Socrates famously identified the beginnings of wisdom with our recognition of the limitations of our knowledge. The wisest man (Socrates) knows that he really doesn’t know anything. For the Psalmist in Psalm 90 true human wisdom begins with our recognition of the limitations of our lives – the brevity of human mortality in contrast to the expanse of eternity – and the hope available to us rooted in the eternal life and being of God.
The message of the Psalm moves back and forth between two perspectives of time. The first is the eternal life and work of God (vs. 1-2). We (as humans) find our dwelling place – our place of being and living – in God “throughout all generations,” I.e. across time. God’s time extends backward before creation. The emergence of mountains is the result of ages of geologic movement but God’s time extends to the age when those mountains were still a flat plain. And it extends forward into everlasting, when those mountains are again flat. The imagery evokes the sense of a vastness in time that is beyond our real capacity to envision.
In contrast, the lives of humanity are brief and transitory (vs. 3-6). The Psalmist uses the reference to a thousand years to illustrate the radical brevity of human life. A thousand years – unlike the unimaginable millenia involved in the development and decay of mountains – brings us into the scope of remembered human history. We have a sense of connection and continuity with human history, even if a thousand years places us at the remote end of ancient history. Alas, even this long memory of humanity is – in God’s time – like a quickly passing day.
Even our perception of the length of time is illusory. It is like a watch in the night that seems so long when we are waiting for the gray of morning to break. The reality remains that – despite our persistent perceptions of enduring time – we are like grass that quickly grows and just as quickly passes away.
But there is more to this contrast than mere length of time. it is not just the swift passage of chronological time that troubles us. In this contrast we are exposed – both in our brief mortality and in the folly of our presumption. (vs. 7-8) Our pretensions to lordship are revealed – in the light of time – as the self-delusion (the secret sin) that they are.
The contrast between God’s eternity and our short span of days brings both judgment and perspective to our lives (vs. 9-11). The proper end of this clarifying perspective is not fear or depression, but understanding. We can only understand living well when we recognize the terms of our living. In the broad scope of time our lives intersect only a quickly passing 70 or 80 years, “if we have the strength.”
This is an idea that is foreign to our culture. We live in practical denial of death and the brevity of life. We know, intellectually, that we won’t live forever, but we exclude that awareness from the regular conduct of life. For all intents and purposes, we orchestrate our living as if we will live forever. Death will be an unwelcome and surprise intruder at some (hopefully distant) future point. But until then, we will – to the best of our ability – ignore it.
Martin Luther King said that we are only ready to live when we have something we are prepared to die for. Living life requires a perspective that extends beyond it. The Psalmist is saying that we are only able to understand and live life rightly when we understand the limitations of our live-span. This is the message of the Psalm and the Psalmist’s plea, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (vs. 12) Here, in the light of wisdom, we see clearly – both our own passing mortality and God’s enduring life and being. Our lives, so transient in time and meaning, may find rootedness in the eternal life and being of God and find our meaning in His everlasting Kingdom.
The Psalmist is calling us to a wisdom that can guide our living when we consider our lives (in all their brevity) in light of God’s eternity.