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:
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 interpreting the Bible properly requires allowing the context of the passage to drive our conclusions. If we depart from the context, then we inevitably 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 of verse three.
The context of Genesis 6 is clearly not focused on the issue of mankind's longevity. In fact, the subject of how long may humans live is nowhere to be found in the story of the flood. Then we must ask why would God insert an out-of-place statement about limited mankind's longevity in verse 3 of the narrative only to return to the story of the flood in verse 4? Interpreting verse 3 as a statement about human lifespan makes no sense contextually and is an example of eisegesis.
Therefore, the context of Genesis 6 leads us to conclude that God must have been saying something about the flood itself in verse 3, and looking at the larger narrative of Genesis 6-7, this conclusion fits perfectly with the rest of the story. At the start of Chapter 6 the Lord explains the need for the Flood arising out of world events. Demonic interactions with women were polluting the human seed, which threatened the seed promise of the Messiah.
So in the first half of v.3 the Lord declares He cannot allow these dire circumstances to exist infinitely saying His Spirit will not strive with men forever. God must eventually act to correct this problem or else mankind itself will become extinct. So in the second half of v.3, the Lord sets the limit of 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 all mankind's future on earth. In 120 years, a flood would come and erase all life from earth.
In v.3 the Lord said man's days were numbered, referring to this coming judgment upon all mankind. Even today, we use a similar phrase to refer to 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 and 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 ask Noah to build an ark during this time to save himself and his family and the animals of the earth, so Noah needed to know how long he was being given to complete this task.
Therefore, based on the context of Genesis 6, we must interpret verse 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 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 very existence of people who live 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:
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).