Our Darkness is Never Darkness in Your Sight (Psalm 90)

During my second year at university I made a decision that impacted the rest of my life. I decided not to return to the Civil Service after graduation. The call to full-time Christian ministry was clear. I was excited to be accepted for training for the Anglican ministry. But there was just one problem. I was terrified of being expected to take funerals. But the Lord was gracious.
He removed my fears while at theological college in Bristol. Three months after our first daughter was born, Joanna’s father died suddenly. Then, just a month later, my own father died suddenly. At the age of 29 I became the oldest man in either family. In one month I gained all the experience I needed to be able to empathise with others. And a verse from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians took on special significance.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)

And that is the purpose of tonight’s service. And that is one of the reasons we are reading Psalm 90 together. This beautiful psalm speaks to us of the brevity of life in the light of eternity. It was the inspiration for one of the best known hymns by Isaac Watts,

“O God, our help in ages past”. Surprisingly, there is not a hint of despair or complaint, simply humble child-like submission and trust.  There are three parts to this little psalm. Each tells us something about God as well as about ourselves.

God’s Eternity and our Frailty (Psalm 90:1-6)
God’s Anger and our Sinfulness (Psalm 90:7-11)
God’s Mercy and our Hope (Psalm 90:12-17)

  1. God’s Eternity and our Frailty

“Lord, you have been our dwelling place
throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn people back to dust,
saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—
they are like the new grass of the morning:
In the morning it springs up new,
but by evening it is dry and withered.” (Psalm 90:1-6)

The psalm begins by introducing the awesome wonder of the eternal, everlasting, nature of God. He is both before all creation and behind all human history, “from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Psalm 90:2). Yet he is also, and has always been the “dwelling place” of all who acknowledge him. What does that mean, “dwelling place”?

It is the same word as is used in Deuteronomy 33:27, “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” So, in the uncertainty and in the frailty of life, God is our refuge, He is our dwelling place, the only place of safety and security. The psalmist then contrasts the permanence of the eternal God with our human frailty and transience. He uses the humbling word “dust” to describe our existence not once but twice. There is here a clear reference to God’s command in Genesis 3.

“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19)

We have no choice but to accept the reality of our human frailty, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” But we are not merely mortal, we are, by comparison, short-lived as well.  The Apostle Peter alludes to this in his second letter.

“But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” (2 Peter 3:18)

The Psalmist calculates an even shorter time span. He likens our life to one of the watches of the night (Psalm 90:4). This was a period of just four hours. Compared to the timelessness and permanence of God, human life is compared to new grass which bursts forth in the morning. But in the scorching sun and wind, has dried and withered by the evening.

This vivid metaphor emphasizes the brevity and frailty of human life. God’s Eternity and our Frailty (Psalm 90:1-6)

  1. God’s Anger and our Sinfulness

“We are consumed by your anger
and terrified by your indignation.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.
All our days pass away under your wrath;
we finish our years with a moan.
Our days may come to seventy years,
or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
If only we knew the power of your anger!
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due.”
(Psalm 90:7-11)

The second stanza moves from the wonder of Gods eternity to the dread of God’s anger.  What is the link? The story of Genesis explains that death and mortality were never part of God’s intention for creation. Sin and rebellion lead to death and judgement. We are mortal because we are sinful.

Unsurprisingly then, the psalm therefore explains human mortality as a consequence of God’s righteous displeasure at sin. Sin – the breaking of communion with God – leads to separation and death.

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.” (Romans 5:12)

There is here not only an honest realism about our behaviour but also a real apprehension as to the consequences. Apart from the grace of God revealed in Jesus, we live and die under the holy wrath of God. Our average life expectancy in the UK may now be 81.3 years and the best of them may not have been “but trouble and sorrow” but I think we would unanimously agree that we do indeed, “quickly pass”.  Notice these observations are made without bitterness or resentment. There is a sober realism here, an acceptance. We are destined to die. We live under the judgment of God, unless that is or until we find grace and mercy.

God’s Eternity and our Frailty. God’s Anger and our Sinfulness. Which brings us naturally to the third and final paragraph of this psalm which is a prayer.

  1. God’s Mercy and our Hope

“Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Relent, Lord! How long will it be?
Have compassion on your servants.
Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
for as many years as we have seen trouble.
May your deeds be shown to your servants,
your splendor to their children.
May the favour of the Lord our God rest on us;
establish the work of our hands for us—
yes, establish the work of our hands.” (Psalm 90:12-17)

Because of God’s mercy we have hope. Because God cares we can express our longings. Because God hears, we can pray. How should we pray? If the first stanza inspires adoration of the God of eternity, and the second stanza confession before a God who is angry, the third stanza invites us to pray to the God of mercy.

Adoration leads to confession then supplication. In these closing verses we have six short, succinct petitions. I’ve summarised them in three.

3.1 Pray for God’s Wisdom

“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12)

The numbering of our days is a lesson not in mathematics but in life-changing theology. Teach us not how many days we have left but teach us how to use the time you have entrusted to us. Wisdom comes from knowing and fearing God.  Life is so short, it is folly to ignore him.  When you receive a new and powerful prescription drug from the doctor, what do you do? You read the instructions. What do you do when you buy an piece of expensive new furniture, requiring home assembly?  You read the instructions. So, it is utter folly to disregard our Maker’s instructions. Wisdom is the one thing God delights to give:

 “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (James 1:5)

Pray for God’s wisdom.

3.2 Pray for God’s Perspective

“Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14)

“The joy of the Lord is our strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).
When the Lord answers this prayer we realize,
“in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28).

“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2 Corinthians 4:17).

Finding our fulfilment and joy in the Lord, and his perspective, transforms years of adversity. Pray for God’s wisdom, pray for God’s perspective.

3.3 Pray for God’s Blessing

“May the favour of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us.” (Psalm 90:17)

One of the tragedies of death is the way it so often interrupts our work and cuts short human achievement, especially when it comes early in life. But this is only true of work undertaken in human strength. Nothing that is accomplished for God is wasted. When God calls us to serve him, and he equips and empowers us to serve, even if only for a day, it will bear fruit, it will prosper, it will last for eternity. The brevity and frailty of life should constrain us to seek the wisdom of the Lord, to rest in the love of the Lord, and to entrust our work to the blessing of the Lord.

God’s Eternity and our Frailty (Psalm 90:1-6)
God’s Wrath and our Sinfulness (Psalm 90:7-11)
God’s Mercy and our Hope (Psalm 90:12-17)

Pray for God’s wisdom, for God’s perspective and for God’s blessing, especially on those you love and care for. Then you will indeed be able “to comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”

Let us pray (together).

“Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Relent, Lord! How long will it be?
Have compassion on your servants.
Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
for as many years as we have seen trouble.
May your deeds be shown to your servants,
your splendor to their children.
May the favour of the Lord our God rest on us;
establish the work of our hands for us—
yes, establish the work of our hands.” (Psalm 90:12-17)

 

This sermon draws, with grateful thanks, from John Stott’s, Favourite Psalms (Word); Michael Wilcock’s, The Message of Psalms 73-150 (IVP); Warren Wiersbe’s Prayer, Praise and Promises (Back to the Bible) and Stuart Briscoe’s Expository Nuggets from Psalms and Proverbs (Baker)

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