Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education
Estimated reading time: 7 min.
Did you know that Moses composed a prayer asking God to teach him to number the days of his life?
Deep inside, humans know they have limited life spans. Nonetheless, people go about their daily affairs as if there would be no end of days. God inspired a psalm to remind us that, because of sin, human life is limited. He wants believers to make the most of their limited time serving Him. This Digging Deeper challenges its readers to think deeply about the brevity of mortal life while anticipating life eternal.
Our focus verse comes from a psalm that frames Moses’ prayer: Psalm 90:12 KJV throughout: “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” Moses was not the only man of God to make such a request. David prayed a similar prayer in Psalm 39:4 “LORD, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am.” By contrast, notice how God views time in Psalm 90:4 “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.”
Notice the immediate context of Psalm 90:12 in v. 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.” The NKJ Study Bible explains this lesson of counting our years: “The point here is not to set a maximum, but to present a context for the brevity of human life. No matter how long people live, it is inevitable that they will fly away to death” (Tecarta Bible App).
Life spans shortened in the wilderness
B.H. Carroll’s An Interpretation of the English Bible provides some background for this psalm: “The author of Psalm 90 is Moses. He wrote this psalm while he was in the wilderness of Arabia. The internal evidence that Moses wrote it at this time is that it bears the stamp of the wilderness period all the way through” (e-Sword 13.0.0).
Henry Morris in his Days of Praise commentary for Psalm 90:10, entitled Threescore Years and Ten, wrote: “When Moses wrote these words near the end of his life, he was 120 years old (Deuteronomy 34:7), but all the rest of the people of Israel (except Caleb and Joshua) who had been over 20 at the beginning of the 40-year wilderness wanderings, had died there (Numbers 14:28-34), and so there were no others over 60 years old…Thus, the normal lifespan by Moses’ time was down to 70 or 80 years, and he prophesied that this would continue. It is remarkable that, with all the increase in medical knowledge, this figure has stayed about the same, and there seems to be little the gerontologists can do to increase it.”
F.B. Meyer in his Through the Bible Day by Day pictures the Israelites’ trauma as they witnessed the older generation dying off because God judged them for refusing to enter the Promised Land as He instructed: “The ceaseless succession of graves was the bitter harvest of Israel’s rebellions. Oh, that we might apply our hearts to wisdom that we may not fail of God’s rest” (e-Sword 13.0.0)! The Treasury of David, by C.H. Spurgeon, elaborates further: “Poor Israel was greatly afflicted. These deaths in the wilderness made her a perpetual mourner, but Moses asks that God will return to his people, cheer and encourage them, and let the few days they have to live be bright with his presence” (e-Sword 13.0.0).
B.H. Carroll’s An Interpretation of the English Bible notes a fascinating correspondence between this psalm and a section of Deuteronomy: “There are several parallels between this and Moses’ Song and Blessing in Deuteronomy 32-33. For example, Psalm 90:1 equals Deuteronomy 33:27 a: Lord, thou hast been our dwelling-place in all generations (Psalm 90:1). The eternal God is thy dwelling-place, And underneath are the everlasting arms (Deuteronomy 33:27 a). Psalm 90:12 equals Deuteronomy 32:29: So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12.) Oh that they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end, (Deuteronomy 32:29.)” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Moses had properly instructed the people in God’s ways, but their rebellion resulted in multiple graves instead of blessing.
Apply your hearts to wisdom
Even so, there is hope for all sinners. Bob Utley’s You Can Understand the Bible provides broader context for understanding this psalm: “Psalm 90:7-12 This strophe clearly admits that YHWH’s judgment on His people is the direct result of their sin. However, His people trust and hope in the basic character of God—mercy! To me, Psalm 103:8-14 is a sure hope in the character of God (cf. Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 4:31; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:15; 145:8)” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Among his final statements, Moses admonishes the repentant to pray: “Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil (Psalm 90:15) “.
In Psalm 90:12 God’s people are counseled to apply their hearts to wisdom. The NET Bible defines heart: “The Hebrew term ‘heart’ here refers to the center of one’s thoughts, volition, and moral character” (e-Sword 13.0.0). The Jamiesson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary describes what wisdom entails in this context: “The ‘wisdom’ meant is that which flows from a right consideration of the brevity of life, and our guiltiness as the cause of God’s, anger against us; and consists in ‘fearing God’ and ‘departing from evil’ (Job 28:28)” (Ibid.). This is the essence of repentance.
The Sermon Bible Commentary, edited by W. Robertson Nicholl, enhances the meaning of wisdom: “Wisdom is a great word, because the idea it symbolizes is great. Wisdom represents that finer power, that higher characteristic of mind, which suggests the proper application of facts, the right use of knowledge, the correct direction of our faculties. He whose heart is applied to wisdom has put himself in such a position that he can think divinely—think as God would think in his place” (e-Sword 13.0.0). The Expository Notes by Dr. Constable then summarizes wisdom: “A heart of wisdom refers to discernment of Yahweh’s purposes” (Ibid.). Bible study and prayer reveal the mind of God to the faithful.
The Treasury of David by C.H. Spurgeon illuminates true spiritual wisdom: “That is the great matter, after all, to get the heart applied to wisdom, to learn what is the right way, and to walk in it in the practical actions of daily life. It is of little use for us to learn to number our days if it merely enables us to sit down in self-confidence and carnal security; but if our hearts be applied to true wisdom, the Lord’s teaching has been effectual” (e-Sword 13.0.0).
W. Robertson Nicholl’s The Expositor’s Dictionary of Texts elaborates with practical steps: “It means to gauge and test our own career in the light of its moral and spiritual issues. And as God teaches us this we understand the secret of true wisdom. For wisdom lies in a just estimate of the real values of things. T. H. Darlow, The Upward Calling, p. 436” (e-Sword 13.0.0). God’s wisdom teaches His adherents the things that really matter to prepare them for service in His eternal Kingdom.
Seeking eternity in a short life
Daniel Whedon’s Commentary specifies what God is trying to accomplish: “This looks to the end of all divine judgment. Lamentations 3:39-40. God’s displeasure is manifested to awaken a salutary fear of him, which shall turn men from sin, and lead to the practice of wisdom. So long as men treat sin as a trifle they will treat God with irreverence and themselves with abuse. Revelation 15:4” (e-Sword 13.0.0).
The Sermon Bible Commentary, edited by W. Robertson Nicholl, presses upon devotees the right use of their limited time: “A short life should be wisely spent. We have not enough time at our disposal to justify us in misspending a single quarter of an hour. Neither are we sure of enough of life to justify us in procrastinating for a moment. If we were wise in heart we should see this, but mere head wisdom will not guide us aright” (e-Sword 13.0.0). God gives Christians limited time – use it wisely!
Henry Morris’ Defender’s Study Bible makes an impressive comparison: “Compare Deuteronomy 32:29 in Moses’ valedictory address to the children of Israel. A person has only about eighteen thousand days in which he could apply his life to eternal values, so it is vitally important to be ‘redeeming the time’ (Ephesians 5:16)” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Bob Utley’s You Can Understand the Bible provides reassuring words to begin to bring this brief study to a close: “Once we realize our frailty and His permanence, then and only then, can we live a life of joy, peace, and trust. Our hope is completely in Him. Our service to Him brings meaning to life” (e-Sword 13.0.0)! The time that God does provide believers should be expended in His service. The NKJ Study Bible pinpoints the central lesson of Psalm 90:12: “This is more than just having a sense of mortality; it means valuing the time we do have by using it for eternal purposes” (Tecarta Bible App).
Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.