There is more to be said about Psalm 90, particularly as it pertains to its uniqueness: not only is Moses its author, but it is also considered the oldest psalm in the book, recorded at the latest by the year 1440 BC. But what interests us most is why Moses would write this Psalm? And what greater theological and historical insights can we gain from this prophet about the time in which he lived, the people he led and the God whom he served?
Now, we already know the frame of Psalm 90. In the first six verses, Moses creates an antithetical construct between the greatness of God’s eternality and the pathetic nature of man’s mortality. The middle section of the Psalm heightens this contrast by providing greater complexity to man’s metaphorical representation as grass and dirt. The reason why God treats man in these capacities, according to verses 7 through 11, is because of their “iniquities” (verse 8). It is safe to presume that Moses is referring here to the iniquities of his people, the Israelites, throughout their wanderings in the desert – their discontents, their lack of gratitude, their false worship and their general disobedience. Finally, Moses brings his poem full circle with a plea for forgiveness and a desire to start anew (verses 12 through 17). In this final section, man is still relegated to the same finitude as dust and grass, but at least now – for him who repents – he may be granted some small purpose to his short life.
Indeed, the final six verses allow the psalm to climax with hope, although even these last few lines are wrought with a beautiful irony. The man as dust (or as grass) is both conflicted with his state and yet also longs for contentment. See his affliction in verses 13 and 15: he begs for “pity”; he longs for the Lord to return (and thus put an end to his earthly existence); he speaks of his life as an “affliction”; and to this he adds many years of “evil”. But at the same time, in verses 12, 14, 16 and 17, he also desires for a proper perspective of his finitude that will lead to wisdom; this grass-like being seeks satisfaction and even a desire to have joy in his short days; he wants to see God’s work and His “glorious power”; and ultimately he seeks the Lord’s favor to be upon him and all that he does.
So why would Moses write this? Some scholars speculate that Moses wrote Psalm 90 right before his people entered into the Promised Land and, as such, it was meant to be a lament for Israel’s past sins as well as the hope of new beginnings. If this is true, we are able to gain a special insight into the time of Deuteronomy, right in the moment of the Israelites crossing the Jordan River and entering the land that God had promised them. For even though the older generation has died off, and Moses himself will not experience this new land for himself, God in His mercy has granted those younger peoples, who have re-embraced the covenant and now seek to live by faith, to still inherit what had been assured to them. This is a profound moment, and one that Moses is both requesting and thanking God for.
What we can further learn from this poem is our own offer of new beginnings because of what Christ has done for us on the cross. Though we are but mortal man – finite, frail and small – we have the chance to give our short lives meaning on this earth, and the only way to do this is by what Moses prays for in verses 12 through 17: that, despite what struggles exist, we will be satisfied by Christ’s love; that we rejoice because of God’s grace upon our lives; and that we give our lives to God’s kingdom. For the true Promise Land is yet to be, so as we wait for the return of our King, we labor for Christ and His kingdom. Amen?