Shabbat Shalom, this week is a very special Sabbath, Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of comfort or consolation. Shabbat Nachamu follows after Tisha B’Av, the day we mourn and remember the destruction of both Temples and other tragic events in Jewish history. This shabbat is named after the Haftorah portion for this week found in Isaiah 40, which speaks of God comforting His people. Shabbat Nachamu is a Shabbat to consider the nature of God and His promises to comfort and heal us through our suffering if we are willing to turn back to Him.
A Sabbath about suffering and comfort is especially needed in the times we currently live in. I don’t think I have to tell you we live in a time of profound economic, moral, emotional, and spiritual decline. Overseas we read about the suffering of Greece, the rise of a nation of Islamic Terrorists who enjoy routinely beheading Christians, Jews, and anyone else they choose.
We see corruption in all levels of governments worldwide and in the private sector. In our own country we consider it routine to hear of another senseless shooting, of people unable to find work for a wage that is livable, of crushing debt on the local and national level. Statistically suicide and depression continue to rise in recent years. I also don’t think I am alone in sometimes avoiding the news like a plague, fatigued from all the negative things going on in the world around us. Suffering and death is certainly not something new, it is something that has been with us since the fall and deaths of our first parents, Adam and Eve.
So in these times we find ourselves, for me personally there are several passages I turn to in scripture to find sense and hope. Lord willing, I would like us to spend some time considering one such passage that fits very well with this Sabbath of comfort and contemplation, my favorite psalm, Psalm 90. First I would like to talk about the context for this very unique psalm.
Psalm 90 is arguably one of the most unique and powerful psalms in the entire Word of God. Isaac Hayes in his book The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry, wrote, “The 90th Psalm might be cited as perhaps the most sublime of human compositions—the deepest in feeling—the loftiest in theologic conception—the most magnificent in its imagery.” It is the oldest psalm and the only psalm written by Moses in the book of Psalms. In this psalm we see Moses the man of God in a period of suffering, with the Lord distant from our people. Moses describes life in this world as brief, sinful and marked by deep suffering. The Lord is described in contrast as our eternal creator and refuge, our only hope in this world of suffering, and also our king and judge. The nature of humanity and God is contrasted beautifully in this psalm with a constant use of time.
The only direct context we have for this psalm is the inscription that this is,
A Prayer of Moses The Man of God
Moses was one of the greatest prophets that has ever lived, but here we see him described by a very unique title, The Man Of God. This title is only used in the Torah for Moses and is given to him because of his close and faithful relationship with the Lord. Moses was a faithful prophet of the Lord and the closeness of his relationship with God is described like that of a friend, with the Lord speaking to him face to face. How many people can claim that the Lord speaks to them as one speaks face to face to a friend? While in the New Covenant we have been given the same spirit as Moses, his relationship to the Lord is still very unique. So when Moses, who is described as a friend of God, talks about who God is, we definitely should be paying attention.
But who is Moses to talk about human life and suffering? A brief look at the life of Moses shows that it is marked by profound suffering. Moses journeyed 40 years in the wilderness with our people surrounded every day by death as the older generation died off through plagues and natural causes. For that entire generation to pass away in 40 years, thousands would have to die every day. Imagine watching so many die around you, their clothes miraculously preserved as their bodies fade away. Moses was clearly a man who understood life and death.
So who is this divinely inspired psalm of Moses for? This psalm is for anyone who has ever experienced suffering or is going through a period of suffering or trials right now. Psalm 90 is for those who have lost hope, who have been beaten down by the world we live in, who have experienced the sadness and despair that comes from a world marked by evil. Psalm 90 is a psalm for those who want to understand why we die and how we are to live. It is a response to Carpe Diem, YOLO, and mindless living. Psalm 90 is a psalm of hope, hope for a life that has a meaning beyond the years we live it, hope that we can experience the peace and joy of the Lord, and hope for the servant greater than Moses, the Messiah, the Son of God.
With some context given lets now dive into this psalm properly. We begin with the first two verses:
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.
The first two verses of this prayer are a powerful declaration of the nature and reality of God. Moses, the author of Genesis, describes the Lord as our creator and that He has always existed. Before the Earth was formed there was the Lord, the only true God. Moses also describes the Lord as our dwelling place, a place of safety and refuge in every generation. For all those who are the Lord’s people He is an eternal place of refuge. We see the Lord as a refuge throughout scripture, preserving His people through saving the family of Noah, giving Abraham a son, and in the lives of the other Patriarchs.
With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm the Lord rescued our people from the Egyptians. Even today we can see the Lord as our dwelling place, every nation that has ever risen up to crush the people of God has been destroyed, from the Egyptians to the Romans.
With the reality and power of the Lord beautifully illustrated Moses then turns his attention to human beings in verse 3.
3 You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
The Lord is our place of refuge and our creator, but He is also the one who returns us to dust, the one who causes us to die. Now in the English this seems to be a straightforward reference to Genesis that we were made from dust and that to dust we will return, but it goes much deeper. The word used for dust in this verse is Dakka, which has the sense of being crushed, like how a person breaks pottery. It is a word that means to be broken, not always just physically but also broken in spirit.
So the Lord is not only a place of refuge, He is also the one who crushes us and calls humanity to turn back to Him.
Moses continues his prayer as he looks inward and contemplates the time of God and the time of Man.
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.
Moses quickly moves from the eternality of God to the briefness of our human lives. Our lives are so very short and temporary, we are compared to new grass in the wilderness which will sprout up and then die before a single day has passed. We tend to think of life as long, but in the presence of God our lives are but a single drop in the vast river of eternity.
