How are we to truly understand man’s biblical comparisons to dust and grass? What thoughts, what emotions should such a comparison evoke? Psalm 90 delves into the depths of the bond between man and mortal smallness as the means whereby to depict the profound contrast between God’s eternality and man’s mortality.
In verse 1 it begins with a perspective of eternality from a human perspective: God’s existence is compared to the length of all generations. Interestingly, the author of this poem metaphorically compares the Lord to “our dwelling place” in the first line, thereby conflating the notion of infinite distance between God and man with an equally intimate relationship. Though man has come and gone, God has always been our God and we have always been His people.
Psalm 90:2 heightens God’s eternality by expanding this concept to a comparison with nature. Here we see a reverse chronology that harkens back to Genesis 1. Verse 2 moves backward from, first, man to mountains, then to earth itself, culminating to a time in existence before material matter, and thus showing how God was a part of each of these processes as well as before these processes. Are we not amazed by such an existence?
Verse 3 then elaborates on God’s nature further: because He has eternal life in Himself, He directs both the beginning and end of life for mortal man (His antithesis). That is, He is sovereign over, dictates and directs when each man should be born and when he should turn “back to dust”. Here we see an allusion back to Genesis 3 where returning “to dust” (i.e., death) is given as God’s just reward for Adam and Eve’s sin. Since access to the tree of life in Eden has been removed, humanity’s sentence is death. And even God determines when each person will face it.
If we have not yet understood our smallness, or dare I say our nothingness at this point in the poem, the writer intensifies this reality in verse 4 by heightening the scope further: God has been pronouncing this judgment of mortality upon us for thousands of years and in His eternality will continue to do so for thousands of years to come.
Now in verses 5 and 6 one final intensification is given to conclude this contrastive image between God and man. The metaphor is no longer dust, but indeed something quite similar: grass. Through grass man’s nothingness is further highlighted; for just as he is but a small speck in one passing day of the Lord, so too is he likened now to one day in the life cycle of a single and insignificant blade of grass. This is who we, as humans, are in relation to God’s infinitude and eternality.
Let us now turn back to the initial questions posed for this post: Do we now understand our biblical comparisons to dust and grass? Moreover, what thoughts and what emotions has this comparison evoked? To say the least, this psalm should humble us as we become more cognizant of our place in God’s story. For, while God is transcendent, we are infinitely frail and minute. But at the same time, despite our mortal smallness, God draws us to Himself in Christ such that we can call God, “Our hiding place.” This is the great paradox: God is utterly transcendent and yet also near to His people; and our response to this paradox, in all of its intellectual and emotional summations, should in many ways be just as dichotomous: we should sense both its perplexity and simplicity, its awesomeness (in the traditional sense of the term) and encouragement, our humbleness and our security. God’s relationship to us is in no way reductive. Perhaps, this is why Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father in heaven.” Our God is in heaven, and yet He is our father. Through Christ, we have intimacy with the Sovereign God of time and space. This is our God! And this is the relationship we have with Him!