When was the last time you listened to music on the radio? A couple of weeks ago, my phone died on my drive to work, so I decided to give the radio a shot. I hadn’t done so for more than five years, and it only took me about thirty seconds to remember why. There are so many commercials. After about fifteen minutes I decided I’d rather just sit in silence. There were ads on all sorts of things—new vacation destinations, new investment plans, new medicines, new insurance providers—all trying to convince me of how short, miserable, and meaningless life is without the things they’re selling. So, it’s no wonder we prefer to just turn them off. Seriously, how many people pay additional money each month for services just to remove ads? Spotify? Netflix?

Ads are annoying, but more than that, they make us think about things we’d rather just tune out. We don’t want to be reminded of all the problems we face, we don’t believe these advertisers really offer the solutions they promise, and honestly, we’d rather just get back to distracting ourselves with music.

Maybe you would feel the same way about Psalm 90:

90 Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.

You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.

For we are brought to an end by your anger;
by your wrath we are dismayed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.

For all our days pass away under your wrath;
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
10 The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
11 Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?

12 So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
13 Return, O Lord! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
14 Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
16 Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
17 Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands!

This seems to be shoving a problem in our face, one we really don’t feel like dealing with right now. But really, we all know this: the problem Psalm 90 addresses cannot be ignored. It addresses explicitly what all the ads I heard on the radio touched on implicitly: we’re all living “on the clock.” Life is short. Time is so, so preciously scarce. Seventy to eighty years might feel long in the moment, but in the face of death and eternity, life is crushingly short. And just like those ads, Psalm 90 looks forward to a resolution—and it’s remarkable how similar that vision looks. A satisfying life, full of joy and wonder and meaningful work.

We all want that, right? That’s why companies spend spend billions of dollars annually on ad agencies. They recognize that the results they promise really are enticing to us; we all want a satisfying life. The question is, how do we get there? In Psalm 90, Moses gives us an answer. To arrive at a satisfying life with meaning and wonder and joy, we must learn to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Maybe that’s not the answer we expected or wanted, but it’s the only one that can really deliver on what it promises. Let’s work through this psalm together and see if we can arrive at that satisfying life. We have two questions for our very simple outline. First, what is the problem? Second, what is the solution?

What is the problem? We can’t get too deep into Psalm 90 without finding it. The psalm starts out in the same fashion many psalms do, with praising God:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

The emphasis here is on God as eternal. His existence stretches forever in both directions, before the creation of the universe, now and forever. God’s eternality is a marvel; he is worthy to be praised. But Moses doesn’t stop at praise; pretty quickly he turns his attention to us, to humanity.

The picture he paints of us is sobering. God is eternal, but we certainly are not. The realization makes suddenly makes the praise feel like lament because we’re faced with the problem of our mortality.

At first the language here is poetic, but that doesn’t make it any less frightful. We return to dust: that’s our inevitable fate. Our lives will come to an end, our breath will cease, and our bodies will decay. Then the poetry pushes a step further, not just addressing the reality of death but also the shortness of life. Look at verses 5-6, we vanish like a dream and wither like grass. Maybe, just maybe, we could brush that off as sentimental, but then Moses really leans in. He drops euphemisms and gets as blunt as he can in verse 10:

The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.

This is not a comfortable topic of conversation. Most of us wouldn’t bring up the problem of mortality at the dinner table with company or in the classroom with our friends. Yet, the reality is that death never asks permission to be included in conversation. The problem of death doesn’t wait for an invitation into our lives; it barges in and confronts each one of us. For many of us, the problem of mortality is right in front of us today. Some of us have a parent or grandparent who is declining in health. Some of us have recently lost a loved one. Some of us are facing a diagnosis which makes death feel all too close. Whether it’s ourselves or our loved ones, death inevitably comes close to us all and demands a response.

When the problem of mortality meets us face-to-face, how do we respond? I think we can all recognize both healthy and unhealthy ways of responding. The obviously unhealthy way to respond is to live in to the early 2010’s catchphrase “YOLO.” I’m probably dating myself with this one. Do you remember YOLO? Do you know what it means? “You Only Live Once.” This is the mindset that throws all caution to the wind: live recklessly, shirk all responsibility, seek as much pleasure as possible, don’t worry about the consequences. YOLO says, “Life is too short to not have fun.” That’s not a very healthy response. Life might be exciting for a while, until you end up with a long list of broken relationships, burned bridges, scars, and regrets. It doesn’t deliver a satisfying life.

What about the opposite approach? Instead of seeking as much pleasure as possible, we could seek as much success as possible. We can fine-tune our life and become a productivity machine; optimize every minute of our day. We can optimize our job, obviously, but also our commute, our meal planning, our exercise, our showers, even our toothbrushing. We now optimize our sleep and our vacation. We might even try to optimize our friendships, our marriage, and our parenting. We try to squeeze as much value as possible out of every second we have.

