When you think of the psalms of the Bible, think “Jewish song lyrics,” because that is what they are. The psalms were meant to be sung out loud, which is why you’ll find the occasional bit of musical instruction thrown in. The ancient Jews were a very theatrical people who valued the public sharing of personal emotions. So while you might have a hard time picturing why a guy like David would want to broadcast his personal cry for Yahweh to give him a clean heart after his rebellious stint with Bathsheba, realize that Psalm 51 wouldn’t be in the Bible today unless David chose to share that private prayer with his royal staff.
A lot of the psalms read like entries from the personal diaries of agitated Jewish men. There’s a lot of extreme emotion being expressed, and much of that emotion is very negative. Psalm writers openly publicize their intense hatred of other humans, their disapproval of God’s actions, and their crummy experiences in life. Of course it’s not all bad: there are praise songs as well, but often those come paired with a whole lot of wishful thinking and unfounded promises about how God will treat those who are faithful to Him. As long as you don’t make the enormous mistake of assuming that God is the One speaking in the book of Psalms, you’ll be well-positioned to keep all of the emotional venting in perspective. But if you fall for the Church’s obnoxious theory that the psalms are all “God-breathed,” then you’re going to end up in a major mess.
Far from being God-breathed, many of the negative psalms are nothing more than humans having carnal hissy fits. Once you realize this, you should expect such writings to reflect the wrong spiritual priorities. Psalm 109, for example, is a cesspool of hatred which was authored by David when he was throwing a bratty tantrum about wanting Yahweh to pound on some human who was giving David a hard time. Psalm 137 is another hatefest which was written centuries after David’s lifetime, and it is grossly insulting to Yahweh. Then there’s Psalm 23, which greatly exalts Yahweh and models the soul attitudes that He wants us to have. But then there is Psalm 91, which paints a ridiculously simplistic view of life and encourages us to put our hope in a bunch of promises which God never made. So you need to stay sharp when you’re in the book of Psalms and realize that it’s a very mixed bag. Some psalms honor God, while others totally insult Him, and you certainly don’t want to be exalting the wrong attitudes. As always, you need to be asking God for His input whenever He’s the One being discussed so that you can learn the lessons that He wants you to learn.
Now in this post, we’re going to check out Psalm 90, which was authored by Moses. The fact that we find psalms by Moses and David in the same collection remind us that the book of Psalms covers a broad span of Jewish history. Some of the songs recorded in it were written centuries apart, and that means the songs were written in very different historical contexts. When we see Moses’ name at the top of Psalm 90, we should immediately flash back to the days of Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy when Moses was trooping through the desert with his mob of idolatrous gripers. We need to realize that the spiritual attitudes of most of the folks Moses was living with were very foul, and we know this because Yahweh is frequently complaining about how rotten the Jews are treating Him in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy. Understanding that Moses was living in a God hating community is very important because what we’re going to find in Psalm 90 is Moses doing a lot of griping against Yahweh. Is this the right attitude for a spiritual leader to have? Not hardly, but siding with snarky rebels against God is a temptation that we find a lot of Jewish prophets succumbing to in the biblical records. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Habakkuk, and Moses all took turns siding with their own countrymen against God, even when they knew how badly their people were treating God. It’s rather like American Christians today telling Jesus that He’s being a jerk for getting mad at other Americans who are publicly mocking Him. Is this a God-honoring attitude for Christians to have? Not hardly. We’re supposed to be siding with Jesus, not opposing Him.
Now in Old Testament times, no one knew about Jesus yet. Yahweh is the only God that true believers like Moses are worshiping, so Yahweh is who Moses addresses in Psalm 90. Let’s now get into the text and see what kinds of soul attitudes Moses is modeling.
Lord, You have been our refuge in every generation. Before the mountains were born, before You gave birth to the earth and the world, from eternity to eternity, You are God. (Ps. 90:1-2)
In the book of Exodus during that famous burning bush encounter, Yahweh introduced Himself to Moses with the title I AM. This is a great title for God, and one that emphasizes His eternalness. Because God has no beginning or end, at any point in time we could say that “He is,” or He could say, “I am.” Here at the start of Psalm 90, Moses is reflecting on Yahweh’s eternalness and sovereignty as he says, “God, You’ve always existed. Even before You created this world that we humans live in, You’ve been God. You’ve been in charge. You’ve always been the refuge for us humans since the very beginning.” By acknowledging that it was Yahweh who created the world, Moses is acknowledging Yahweh’s great power and supremacy: we wouldn’t be here unless He chose to make us. So far so good. Yahweh certainly likes it when we marvel at His abilities and acknowledge how supreme He is. Let’s see what Moses has to say next.