It is a humbling experience to consider the briefness of our lives and Moses is definitely not done with this theme. So Moses has repeatedly told us that the Lord causes us to die but has yet to directly tell us the reason for death. The question of “Why do we die?” is something asked by each one of us throughout our lives. Numerous religious leaders, philosophers, and scientists have tried to answer this question, but God’s Word lays it out very simply in these next two verses:
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.
We die because of the great anger of the Lord. The anger of the Lord has the imagery in the Hebrew of fiery breath. There is a picture painted in these verses of human lives as grass, being consumed quickly by the fire of the Lord’s anger. This is a rather stark picture being painted in these verses.
I still remember reading this psalm for the first time as a teenager and being taken aback by it. I immediately thought the Lord was too harsh and the bluntness of Moses’s prayer made me angry. Why does the Lord have to be so harsh? Why can’t He just be my place of refuge? Why do we have to die in such a way? The answer is in verse 8, because of our sin. Our deaths are not just because of our outwardly known and admitted sins that are set out before Him but our secret sins as well. This verse is one that still makes me uncomfortable and I think that is a healthy reaction. Each of us may be willing to admit to some of our sins, to others, and to the Lord, but it is our secret sins, the sins that no one knows but us, that are also laid out before Him.
In the wonderful, perfect, and endlessly bright light of the presence of God there is the totality of all our sins, outward and inward, open and hidden. I think it is a natural when coming to these verses and this imagery to want to push back and minimize the nature of our sins; at least that was my experience.
When I first read this psalm I would freely admit that I sin, but I said to myself that I am no dictator, or killer, or any one of the many people we remember as a persecutor of the Jewish people during Tisha B’av. I am not like the people I see every night on the evening news. They I can understand passing away under God’s wrath but what about myself and other people I considered good? As I wrestled with this passage, I found myself in Isaiah 64 and forced to admit that all my so-called good deeds that I did on my own were really not as good as I wanted to believe:
All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
I could avoid God’s Words through Moses but I could not avoid His Truth in the rest of His Word. Maybe this has been your experience as well when coming up to a passage you really don’t want to hear? But we are not done yet, the Lord continues through Moses:
9 All our days pass away under your wrath;
we finish our years with a moan.
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.
You don’t need to be a Biblical scholar or even a believer in God to understand the Truth in these verses. Even in the time of Moses, thousands of years ago, the human life expectancy was 70 or maybe 80, as it is today. Not much has changed since the time of Moses and for all our technological advances we still have roughly the same lives that are marked with troubles and sorrow. I remember being in Highschool in my Junior year talking with one of my favorite teachers about how fast time seemed to be moving, every year older I become the faster time seems to move.
We are not given the context for the Lord’s particular anger towards our people at this time, but the Torah has numerous events that would suffice. Even after seeing the power of the Lord, our people still continued to sin and doubt, they were unable to save themselves from their nature and we cannot either on our own. So what must we do?
11 If only we knew the power of your anger!
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due.
12 Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
It is in these verses we reach a major turning point in this psalm. Most of what Moses has described up until this point can be understood from observing life around us. The world around us declares the reality of a creator who had to exist before this world was created. We all know one day we will pass away and we have all been touched by sorrow and troubles. While we may minimize and argue about our sins, very few people would claim to be perfect. But what are we to do with this knowledge? Moses understands that He cannot save our people from our suffering. He turns to the Lord and asks Him to give us a heart of wisdom. He asks the Lord to teach us, so that we would understand deeply our nature and the anger of our righteous Creator.
But what does it mean to number or count our days? In one sense it is to understand the briefness of our lives in this world, that our time slips away and all our money won’t another minute buy, to quote Kansas. But Moses asks in the Hebrew for the Lord to teach us to number our days correctly. So this means there is a correct and incorrect way to number our days.
When we confront the briefness of our lives and the troubles they contain there are a variety of responses. One of the major incorrect ways to number our days is to run away from these truths in exchange for distractions. Our culture encourages and depends on the mindless consumption of pleasure, that we should distract ourselves from our current condition with movies, music, games, television, and the internet. Several years back I was having a conversation about this psalm with Elli Marks and jokingly I told him that Psalm 90 was Moses’s response to YOLO, a phrase which stands for, You Only Live Once.
Thankfully YOLO has slipped out of popular culture, but for a period of time you could find all sorts of people doing dangerous and foolish things and justifying it sometimes seriously with the phrase YOLO. You only have one life so why not spend it doing whatever you enjoy even if it is risky? We all die anyways so why not just enjoy whatever time you have? YOLO is just a new name for older phrases like Carpe Diem, that we should seize the day, never mind specifying what exactly that means.
So if YOLO and our popular culture are the incorrect ways to number our days what exactly is the correct response to the briefness of our lives? Moses asks the Lord for a heart of wisdom and true wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord, understanding and respecting our Creator for who He is and what He has commanded of us. The Lord asks us to return to Him, to acknowledge our sins and to come before Him for instruction and help. If we do this then our lives will be completely changed. It is at this point we come to the hope of Psalm 90, hope that is not dependent on our strength or knowledge but in our Creator and our judge.
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.
Moses asks the Lord to return to His people, to show His compassion and unfailing love to those who have returned to Him. Moses knows that the Lord will return, the only question is how long will it be? Though life will still have suffering and troubles there is a change when the Lord is with you.
Even for all the years we have seen trouble we can still sing for joy, a joy that is dependent on the goodness of God, and not our present circumstances. Returning to the Lord is returning not to empty pleasure