A Prayer for Life in the Wilderness
Tenth after Trinity
Psalter: Psalm 90 (ESV)
A Prayer of Moses, the man of 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.
You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
You sweep them away as with a flood;
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.
For we are brought to an end by your anger;
by your wrath we are dismayed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.
For all our days pass away under your wrath;
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Return, O Lord! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands!
Is the glass half empty or half full? Your answer reveals paradigm you use you interpret the things that happen in your life.
What paradigm should we as God’s people us to understand our lives? Psalm 90 provides one Biblical paradigm. We are liberated from the Egypt of sin. We are on our way to the perfectly blessed Promised Land. Now we are in between, traveling through the wilderness of this present world.
1. The Psalm and Its Setting
Psalm 90 is the only Psalm attributed to Moses. He wrote the Psalm sometime during Israel’s journey through the wilderness. They were no longer slaves in Egypt, but they lived with dangers, deprivations, temptations, and hardships.
When Israel approached the Promised Land, Moses sent 12 spies to check it out. Two returned and reported that the land was all that God had said and that Israel should immediately take possession of it. But ten said that the Canaanites and their cities were too strong and that it would be impossible to conquer the land. The people sided with the ten and rebelled against the Lord. The Lord judged them for their unbelief, and said:
... your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and of all your number, listed in the census from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against me, not one shall come into the land...But your little ones, who you said would become a prey, I will bring in...But as for you, your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, a year for each day, you shall bear your iniquity forty years, and you shall know my displeasure. (Numbers :14 28-35)
Moses wrote this Psalm knowing the whole first generation would die in the wilderness, and that it would be 40 years before the next generation would enter the land.
2. Man’s Mortality and God’s Eternality
Psalm 90 is often read at funeral services. Why? Because it straightforwardly, even brutally, faces the reality of mortality, and of the brevity and hardships of this life. Moses gives us pictures of who fragile and short life is.
You sweep them away as with a flood. The Indian Ocean tsunami in December of 2004 caused crashing waves and floods hundreds of yards inland. In 14 countries, 230,000 died. Mortality is a great tsunami that carries away all humanity without exception.
They are like a dream. Dreams can be so vivid, yet are so ephemeral. We can awake in a bad or happy mood, knowing our feelings are connected to our dreams, but we cannot remember what we dreamed. Our lives are like dreams - fleeting and transitory.
They are like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. Moses had seen brown clumps, renewed by overnight dew and in the morning showing promise of flourishing. Then the sun baked it all day, and it withered. So it is with human life, so strong and full of promise in youth, but so soon drained of health and then of life.
Even the longest lives are short: The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty. I had a friend in Pittsburgh who cared for his wife through years of dementia. Then she died, and he lost his life’ routine got depressed. One day he said to me, “You know I’m gonna die - soon.” He was in his early 80’s. As it turned out, he was wrong. He lived to be 97. But he died. No matter how many years the Lord gives us, they are not infinite.
Life, while we have it is hard: yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh. Moses saw a lot of hardship in those 40 wilderness years - the hardships he shared with the people as well as the burdens of leading a rebellious people. Most of us do not experience such unremitting hardship, but all of our lives are a mixture of joys and sorrows, ease and hardship. Then they are over. Our lives end, as T.S. Elliot said of the world, “not with a bang but a whimper.” We come to the end of life, having experienced weakening, gradual or sudden, and we pass away with a sigh.
Why did Israelites face such hardships? Why do we? Why did they die? Why must we? You return man to dust, and say, “Return, O children of man!” For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night. It was a particular fulfillment of what God had said to Eve and Adam, the foreparents of us all, “you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
The people of Moses’ generation were dying not only because of original sin, but also because of their particular sins. For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. The Lord had sentenced them to did in the wilderness because of their sins - public and private, open and concealed. Neither Moses, nor the people, nor we can argue with God about his judgment of the impenitent or his discipline of those who believe, because our sins are all known to God.
But who lives taking into a account the reality of God’s anger against sin? Who lives in the fear of the Lord? Who considers the power of your anger and your wrath according to the fear of you? The human tendency is to minimize our sin and to deny the rightness of God’s judgment. What, even we as believers fail to appreciate as we should, is that the only reason we are spared God’s wrath is because Christ accepted in our places what is due to us for our sins.
Is there any hope when life is so hard and transitory and so soon over? Robert Frost was thinking about something to ground our lives upon when he wrote, “We may choose something like a star, to stay our minds on, and be staid.” But it will take something more than a star to stay our minds. The only foundation for mortal man is the eternal God.
Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought
or ever you had formed the earth and
from everlasting to everlasting you are
We are mortal, but he is the immortal God. We are constantly changing, but he is the unchanging God. We are transitory, but he is the everlasting God. The fact that God is immortal, unchanging, eternal might be of no comfort to us. Knowing someone else is well but we are sick, someone else has a good job but we are unemployed, someone else has a happy marriage but ours is miserable does nothing to comfort us.
But in his blessedness, God is not indifferent toward us. He is not like the person who says, “My life is good, so what do I care if yours isn’t so long as mine stays good?” Despite our sins and our deserving his judgment, when we turn to him with faith in his Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior God is willing to be our dwelling place - our fortress in life’s dangers, our security in life’s uncertainties, our immovable Rock in life’s constant changes. He is our home in this world and the next.
3. God’s Mercy and Man’s Prayers
What can people living in this world’s wilderness pray for?
For wisdom. So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. We can pray that the Lord will help to take into account the brevity life and not to waste our lives but use them as we trust in and serve the Lord. The goal is not to live frantically but faithfully.
For mercy. Return, O Lord! How long? Have pity on your servants! When we sin against the Lord and come under his discipline, we can appeal to him to return his favor to us and to deal with us mercifully. David prayed for the life of his son; his request was not granted, but it was not wrong for him to ask.
For joy in God’s love. Satisfy us in the morning with your
steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our
days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil. The fact that our lives are hard, even if the hardship is discipline, does not mean we cannot live with joy. The source of joy is knowing that God loves us and always will. We can ask the Lord to help with St. Paul to live confident that nothing at all “can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
For our children. Let your work be shown to your servants and your glorious power to their children. We must not be shortsighted, concerned only for our own lifetimes. We can pray that our children will be more faithful than we, that God will do more glorious things for them and the church in the future than has been true in our time.
For permanence of our work for the Lord. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands! Most of us live very ordinary lives that nobody notices, and then we die. But, we can pray that the Lord will use our lives, despite their brevity, despite sins and failures, despite their seeming insignificance to count for the future of his kingdom people.
Life is short. Sometimes it’s hard. It ends. But don’t despair. God is eternal and your eternal home. Live a life of faithfulness by faith. “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).