Psalm 90

Meditations on the Psalms by Kevin Youngblood

Teach us how to apportion our days that we might gain a wise heart. Psalm 90:12

Psalm 90 is a sobering reflection on the brevity of human life from the perspective of divine eternity. With the reality of death firmly fixed before the psalmist, he proceeds to marvel at the speed with which the days evaporate. Nothing quite focuses our attention on the present, on our priorities, as does the contemplation of our deaths, especially the fact that we are not guaranteed another day on this earth. There is simply no time to waste on sin and self from this perspective. Perhaps this is why the Rule of St. Benedict advises us “To desire eternal life with all of the passion of the spirit. To keep death daily before one’s eyes.”

This I think captures well what the psalmist is saying: “Teach us to keep death daily before our eyes.” When I practice this discipline of contemplating my death, of imagining that today is the last day of my life, I am immediately ashamed at how much time I have wasted on foolish, shallow pleasures, on sin and selfishness. I would get stuck in this downward spiral of shame were it not for the assurance of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Lamentations 3:23 comes into razor sharp focus – YHWH’s compassionate acts are renewed every morning. In the light of Psalm 90 and in the light of the discipline of “keeping death daily before my eyes” I come to see that time itself is a grace of God. The fact that God has given me one more day to make things right, to live with the correct priorities, to give sin no place, and to waste no time on selfishness and shallow pleasures is itself evidence that he graciously woke me up this morning to further his work in my mind and heart and to extend his healing love in and through me for the betterment of the world.

Having said that, I do not want to leave the impression that I have in anyway overlooked the emphasis on divine wrath that runs through verses 5-11 of this psalm. In fact, the repetition of words for God’s wrath in this part of the psalm is troubling to me. The psalmist seems to suggest that the brevity of human life is a function of divine wrath – a punishment leveled on all humanity regardless of the degree of individual culpability. One readily thinks of Billy Joel’s quip “Only the good die young.” Indeed, it does seem that far too often the lives of truly great men and women who are truly making a positive difference in the world are snuffed out before they’re even in their prime. One thinks of King Josiah whose religious reforms sparked a remarkable return to God in Judah and yet both his reforms and his life were cut tragically short by his death at the hands of Pharaoh Neco at Meggido. More recently, one thinks of Martin Luther King, Jr. Alternatively, persons determined to perpetrate great wickedness on the world seem to be given plenty of time in which do it. Think, for example, of King Manasseh of Judah whose fifty-five year reign (the longest of any king in either Israel or Judah!) sealed Judah’s tragic fate of destruction and exile, or of the 29 year reign of the unbelievably cruel Roman Emperor Caligula. Troubling indeed.

Two thoughts come to mind as I contemplate this theological conundrum. First, the psalm is using the mortality imposed on humanity due to Adam’s transgression as a lens through which to understand Judah’s current situation in exile. Like Adam, Judah partook of what was forbidden, was cast out of her “Eden” (the Promised Land) and thus generations (at least two) were subjected to ignoble deaths and burials outside of the land and far removed from family cemeteries. In other words, the psalmist (along with many other biblical writers) viewed Israel’s and Judah’s entire history as a recapitulation of humanity’s fall in Genesis 3 – 11. Their recent experience of judgment under divine wrath recalls humanity’s general subjugation first to mortality and then to drastically reduced lifespans following the flood. This may help explain why, from the perspective of the psalmist and his audience, divine wrath is such an important aspect to their perspective on time.

Second, and more importantly, 2 Peter seems to suggest that the gift of time is especially given to the wicked not as an endorsement of or aid to their wickedness but as an opportunity to repent.

“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.” (ESV)

It is also worth noting that right before this statement, 2 Peter references Psalm 90. Maybe the good die young because they are ready to die and meet their reward. Maybe the lives of the wicked are extended as a divine mercy to extend every possible opportunity for their repentance. While this is not a fully satisfying answer to such questions, it does at least give us something to think about. If God has granted me another day in his mercy perhaps it is because I have unfinished business to attend to and God has granted me one more opportunity, perhaps the last, to attend to it. Hmmm. I’d better get busy!


Thank you for the gift of time, the gift of life. Teach me never to take it for granted. Each day you give me is an opportunity to receive further correction and formation from your loving hand. Forgive me for the ways I have so often wasted the days you have given me on such frivolous and shallow loves and self-interests. Teach me what life is really about. Lord Jesus, how much you packed into just 33 years of life! Most of that you accomplished in the final three years of your life! Thank you for your example of unrelenting focus on and commitment to the Father’s will. Your sensitivity to the Spirit kept you always on task, always in the moment, unhurried by the rapid, asynchronous rhythm of the fallen world. Sweet Spirit of God guide me today to the priorities and people who are highest on your list rather than those that are highest on mine. Forgive me for how fiercely I resist you in the reordering of those priorities and how neglectful I can be of the people whom you love.