Question: "What does it mean for God to establish the work of our hands (Psalm 90:17)?"
Answer: In Psalm 90, Moses reflects on a lifetime that is fleeting and temporary. He makes several observations about the challenges of life and God’s sovereignty over life. Moses also makes several requests, including a twice-repeated appeal: “Establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands” (Psalm 90:17).
Moses first acknowledges the eternality of God, addressing Him directly as the One who is “our dwelling place” always (Psalm 90:1) and the everlasting God who created the earth (Psalm 90:2). God is sovereign and timeless—even in control of the curse of death (Psalm 90:3). He is not bound by the fleetingness of time (Psalm 90:4). He governs the passing of time and has set boundaries and maintains them (Psalm 90:5–6).
Throughout the first section of Psalm 90, Moses alludes to the Genesis account:
• the preexistence of God (Genesis 1:1 and Psalm 90:1)
• God’s creative work (Genesis 1—2 and Psalm 90:2)
• God’s decree of the curse (Genesis 3 and Psalm 90:3)
• the continuation of seasons and times as part of God’s covenant with Noah and every living thing (Genesis 8:21—9:17 and Psalm 90:5–6)
While Moses considers God’s sovereignty and control—as laid out in Genesis—it begins to be evident why Moses would ask God to establish the work of our hands (Psalm 90:17): God sees all human sin and has responded with anger and wrath (Psalm 90:7–8; compare with Paul’s parallel description in Ephesians 2:1–3), and only God can resolve the sin problem.
Before Moses explains how God can establish the work of our hands (Psalm 90:17), Moses laments the hopelessness of life without wisdom (and the right relationship with God that wisdom represents). He touches on themes similar to what Solomon used in Ecclesiastes: life without right relationship to God is short, difficult, and meaningless. Moses notes the temporality and difficulty of life in a cursed world (Psalm 90:9), recognizing that seventy or eighty years is all a person can expect—yet even those are filled with hardship and sorrow (Psalm 90:10). Moses asks rhetorically who can know the depth of God’s anger and the extent of how greatly He is offended by sin (Psalm 90:11).
Acknowledging the centrality of the fear of the Lord and the darkness of life, Moses makes a series of appeals in Psalm 90:13–17, summed up in the concluding request that God establish the work of our hands (Psalm 90:17). Moses asks for several things:
• that God would return and have compassion on His people (Psalm 90:13)
• that He would satisfy them with lovingkindness so they might sing with joy and be glad in all their days (Psalm 90:14)
• that He would allow them to have glad days to offset the previous days of sorrow (Psalm 90:15)
• that His provisions would be evident to His people and His majesty would be seen by their children (Psalm 90:16)
• ultimately, that God’s favor would be on the people (Psalm 90:17a).
Concluding these requests, Moses entreats God twice to establish the work of our hands (Psalm 90:17). The repetition emphasizes the centrality of God’s establishing the work of our hands as a culmination of the previous requests. Moses doesn’t want his (or the people’s) labor to be in vain; rather, he desires that God look upon them with compassion and lovingkindness. Then God’s people can be glad rather than sorrowful. Human efforts are only worthwhile when one is acknowledging God as the Creator and Judge and recognizing that God is the one who gives mercy.
Moses understood that only God can establish the works of our hands—only God can make what we do meaningful and lasting—and that a right relationship with God is the necessary ingredient for a worthwhile life.