Scripture: Psalms 90:1-17
Fitting for New Year’s Eve or last Sunday of the year
Sermon prepared by Rev. Gary VanLeeuwen, Georgetown, ON
Why does it seem that the older we get the more quickly the years pass?
Someone once explained it: When we are five years old, each year is 20% of our lives. When we are 50 years old, each year is just 2% of our lives. “It’s all relative,” this person said.
It makes me wonder: what if the majority of people experienced their 500th birthday? That would mean that each year is a mere 0.2% of their lives. And if we would live to be 5000 years old, that would mean that each year is just 0.02% of our lives. That would make a year seem to fly by.
The theme that runs through Psalm 90 is “time.” Listen again to the references:
- From everlasting to everlasting (for all eternity)
- A thousand years are like a day
- a watch in the night (about 3 hours)
- morning and evening (a day)
- 70 or 80 years (the normal lifetime)
There are more references than these, but these are the main ones.
As we look at these references to time, we will notice that the psalmist is helping us put things in perspective so that we can live our lives appropriately.
Background of the Psalm
It is helpful, when reading a psalm, to try to determine when it was written and who wrote it and for what occasion. Sometimes it is impossible to tell, but with Psalm 90 we have some helpful information in the superscription. According to the superscription this psalm was written by Moses, and that makes Psalm 90 one of the oldest psalms in the Bible.
Moses lived millennia ago, and he had the privilege of living in a very unique period of the history of God’s people. As we are well aware, Moses lived during the time of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. This was the great salvation story of the Old Testament, and God’s people referred back to it often, much like we refer back to the death and resurrection of Jesus as a turning point in our history. God was doing great things in the time of Moses.
But even though God was doing great things, the experience of God’s people was not always positive. We don’t know exactly when Moses wrote Psalm 90, but it is very possible that he wrote it sometime in the last 40 years of his life. The Israelites had already been freed from Egypt, and they had already once been at the border of the land that God had promised to them. But, because of their unbelief and faithlessness, God turned them back and forced them to wander in the desert for 40 more years. During that 40 years every person who was over 20 years old at the time of the Israelite rebellion would die and would be buried in the desert. Moses, because he sinned as well, was told that he would not enter the Promised Land either.
This setting for the psalm helps us understand why it can appear to be so negative. We have to be honest when we say that Psalm 90 does not have a whole-hearted optimistic view of life. There seems to be some disappointment and even disillusionment with how we as human beings experience the life we have been given.
In fact, the psalm does seem somewhat pessimistic. However, as we read it more closely, we will notice that the pessimism can also be seen as realism. And, if we are realistic about life, we are better equipped to deal with it.
To look at this psalm, we are going to divide it into parts. I encourage you to keep your Bibles open as we look at the individual verses that make up this psalm.
Verses 1-2 are a statement made by Moses to God. “Lord, you have been our dwelling place forever. You have always been God to us.” This opening statement tells us what Moses thinks about God. The word, “dwelling place,” is used most often to describe a remote place of safety where wild animals like lions and jackals go at the end of their day for safety and rest. The wandering Israelites must have certainly seen those very places as they wandered in the deserts, and they must have envied the wild animals. Here they were, a homeless band of refugees, without a home, while the wild animals had a place to stay.
As Moses begins to pen the words of this psalm he admits that while the Israelites did not have a place to call home, God is that place. He is the one who provides the safety and rest that we normally attribute to dwelling places, places like homes and home towns and land masses within the boundaries that make up our country. God is that for us, Moses states.
And then we see the first reference to time. God has always been that. While we might not experience God in that way, that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t provided us with safety and rest. Our problem, when we don’t experience that in God, is not God’s problem. It is ours. When we don’t experience God as our dwelling place, it’s because we are probably finding our safety and rest elsewhere. God has always been our dwelling place.
These first two verses serve as an opening statement. But then the question is asked: “So what?” So what if God is our dwelling place forever? What difference does that make?
It may seem a bit arrogant to ask the question in that way, but it seems that Moses anticipates a bit of arrogance in his listeners. The Israelites with whom he was dealing every day were an arrogant people. Just because God provided himself as a dwelling place didn’t make the Israelites trust him more.
In a sense, people today are a lot like the Israelites of old. While many people recognize that God is powerful (think about how many people turn to prayer when times get tough), they don’t really trust him as they should in daily life. And perhaps, even though we are Christians, there are times when our trust in the Lord is not as it should be. And that makes us a bit arrogant.
We do need to hear the answer to the question, “What difference does it make that God is a place of safety and rest for us?”
To tell us Moses turns to a discussion about time. We will see as we look at following verses that he compares God’s experience of time with ours.
