As far as we know, this is the oldest psalm in the Book of Psalms. It was written by Moses, although we don’t know at what stage in his life it was composed by him. He begins by asserting that God is always the dwelling place of his people (v. 1). Moses looks back various generations; he thinks of his parents, his grandfather Levi, and his forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Each of them had different experiences and resided in different countries, yet they each discovered that their safest and most comfortable home was God.
In verses 2-12, he contrasts God and humans. The Lord is eternal, existing before the universe appeared. The longest period for man is but like a day to God. Further, he removes humans from this earth. Although initially they seem to flourish, they are like a passing thought or blades of grass that do not last for long. The reason why we die is because we have sinned.
It may be that Moses, when he says that our years are seventy or eighty, is referring to the particular judgement that was put on the Israelites when they refused to enter the Promised Land. The judgement included living for forty years in the desert until that generation died out, then the last of the adults would be about seventy when the period came to an end. Moses refers to them going through a particular period of God’s anger, which would fit with the forty years of divine judgement.
While that may be the case, it is also true that seventy or eighty years are the usual upper limits of our lives. No matter what we do, we cannot stop them rapidly passing. Nor can we get out of the various troubles that come our way. Therefore we need divine teaching about how to live during our short time on earth. A wise man prays for divine instruction, a fool does not bother. Both will die, but only the wise will have a happy ending.
In verses 13-17, Moses prays for the return of divine blessing, which again fits in with the possibility that he wrote the psalm during the forty years of divine judgement that the Israelites spent in the desert (v. 14). Perhaps he wrote the psalm as the period was coming to a close and he anticipated the Lord bringing his people into the Promised Land, where they would experience his provision and power. He looked forward to them experiencing God’s blessing in the future. Moses knows that the only way for them to know true satisfaction and experience real joy is through God’s favour.
Spurgeon comments that ‘though God smote Israel, yet they were his people, and he had never disowned them, therefore is he entreated to deal favourably with them. If they might not see the Promised Land, yet he is begged to cheer them on the road with his mercy, and to turn his frown into a smile.’
And Andrew Fuller observed: ‘It is worthy of notice that this prayer was answered. Though the first generation fell in the wilderness, yet the labours of Moses and his companions were blessed to the second. These were the most devoted to God of any generation that Israel ever saw. It was of them that the Lord said, “I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown. Israel was holiness unto the Lord, and the first fruits of his increase.” It was then that Balaam could not curse, but, though desirous of the wages of unrighteousness, was compelled to forego them, and his curse was turned into a blessing. We are taught by this case, amidst temporal calamities and judgments, in which our earthly hopes may be in a manner extinguished, to seek to have the loss repaired by spiritual blessings. If God’s work does but appear to us, and our posterity after us, we need not be dismayed at the evils which afflict the earth.’
Similarly we have sinned against God and perhaps have caused him to withdraw his blessing from our lives. Instead of becoming used to such circumstances we should pray earnestly that the Lord would restore us, establish us and satisfy us. We should ask that the beauty of the Lord should be upon us. In other words, we should live holy, consecrated lives from now on.