Bible Answer

Did God limit man’s life to 120 years?

I saw an article that said that the oldest living man is 123 years old. How can this be since God said that man will not live longer than 120 years? 

A. The view that God limited the life of human beings to only 120 years is a misconception stemming from a wrong interpretation of Genesis 6:3:

Gen. 6:3  Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.”
 

Notice this verse does not explicitly teach that mankind's lifespan was limited to 120 years. The text simply says that "man's days shall be one hundred and twenty years." That phrase is open to interpretation, and although it is common to find teachers claiming this passage limits man's lifespan, there is room for another, simpler, and more sensible interpretation. 

First, remember that proper interpretation of the Bible properly requires allowing the context of a passage drive our conclusions. If we depart from the context, then inevitably we will force our own viewpoint into the text, which is a form of misinterpretation called eisegesis

So let's consider the context of Genesis 6 before we suggest an interpretation for v.3:

Gen. 6:1  Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them,
Gen. 6:2 that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose.
Gen. 6:3 Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.”
Gen. 6:4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.
Gen. 6:5  Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
Gen. 6:6 The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.

Even this brief passage is enough to make clear that the context of Genesis 6 is not a discussion of mankind's longevity. In fact, the subject of how long humans live is nowhere to be found in the story of the flood at all. Therefore, we must not inject that idea into the meaning of verse 3. Interpreting v.3 to be a statement about human lifespan is both nonsensical (given the context) and irrelevant to the narrative overall. It is an example of the error of eisegesis. 

As we consider the context of Genesis 6, what does v.3 mean? The only proper conclusion is God was saying something about the timeline of the flood itself, and as we look at the rest of the narrative of Genesis 6-7, we find that this conclusion fits perfectly. 

At the start of Chapter 6 the Lord is explaining why He will bring a Flood upon the earth. Specifically, demonic forces have been interacting with human women in an effort to pollute the human race, which threatened the seed promise to bring a Messiah through a woman (see Gen 3)

In the first half of v.3 the Lord declares He cannot allow these dire circumstances (i.e., demons mating with women) to exist indefinitely, saying His Spirit will not strive with men forever. God would eventually act to correct this problem or else mankind itself would be threatened by the demons' actions. So in the second half of v.3, the Lord sets a limit on His patience. He declares mankind's existence on earth (under these circumstances) will be limited to 120 years. God was not speaking of a single person's lifespan but of the time until the flood would come. In 120 years, a flood would come and erase all life from the earth. 

Notice in v.3 the Lord said that man's days "were numbered," referring to a coming judgment. Even today, we use a similar phrase to say that someone's end approaching (i.e., we say "his days are numbered."). This is what God meant in verse 3. Mankind's days on earth were numbered to 120 years, then the flood would come. [For an in-depth discussion of the seed promise, please listen to our Genesis Bible study.]

Why did God declare this limit to Noah? Because God was going to tell Noah to build an ark during this time to save himself and his family and the animals of the earth. Therefore, Noah needed to know how long he was being given to complete this task (i.e., 120 years). 

So based on the context of Genesis 6, we understand v.3 to refer to the number of years remaining until the Lord brought the flood upon the earth. God said He would only tolerate such extreme sin on the earth for another 120 years, at which point He would wipe out the earth with a flood. This is how we know that the flood came exactly 120 years later.

There is a second reason we must reject the suggestion that verse 3 is God's declaration limiting the lifespan of human beings to no more than 120 years: such an interpretation contradicts other scripture. As we read further in the book of Genesis, we come upon many people who lived much longer than 120 years, even after the Lord God made His declaration in Genesis 6.

For example, Noah lived another 600 years after God's declaration, and Noah's sons also lived hundreds of years after this declaration. Even several generations later we still find men like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob living well past the age of 120 years. Even in modern times, we can find well-documented examples of people who have lived beyond 120 years. The existence of even a single person who lives longer than 120 years disproves the interpretation that God set a limit of 120 years on human lifespan, or else it would make God a liar and suggest that His word is not the final authority in Creation. 

Clearly, God's word is the final authority in the Universe and nothing in Creation can frustrate the plans of God. In fact, the Bible states plainly that God's word will always come to pass once it has been declared by Him:

Is. 55:11      So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; 
                   It will not return to Me empty, 
                  
 Without accomplishing what I desire, 
                   
And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.

 

Therefore, interpreting Genesis 6:3 to mean mankind will not live past 120 years is not possible, because it contradicts other scripture and erodes confidence in the power of God's word. Any interpretation of scripture that diminishes confidence in God's word cannot be correct. We must choose the interpretation that fits the context and harmonizes with the rest of scripture, which is that God set a limit of 120 years before He would bring the flood on earth.

By the way, this example illustrates how the improper interpretation of scripture can gain widespread acceptance through repetition from the pulpit even when that interpretation plainly contradicts other Scripture. Such poor biblical interpretation is more dangerous than it seems, because it reduces a believers' confidence in the authority of Scripture, especially when these manmade contradictions are brought to their attention (i.e., as when a person see a news report of someone living past 120 years and begins to question the trustworthiness of the Bible rather than questioning the accuracy of the teaching they heard).