In verses 3-6, Moses’ first comparison has to do with our perception of time. He speaks of human beings returning to dust. That speaks about our mortality, a mortality that is founded in our sin. We were created from the dust of the earth, and because of our sin we will return to it. We are mortal people. We don’t live forever.
But what about God? Moses gives us a picture: God perceives a thousand years as if they were yesterday, or like a watch in the night.
I am sure that most of us can talk about some of the things we did yesterday. If I would ask, “What were you doing at 2:00 yesterday afternoon?” most of us could answer that. We could give a brief summary of the day. We would remember most things.
That is God’s experience of the last 1000 years. A thousand years, something incomprehensible to any of us because we haven’t experienced that length of time, is like a short day to God. It wasn’t all that long to him. It was only a thousand years, not much compared to the totality of his existence.
Often times, when a year ends, we spend some time reflecting on what happened. What did we do? What were some of the major events of the year? How has the world changed? Often times we can’t remember even significant events, things like tornadoes or wars or changes in government unless we are reminded. Then we say, “Right, that did happen in this past year. I had forgotten about that.” We might forget about the past year, and we certainly can’t remember everything that happened in the last decade, but, thankfully, we can remember yesterday.
God can remember the last 1000 years like they were yesterday. And he doesn’t need a news magazine to help him remember significant events. They are right there in his immediate recall. He experienced it all.
We, on the other hand, are like grass which grows up and then disappears. Our lives are so brief compared to God’s. Compared to God’s experiences, we last but for a day.
This is humbling, isn’t it? In 500 years even our names will be forgotten except, perhaps, in someone’s family tree or perhaps in a few references in some electronically stored ancient newspaper. It’s humbling. We are such a small part of history, an insignificant part, really.
Moses makes this comparison, not to belittle us, for God knows our names, and he calls us each his child, if we belong to him through Jesus, but rather Moses makes this comparison because he wants us to know that God has things in control.
What difference does it make that God is our dwelling place? A lot. God oversees whole swaths of history, and he does so easily. We may not understand how history is unfolding or comprehend why it is unfolding as it does. But we do know this: God knows what is going on. He has it under control.
God is the overseer of our lives. Perhaps we can think of him doing the same kind of work a general does in the army. A general can see the bigger picture. He (or she) knows where the resources are, where the enemy is, and what needs to be done to win the battle. The soldier in the trenches is given orders, and he must carry them out. Often times the soldier does not understand the reasons for the orders, but he must trust that his general knows best. A soldier also must believe that his general would not put him needlessly in harm’s way.
It is the same way with God. We do not always understand why God allows many things to happen in history, but we can be sure that when he calls us to live for him, and when he teaches us how to do that, he knows what is best for us and the world. Sometimes our experience of life is not all that positive. We can’t understand why we suffer. But we must trust that God sees the bigger picture, and our suffering is not pointless. He can and does use our struggles for the greater good, and we may never understand how he does it. We simply need to trust him.
When confronted with the brevity of our lives in comparison with God’s everlasting existence, we are called to simple trust and faith. We will never understand everything, but God does. Therefore, we can trust him completely to be our dwelling place.
Now, in verses 7-12, Moses goes on to talk about the life of an individual. So far he’s been speaking in general terms, but now he moves things to my life and your life.
“We are sinful people, and because of our sin, we don’t live long on this earth. Life can be pretty troublesome in this sinful world.”
It is helpful to remember that every single adult among the Israelites had received a death sentence. Not one of them who was over 20 at the time the Israelites first stood on the border of the Promised Land would live to enter into that land of rest. They would all die in the desert. Life, for them, must have seemed pretty futile.
It is true that our lives are rather brief, and they can seem very futile. Probably every one in this church right now has fewer decades than they have fingers and thumbs. Very few people live beyond 10 decades. And those decades are pretty much determined for us.
- The first two and a half decades are usually dedicated to discovery, learning, and education.
- The next four are usually dedicated to working, raising a family, and establishing a sense of permanence around ourselves.
- The last decade and a half, if we have that, we spend in retirement and realizing that life is not so permanent after all.
When we think about life in terms of decades, it’s not all that long.
What is worse, we can easily waste those decades. We don’t get time back even if we make mistakes with it.
I think Moses realizes this very well. I’ve alluded to it a couple of times, but it’s helpful to remember what got the Israelites wandering in the desert in the first place. Recall that when the Israelites first came to the banks of the Jordan River and were about to enter the land, Moses sent 12 spies to see what things were like there. When they returned 2 of the spies were confident that God could give them the land while 12 were not very optimistic. These 10 led the people to think that God couldn’t possibly do what he had promised. As a result God gave the people what they deserved: if they believed that they couldn’t enter the Promised Land even with his support, he would send them back to the desert.
What happened there was that the people made the mistake of not trusting God with their lives. And the result: their lives became futile and meaningless.
