Monday, July 25, 2022

Moses' Tolling of the Death Bell (Psalm 90)

Permit me to use a little sanctified imagination in explaining this Psalm. The scene is the Wilderness of Sinai. It is years since the spies returned to Kadesh-Barnea with their evil report. Now the people are still trekking around the desert but getting nowhere in the process. It is an exercise in futility.

Every morning a reporter comes to Moses’ tent with a fresh report of casualties. Deaths, deaths, deaths, and more deaths. Obituaries are the commonest item of news, and the desert seems to be an expanding cemetery. Every time the people break camp, they leave another field of graves behind.

On this particular day, Moses the man of God has had all he can take. Overwhelmed by the mounting toll, he retreats into his tent, prostrates himself on the ground and pours out this prayer to God.

Psalm 90:1-2 In the midst of so much transience and mortality, he first finds relief in the eternity of the LORD. While all else fades and vanishes, God is unchanging, a home and refuge for His people. From all eternity and to all eternity, He is God, “infinite, eternal and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”

Psalm 90:3-4 In stark contrast to God’s agelessness is the brevity of human life. It seems that God is constantly issuing the order, “Return to dust,” and a never-ending line trudges down to the grave. To One who is eternal, fallen man’s original life-span of about a thousand years is no more than a past memory or a fraction of a night.

Psalm 90:5-6 Even to Moses, human life seems as evanescent as sleep. You sleep, you dream, you awake, and yet you are scarcely conscious of the passing of time. Or to change the figure, life is like grass—fresh and green in the morning, then faded and withered by evening. As Spurgeon said, it is “sown, grown, blown, mown, gone.”

Psalm 90:7–10 While all death is a result of the entrance of sin, Moses realizes that what is happening in the desert is a special visitation from God. All the soldiers who were twenty years or older when they left Egypt will die before they reach Canaan. The tolling of the death bell is a sign that God is angry with His people because they took sides with the unbelieving spies instead of marching into Canaan as Caleb and Joshua had encouraged. Their iniquities and secret sins are ever before Him, a constant irritation and rankling. As a result, the Israelites are living under the somber cloud of His anger, and overwhelmed in the churning waves of His wrath. Some, it is true, live their allotted span of seventy years, and some even as much as eighty. But even in their case, life is a weariness. One ailment follows another. The smallest tasks are an effort. And soon the pulse beat has stopped, and another one becomes “the missing face.”

Psalm 90:11-12 The man of God stands in awe of the power of God that has been awakened in anger. Who, he wonders, can reverence Him adequately when one considers the immensity of His wrath? This much is sure: it should make us value every day of our lives and spend each one in obedience to Him, and in such a way that it will count for eternity.

Psalm 90:13-14 Moses pleads with the LORD to return to His people in mercy. Will His anger burn forever? Won’t He please have compassion on them and satisfy them early with His mercy that they might live out their remaining days in a measure of tranquility and happiness?

Psalm 90:15-16 Now Moses pleads for “equal time,” that is, he asks for as many years of gladness for Israel as the years of affliction and trouble they had seen. They had already seen His power displayed in works of judgment; now he asks that the Lord show the other side of His countenance; that is, acts of grace.

Psalm 90:17 Finally, the intercessor asks the Lord to look in favor on His chosen earthly people and to make them fruitful in all their endeavors: “Yes, establish the work of our hands.”

Traditionally Psalm 90 has been a favorite reading at Christian funerals. And not without reason, because it reminds us of the shortness of life and the need to redeem the time or buy up the opportunities. But the Psalm does not breathe out the comfort and assurance of the NT era. Christ has brought “life and immortality to light through the gospel.” We know that to die is gain; it is to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. And so the somber and dark outlook of the Psalm should be replaced by the joy and triumph of the believer’s hope in Christ, for now death has lost its sting and the grave has been robbed of its victory. The believer can sing:

    Death is vanquished! Tell it with joy, ye faithful;

    Where is now the victory, boasting grave?

    Jesus lives! no longer thy portals are cheerless;

    Jesus lives, the mighty and strong to save.

Moses asked God to alleviate their sorrows and bring refreshment to the people. Because life is short, and most of their lives had been spent striving in the wilderness, Moses asked God to show them compassion. Likewise, we should not be impatient for Christ to come, for although it seems like a long time, it is not so long for God. In the meantime, we should keep our lives in accordance with God’s ways, that we might be happy and joyful during the brief time we spend on earth.