The Saint’s Reflection On
The Shortness Of Life

a brief study of Psalm 90, adapted from PCC Prayer Meeting Exhortation on 2 Oct 2009

Psalm 90 is perhaps the oldest of the 150 Psalms in the Bible. Its title suggests to us that it is a prayer of Moses. I believe it was a prayer written to be sung by the people of God throughout the ages.

We are not told when it was written, but I believe Calvin is right to suggest that Moses probably wrote it towards the end of the forty years of wandering in the desert with the children of Israel.

You will remember how the children of Israel were redeemed from Egypt through great signs and wonders. But they were an ungrateful people. From the first day out of Egypt, they were filled with murmuring and complaints. Despite of that, slightly two years later, God brought them to the border of Canaan. But the people were overcome with unbelief. They refused to enter the land that God had promised them. They refused to believe that God would enable them to conquer the Canaanites.

God in His wrath against their stiffneckness sentenced them to wander in the desert for the next 38 years. Israel was not to enter into the Promised Land until all who were 20 years and above when they left Egypt died in the dessert. Only two men would be exempted: Joshua and Caleb—who tried to persuade the people to trust in the Lord when they first arrived at Canaan.

So the wandering in the wilderness begun. And so did the deaths. It is estimated that more than 2 million people came out of Egypt. More than two third of these 2 million would die in the wilderness. More than a million people would be buried in the desert in the 38 years. On the average day, more than 50 people would die. Death was a familiar sight in the wilderness.

Moses the man of God would have shared in the sorrow of watching his friends and relatives die one by one. And towards the end he knew that his time would soon come too; for he had angered God by striking the rock instead of speaking to it. As Moses pondered on the deaths occurring daily, and on his own impending death, he was moved to write this Psalm. This Psalm is a prayerful reflection of Moses on the subject of life in the face of death. We may entitle it: “The Saint’s Reflection on the Shortness of Life.”

There are four parts in this Psalm, corresponding to four things which the Holy Spirit would no doubt want us to consider: (1) The Eternality of God (v. 1-2); (2) T he Frailty of Man (v. 3-6); (3) The Purpose of Death (v. 7-11); and (4) The Prayer of the Dying (v. 12-17).

Consider first how Moses comforts himself by turning his eyes to God to focus on His eternality…

1. The Eternality of God (v. 1-2)

1 Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.

A ‘dwelling place’ is the place we live in. It is our home. Israel did not have the privilege of a home. They had been wandering ever since Abraham came to Canaan. They stayed in tents and did not have permanent homes. Then they were in exile in Egypt and were slaves a large part of the time so they could hardly have called Egypt their home. And now in the wilderness, again they have no home. But Moses knew that those who trust in the Lord really have a home—God himself. Home is where we resort to for refuge in the storm or in the winter of grief. So as Moses contemplates death, he thought of home as a picture of where he can flee to for comfort.

The sight of death is always sad. The Lord Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus when he saw the grief of his friends and relatives. Whenever someone dies, those who love him or her will need comforting. When a husband dies, his wife flees to her father or to her best friend for comfort. When a friend dies, his friends flee to one another for comfort.

But all these who give comfort will one day die themselves. There is only One whom all men and women in all generations can flee too to find comfort. Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations. Thou art He alone who is our comfort through all the generations, for Thou alone art eternal.

2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.

Have you ever look at the mountains. Mountains are always awe-inspiring. When I was in the States almost twenty years ago, the one thing I enjoy doing very much was to visit the national parks to behold the great mountains. Some of the huge mountains are perpetually covered with snow and ice. I remember reading a brochure about a certain mountain which describes the glaciers as having existed for thousand of years. Can you imagine what that means? It means that the mountains and its glaciers were there before any of us were born. And they existed when the Lord walked on this earth. They were there when Moses led the people out of Egypt. They were already standing when Abraham came out Ur of the Chaldees. The mountains stand as silent sentinels through the ages of time. They stood as witnesses to the lives of many generations of people.

But the mountains are not eternal. There was a time when the mountains and the earth was not. There was a time when the universe was not. But God was. God is everlasting to everlasting. He has always been. He has no beginning and no end.

God alone does not change. God alone is a sure and reliable refuge. God’s people throughout the ages have found comfort in Him in a way that no man can give. When you are grieved, therefore, by the death of a loved one, flee, flee to He who is our dwelling place, who made all things.

But secondly, consider how Moses reminds himself of…

2. The Frailty of Man (v. 3-6)

While God is strong and eternal; man is frail and temporary. In fact it is God who determines when we are born, and it is God who determines when we die.

3 Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.

Man is a proud race. We pride ourselves for our ability to adapt and to survive intelligently. Long after all other animals have perished in any land, man will still be alive. But man, after all is a finite creature of dust. Proud dust. And God has appointed a day for all men to die.

