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Psalm 90:1-6 & 13-17

Study Note: No doubt you use an online application such as to compare versions of biblical passages. Do take opportunity to familiarize yourself with the Expanded Bible (EXB) published by Thomas Nelson. Especially helpful are the embedded Comments, Textual Variations and Literal renderings among its various resources.

Just as some books are held together by bookends, so too Psalm 90 benefits from a set of bookends. A quick read can be depressing if the bookends are ignored:

God has always been… We return to dust We are like a dream or grass that only lives for a day… God is angry all our life… When will God show us kindness… Lord, please treat us well and give us success.

Let’s begin with the bookends. The psalm opens in verse 1 by informing us that our dwelling place, better yet, our home is the Lord of creation. The opposite bookend is the psalmist’s closing prayer asking the Lord to fill us with his love (v. 14), to give us as much joy as affliction (v. 15), to show his work and greatness to us and our children (v. 16), to treat us well, and give our work success (v. 17).

Psalm 90 is the first of seventeen psalms in Book IV of the Psalter. A.F. Kirkpatrick explains that Book I contains personal psalms, Book II and III are national psalms that feature named temple choirs. In Books IV and V we hear the corporate praise of liturgical psalms.[i]

Don Williams calls Psalm 90 “one of the greatest prayers of Israel.” He suggests the following structure: “The thought moves from God as the eternal God (vv. 1-2), to man as finite man (vv. 3-6), to God angry with our sin (vv. 7-12) and concludes that God will be merciful in our need (vv. 13-17).” We will follow the simpler structure employed by James Limburgh:

  1. Who is God? (vv. 1-2)

  2. Who are we? (vv. 3-11)

  3. How should we live? (vv. 12-17)[ii]

Who is God? (vv. 1-2)

In verse 1, the Hebrew may be translated ‘dwelling place,’ ‘refuge,’ and, even and especially, ‘home.’[iii] A very graphic word picture that, along with ‘Mother,’ ‘Father,’ ‘Shepherd’ and ‘King,’ is used in the psalms to describe God.[iv] For the Christian, our home is God’s heaven. He will take us to that home he has been preparing since Christ left this earth.

James Luther Mays writes: “To speak so to the faithful and eternal one is solace to the soul. It is this comfort of the psalm that Isaac Watts’s great hymn expresses so beautifully: ‘Oh God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come.’”[v] The stanza ends “Our shelter from the stormy blast, And our eternal home.” (See the full lyrics below.)

Since all psalms are also songs, this psalm compares favorably with the two songs of Moses. The first was sung after God delivered the Israelites from the Egyptian army at the Red Sea (Exodus 15:1-15). Moses offered the second to the Israelites prior to them entering the Promised Land and him climbing Mount Nebo, where his 120-year-old life evaporated as a dream (Deuteronomy 32:1-43). Alec Motyer reminds us that Moses was a homeless nomad for the last 40 years of his life, who also missed the experience of finding his home in the Promised Land. It is worth noting that the phrase “the eternal God your dwelling place” is part of the Blessing of Moses (Deuteronomy 33:27). In addition, it was Moses who asked God to “turn,” that is “change his mind” (Exodus 32:12) This word/phrase occurs in both verses 3 and 13.

Who are we? (vv. 3-11)

This question can be answered by three word pictures: ‘dust’ (v. 3), dream (v. 5) and grass (v. 5). Some versions use ‘sleep’ or ‘sleep of death’ in place of ‘dream.’ Eugene Peterson clearly paraphrases this as,

“Are we no more to you than a wispy dream, no more than a blade of grass That springs up gloriously with the rising sun and is cut down without a second thought?”

Verse 3b is tough for us to hear. The Lord declares: “Return to dust, you mortals.” He is talking to you and me! Marvin Tate offers two interpretations. The first is, “Human life will go on! — human beings die, but they do not die out.” Hooray for people! But Tate prefers a second interpretation which “means that human death is as much the result of divine fiat as is creation.”[vi]

The phrase, “like a watch in the night,” in verse 4 referred to a block of four hours. Back then, the night was divided into three watches, that is, 12 hours. The psalmist is thinking in timeless terms. When the Lord has experienced a thousand of our years, it moves as fast as either a day or four hours move for us. Comparing the timeless God of eternity to our stuck-in-time mortality is always mind boggling.

