A New Year’s Plan: Consider and Act (Psalm 90)
A man went in for his annual checkup and received a phone call from his physician a couple of days later. The doctor said, "I'm afraid I have some bad news for you." "What's the news?" the man asked. "Well, you have only 48 hours to live." "That is bad news!" said the shocked patient. "I'm afraid I have even worse news," the doctor continued. "What could be worse than what you've already told me?" the patient stammered. "I've been trying to call you since yesterday."
That’s not a message that any of us want to hear, especially at the start of a new year. The first day of a new year is a day of optimism. But we all do ourselves a service if we remember that our time here is limited. All of us have a limited number of New Year’s Days. They may seem endless, but they’re not. One of the wisest things we can do at the beginning of the year is to live in light of this perspective.
If you go on Google Earth, you can see a picture of the whole earth spinning in space, as if you were looking at earth from a spaceship. Then, slowly, it finds your location, and it feels like you’re flying through space towards where you are. First you see your country, then your province, then your city, and then your street. Sometimes when you move to a new location, it’s still stuck in your old one, so you can press a button at the bottom that says “Find Me.” It will send you back in the air, shift you to your new location, and then zoom back in so you can see where you are.
What I want to do is to press the “Find Me” button in our lives today. To do this we’re going to use Psalm 90. The first day of a new year is a perfect time to think about where we are right now, and to chart a course for moving forward.
Psalm 90 is going to ask us to consider two things, and then to take two actions. That’s it. So let’s get going.
First: Consider two things.
This psalm has 17 verses. 11 of the 17 are spent getting us to consider two realities. In order to take the action prescribed in verses 12 to 17, we need to take in the realities this psalm presents us in verses 1 to 11. Before we can navigate to where we want to go, we need to understand where we are right now.
Notice that this psalm was written by Moses. It was written in the wilderness during the 40 years that Israel was wandering in the dessert. Some two or three million people left Egypt; a whole generation of people had to die as they made that 40-year trek. There would have been constant funerals. As Spurgeon said, you could track the progress of the nation by the graves they left behind. In the middle of this, Moses reflects on two realities that were true then, and they’re just as true today. It’s ironic that to find our location today, we need to turn to something written thousands of years ago. But there’s no better place to turn.
Psalm 90 wants us to find our current location by understanding two things.
First: God is eternal. Verses 1 and 2 say:
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.
Think about this. Moses zooms out to consider time. A couple of years ago, the Art Gallery had an exhibit on King Tut and Egypt. I remember walking through the exhibit, marveling at the age of what I was seeing. Some of the exhibits are over 4,000 years old. I couldn’t help but think about Moses as he grew up in Egypt.
We think Moses is old, but back then Moses zooms out and says helps us see time from another perspective. Before Egypt, before there were any mountains, before there was even an earth, God was God. God has no beginning. He was God before the mountains were brought forth. He is God from everlasting to everlasting, with no beginning and no end. God exists from eternity and to eternity.
Not only that, but enormous periods of time are insignificant to God. Read verse 4:
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
This is amazing. A thousand years ago, the Normans hadn’t invaded England. Vikings were establishing small settlements in North America. A Chinese artisan invented ceramic movable type printing. It was still the middle ages. It was a vastly different time from now. Moses reminds us that a thousand years ago to God is like yesterday to us. In light of God’s eternality, a thousand years is like a day to him.
Moses wants us to grasp the eternality of God. Consider this as we begin 2012. The past year has gone fast for a lot of us. Nobody here knows what the next year is going to bring. But God stands outside of time, and a thousand years is insignificant to him. For people living in tents in Moses’ day, or for people living in homes today, God can be our dwelling place in all generations, because God never changes.
Second: Your life is short and difficult. Moses next invites us to consider our lives. In contrast to God, who is eternal, Moses says two things about our lives. First, he says that our lives are short. Verses 5 and 6 say:
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.
A human life - even the longest of human lives - is insignificantly brief. It’s like a watch in the night, a flood, a dream, or some grass that sprouts in the morning and dies at night. When I lived in North Bay one summer, they had these things called shadflies that would come out. They were everywhere. You couldn’t drive your car without turning your windshield wipers on. But these shadflies live for only one day. In parts of the world, they’re called one-day flies. The psalmist says that this is a picture of our lives. Our lives are brief. God is eternal, but we’re only here for a fleeting moment, and then we’re gone.
Not only that, but Moses says that our lives are hard as well. Read verses 7 to 11. The point that Moses makes is that our lives are hard, and they’re hard for a reason. Why? Because of God’s anger. Remember why so many were dying in the wilderness. They had rebelled against God after the spies had returned from Canaan, saying that they could not enter. God said, “I, the LORD, have spoken, surely this I will do to all this evil congregation who are gathered together against Me. In this wilderness they shall be destroyed, and there they will die” (Numbers 14:35). They were living and dying in tents in the wilderness as the consequence of sin. We’re not living in tents and dying in the wilderness, but life is still unbearably hard. We are still dealing with the results of human sin, and the mess it has made in this world. We are still dealing with God’s righteous anger against human rebellion, high treason against his reign.
So consider this today. This goes against how most of us think most of the time, which is exactly why we need to hear it. Consider these two things, and you’ll be much better for it. Consider that God is eternal, and that your life is short and hard.
Secondly, take two actions.
Nobody really wants to be told that God is eternal and that your life is short and hard, unless it’s for a reason. And in Psalm 90 it is for a reason. This psalm is meant to get us to take action. Specifically, two actions.
First: Number your days. Verses 10-12 say:
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.
Andy Stanley tells the story of a man who bought 1,300 marbles on his 50th birthday. He figured that, if he lives to be 75, he would have about a 1,300 Saturdays left. So every Saturday he goes and takes a marble out of that jar and throws it out. It’s a reminder to him that time is fleeting, and that he only has a short time left.
I don’t know what you need to do, but how will you remind yourself to number your limited days? To remember that your life is short? Steve Jobs once said:
Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
Second: Seek God’s mercy. Read verses 13 to 17:
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!
In light of the brevity and difficulty of life, Moses asks for three things:
First, pray that God would relent in his anger. Look at verse 13. This is really a prayer for the gospel. This is a prayer that God’s anger would not be the final word, that God would not pay us as we deserve. It’s a prayer that God would show us grace. It’s a prayer that has been answered in Jesus Christ, who bore the punishment for our sins and has given us grace upon grace. If you haven’t put your trust in him and his gospel yet, then do so today. Thank God that he has already answered this prayer in Jesus Christ.
Second, pray that we would be satisfied by God. This is one of the best prayers you could ever pray. Our hearts were meant to find their ultimate delight in God. I love how John Piper puts it: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Or, as C.S. Lewis put it, “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing." You’ve just come through Christmas. Christmas has all this build-up. It promises that we will find happiness in gifts and family and food. And every year we’re a tiny bit disappointed as we come out of Christmas, because as good as these things are, they’re not enough to really satisfy us. So pray this year that you will find your heart’s deepest hungers met in God, because he is the only one who can truly satisfy.
Finally, pray that God’s favor would rest upon your life. Pray that God would show you his favor in the coming year. Ask for God’s blessing on your life, that God would establish the work of your hands. Without his help, you can do nothing.
There is no better way to begin 2012 than by considering two things: that God is eternal, and that our lives are short and hard. And then there’s no better way to respond than by numbering your days and praying for God’s mercy on your life. God’s eternal, and you’re not. So make the most of your limited time, and seek God’s mercy.