You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.” A thousand years in Your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a few hours of the night. You end people’s lives and they die. They are like the new grass of the morning: in the morning it springs up new, but by evening it is dry and withered. (Ps. 90:3-6)
Moses makes our lives on earth sound like mere blips in time which God controls the length of. Is he right? Yes, he is. From God’s perspective, our lives on this earth are extremely short, because God doesn’t view time like we do. Here in Psalm 90, Moses is causing us to look at our lives from a different perspective—to realize how very temporary this all is. Thinking like this can be very beneficial when it helps us realize that God’s approval really is the only thing worth living for. The perspective we want to mature into as Christians is one in which we learn to hold all created things loosely while we cling tightly to our three glorious Creators. We don’t want to get too invested in our possessions or in our relationships. We don’t want to start thinking that Heaven can’t be heavenly unless we’re reunited with the animals and people we bonded to on earth. In Heaven, we will be with Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. If being with Them isn’t good enough for us, than we need to ask Them to help us get our priorities into better alignment with Theirs.
Now while Moses’ reflections about the shortness of the human lifespan are useful, we’re starting to pick up a negative tone in his writing. As we continue reading, we find him suddenly crashing down into a very dark view of Yahweh’s Character and of life in general.
We are consumed by Your anger and terrified by Your indignation. You have set our iniquities before You, our secret sins in the light of Your Presence. All our days pass away under Your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. Who understands the power of Your anger? Your wrath is as great as the reverence that You deserve. Teach us to realize how brief life is, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Ps. 90:7-12)
Wow, talk about a dark view of God. According to Moses, Yahweh is a fiercely angry Being who never stops raging as He obsesses over all the wrong things that humans do. Moses describes human beings as withering and moaning under the continuous onslaught of Yahweh’s insatiable fury. Moses views Yahweh’s wrath as so intense that it’s immeasurable. He says that God’s wrath is as great as the reverence which He deserves, and since God deserves endless reverence, we can give up on ever seeing the day that God calms down.
After painting this extremely grim view of Yahweh, Moses asks God to help people to realize how brief their lives are so that they can make wise choices. Well, whoopee. What is the point of gaining wisdom if God is some raging volcano who is impossible to please? If you are already struggling to connect with God’s love for you, Psalm 90 is going to make you feel totally despaired about ever pleasing Him. Here’s where you need to remember that any message that makes you feel like God is impossible to please isn’t coming from God. Moses was clearly in a brooding funk when he penned this psalm, and it’s important that we realize just how far from true his description of Yahweh is. To do that, we could use to find a passage in which Yahweh is describing Himself to someone. We can find such a passage in Exodus 34 when Yahweh and Moses are having a private conversation on a special mountain.
Yahweh came down in a cloud, stood with Moses there, and proclaimed His Name to be Yahweh. Then Yahweh passed in front of Moses and proclaimed:
“Yahweh—Yahweh is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in faithful love and truth, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving wrongdoing, rebellion, and sin. But He will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ wrongdoing on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.” (Ex. 34:5-7)
Notice how Yahweh leads with His positive traits: compassion, grace, slow to anger, rich in faithful love and truth, and generously forgiving those who do wrong. Certainly He acknowledges that He has boundaries and that He’s not a doormat. But notice the huge difference in that generational language. To say a thousand generations was a metaphorical way of saying “forever.” To say to the third and fourth generation meant “for a while” (see How long is a biblical generation?). Today a lot of people are so anxious about the concept of generational curses that they miss the point Yahweh is making here. This generation talk is just another way that He’s emphasizing how positive, patient, and easy to please He is. He claims to be a God who is slow to anger. Does the God being described in Psalm 90 sound slow to anger? No, He sounds like He’s all anger.
Now if you read through the book of Numbers, you’re going to find Yahweh mowing down a lot of Israelites using all kinds of terrifying methods. So when Moses talks about people being “consumed” by God’s anger, he’s talking about things he’s actually seen. Moses saw Yahweh’s ten plagues devastate Egypt. He saw the Egyptian army drown in the Red Sea. He saw Israelites die from diseases, plagues, and terrifying supernatural disasters (see Korah’s Rebellion). But at the same time, Moses spoke with Yahweh face to face every day at a special Tent of Meeting that was set up in the Israelite camp. He experienced Yahweh backing him up and defending him when his rebellious followers were threatening to harm him. Moses also saw Yahweh graciously provide for people every day by raining food down from the sky. In the wilderness journey, Yahweh performed both positive and negative miracles—not just negative ones. Yes, He sometimes came down hard on people who wouldn’t stop griping against Him, but He also demonstrated great patience with people by not just annihilating them the first time they spat in His face.