We will all die.  Look around you. This is our 10th year as a church. Some of us have been attending prayer meetings in PCC for 10 years. But how many of us who are here today will be around for another 10 years? I am not even talking about dropping out of prayer meetings, as is fashionable thing to do when anyone backslides or become disgruntled for one reason or another. I am talking about returning to the Lord our Maker and Judge. Most of us, I suppose will still be alive in 10 years, but what about 20 years, or 50 years?

We will all die. Unless Christ returns in our lifetime, we will all die. We will die one by one according to God’s appointment. I will die. I will return to the dust. You will die. You will return to the dust. Soon our parents will be gone. Soon our wife or husband will be gone. Soon one of our children here will be the oldest member in the church. Soon he or she will also die.

It seems a long time more before that happens doesn’t it? But is it really that long? No, it but a twinkling of the eye when compared to eternity.

4 For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.

A thousand years seems a long time. Some of the patriarchs lived nearly a thousand years. But even a thousand years is not really as long as we may think. In God’s eyes a thousand years ahead is as good as yesterday when it is past. However proud, however strong, however significant we may imagine we are, our lives constitute but an insignificant wink in redemptive history.


Our life, we must remember is brief. It is like the spring flood in the desert where the children of Israel were wandering. It very rarely rains in the desert. But when it rains, it is always impressive. Rivers and streams suddenly appear and everything is washed off. But as quickly as the flood appeares, it soon disappears. Such is our life.

Or consider the shrubs and flowers spring out of nowhere after a spring flood. The hills will turn green and the flowers will blossom. But in a short while, they are gone. The rivers and streams dry up. The shrubs, the flowers and the grass wither, and dry up and are blown away. Such is the brevity of our life.

And again our life is like a sleep. You know how it is like. You lay your head down on the pillow. And the next thing you know it is morning. Several hours elapsed while you were asleep, but you do not sense it at all. Today when you look forward to the rest of your life, it may seem a long time more. But when it is passed, you will look back and wonder where all that time has gone.

Such is the brevity and frailty of human life.

5 Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up. 6 In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.

Have you ever thought about your life? Do not think that you have many more years to go. Always remember that it is brief. It may seem very long to you today. But when it is passed, you will look back and ten years ago is like yesterday. Life is short. Soon God will call you to give an account of your lives.

Are you ready to give an account of your life? Oh brethren and young people, do not wait till you see one by one of your peers die before you begin to reflect on your life and to prepare for death.

But why do we have to die? This was Moses’ reflection in verse 7-11.

3. The Purpose of Death (v. 7-11)

Moses knew the reason why we must die. We must die because we are sinners and have sinned against God.

7 For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled. … 11 Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.

Death entered into the world because our first parents rebelled against God by eating the forbidden fruit. Death and sorrow came into the world as a consequence of their sin. God would have us know that He hates sin. Death was ordained as a punishment for sin. The wages of sin is death. Death is a display of God ‘s wrath against sin.

Every deaths, therefore must remind us of God’s wrath against sin. Death is fearful. It should be, because it is a reflection of God’s wrath. Believers need not fear death because death has lost its sting for us, for Christ has conquered death. And the grave has lost its victory over us, for Christ rose from the dead and will one day raise us up too. But whenever we think about death, we must remember God’s hatred against sin.

And we must remind ourselves that God sees our sin, including our secret sins. Nothing is hid from him:

8 Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance

Therefore, we must consider our lives. Many of the children of Israel wandering in the desert lived miserably because of their sin. They spent their days under the shadow of God’s wrath (v. 9). Their years passed like a tale that is told, or like a drawn out sigh.

They live 70 years or at the most 80 years. But they were painful and sorrowful years. If they lived up to 80, the ten years extra is like a story-teller trying to stretch his story with some insignificant details. Or it is like someone trying to make his sigh a little longer. But soon they are cut off and they fly away (v. 10). Our life is like a kite in the sky. It is straining to fly away, but it held back by a thin string. But soon, at God’s word, the string will be cut off, and we fly away.…

10 The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

Dearly beloved and children, if illness or accident does not cut you down, you too can expect to live 70 or 80 years or perhaps even more. But what kind of life will it be? Will it be a life of fruitless labour and sorrow?

You can be guaranteed that it will be so… unless you learn to pray like Moses. So let us look at Moses prayer. This whole Psalm is of course a prayer. Prayer consists not only of petitions, but an outpouring of our hearts. Moses was pouring out his heart as he beheld his brethren dying one by one. But as he meditated on death and the brevity of life, his heart is lifted to bring an urgent petition to the Lord. This we find from verse 12 to the end of the Psalm.

4. The Prayer of the Dying
(v. 12-17)

His petition is…

12 So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom. 

That is: teach us to value our days, that we may live wisely. Note that Moses is not asking the Lord to teach him time management. Neither is it making full use of our time nor of living the full and happy life according to the world’s standards for that is vanity when it is over. Rather, it is a plea to God that He may teach us how to live our lives with judgement and eternity in view.