This is a pretty common mindset here in the DC area where I live and in many other urban centers—after all, this is a very important city and we all have very important jobs, which makes us very important people. (We think.)  And that makes life really busy. This optimization mindset says, “Life is too short to not move forward.” If this is you, let me ask: you might be productive, but are you satisfied? Is your life satisfying?

I read an article in the Wall Street Journal some time back entitled, “Why High-Powered People Are Working in Their 80s.” In it the author writes this: “These workers joke about getting bored on the golf course or being pushed out of the house by a spouse who won’t tolerate idleness. Beneath the wisecracks is a sense of purpose that refuses to fade. They just can’t quit their careers.” Those interviewed expressed fear at becoming irrelevant, fear that they haven’t done enough to solidify their legacy, fear of loneliness in retirement and lack of purpose without work. Instead of delivering on a satisfying life, this optimization approach brings us to the exact same spot as a YOLO mentality: right at Psalm 90:10.

The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.

Neither of these approaches manage to deliver on what they promise, neither offer satisfying solutions to the problem of mortality. Which are you? Are you the pleasure seeker or the optimizer? Most of us tend toward one or the other. Maybe you take a different approach or maybe like we said at the start, you just try not to think about it too much. But take a minute to really reflect: how are you facing your mortality problem? And how’s it working out for you? Do you feel satisfied?

Moses offers us another way, a different solution to this problem.

But before he offers his solution, Moses actually complicates the problem further. Did you feel this in reading the psalm? The problem isn’t just death; it’s actually much bigger if we could believe it. We’re not just living “on the clock,” we’re also “under the curse.”

Look again at verse 5. It begins, “You sweep them away as with a flood.” Remember, this is a prayer to God. Verses 7-8 state, “We are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.” Verse 9 follows: “For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh.”

For as much as people like to talk about the shortness of life, we like to talk about the wrath of God even less. But Moses is drawing a connection between these two things we can’t afford to miss: we face a mortality problem and a morality problem.

Whether you’re a Christian or not, you can agree humanity has a morality problem. A brief look at our history, our home life, and each of our hearts exposes that completely. For all the ways we address our mortality problem, we have just as many ways to respond to our morality problem. Maybe you try to write off morality as subjective or you make excuses for yourself whenever you’re in the wrong. Maybe you become as rigid as possible, you try to follow all the rules and justify every single decision you make. Maybe this is just another thing you try not to think about too much, and you simply do your best to make sure your good deeds outweigh the bad. But for all the wrong in our world, our homes, and our hearts, none of these approaches feel satisfying either.

Here’s the key insight Moses has for us: our morality problem and our mortality problem are integrally related. If you’re not a Christian, you probably don’t tie these two problems together. By the world’s measure, mortality is a matter of biology and morality is a matter of conscience. Christianity is actually more holistic; it recognizes the connection between body and soul. In fact, mortality and morality are two sides of the same coin. Both have been brought under judgment in a single event.

Verse three captures this the best. When Moses is describing death as a return to dust, that’s not just a comment on the physical state of our bodies. The image he’s using here is more shocking—it’s being ground to dust, crushed, pulverized.[1] This is a reference back to Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden of Eden. This is the judgment God lays on humanity: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). It is only by recognizing that mortality and morality are one and the same problem that we can properly understand: the solution has to address both.

So what is the solution? If it’s not reckless abandon or precise optimization, if it’s not ignoring the problem, what is it? Let’s look at the solution in three places: in the psalm, in Christ, and in our lives.

First, in the psalm. Moses gives his answer in verse twelve: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” First, we see a request. Moses, still as a prayer, asks God to teach his people. That’s our first clue: the solution to our problem can only be found in God.

That might sound intimidating in light of the fact that it is God’s judgment which brings us to death; why would we want to get closer to the God who’s mad at us? But really, we all know this is how relationships work. If you wrong someone in a relationship, how do you make it right? By running away from that person and avoiding conflict for the rest of your life? By digging your heels in and refusing to reconcile? No, it’s by going to the person you’ve wronged and asking for forgiveness. Moses models that in this psalm. He recognizes his own sin and brings it before God in prayer, requesting for him to take action.

Let’s look at what Moses requests that God teach them: “number our days.” Again, nobody likes thinking about their own mortality and their own sin, but this is actually the first step in the solution. Numbering our days keeps this problem at the forefront of our mind. This is not a macabre preoccupation with death, but a proper perspective of our identity: we are sinners in need of grace, we’re both on the clock and under the curse. This problem is real, we have to understand it properly to keep our eyes out for the fitting solution.

Lastly, the goal of numbering our days is gaining a heart of wisdom. Wisdom can be defined as “skillful living.” It’s living life the way we were designed to, according to the intent and guidance of our creator. Moses recognizes that we need to realign ourselves with the life God means for us to live. And life itself is defined as being close with God, dwelling in the presence of God. Adam and Eve were driven from the garden and driven from God’s presence. Thus, Moses sees the need for reconciliation. Verse thirteen shows the turn, “Return, O Lord! How long? Have pity on your servants!”

