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Jan 6, 2011

Why Do We Only Live to 120?

Do you know the final age of the oldest person in modern history? I was reading an article recently about the death of another super-centenarian, or someone who has lived past the age of 110, and I was curious just how old any modern person has lived. The answer: 122 ½ years, by a French woman who finally died in 1997. So I guess red wine, bread, and cheese can’t be that bad for your health.

Other than this exceptional record breaking lady, the next oldest confirmed lifespans are all 120 years or less. This made me wonder why, even with all of our modern advances in medicine, health, and safety, do we still live no more than 120 years? Turns out, the most likely answer is simply because God said so.

Sure enough, in Genesis 6:3, “the LORD said, ‘My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.’" There it is, right there in the Bible. Now to be fair, there are two views of how to interpret this verse. Some read this as God prophesying that he would destroy the world with the flood within 120 years of making this statement. Others take this more universally to mean that, eventually, man’s lifespan would be limited to 120 years. A third possibility (which I prefer) is that the verse could have both meanings and be fulfilled both in an immediate sense, when the world was flooded and most men on earth were destroyed, and also in an eventual but permanent sense, as human lifespans were reduced, eventually becoming limited to 120 years or less.

In doing a little review of the Old Testament, I found it interesting that we don’t just have to rely on Wikipedia to confirm that people only live to 120. No, we can see this come to pass in the scriptural record itself where we can read how God’s decree immediately began to be fulfilled and within just several generations became the rule for all of mankind.

We read in Genesis that Adam lived 930 years. Methuselah is the oldest recorded human in the Bible as he lived to a ripe old age of 969! Genesis 5 records several lifespans in the 900s, including many men who didn’t even become fathers until they reached the suitably mature and responsible ages of at least 65 to well over 100. Can you imagine the experience of living for nearly a full millennium?

By chapter 6 of Genesis, man’s sin nature was already grieving God’s heart. In verses 5-6 we read, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” This not only caused God to flood the world, but afterwards to limit the lengths of our natural lives. This was not the first time our lives were limited either, as in the Fall we lost our immortality and were cursed to bodily death. But it seems that God found that giving us 900 or more years to do evil in the world was still too much, so he limited our earthly lives to 120 years in order to contain the extent and impact of our depravity and destruction.

After the flood, we see a record of this decree coming to pass. Noah was already 600 when the flood came, but lived another 350 years to reach 950 before his death. But then his descendants’ lifespans immediately began to decrease.

Shem lost 350 years off his father's long life and only lived to 600. Arpachshad lived to 438, Shelah to 433, and Eber to 464. Peleg and Reu only lived to 239, Serug died at 120, and Nahor only saw 148 years on earth.

Abraham lived to 175 and his wife Sarah to 127. Isaac died at age 180 and Jacob only lived 147 years. Joseph, even despite the great Egyptian medical advances at his disposal, still died by 110.

Finally, Moses had a life of exactly 120 years. Perhaps God’s decree limiting our lives was finally fulfilled by the time of Moses. Fast forwarding to another patriarch, we know that King David died at age 70. After that our lifespans have plummeted even lower throughout the ages only coming back up to averages in the 70s in fairly recent times. Still, no matter where or how you live, your days are almost certainly going to be kept to within 120 years, just as God said.

So how does this stroll through Biblical genealogy apply to us today? I believe it shows us a very essential truth about God which would be wise and beneficial to remember.

God’s promises will always be fulfilled, his word will always come true, but in his perfect timing it may take years or even generations to be fully accomplished. Does this mean that God is unreliable or untrustworthy? Of course not! In most cases, God’s “delayed” promises are simply a matter of his grace and long suffering on our account, giving us more time to repent or understand or obey. This grace is awesomely displayed in 2 Peter 3:9:
“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
I trust God to fulfill all of his promises. I look forward to seeing them realized and to see prayers answered. But I need his daily strength in order to wait patiently on some promises still unfulfilled. These are a few of God’s promises I’m still looking forward to seeing fulfilled someday.

“’Your children hasten back, and those who laid you waste depart from you. Lift up your eyes and look around; all your children gather and come to you. As surely as I live,’ declares the LORD.” – Isaiah 49:17-18

“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” – Phil 3:20-21

“He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.” – Isaiah 25:8

“’Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’" – Rev 21:3-5

“’Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” – Rev 22:20

So what about you? What promises do you hope to see answered by God? I don’t know about you, but I don’t really want to live much past a hundred anyway.  120 years would be more than enough for me, thank you. As Paul wrote in Philippians, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Let your limited life in this world remind you not only of our depravity and need for a savior, but also of God’s faithfulness to all of his promises and decrees.


  1. The 120 years in Genesis Ch.6, unfortunately for this article, has nothing to do with man's age limits. Many people lived over 120 years after Noah. Abraham and Isaac were almost 180 each. Shem was 600. The 120 years was a reference to the time left before the judgement on the earth due to the strange ongoings between humans and the "Benai'a'elohim" in Gen 6:1-4.

    1. Thanks for your comment Trevor, but if you read the whole article I think you'll see that I included ages for Shem, Abraham, and Isaac. I also mentioned the possible interpretation of God's coming judgment. Besides, the main point I was making was how God's decrees and promises can be counted on, even if they sometimes take some time to be fulfilled.