The problem with Psalm 90 is that Moses is making Yahweh out to be an unreasonable Jerk when Yahweh is nothing of the kind. First Moses describes Yahweh as being perpetually angry at everyone all the time without acknowledging that Yahweh has very good reasons to be angry with Moses’ particular group. All humans sin every day, and yet that doesn’t mean we can’t get into a good place with Yahweh. He doesn’t demand behavioral perfection from us, He wants our souls to sincerely care about pleasing Him.
Once you realize that God always responds to people’s soul attitudes, it really changes your view of the wilderness journey. While God haters today love to point to Yahweh’s terrifying miracles in that period as evidence that He’s some short-tempered Monster, the truth is that Yahweh demonstrated mind-blowing patience towards those little snarkers—certainly far more than any human would have. These people weren’t neutral about Yahweh—they hated Him. They intentionally defied Him and they were constantly griping against Him while refusing to respect His obvious supremacy over all of the stupid idols that they were so devoted to. Yet even in the face of their daily grumbling, Yahweh kept graciously showering them with blessings which don’t get acknowledged nearly as often as His much less frequent acts of violent discipline. This is how it works with “the God of the Old Testament”—we emphasize His anger and violent acts while fluffing off His incredible mercy, grace, patience, and love.
Now as Moses finishes his psalm, he’s going to plead for angry Yahweh to get over Himself and start being nice to the wilderness mob again.
Oh Yahweh, how long will You delay? Turn and have compassion on Your servants. Satisfy us in the morning with Your faithful love so that we may shout with joy and be glad all our days. Make us rejoice for as many days as You have humbled us, for as many years as we have seen adversity. Let Your work be seen by Your servants, and Your splendor by their children. Let the favor of Yahweh our God be on us; establish for us the work of our hands—establish the work of our hands! (Ps. 90:13-17)
So what’s wrong with this speech? Well, there’s one critical issue that Moses is ignoring: why Yahweh is angry. If Yahweh was actually mad at the time Moses penned this psalm, then He had good reason to be. If Moses’ loyalties were where they should be, he would be siding with Yahweh in this moment, instead of making Yahweh out to be some hard-to-please Brooder while the Israelites are a bunch of innocent victims. What makes this psalm so insulting is the way that Moses so clearly implies that Yahweh is acting unreasonably. First Moses says there’s no end to God’s wrath, then he complains that Yahweh is taking forever to be nice. But why should Yahweh suddenly decide to be compassionate towards the Israelites? Is anyone owning up to their rebellious soul attitudes? Is there sincere repentance happening? It’s highly doubtful given the way Moses is trying to explain the current crisis as a flaw in Yahweh’s base Personality. It’s like Moses is saying, “Yahweh’s always angry—it’s who He is. So we humans all have a crummy time of it here on earth because we’ve got this brooding God who will never get over Himself. Come on, Yahweh, haven’t You been in this huff long enough? So we sinned–get over it already and start being nice to us for a change. You’ve treated us crummy in the past—now treat us good to make up for it.” But why should He?
The better you get to know God, the more you will realize that whenever some human is accusing God of being unreasonably angry, that human is discounting what’s really going on. If a Being as gracious, sweet, kind, gentle, and patient as Yahweh is ticked, then clearly humans are putting enormous effort into trying to provoke Him. This is how it works when you’re dealing with a God as gracious and slow to anger as Yahweh: He doesn’t just fly off the handle over one little thing.
As Christians, we’re supposed to be fiercely devoted to Yahweh, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. We shouldn’t be siding with humans against Them, we shouldn’t be trivializing Their feelings, and we certainly shouldn’t be talking as if Their incredible grace is non-existent. Moses is being a terrible spiritual role model here in Psalm 90. If you read through the historical books of the wilderness journey, you’ll find that Moses does have moments when he really demonstrates better priorities. But as a leader, he’s a very mixed bag, and he spends way too much time defending those who are treating Yahweh with disdain. Certainly God does not want us to be spewing hate at every human who has a bad attitude towards Him. But accusing God of being unreasonable and acting like He’s the problem while we totally ignore the reality of hardcore rebellion? That’s an unacceptable way for us to treat our glorious King.
Understanding Moses: Identifying Soul Attitudes in Deuteronomy 8
Understanding Yahweh: Why Moses & Aaron Were Banned From The Promised Land
The Last Straw: Israel Refuses to Enter the Promised Land
Jeremiah 2-3: Yahweh Justifies His Wrath
Amos 2-4: Yahweh’s Wrath in Context