Moses’ prayer is full of expectation. He looks ahead to a day when God’s people will be safe and satisfied. The days of hardship will be redeemed, and life will have rich meaning. See the ways he pleas for this to come. Verse fourteen says “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love.” Verse sixteen continues “Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.” He knows God has the solution, he trusts that God will do it, but the psalm doesn’t give a clear picture of what God’s answer looks like.

What Moses knew vaguely we know and see as clear as day: the reconciliation of our mortality and morality has been accomplished in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Rather than leaving us to our broken morals, our vices and hypocrisy, our sins against God, God comes to us. The truth is, we were no different than our first parents Adam and Eve. Rather than coming to God to right our wrongs and seek forgiveness, we ran away and hid. In Jesus, God came to us. He made his dwelling place with us so that he might be our dwelling place forever.

Later Paul writes, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4-5). Jesus came as a man to live in perfect alignment to God’s law—rather than living “under the curse” and God’s anger, he was the only one upon whom God could truly say “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Jesus numbered his days precisely, always paying attention to when his hour would arrive. And at last, it did: for our sake Jesus bore the burden of God’s wrath upon his own shoulders on the cross. His death satisfied the wrath of God against all his people’s sin, solving our morality problem.

But that’s not the end of the story. Three days later Jesus solved our mortality problem, too. Romans 6 explains it like this “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God” (Rom 6:8-10). This is the solution the people of God had been looking for since the time of Moses, even since the time of Adam. If you are in Christ, you have been saved by the steadfast love of our God, you have witnessed his glorious power and have been adopted as his child. That makes all the difference in how we live here and now.

Think about how this solution plays out in our lives. I am surprised when reading this psalm that Moses stays so grounded in our lives on earth. Often when I think about the Bible’s solution for death, I look forward to eternal paradise in heaven. Yes and amen, we can look forward to that life after death with great hope and expectation, but we’d be wrong to make this an either-or salvation. It’s not “Either we stay here on earth where life is meaningless and miserable, or we go to heaven and be at peace.” Instead, it’s a both-and salvation. Both the life we will enjoy in heaven and the life we have now has been redeemed and reformed by Jesus.

Look at Psalm 90:15. God has promised to make us glad “for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil.” This transforms the way we think about suffering. Suffering is unavoidable in this life, whether you’re a Christian or not. For someone who responds to our big problem with the YOLO mentality or with optimization, suffering is the ultimate defeater; it’s what makes life feel so miserable and meaningless. But for Christians who take Moses’ path, even our suffering can be redeemed.

I was reminded this past week of an article Tim Keller wrote shortly after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He had just published a book titled On Death which helped people think through these things—and then, all of a sudden, he was his own target audience. His article reveals the challenge of really living out the advice he had given as a pastor for some fifty years, like a surgeon finding himself on the operating table. The experience was raw, but in the end his faith weathered—and actually grew—through his suffering.

He wrote, “For me as a Christian, Jesus’s costly love, death, and resurrection had become not just something I believed and filed away, but a hope that sustained me all day.” The cross of Jesus is the paramount example of suffering redeemed. In Christ, our pain is not meaningless; it points us ahead to our resurrected savior. That actually infuses suffering with joy. Tim Keller notes exactly that in his closing reflection:

I can sincerely say, without any sentimentality or exaggeration, that I’ve never been happier in my life, that I’ve never had more days filled with comfort. But it is equally true that I’ve never had so many days of grief. One of our dearest friends lost her husband to cancer six years ago. Even now, she says, she might seem fine, and then out of nowhere some reminder or thought will sideswipe her and cripple her with sorrow. I have come to be grateful for those sideswipes, because they remind me to reorient myself to the convictions of my head and the processes of my heart. When I take time to remember how to deal with my fears and savor my joys, the consolations are stronger and sweeter than ever.

The gospel frees us to fully embrace both joy and grief in a way that no other response to sin and death can. Tim Keller passed away in May 2023—and though his last three years were marked by pain, he had found satisfaction in God as his dwelling place. Now he is perfectly satisfied as he rests in the presence of God. That same satisfaction is open to you.

This is a small window into what it looks like to be a Christian: not living “on the clock” or “under the curse,” but “in the presence of God.” What would it look like for us to “number our days”? How might we make Psalm 90 our own prayer?

[1] Psalm 90:3 uses “dust” (דַּכָּ֑א, dakka) which is different than Genesis 2-3 (עָפָר֙, afar) “soil.” The one used in Ps 90:3 can be used in a literal sense of physically crushing or grinding something, or in a metaphorical sense of coming under divine punishment. Dan Lioy, “Teach Us to Number Our Days: An Exegetical and Theological Analysis of Psalm 90.” Conspectus 5 (March 2008): 89–112.

Patrick is a Pastoral Intern at McLean Presbyterian Church. After graduating from Christopher Newport University and spending two additional years there as an intern with Reformed University Fellowship, Patrick returned to Northern Virginia where he grew up, met and married his wife Erin, and is currently pursuing his MDiv at Reformed Theological Seminary.

Meet Patrick