A quick observation before skipping to verse 13:

Verses 7 and 11 provide a harsh second set of bookends to this weighty pericope. The one glaring word of the bookends is anger. In this passage we are ‘terrified,’ we ‘moan,’ we suffer ‘trouble and sorrow,’ and we ‘fear’ before the ‘wrath’ of God as he uncovers our ‘iniquities’ and even our ‘secret sins.’ This is not how, I hope, we process a typical day. These verses afford us a fine opportunity to point out how the Bible, and in this case, the Psalms, need to be framed in their entirety. Examine Psalm 103 which lends fine balance to these weighty verses. Here is a sampling that provides equilibrium to the words just noted above:

who forgives all your sins     and heals all your diseases, The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; 10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve     or repay us according to our iniquities. 11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,     so great is his love for those who fear him; 13 As a father has compassion on his children,     so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; 14 for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.

How should we live? (vv. 12-17)

Verse 13 contains the ending bookmark of the words ‘turn’ or ‘repent.’ The opening bookmark records God’s word to humanity that we ‘turn’ from sin (v. 3). Tate reminds us that Moses is the only person to tell God to repent.[vii] Here the psalmist puts that word in our mouths:

Lord, how long before you return [turn]…? (EXB)

We are asking the Lord to turn from his wrath. Derek Kidner notes that God is portrayed as both sovereign and shelter in this psalm. As a result, “we are His to command, and He is also ours to enjoy.”[viii]

Psalm 90 ends with a beautiful prayer for God to ‘Fill us with your love every morning,’ (EXB) to ‘give us gladness in proportion to our former misery,’ to ‘Let us, …see you work again,’ to ‘let our children see your glory’ (vv. 14-16). How interesting that God walked with Adam and Eve in the evening. But now the psalmist models for us the benefit of seeking God’s help ‘each morning’ (v. 14).

I decided to use verse 17 as the prayer for surrounding my work on this article:

Father, please “establish the work of my hands.” (NIV)

Each time, before and after, I worked on this article, I prayed verse 17. This is a prayer worth praying whenever we begin our daily work. It is a habit I intend to continue building. Limburg tells this story:

Adjacent to the ‘Hospital on the Hill’ in Nazareth, Israel, is a small chapel. One steps in and, after a few moments, notices the unusual altar. It is a carpenter’s bench, complete with vise—a reminder that Joseph and Jesus who once lived in this town were handworkers, carpenters. ‘O: prosper the work of our hands![ix]

Yes, Father, please prosper the work of our hands!

O God, Our Help in Ages Past

by Isaac Watts – 1708

Melody St. Anne by William Croft – 1708

NOTE: Should you use this hymn in your service, point out how the lyrics throughout reflect Psalm 90.

MUSICAL NOTE: Explore Timothy & Julie Tennent’s Psalter at For each Psalm, choose a tune sing that melody with the lyrics that appear below. Here is the link to the five tunes and matching lyrics for Psalm 90.

O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come, Our shelter from the stormy blast, And our eternal home:

Beneath the shadow of thy throne, Thy saints have dwelt secure; Sufficient is thine arm alone, And our defense is sure.

Before the hills in order stood, Or earth received her frame, From everlasting thou art God, To endless years the same.

A thousand ages in thy sight Are like an evening gone; Short as the watch that ends the night Before the rising sun.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream, Bears all its sons away; They fly, forgotten, as a dream Dies at the opening day.

O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come, Be thou our guide while troubles last, And our eternal home!

Works Consulted

Boice, James Montgomery. Psalms. Baker Books, 2005.

Kidner, Derek. Psalms: 73-150: a Commentary on Books III-V of the Psalms. Inter-Varsity Press, 1975.

Limburg, James. Psalms. Westminister John Known Press, 2000.

Mays, James Luther. Psalms. John Knox Press, 2011.

Motyer, Alec. Psalms by the Day – a New Devotional Translation. Christian Focus Publication, 2016.

Patterson, Ben. God’s Prayer Book: the Power and Pleasure of Praying the Psalms. SaltRiver, 2008.

Polan, Gregory J. The Psalms Songs of Faith and Praise: the Revised Grail Psalter with Commentary and Prayers. Paulist Press, 2014.

Tate, Marvin E. Psalms 51-100. Nelson Reference & Electronic, 2005.

Williams, Don. Psalms 73-150. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989.


[i] Kidner, P. 327

[ii] Limburg, P. 308

[iii] Other references to God, our dwelling place. Psa 76:2 ; Eze 37:27; 2Co 6:16; Eph 2:22; and Rev 21:3

[iv] Limburg, ibid

[v] May, P. 294–295

[vi] Tate, P. 441

[vii] Tate, P. 438

[viii] Kidner, P. 328

[ix] Limburg, P. 310