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The Psalm of MosesAside from the poetry in Job, up until now we’ve been largely dealing with narrative. The events have been relayed to us in story form, as we see how the various characters lived and interacted. In using the word “characters” I do not imply that anything is fictional, and I should hasten to add that those characters even include God and His angels.
But we’re about to get into a more “boring” part of the Bible—the part dealing with the laws and commandments of God. The commands are still punctuated with individual narrative stories, of course, but most of it is legalese. There’s a reason that stories sell more frequently than law books.
Still, the law is very important because it not only reveals aspects about morality in general, but it also tells us a great deal about God and His plans. Before we dig into it in earnest, though, I thought this would be a natural breakpoint to look at the other text penned by Moses that is not part of the Pentateuch, namely: Psalm 90.
The Psalm itself is only seventeen verses long. It is labeled as “A Prayer of Moses, the man of God.” The Psalm is focused on the attributes of God. Understanding this Psalm helps us to understand what Moses understood from the revelation given to him and the direct interactions he had with God. We have to remember that these depictions of God are coming from the man whom God placed in the cleft of a rock and then passed by with as much of His glory as Moses could take without dying. This is the man who, after talking with God, would have a face that glowed so much that he had to wear a veil. Not until Christ Himself arrives will there be anyone in Scripture with a more intimate relationship to God than Moses. So Moses’s psalm cannot help but provide us deep insights about Him. Some of this will be repeated from things we learned in other passages, but since the Bible repeats them I do not find it problematic to repeat them too.
The passage begins:
Lord, you have been our dwelling placeThe first truth that Moses focuses on is God as a dwelling place for the entirety of human generations. Some Hebrew texts use the word “refuge” instead of “dwelling place”, but the concept seems to be the same either way. When we are in God, we are safe and secure.
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God (Psalm 90:1-2).
Furthermore, Moses focuses on the eternal aspect of God’s nature here. He states that God was God before creation ever existed, summed up in the phrase “from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” The importance of God’s eternality cannot be overstated. He is not an ephemeral entity, here today gone tomorrow. Nor does He change His fundamental nature through time.
God existed as God before He created “the earth and the world.” This means that God must be separate and distinct from the world. It also means that God does not need the world to exist in order to be God. God is completely God whether the world exists or not.
This stands in sharp contrast to the land of Egypt, as well as the surrounding lands of the time, which had both a polytheistic (i.e., multiple gods) and a pantheistic (i.e., all of nature is divine) view. For instance, Egyptians worshiped Ra as the sun god. They also worshiped the Pharaoh as divine, the Nile, and all kinds of created objects as gods. Moses very clearly shows that God is not creation. He is distinct from what He has made. And that gives a grounding to why God commands us not to make graven images. No idol can depict God, because God is not part of the natural realm. Instead, God created the natural realm. Creation is His work, not His being.
Just as it is important to emphasize that God is distinct from His creation, we must also emphasize the second aspect. Before God created a single thing, He was already God. God did not need to create anything or anyone in order to be God. This means that creation is not necessary.
In using the term “necessary” I must make clear what is meant. Something is necessary if it cannot be otherwise. We can imagine scenarios where things that are could have been otherwise (these scenarios are called “counterfactuals”). For example, we can imagine a world in which the Nazis won World War II. Because that scenario does not violate any laws of logic, we can say that it is not a necessary truth that the allies would win World War II.
However, we cannot imagine a world in which adding the value of 1 to the value of 2 gives us the value of 78. We could, of course, imagine a world where the symbol 78 represents the value we currently represent as 3, but there will never be a universe where the values represented by our current symbols 1 + 2 ever could equal anything other than the value represented by our current symbol 3. Because of that, we can say that it is a logical necessity that the values represented as 1 + 2 always represent the value represented by 3, because that must be true for every single possible universe.
In the same way, because God is God “from everlasting to everlasting”, and that includes before the creation of a single thing, then we can imagine scenarios where God exists but the universe does not, and this does not violate the laws of logic. Therefore, creation is not necessary. If creation is not necessary, then God did not have to create.
This implies that the act of creation can be described as choice that God made. God has no “choice” over whether or not He will exist (He is who He is), but not so with creation. He was not required to create a single thing, and when He decided to create that decision did not change anything about His nature as God. God was God before He created anything, and God remains God after He creates. Any attribute that can be said to have changed because He created (e.g., He became a “Creator”) are not essential to His nature as God, because He was God before those attributes applied.
