain, realistic thinking marks these words.”2
Psalm 90 has given us one of our best-loved hymns, “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past,” by Isaac Watts, a hymn frequently sung at the closing of the year and even at funerals. The first verse is this:
Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.
Like Moses, Watts recognized that our lives are insubstantial and fleeting. After a short duration we fly away “forgotten as a dream.” But he also knew that believers have an eternal home in God.
If Numbers 20 is the background for this psalm, as I suggested, we can find important light shed on the psalm from that chapter. Miriam and Aaron have died. Soon Moses will die. In the meantime, Moses’ sin has kept him from entering the land of promise. The themes of the psalm suggest that it is probably an inspired reflection on the three circumstances mentioned above, the first of which we will look at today.
1. The death of Miriam. The death of Miriam is reported briefly in one verse and with just six words in English (Num. 20:1). This must have been a terrible loss for Moses. Miriam was the leading female character at the time of the Exodus, and although she was not perfect—she led Aaron in the unwarranted rebellion against Moses’ unique authority recorded in Numbers 12—she must have been close to Moses and was one of the few (with Aaron) with whom he could reminisce about their former life in Egypt. By this point Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Caleb and Joshua were the only survivors of the generation that had come out of Egypt, had met with the Lord at Sinai and had been turned back before being able to enter Canaan. Miriam’s death was a reminder of God’s judgment on that generation, that none should enter Canaan, and a sad anticipation of the deaths of Aaron and Moses, which were soon to come.
Death is inescapable; we should know that. God has declared, “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Because death is inescapable it is important that we prepare for it.
1Psalm 90 is the oldest psalm in the Psalter. It is also one of only three psalms in this fourth book of psalms assigned to specific authors (Psalm 90 to Moses, Psalms 101 and 103 to David). It is a characteristic of this fourth book that most of the psalms are anonymous.
2H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969), p. 645.
Who wrote the psalm and how does it compare with other poetry he wrote?
What historical events are reflected throughout the psalm?
Why might Miriam’s death have been particularly sad for Moses?
Reflection: What does Moses’ example teach you about how to respond to God in the midst of difficult circumstances, such as the death of a loved one?
Key Point: Because death is inescapable it is important that we prepare for it.
For Further Study: This psalm impresses upon us the truth that life is short, and that one day we will stand before God and give an account of what we have done with our lives. James Boice’s careful and applied study of all 150 psalms is available in a three-volume paperback set. Order yours and receive 25% off the regular price.