This is a prayer that we must all learn. It is a prayer for believers as well as for unconverted persons. Unconverted persons must especially pray this prayer because time is short. There is a sense in which time is shorter for unconverted person than it is for converted person. The converted person must work out his salvation with fear and trembling, but he has the assurance that when he flies away, he will be going to paradise to be with the Lord. But the unconverted person has no such assurance. In fact, God has guaranteed the unconverted person only one day to meet with Him, namely, today. “Today if ye will hear His voice, Harden not your heart, as in the provocation” reminds the Psalmist  (Ps 95:8; cf. Heb 3:13). “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation” reminds Paul (2 Cor 6:2).

Children and young people, God has promised to meet with you if you call unto Him today. But this guarantee holds fast only for today. If you are still unconverted or unsure of your salvation, God has promised that if you go to Christ today, He will meet with you. But He does not guarantee that tomorrow, He will meet with you.

Will you not therefore pray in your heart even now, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner. Teach me to number my days, that I may apply my heart unto wisdom.”

But this prayer is also for believers. For unless we learn to pray like Moses, our life will be a miserable, stunted Christian life. Yes, even Christians can have miserable lives. Moses recognises that as he expands on this plea in three points.

First, he asks the Lord to make them glad and restore joy unto them (v. 13-15). Secondly, he asks the Lord to make them and their children know His glory (v. 16); and Thirdly, he asks the Lord to make them useful unto Him (v. 17).

Consider the first petition:

13 Return, O LORD, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants. 14 O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. 15 Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.

The people of God had to wander for 40 years. For forty years, the people were sustained by God with adequate food and water. For forty years, by the providence of God their shoes and clothes did not wear out. But these forty years were for the most part lived under the experiences and burdens that are related to God’s chastisement. The daily deaths, the occasional plagues; the terrible heat by day and cold by night; the murmuring and fighting that must have occurred: these were poignant reminders that they were living under the wrath of God. Life in those 40 years was miserable for most of God’s people.

Moses knew that God alone could restore the joy of salvation unto his children. Thus, he prays, “Return, O LORD, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants.” How long will it be Lord? Before Thy anger passes and we may once again experience Thy mercy and Thy pity? How long will it be before the years of doldrums and mere existence in the dessert is over? Visit us again with Thy blessings for the sake of Thy servants.

And again “O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (v. 14). Moses knew that as long as God’s mercy is not shown to the people, their lives would continue to be meaningless and empty. So he pleads that God will visit them with His mercy so that they might have true and lasting joy and gladness.

But secondly, Moses says…

16 Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.

“God’s servants cannot work for Him unless He work upon them, and work in them both to will and to do” says Matthew Henry. Unless God’s work is manifest in our lives, we shall not be able to glorify Him willingly, and our lives will not reflect the glory of God to our children.

Every child of God must be concerned for the glory of God. This is the end for which we are made. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. Unless we glorify God, we cannot enjoy Him.

So as we ask the Lord to teach us to number our days, let us remember to ask Him to work grace in our hearts so that we may by our lives magnify His great name. Let us desire this for God’s glory itself and also for the sake of our children.

We must all die. When we die our children live on as the covenant people of God. What kind of impression will we give to our children concerning who God is? Will he be a God of wrath to them? Do we not rather desire that they will grow up knowing God to be a covenant keeping God who is both holy and yet loves His children with an infinite love?

And finally Moses prays:

17 And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.

What is this prayer, but that we may be useful in the Lord’s hand? We are finite creatures of dust. Our entire life of 70 or 80 years is like the snap of the fingers compared to eternity. God, on the other hand, is eternal. Yet God has condescended to look upon us with favour, and to beautify the works of our hands.

The works of our hands are tainted with sin. We are by nature dead in sin and trespasses. Our hearts are corrupt, and therefore all that our hands can do is ugly and sinful. Even our most righteous deed are but filthy rags in His sight.

Therefore except the beauty of the Lord be upon us and our works be established or directed by Him, we shall be hopelessly useless in God’s sight, and our lives would be meaningless. The beauty of the Lord speaks of the garment of righteousness which Christ who is altogether lovely, supplies to His people. The establishment or direction of our work speaks of the Holy Spirit working in us to will and to do according to the good pleasure of God.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, is it not your desire to be useful for the Lord? If so you must learn to pray like Moses:

LORD, teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.… And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us. 


This is the heart of Psalm 90. This Psalm reminds us of the frailty of man vis-à-vis the eternality of God. But ultimately, it is a prayer to teach us to pray that God may have mercy upon us and teach us to make our lives count before Him in the few years that He has given us.

Will you not, therefore, beloved brethren and children, lament your wasted years, and pray in the words of Moses, teach me to number my days that I may apply my heart unto wisdom for Christ’s sake. Amen. Ω