You return man to dustVerse three of this passage begins Moses’s contrast between man and God. God is everlasting, but men die and return to dust. A thousand years is nothing to God, and it’s far more than anyone of us will ever live.
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night (Psalm 90:3-4).
Note that Moses says that it is God who returns man to dust. In one sense, we could argue that this implies that God is sovereign over the decaying process of dead bodies. But while I think it is true that He is in charge of that process, I think Moses’s point is actually that God is sovereign over when men will die. In other words, people die when God says they will, and not at any other time.
You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,Again, notice how this begins with “You” (i.e., God, as the subject of this Psalm) sweeping men away. This contrasts the power and might of God against that of men. Men are just a dream, ephemeral and passing. God’s power is an all encompassing flood that sweeps men away.
like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers (Psalm 90:5-6).
We conclude easily from all this that God is eternal and man is not, and part of the reason that man is not eternal is because God has put limits on man. The reason He does so is found in the next two verses:
For we are brought to an end by your anger;God brings men to an end in anger. It is by His wrath that we are forced to face death instead of continuing on everlasting. That wrath is just and righteous, because it is wrath toward our iniquities and secret sins. (And what a fearful thing to be reminded of—that even the sins we think are secret, hidden from other people, are set forth in the light of His presence!)
by your wrath we are dismayed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence (Psalm 90:7-8).
It is my experience that most believers do not find speaking of God’s wrath to be a comfortable topic. Yet it is imperative that we face this, because God’s nature includes His wrath toward evil and evil doers. Indeed, because of our sins, we find the following:
For all our days pass away under your wrath;Moses claims that all of our days pass by under the wrath of God. This fits in with other statements Moses has penned throughout the books we’ve already read, such as how every thought of men is sinful from youth, how God said if He continued with sinful Israel He would destroy her in His anger, etc. Because of the pervasiveness of sin, God is just to be angry. Were it not for sin, our lives would not be limited to a mere seventy or eighty years. But even that shortened span is “but toil and trouble.” All of this is due to the curse after Adam’s sin, and it is a wretched state we find ourselves in, compared to God.
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?
Again, these truths are not the most comforting of truths, in and of themselves. We like to think of God as a tame housecat, not as the kingly lion He truly is. God has power to act when He likes, and He hates and despises sin. He will root it out, and the fact that our natures are evil ought to make us fear Him to some extent. Yet how many sermons today teach about fearing God? How many pulpits proclaim that God does have wrath, and that this holy wrath is a good attribute of God?
It might seem academic, but without knowing God’s response to evil we cannot know what our own response ought to be. Moses understood both:
So teach us to number our daysThe response to our sinful limitations is not to give up and surrender to despair. Instead, Moses asks God to teach us. What does it mean to number our days? Given Moses’s understanding of how God’s days are limitless (from everlasting to everlasting) while ours are finite, this numbering of our days is to serve both as a reminder of who we are to look toward (God, the eternal one) and to keep in mind that we do not live forever. We live in the here and now, and tomorrow is not guaranteed.
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands! (Psalm 90:12-17).
And it is an appeal to God’s mercy that Moses now makes. God is angered by our sin, yet Moses asks: “Have pity on your servants!” Moses knows that there is no way for us to have joy unless it is God who satisfies us with His love. Only God can “make us glad” despite the number of days we have been “afflicted” with or for the years of evil we must see.
For all the sin that people commit, which brings down the just wrath and anger of God, Moses still knows that God can relent. Despite the breaking of the relationship between God and man when Adam sinned, God can bridge that gap. He can show his glorious power to His servants and their children. This is the only hope that men have.
As we consider this Psalm in full, we see that Moses’s focus is first on the eternal and unchanging nature of God, contrasted with our own temporary toil in misery. Our misery is a just punishment for our sin, as it is directly caused by the anger of God. Man has no hope apart from God showing mercy, and God does not have any reason to show that mercy aside from His own desire to do so. Therefore, Moses does not demand, but petitions the Lord for pity. He asks God to satisfy our hearts, even as we toil. He asks for God to grant happiness and favor. Thus, we see a perfect example of humility on the part of Moses, and a perfect example for us to emulate.