Psalm 90 contains more thoroughness than I gave it in my last post. So I’ll attempt to give here what it deserves. But, be warned: it’s a most sobering psalm because it contrasts God’s eternality with our frailty. And Moses, the psalmist, emphasizes our frailty.
That sounds like a bummer, especially at a new year’s start. But the psalm offers needful wisdom. In fact, looking back over 44 years of pastoring, I wish I had preached more about suffering and human weakness—not to depress, but to prepare better for the hard times.
THE ETERNAL GOD
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God (Psalm 90:1,2).
The psalmist addresses the Lord as our God. Thus, he views God, not merely as opposite to us (we are “dust” and “soon gone”; he is “from everlasting to everlasting”), but as the answer to our transience and frailty.
The Lord has “been our dwelling place”. With that, the psalmist offers us hope, which he’ll express at psalm’s end. As we pass through a troubled life, he is our home. We’re not homeless nor alone. We belong to the Sovereign Lord. In him we find safety and security.
You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers (Psalm 90:3-6).
Moses alludes to man’s fall (Genesis 3). The Lord said, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (3:19).
None of us escapes mortality. We’re members of a race condemned to die because of Adam’s sin, which we repeat (Romans 5:12). Nor can we escape life’s brevity. Biblical metaphors are disturbing: life’s like a dream or like grass renewed in the morning that fades and withers at night. Compared to God’s timelessness, our lifetime is agonizingly brief.
Through my teenage eyes, life seemed a highway stretching without end. Now, through 73-year-old eyes, life seems like a short trail.
For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance. For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh. The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you. So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart (Psalm 90:7-12).
British Old Testament scholar Derek Kidner comments, “[The] universal shadow [of death as a result of the fall in Genesis 3} is a standing reminder of our human solidarity in sin and the seriousness with which God views this.”
“ . . . by your wrath we are overwhelmed.” In Judges 20:41 the same word– overwhelmed”–is used of an army facing disaster. “ . . .our years come to and end like a sigh” . The words suggest we spend much time in great effort, but it all ends in feebleness. Moses asks, “Who considers the power of your anger?” Though we live under God’s anger for our sin, we rarely consider how powerful his anger is. Hence, Moses prays, “ . . . teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” In other words, “Lord, make us aware how short and fragile life is–and why–so we may become truly wise.”
Fools presume to be indestructible and not accountable to the everlasting God. Wise men and women realize God’s wrath hangs like a dark cloud over all humanity and soon we all succumb to death.
Turn, O LORD! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands– O prosper the work of our hands (Psalm 90:13-17).
God commanded, “Turn back [to dust], you mortals (90:3). Now Moses asks the Lord to turn–and show his servants mercy. Specifically, instead of days lived under God’s wrath, Moses prays for mornings when the Lord ‘s steadfast love will satisfy and bring days of joy. He asks that days of affliction may be balanced by days of gladness!
How lavishly beyond Moses’ prayer is Christ’s mercy! Instead of “many days you have afflicted us”, the apostle Paul calls these troublesome days “a slight momentary affliction”. And Moses’ prayer for balancing days of wrath with days of gladness becomes through Christ a great “weight of glory”. “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
The psalmist prays, not just for his generation, but for those who follow. Significantly, he calls what he asks for “the favor of the Lord our God”—the grace of God. But this Hebrew word can more dynamically be translated “delight.” “Let the delight of the Lord our God—which we don’t merit—be upon us . . . “ What a wonderful prayer to pray!
It grows more full-of-wonder with, “O prosper the work of our hands.” “Prosper” can more accurately be translated “establish” or “cause to endure.” Moses prays not merely for the Lord’s work to endure, but for ours not to die with us.
How could that be? Kidner notes that this psalm was often read at the burial of the dead. (In fact, forty-four years ago, I preached several of my first funerals from this psalm, which I conducted for unbelievers.) But coupled with Psalm 90, 1 Corinthians 15 was often read.
I don’t have time or space to include the entire chapter. But verses 47-58 powerfully summarize why 1 Corinthians 15 is the gospel counter-balance to Psalm 90. And why good work can prosper and endure beyond our lifetime.
The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
As we begin a new year, Psalm 90 soberly offers us wisdom on the transience and the trouble of our lives. But it concludes with a hidden hope that 1 Corinthians picks up and makes ours.
Yes, we soon die. But, in Christ, we share the life of God who is “from everlasting to everlasting.” Listen to the accompanying video and rejoice in praise to him!