“Life is Long, but Life is Short” – Psalm 90

I still can’t believe this actually happened. This is so depressing and humiliating. While cycling, I got passed by an old lady on a bicycle!  Here’s the truth: though it’s not entirely rare for me to get passed by another cyclist out there where I ride, honestly, I think I pass at least 3 to 4 times more people than pass me. No joke.

Just before it happened, I was thinking about how my regular cycling on the Western Maryland Rail Trail would be a good illustration for this sermon series finale. And then she went roaring by. And I thought, “I need to have a picture to use for the sermon introduction.”  So I tried to catch her, but I couldn’t.

Understand, this was not any just ordinary old lady – like the proverbial gal with a cane that you assist in walking across the street. No, this one was really fit. She had all the gear and looked – other than what I could see of her face and hair as she roared past me – all the part of a totally fit, young athlete. But still … how could this happen?

But regarding riding a bike on the Western Maryland Rail Trail from Big Pool to 14 miles past Hancock – a total of 24 miles one way – I can give you some good advice. You can jump on at the beginning … at 6 miles … at 10 miles … even at 13. What is smart to do is research the weather in advance, noting the wind direction and then choosing to ride so that the wind is behind you as you finish.

  • I can tell you where you can stop for a break … or for a snack.
  • I can advise you about where all the tree roots are that have damaged the pavement and made for some very unpleasant bumps if you’re not aware of them or if they’re hidden in the leaves. You need to stay to the left from miles 6-8, but be on the right between markers 9+10.
  • And I even know a number of the regular riders and runners who are out there, having become friends with quite a few.

And this illustrative sort of long-distance-riding advice is what I trust you’ve been able to glean even just a bit from our weeks together in this reflections series, applying some of it to the long-distance ride of life.

But is the distance ride of life really long?  Or is it actually short?  I would submit that the answer is that it is actually both!  So the title today is: “Life is Long; and Life is Short”.

And I have begun each week of this series by asserting both a theme, as well as a statement that describes the content for that Sunday. And so …

Theme – At the same time, our lives are in various ways both very long and very short.

Statement – There is wisdom in consciously numbering our days so that we may live a productive life for God’s glory.

And surely we should desire and value the idea of living a life that is productive regarding the things of eternal values. In several places, the Scriptures speak of those who are merely existing in this world as “mere men” … just going through the motions of attempting to live the happiest life possible and looking to find as much joy as possible in the things they find interesting. They may be – and in fact, usually are – very nice people; but they do not have an interest in thinking about how to use their days in this world to be a part of something that lasts longer than this world. And it actually is amazingly easy for Christian people to fall into this routine of mere existence and fleshly pursuits.

I am mostly going to talk about the fleeting and passing nature of life. In earlier messages in this series I did address the idea of the length of life – doing so in those several teachings that talked about God’s work in our lives to teach us to trust Him. There we spoke of the idea that God does not always fill our dreams and grant us one rapid success in life after another – blessing us always at every turn. Rather, God will sometimes delay fulfillment of His blessings in order that He might do some other work in our lives. That divine work is to often cause us to have to depend upon Him more thoroughly – the #1 thing God most desires of us.

A summary is that God often allows things to happen to us, in order that things can develop in us, in order that things can happen through us by His power. We should understand that God has His own timing in our lives, and especially early in life we should resist allowing the panic that the appearance of life passing us by to cause us to take control in a way that does not exhibit faith in our Heavenly Father.

So again, today is focused more upon the fleeting nature of life and the rapid passing of the days, weeks, months and years.

Think about how quickly times does pass by…

  • It is already 18 years since the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11/01. None of our youth or children can remember what to most of us feels like just a few years ago.
  • Yesterday was 30 years ago already that the Berlin Wall fell. Wow!
  • It seems like only a few years ago that we moved to Maryland and built a brand new house. Now I’ve replaced the decks and am constantly needing to repair the aging roof shingles that blow off.
  • I remember when our first son went to high school – thinking about the next four boys’ years doing the same … realizing that the five of them would be in the same school for 16 out of a period of 17 years. That seemed like it would be forever! And now I consider that this lengthy period came to an end over 6 years ago!
  • Last Sunday, I hosted that college reunion I talked about a couple weeks ago – of Da Boys! Nine families got together and we went around a circle to share what has happened over the years since we were last all together in Philadelphia in the 70s. It took several hours, because it was a combined total of recounting over 360 years of history!

Yes, “life is a snapshot” – that is a working title I used for this passage when preaching about it in the past, most recently at TSF on New Year’s Day Sunday – 1995!  And so we turn today to the 90th Psalm where the writer has some very practical advice for us about perspectives to maintain in a transitory world.

A prayer of Moses the man of God. … 90:1 – Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.

