Exploring the Meaning of Psalms 90
By Rev. Julian Duckworth
Psalm 90 speaks of time, permanence and impermanence, and the span of human life. It upholds the eternal nature of the Lord: "Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God."
A secondary but connected theme, especially from verses 7-12, is the Lord's apparent anger with us, and his affliction of our lives with troubles. The reason given for this is that we can then learn the true nature of our lives and of our dependence on Him.
The psalm ends with a prayer for the Lord's compassion on us, and for us to be glad all our days, according to the days of our affliction. We wish to know the work of the Lord. We hope that the work of our hands - our purpose and use - will be established.
This is a relatively profound psalm, covering many questions we have about life. It links our sense of our own frailty with the Lord's greater purposes. In the same way that 'time' is basically only an appearance to us, so our unthinking view of life is generally illusory. It can bring us to think of God as angry, and against us. But, nothing could be further from the truth. (See Heaven and Hell 165)
It's important to see that the first two verses are unambiguously true: First, "Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations", and second, "even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God". Spiritually, for us, holding this opening statement in our minds allows us to explore our whole relationship with the Lord. (See Arcana Caelestia 3913)
The next four verses bring out the frailty of our existence, that in a sense we are made from the dust of the earth. Spiritually, this is not said to condemn us, but to remind us that without the Lord, we are nothing. (See Arcana Caelestia 8995)
This humility allows us to come into spiritually positive territory. This is brought out in the context of time being as nothing - "a thousand years in God's sight are like yesterday" - they are carried away and temporary. (See Divine Providence 218-219)
From verse 7 onward come descriptions of the Lord's anger and wrath, along with the brevity and futility of our days in life. "We finish our years like a sigh." All of this is said in the language of appearance - of how it can seem to us - when we consider life only from our viewpoint and not from the Lord's purpose in it. (See Arcana Caelestia 1093 and Sacred Scripture 94.) In reality, the Lord does not ever have or hold anger and wrath.
Verse 12 provides a helpful clue to the verses which come before it. It is a prayer from us to the Lord to teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. This is a lesson learned from our experience in life, with its pitfalls and its speedy passing, when we realise our folly too late.
The last five verses are clearer and brighter, asking the Lord to gladden us in our lives, and for us to see the work of God in all that we go through, and finally for the Lord our God to establish the work of our hands. Note that this positive ending comes from having endured confusion and negative states which we have now worked through, and that they have gone from us. (See Apocalypse Explained 897.)