This psalm was composed by Moses, making it the oldest in the psalter. On top of that, it also makes it one of the oldest poems in the world. As you meditate on the phrases and connections here, keep in mind that the primary setting is most like the wilderness period. That setting helps to make sense of a number of these expressions.
Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God . . .” Ps. 90:1-17).
Summary of the Text:
There is one basic division in the psalm. The first eleven verses make up the meditation (vv. 1-11), and the second half contains the petition or prayer (vv. 12-17). The Lord has been the dwelling place of His people in every generation (v. 1). Before anything was made in this world, God has been God, from everlasting to everlasting (v. 2). God is the one who turns man back to the dust from which he came (v. 3). A thousand years are nothing to Him (v. 4). Mankind is carried away by time, and carried off quickly (vv. 5-6). This is the consequence of God’s anger (v. 7). Our sins are right in front of Him (v. 8), and so it is our days speed by (v. 9). We live for 70 years, or maybe 80, and yet they are all gone (v. 10). Who understands the power of God’s anger (v. 11)? Teach us to number our days properly (v. 12). God, please return to us (v. 13). Our prayer is that You would satisfy us with Your mercy (v. 14). Make us glad according to the days of our affliction (v. 15). Manifest Your works to us (v. 16). And let the beauty of the Lord rest upon all these transient works, and establish them (v. 17).
The Only Dwelling Place:
God Himself is our dwelling place. In the New Testament, we learn that we are the Temple of the Holy Spirit, meaning that He dwells in us (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; 2 Tim. 1:14). At the same time, we are told in numerous ways that we are in Him. Paul uses the phrase in Christ or a related phrase over 170 times. The saints in Ephesus were therefore located in two places. They lived in Ephesus, and they lived in Christ Jesus in the heavenly places.
In the same way, the Shekinah presence of God was in the camp of the Israelites, at the tabernacle. And the entire camp of the Israelites was located within God Himself—He is the dwelling place of His people in every generation. He dwells in us, and we dwell in Him. God was in Israel and Israel was in God. In Him we live and move and have our being.
A Transient Wisp of Fog:
This psalm emphasizes how short this life is, and does so with various figures. Death comes upon us like a flood. This life is like sleeping—blink and it is done. We are like grass that withers, so green just yesterday. Our life is like a dream—you cannot take hold of it, not even with both hands. It is like a tale that is already told. Our lives are like a mist, a wisp of fog (Jas. 4:14). Whether you are 80 years old or 10 years old, all your yesterdays stack up to the same height, which is a negligible one.
So imagine a river cresting at flood stage. You see various people struggling in the river, bobbing up and down. One of them you see bob up and down three or four times before he is swept around the bend and out of your sight. If his head went down and came up four times, that means he had an exceptionally long life. He was an old-timer—he bobbed four times.
Bede records that when Edwin of Northumbria was considering Christianity as preached by Paulinus, a pagan thane recommended conversion. He said that this life was like a swallow in a mead hall. There is a fire on the hearth, but tempest and black storm outside. A swallow flies in one door, is briefly warm in the hall, and then flutters out the other door. That’s all we pagans know about this life, the thane said, and if the Christian faith gives us anything with more certainty than that, then we should certainly adopt it.
Numbering Our Days Means We Should Weigh Them:
The petition is for God to teach us to number our days, and this numbering is defined as that which is consistent with wisdom. Numbering our days actually means weighing our days. Some people have many days, but each day is like a Styrofoam packing peanut. Others have fewer days, but they are hard, gold nuggets. Teach us to number our days so that we remember our own mortality, and live before God in the light of our own mortality.
Numbering our days rightly means coming to a right understanding of what sin is, and what sin does. God sets our iniquities out in front of Him, our secret sins in the light of His countenance. He sets our sins out in plain old daylight (v. 8). Nothing is hidden from His sight. Nothing. Remember that if there were no sin, the brevity of this life would be no trouble at all.
When Beauty Rests Upon Us:
One of the primary works of the Israelites in the wilderness was the construction of the tabernacle. This was the work of their hands. Like all their other works, it was built in this world, meaning that it was transient and temporary.
It would be a noteworthy prayer to ask God to allow the beauty of His holiness to descend upon any of our works. But consider what has been reinforced by the first part of this psalm. Remember what kind of airy molecules make up our works. And what are we asking for then? We are asking that the crushing weight of the beauty of God come down and do what to our works? You would think that crushing weight would crush. But no. What is being requested? God, You see this little bit of fog here in my hands? Do you see this wispy bit of nothing? God Almighty, send down Your beauty upon this, and establish it. Yes, I asked You to establish my fog, and to glorify my mist.
This prayer is not impossible for God to answer. But it has to be said that it would be impossible for Him to answer apart from an incarnate Messiah—one who lived a perfect sinless life (which the beauty of the Lord rested upon fully), and who then went to the cross and the tomb in order to deal with our vain little lives. When He rose again from the dead, the foundation of this ultimate answer to prayer was finally and completely laid. For God so loved the fog that He gave His only begotten Son.