Last week as we talked through Psalm 73 on the theme of God is all we have, and all we need, that Psalm also had what is called a “superscription.”  There it was said to have been the work of Asaph – a temple musician in Israel. And you may be quite surprised here to see that this Psalm is credited as having been written by Moses!  We remind you that this is not simply a publisher’s note, or something like that. These superscriptions are a part of the inspired text. We have every reason to believe that this was indeed a writing of Moses; and it is the only Psalm credited to him. Compare verse 1 to the writing of Moses in Deuteronomy 33:27 …

The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.

Moses Background – As we read through this Psalm, I’m sure you will agree that it was very likely written in the latter stages of Moses’ life. Remember, his life had three stages of 40 years – growing up in Egypt in the household of Pharaoh, then hiding in the desert with the sheep, and finally leading Israel out of Egypt before wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. Certainly this writing comes from that last segment when the unbelieving generation over age 20 that failed to trust God to conquer the Promised Land would die off. This is evident by …

… a constant mentioning of death.

… an emphasis upon the wrath of God.

… the viewpoint that punishment is the wage of sin.

So Moses was surrounded with death. Let’s run some numbers …  

  • 603,550 men at the Exodus from Egypt (Numbers 1:46)
  • 2,000,000 or more in the total nation of Israel
  • 1,200,000 would die in the 40 years of wanderings
  • 30,000 per year
  • 82 per day
  • 1 person every 17 minutes

This would give Moses some particular insight into the fragility and brevity of human life! So keep this background in mind as we go through the Psalm.

We are going to highlight three perspectives about the brevity of life in the first 12 verses, followed by reading a finale prayer that is timelessly practical for even us, today.

Perspectives about the Brevity of Life …

  1. Our lives are brief in comparison to God’s eternality. (1-6) even the longest of lives does not add up to very much by comparison to God.

90:1 – Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.

2 Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

We see here the eternality of God expressed in three ways …

  • The experience of every generation … From before Israel, dating back to the first humans in the garden and up to the patriarchs of Abraham/Isaac/Jacob/Joseph, and beyond to the generations in Egypt to the time of Moses and Aaron – every generation could testify that the one and only safe refuge in life was God. Like we talked about last week, there is nowhere else to go, but also nowhere else you need to go. Nothing better has ever been found than abiding in God as your true home. You know how after a rough day you are so relieved to get safely to the comfort of your home, where you can relax and be at peace? That is a picture of the security that exists in our relationship with God.

 

  • God’s existence before the oldest of physical things … The mountains are often seen as the veritable picture of the oldest things in creation. In Proverbs, wisdom is spoken of as being eternal, saying it this way … Before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth. And we have the same viewpoint and use the similar expression, perhaps when speaking of an elderly person by saying that “he is as old as the hills.”

 

  • Eternally, from everlasting to everlasting … This is an ancient expression that essentially says “as far as you can go out of sight in one direction to as far as you go in the other direction” … that is how long God has existed. There is no end that can be seen, because there is no end. And of course, that is beyond the ability of our minds to comprehend.

So God is eternal, but man by comparison is transitory …

90:3 – You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”

4 A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.

5 Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—they are like the new grass of the morning: 6 In the morning it springs up new, but by evening it is dry and withered.

There are four comparisons here that show the brevity of man’s life …

  1. We are like dust, because we are dust.
  2. A very short period of time – a millennium – only 1000 years
  3. Like standing against a flood.
  4. As lasting and permanent as grass.

Dust – that’s sort of depressing!  You can’t make much out of dust, unless you are God. And that is what we are made of, and our bodies will turn back into that very substance. Actually, there is what I call a “dust cycle” about human life …  

  • We are made from the dust – Gen. 2:7 – Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
  • Because of sin we have to serve the dust of the earth for a living – Gen. 3:17 – “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.”
  • God helps us, however, remembering that we are dust – Ps. 103:14 – … the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
  • God returns man to dust – Ps. 90:3

1,000 years – How long is that to God? What is its relative value?  (verses 4-6)

  • Like yesterday … a memory … it has no real substance.
  • Like a watch in the night … In college I sometimes worked an overnight shift as a security guard called the “graveyard shift.” Nobody really knew much about it or even that it was happening.
  • Like the grass – the night moisture makes it flourish. But the sun gradually dries it up all day long, and by night can be withered.

So, our lives compared to God are like a snapshot, very transitory, because …

  1. Our lives are brief because of God’s fury toward sin. (7-11) Because of God’s righteous character, His justice demands that He must judge sin.

90:7 – We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation.

8 You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.

9 All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan.

  • Our sins are an open book to God. Though we make think they are secret, He is aware of them all. The light of God’s presence breaks into the closets of our lives. As a nation, Israel had learned of God’s righteous judgment of sin.
  • The extent of human life is compared to a moan, a sigh – a mere inhale and exhale.

90:10 – 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. 11 If only we knew the power of your anger! Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due.