Often times people (mostly men), when they reach about the age of 50 or 55 realize that they have been working hard for a lot of years but think they haven’t accomplished anything significant. They find life boring and monotonous. So they try to spice up life. Sometimes they do something relatively harmless like buy a red sports car, or sometimes they try to spice up their lives by doing something far more harmful, like developing a relationship with someone who is not their wife. They have reached a mid-life crisis, one brought on by the belief that life is meaningless.
The Israelites could have avoided their punishment and we can avoid mid-life crises if we learn to use our time appropriately. Thus, Moses prays, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
We could reword that saying, “Teach us to make the best use of our time so that as we do we can become wise.” If only the Israelites had thought about things for a moment. All they had to do was think back to the years that God had been with them in the past.
- He had defeated the Egyptians so that they could be free.
- He had blessed them with safe passage through the Red Sea.
- He had given them manna in the desert and water to drink where there had been none.
- He had given them victory over their enemies.
If only they had numbered their days, if only they had counted the ways in which the Lord had been with them – things would have gone so much better. Instead of wandering in the desert, they would have enjoyed life in the Promised Land. But they didn’t number their days. They didn’t think about the past, and they didn’t think about the brevity of the future. Rather, they thought only of the present.
While it is true that we cannot change the past and we shouldn’t worry about the future, at the same time we cannot live as if the present is the only thing there is.
As Christians, we do need to think about the past. Our very existence as children of God is rooted in the great historical event at the cross. When Jesus died for our sins, he made freedom from sin possible. He turned away the wrath of God and brought it on himself. When we put our faith in Jesus Christ, His victory over sin becomes part of our history.
That changes how things are for us. We must reorder our priorities. We must work for things that matter, not for things that don’t. We pray that God will teach us to number our days aright so that we can be wise.
Now notice in verses 13-17 that Moses doesn’t say, “so that we can have full and meaningful lives.” That is already true for us. He prays, “Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love.” It’s not the things we do that give us satisfaction; it is the love of our God and heavenly Father.
Moses concludes the psalm with a prayer: “Establish the work of our hands for us; yes, establish the work of our hands.” That’s the bonus. Having accomplished something that lasts does not fulfill us. Only God fulfills us. But when we do God’s work, the work that we do becomes permanent. And we can take great pleasure in that. When we do God’s work, our accomplishments become eternal.
Moses wants us to know that we will never find fulfillment or satisfaction from life by the things we do. If we seek to be fulfilled by the things we do, we will become disillusioned with a life that seems increasingly futile. Rather, we find our fulfillment by resting in the safety of God’s love. We find fulfillment in the fact that God is our dwelling place.
This is the point that Moses wanted to make all along. In all the rigors and struggles of life, at the end of the day, the only place we can turn to in order to be truly safe and at rest is the Lord. There is no one else who can make life fulfilling.
I mentioned earlier that the word for “dwelling place” is often used to describe the place where lions and jackals have as their home. It is remote, but it is safe. After a day of scouting, stalking, hunting, and struggling for survival, the wild animal returns to its lair and enjoys a time of rest.
In life, we need that place to return to time and again. God is that dwelling place. He always has been. If we go to him, life will be full. If we ignore him, we’ll always be searching. God is our dwelling place. Let us be confident of that.
Order of Worship
GOD CALLS US TO WORSHIP
Hymn #176:1,2,4,5 All the Earth, Proclaim the LORD
Call to Worship – Psalm 100
We confess that God, our Creator and Saviour, has been with us. He has been our help and our strength in every situation. Sometimes we realized it, and other times he was with us and we didn’t even think about him. But he is faithful.
And our faithful God, as he has done so many times before, extends us these words of greeting: May grace, mercy and love be yours in Jesus Christ the Son and in the giver of life, the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Prayer (Silent or Spoken)
Hymn #43(SNC) Lord, Be Glorified or Ps H #473 To God Be the Glory
GOD RECONCILES US TO HIMSELF
Call to Confession: Ps H #255:1,2 God, Be Merciful to Me
Word of Assurance
Prayer for Reconciliation: Ps H #255:3,4 Gracious, God, My Heart Renew
Call to Discipleship: Psalm 51:13-17
GOD SPEAKS TO US IN THE WORD
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture Reading: Psalm 90
Message: “Dwelling in the LORD Always”
Prayer of Application
Hymn: Ps H #90 O God, Our Help in Ages Past
WE EXPRESS OUR THANKSGIVING
Prayer for God’s People and the World
Hymn: Ps H #291 May the Mind of Christ My Savior
GOD BLESSES US AND SENDS US INTO SERVICE
Doxology: Ps H #632 To God Be the Glory
Father, may your peace, your love, and your grace go with us as we enter into your service in this world. May we remember your faithfulness and may we respond by being a blessing to others even as you bless us. Amen