I am reprinting this Bible study, originally written by Thomas Trevethan for InterVarsity Faculty Ministry — the original can be found here. Tom is a veteran InterVarsity staff worker who has served at the University of Michigan for many years, now working with faculty on that campus. He is one of InterVarsity’s most gifted Bible expositors and has also authored the books The Beauty of God’s Holiness (InterVarsity Press) and Our Joyful Confidence: The Lordship of Jesus in Colossians (DILL Press). Tom holds an M.A. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He and his wife Barb live in Ann Arbor. Thank you, Tom! ~ Mike
Psalm 90 is an amazing accomplishment. It is realistic, facing troublesome realities squarely and without flinching. At the same time, it is moving and beautiful in facing our insecurities and offering a remedy and a hope. Read the entire psalm slowly (don’t skim it, giving it only your divided attention). If you do not have access to a Bible, you may click here for the passage.
1. Analyze the psalm as a poem. What is the structure of the psalm? What literary devices does it employ most often? What images does it use and what or who is “imaged” by them? What “turns of phrase” seem most striking to you?
Perhaps some of the words of this psalm are familiar because they are the basis for the very familiar hymn of Isaac Watts, “O God, our Help in Ages Past.” If you are able, find the hymn (it is the most widely published hymn in the English language) and sing it together.
2. Focus on verses 1 – 2. These verses introduce us to God in contrast to humanity. Look carefully at the verses and identify what they tell us about our God. What dimension of life is the focus for these verses? Why this focus, in the light of the whole psalm? What is the central “metaphor” used in this description of God? Why this metaphor? Do you think of God in these terms? Can you identify a time or experience you could share with others when the thought of God as your “dwelling place” was important to you?
3. The “realism” of the psalm is most apparent in vv. 3-11. What are the challenges that the psalmist calls us to face that threaten and blight our lives? Is it simply the product of an incurably melancholy spirit to say that life ends with a moan (9) and that prolonged days only mean prolonged sorrow (10)? How are these two challenges related to one another? (It is perhaps worth observing that in the Hebrew text v. 7, like v. 4, begins with “For …”). Verse 11 concludes this section of the psalm with a question. Why is it critical to face this question? How do folk in our culture cope with these related blights? Why is it a denial of wisdom, even the height of folly, to suppress and deny these challenges?
4. The remainder of the psalm (12 – 17) is a series of six prayers. What can we learn about the place of prayer in the face of the disintegrating power of sin and God’s anger from these petitions?
5. Examine each of the petitions and express them in your own words. What does each petition ask for? What does each petition assume or express about the God to whom it is addressed? Consider the following interpretation of the psalm:
Here are the four strong walls of our eternal dwelling in God: he is our wisdom (12), our forgiveness (13), our stability throughout our days (14), our renewal (15). (Alec Motyer, New Bible Commentary, p.545)
6. Verse 1 and v. 17 both refer to our God as “the Lord.” How is that different from v. 14, “the LORD?” This repetition at the beginning and end of the psalm suggests that the opening and closing verses of the psalm might form an inclusio (a conclusion that harks back to and repeats an introduction). How are vv. 1-2 and vv. 16-17 similar in the topics they consider? How are they different? What do vv. 16-17 add that makes them a wonderful conclusion to the psalm?
7. Review the six petitions. Which seems most significant for you in your present circumstances of life and ministry? How does it express a longing you feel, or a blessing you have received? Use the psalm to direct a time of prayer, using its words and your own words to express your thanks and your desires to the LORD.