The subtitle a prayer of Moses the man of God makes this the earliest psalm in the Psalter. It was not the only poem or song to come from his hand. The triumphal ode recorded in Exodus 15 is called 'The Song of Moses'. He wrote a further song to accompany the housing of the book of the Law in the ark of the Covenant (Deut. 31:30-32:44). His blessing of the tribes of Israel before his death (Deut. 33) is also in verse. There are other poetical fragments: the song they sang as they left their camp carrying the ark (Num. 10:35-16), the ode to the well at Beer (Num. 21:17-18), and the curse on Heshbon and Moab (Num. 21:26-30). Even parts of the Law itself take on a verse form (Deut. 27:14-26; 28:3-6, 16-19).
The psalm is entitled a prayer because it is all addressed to God. While many psalms are songs of praise, many are prayers. It was composed at a time when numbers of the people were being struck dead as a judgment on their sin (vv. 5-8). Occasions when this happened include the people's complaint about their diet of manna (Num. 11:33) and their discouragement over the report of the spies (Num. 14:26-45). The one that fits best however, is Numbers 21:4-7, when further murmuring over food provoked a plague of venomous snakes from God.
In Numbers 21:7 the people request Moses to pray for them, which he does. Psalm 90 is probably the prayer he prayed. Verses 3 and 5 refer to sudden death overtaking them; verse 7 indicates this was a visitation on the whole nation, and verse 8 speaks of (literally) secret lustings, referring to their discontent with the manna and longing for the food of Egypt (Num. 21:4-5).
It may be objected that the average life span of 70 to 80 years mentioned in verse 10 was not in force at that time. But the longevity of such as Moses, Aaron, Caleb and Joshua was exceptional and no doubt due to the nation's need of these great leaders for a long time, not to speak of it as a reward for the outstanding godliness of some of them (cf. Ps. 91:16). Most of the people must have lived less than 100 years. The probable meaning is that this average life span was brought in during the desert period and soon became universal. Later leaders such as Samuel, David and Solomon lived only 60 to 70 years.
Verse 1 anticipates Moses' words at the end of the plague: 'If you make the Most High your dwelling' (91:9) and his blessing at the end of his life: 'The eternal God is your refuge' (Deut. 33:27). It shows how God's people in all ages should face calamity, even when it is deserved and from God:
Realising this increases our sense of dependence. We are subject to death (v. 3; Gen. 3:19; Eccles. 12:7), whereas God is totally unaffected by the passage of time (v. 4). Death can overtake us suddenly and without warning (vv. 5-6). This shows that contemplating God's eternal being and dwelling in him (vv. 1-2) does not reduce the realities of life and the starkness of death, but it does show us how to face them – by finding a permanent home, not in our body or the world, but in God.
Death is not part of a natural process but is a divine judgment. We need to accept this, for it produces that repentance and faith which will lead us home to God. But not all see it that way (v. 11a) and must be taught how to do so. The right response (v. 11b) is to let our fear of God (that is, our acquiescence in his right to judge and destroy) correspond to the reality of his wrath (his righteous anger that sends such judgments). In other words, God's righteous judgment should be an overpowering reality to us – enough to cause us to repent of our sin and then fly to him for salvation. Disasters do not naturally affect us like this (Rev. 9:20) – they need his special grace.
These verses form the specific request of the prayer, yet occupy only about a third of the psalm. This is a lesson in itself: preparation for prayer is as important as prayer itself. What Moses prays for is also instructive:
(1) What is our 'work' for God as Christians? How does it relate to God as 'everlasting'? (See Rom. 16:25-26.)
(2) Turn to John 3:14-16 and consider how Jesus used the incident of the brazen serpent to portray his Gospel.
Although anonymous, there are good reasons for attributing this psalm also to Moses. The Rabbis did so, although on the doubtful principle that no other author is stipulated until 101, which means that 92-100 are also from Moses! The Septuagint and Vulgate ascribe it to David on the occasion of his numbering the people (2 Sam. 24). However, the atmosphere of the psalm is that of a nomadic life rather than the more settled times of David's kingdom.
The most likely occasion is the ending of the plague of venomous snakes, which occasioned Psalm 90. The spirit of murmuring had been put away and God was again leading them on their journey (Num. 21:10-15). Eventually they arrived at the well 'Beer' (Num. 21:16-18) where Moses composed an ode. There is good evidence for believing he wrote this psalm at that time:
As well as these incidentals there is the lesson Moses is trying to instill into them from their recent experience: to repent of their discontent and replace it with a spirit of confidence in God as the one who protects his people from all dangers – the note he strikes at the very outset (vv. 1-2).
These verses take up the words of 90:1, which he there had addressed to God, and turns them into an encouragement to the people, now that the judgment has passed. Rather than inflict trouble on us, God wants to protect us from it (v. 1). But we must trust him ourselves (v. 2): I will say... he is my refuge... my fortress... my God. While we are complaining about the way he treats us we cannot feel relaxed with him – at peace and in safety. We move out of his shadow and are exposed to dangers. If we swallow our pride and rebelliousness and trust him, we will enjoy this relationship.
These verses spell out the particular dangers which God's promise of protection covers. They read like an insurance policy! It covers snares (v. 3a), pestilence (v. 3b), violent attacks from enemies (vv. 5-8), safety both for your person and your home (vv. 9-10) and angelic protection from the rigours of the journey and from wild beasts (vv. 11-13). We Christians with our relatively settled life in peaceful communities may not find some of these particularly relevant, but our Christian pathway through the world is beset with difficulties: from the people of the world, from false teachers, from the devil and from our own sinful natures. God's protection covers these equally and verse 4 certainly applies directly to us.
These verses summarize all this by returning to generalities, in which he balances God's promises along with our use of the means of enjoying them.
His promises are:
Our means are:
Consider verses 11-12.
(1) Can we expect angels to minister to us today? If so, in what ways?
(2) When Satan quoted these words to Jesus (Matt. 4:5-7) why did the Lord refuse them as 'putting God to the test'?