  • Here is stated the normal expanse of life … from 70 to 80 years. And then it is gone; it flies away … even as we have an English language expression that “time flies.”
  • Some live longer than the normal lifespan, some shorter. There is no moral equivalence that good people live longer. What it says is that, even if you live longer years, it is a relative mixed blessing. Even the best of years will be filled with the common troubles and sorrows of life in a broken and sinful world.
  • This portion of the Psalm rings with the same tone as the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes … for example in 11:9 where he said, However many years anyone may live, let them enjoy them all. But let them remember the days of darkness, for there will be many. Yes, even at its best, there are plenty of sorrows to experience personally and to witness in others all around us.
  • The one thing that makes it all have some meaning and perspective is to be connected to God and to His perspective. When we understand the bigger picture, there is bigger perspective. What seems like injustice is truly temporary. The knowledge of the wrath of God toward sin should propel us also toward holy living and godly respect.

But now the Psalm becomes exceeding practical. Having seen the FACT of our transitory lives (as compared to God’s eternity), and having seen the REASON for it (the issue of sin inherited), we now are given practical advice as to our current NEED …

  1. Our need is to number our days. (12) Moses is saying here that there would be great benefit for us in having an accurate understanding of the length of our lives … to do the math …

90:12 – Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

This is the climax verse of the Psalm – all of the preceding material points toward this one major point about how to live with the reality of a transitory life … to literally number our days. This means to think about how much time you actually have. And though this may sound like an especially grievous application to those who are particularly older than others, again, even for the youngest, the numbers of years are really not that many. And the older people in our church family can tell the younger ones, time really does pass remarkably fast. There is a limit to what is available to us to invest and accomplish the things that have eternal value.

And what is the goal?  It says in this verse 12: that we may gain a heart of wisdom. So what is that?  This is an awesome Hebrew word that is used here:  Chokmah meaning a wisdom that comes from living and experience … shrewdness, skill, competence and prudence. This is the stuff you learn along the way from the school of hard knocks, though it is also the stuff you can gain from others who learned it from their school of hard knocks.

Actually, this is what I’m trying to do with this whole series on Reflections on the Christian Life. I’m trying to share Chokmah with you – skill in living. This is such a central idea that I’m grieving now that I did not name the series: “Chokmah: Skillfully Living the Christian Life.”

Applications

Theologically Speaking – the goal is to gain wisdom. How do you do that?  It says in Proverbs 9:10 – The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. We need to, yes, understand His wrath toward sin and respect and honor Him, being aware also of the wonderful grace given to us in Christ that should indeed compel us to most highly value skillful and dedicated living.

Generally Speaking – realize how short life really is and stop putting off doing that which really does need to be done now. It is easy in life to think (beginning as a Christian teenager) that there is time in college to get serious about living for God.  And then, in college, to think, “I’ll live for God when I get into my career.”  Before long, it gets postponed to “when I have a family.”  Next, it is “when the kids are growing up”… and then, “after I retire I’ll have the time.”  Then finally, in what has seemed like a mere passing of a couple of years, we are looking at soon passing into eternity.

My parents had an oft-quoted Christian saying hanging on the wall of our dining room during my childhood years… “One life twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.”

Specifically Speaking – to literally count our days, as the Psalm reminds us of our lifespan. And whatever that number is, we should devise a plan to make that time count with righteous living and service for God. Even if the number is small, it is a number, and there is time to work for God.

The best way to do that is to jump on board with what God is doing in this time and place. This is the era of the church – God is building the church of Jesus Christ until the Savior returns again. This is His program. We have places for you to get involved. Perhaps there needs to be a reconsideration of the calendar of life – so often filled with the busyness of life activities that are nice enough, yet devoid of eternal merit and value.

The final five verses are a practical prayer that is timeless.

Moses recognizes the sorrows of the world, but also God’s goodness. The prayer seeks God’s loving favor upon us as we go through our days, that we may experience His perspective and joy in the midst of the challenges, even down through the generations that will follow us.

90:13 – Relent, Lord! How long will it be? Have compassion on your servants. 14 Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.

15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble. 16 May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children.

17 May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands.

It was exactly 300 years ago that Christians began singing a famous hymn of the faith – composed by Isaac Watts – that was based upon the 90th Psalm…

O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come. Our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.  

Before the hills in order stood, or earth received her frame. From everlasting Thou art God, to endless years the same.

A thousand ages in Thy sight are like an evening gone. Short as the watch that ends the night, before the rising sun.

O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come. Be Thou our guide while life shall last and our eternal home.

Discussion Questions for Week 9

As you reflect on your life right now, does it seem long … or short … or a mix of both?

Do you find that you have regrets at this point of your life that you did not make more specific and intentional plans to invest in things of eternal value at earlier times?

What are some ideas that come to mind as to how you might “number” the rest of your days to live with “chokmah” – skill in living?

If you were writing a series called “Reflections on the Christian Life”, can you think of any other major topics or categories that you would have included beyond those we’ve covered these past two months?

This entry was posted in Reflections on the Christian Life and tagged by Randy Buchman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed multiple hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and have been a sportswriter for various publications and online venues. My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with the Antietam Battlefield Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

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