Three Prayers for a Short Life
I am the oldest of three brothers. My brother Jeremy was born when I was four, and Jared when I was almost ten. I loved them both of course, but because Jeremy and I were closer in age, he annoyed me more than Jared (because he was tiny and adorable).
I distinctly remember a period in my life when I realized that I was stronger than Jeremy, and that I could do things to him, and he couldn’t stop me. We had an apricot tree in our backyard and they were always falling to the ground. So I once tied him to our swingset and threw apricots at him. Another time I set myself the challenge of seeing how many times in a single day I could jump out and scare him enough to make him cry. It wasn’t constant—I did love my brother—but I enjoyed feeling like I was bigger than I really was.
Even if not everyone is as mean as I was, we all know what this is like—this desire to feel strong, and big, and capable; the desire to be limitless.
This is why we build skyscrapers and smartphones and space ships, why we build empires and have wars with those who oppose us.
From the beginning of our existence, human beings want to be bigger than they are.
But Psalm 90 does not allow us the luxury of this delusion.
Every year we spend the months of July and August in the book of Psalms.
The book of Psalms is a songbook, used by the people of Israel for millenia, and it is organized into five separate books. For the last few years we’ve been going through a selection from different books of the psalter; this year, we’ve arrived at Book Four, which covers Psalm 90 to Psalm 106.
So for our first summer psalm, we’ll begin at Psalm 90. It’s a sobering psalm, written by Moses, a man of God (as his mini-bio above the first verse says), whom God chose to escort his people out of slavery in Egypt, and through whom God gave his Law to his people.
What he says in this psalm is unsettling, but the fact that Moses is a “man of God” should help us trust what he says. God doesn’t content himself with telling us what we want to hear; he loves us enough to tell us the truth. And in his hands, that truth is always our good, no matter how unsettling it seems at first.
Moses spends a good deal of time giving us some pretty hard truths about ourselves and about God, and then he responds to those truths with three requests to God. So let’s look at what he says first, and then we’ll look at the three things he prays for.
God, Humanity and Time (v. 1-10)
1 Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
2 Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
3 You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
4 For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
5 You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:
6 in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
So in verse 1, Moses begins with an affirmation—a necessary affirmation, given where he’s going. He says that the Lord is the dwelling place of his people—not a refuge, which is temporary, but the dwelling place: the place where his people live.
And the reason why he can be a dwelling place for his people is because he is eternal.
Thinking about eternity boggles the mind, especially when you think of it in reverse. Not just the fact that God will always be, but that he always has been—with no beginning, and no end.
And it is precisely for that reason that God can be a dwelling place for his people. He is big enough to contain all that time could possibly produce, because he created all of it.
This is a comforting thought when seen in that light…but that’s not the only way to see it. And that’s not the only way we should see it.
Last week, Loanne sent me a link to a time-lapse animation of the way scientists predict our universe will end. It showed the continual evolution of our known galaxy, and then the known universe, until what they predict will be its end.
It started at the present, jumping forward one year every second, and then doubled its speed every five seconds; by the end of the first minute, it was at 25,000 years into the future. At three minutes, it was at the destruction of the earth by the death of our sun, 7 billion years into the future.
The video was thirty minutes long.
It showed the end of stars and galaxies, the creation and collision of black holes, and many more things I couldn’t begin to articulate.
It’s the kind of thing I usually love; but as I continued to watch what will (theoretically) happen to the universe over the next twenty gazillion years, I became more and more unsettled. Everything up to the end of life on earth was fine; but seeing twenty-seven more minutes of cosmic events still unfolding, with no life around to witness it, was suffocating.
It was the most effective horror movie I’ve seen in a while.
And it wasn’t even talking about eternity—just a really, really long time.
This is how Moses sets up his psalm, only in reverse. He sets up God’s eternality, and then turns and points the lens on us.
He compares human beings to God by speaking about time—the eternal God, compared to whom human beings are laughably temporary. It is the perfect illustration of the existential distance between us and God.
And Moses makes a clear link between the temporary nature of humanity and the wrath of God against our sin, our rebellion against him.
7 For we are brought to an end by your anger;
by your wrath we are dismayed.
8 You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.
He’s going to come back to this question of wrath for a minute, but just for a moment, consider why Moses brings in this question of sin and the wrath of God, when he’s talking about time. What does God’s wrath against sin have to do with how horribly fleeting our lives are?
If we remember the story of creation, death entered the world because of sin. In Genesis 3, after man rebelled against God because he wanted to take God’s place, God pronounced judgment on humanity. The last thing God says in his judgment against the man and the woman (in Genesis 3.19) is this:
19 By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
It is because of our sin, and God’s wrath against that sin, that man’s life has an expiration date. And Moses (who is also the author of the book of Genesis, if we believe what Jesus said in the gospels) obviously has that fact firmly in mind.
He says (v. 9):
9 For all our days pass away under your wrath;
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
10 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.
V. 10 is essentially Moses’s way of rephrasing the curse of Genesis 3—because of our sin, we are now condemned to short lives full of hard work. Compared to God’s eternity, our entire lifespans are scarcely a blip on the radar. In that video I mentioned earlier, seventy or eighty years wouldn’t even register. And knowing that fact puts a great many things into perspective.
Everyone knows how much more slowly time passes when you’re unhappy, or when you’re bored, or when you’re waiting for something. When you’re happy, the days fly by, but when you’re miserable, even a day can feel like an eternity.
Moses talks about the length of our lives, and seventy or eighty years feels like a long time, because their span is but toil and trouble—when you’re unhappy, time slows to a crawl.
He’s reminding us of this fact because all of us assume that our lives are much longer than they are. But no matter how long our lives feel when we’re unhappy, or when we’re waiting for something, or when we are in pain, compared to God, we are still as fleeting as a puff of air. The lifespan of the earth itself is nothing compared to God’s eternity.
This fact is profoundly unsettling to us, as well it should be. We are not meant to observe or think about transcendent wonder and feel good about ourselves. No one stands at the edge of the Grand Canyon and thinks, “I’m awesome.” You stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon, and you feel insignificant next to the grandeur on display before you.
So you see what Moses is getting at here. He is reminding us of God’s eternity, and of our temporality, and if we take time to truly and deeply consider these realities, we are crushed under the weight of them. Not just because of how small we feel, but because of why we are small.
We are small because we are created beings. We are not infinite, but finite. We are limited in our power. That is part of who we are as human beings.
But not only that, we have made ourselves far smaller still because we have sinned against a holy God. A God who deserves honor and glory and recognition for who he is, and whom we have rejected.
So when Moses thinks about the eternity of God, and his own incredibly short life, it is perfectly fitting that he be reminded of the sin which made his life so futile. V. 11:
11 Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?
I love how brutally honest Moses is. No one—even the most holy among us—is fully aware of these realities, of the fury of God’s wrath against sin.
So essentially, in this psalm Moses is trying to make himself more aware of these realities. He wants to understand them, and to feel the weight of his own very short life compared God’s eternity. And that’s interesting, because at least superficially, that is a very unpleasant weight.
Faced with the greatness of our God, the unimaginable immensity of his glory, we are crushed. We are as nothing.
So the question is, what do we do? How do we respond to such knowledge?
There really are only two choices, if we see the situation clearly. Either we let ourselves be crushed by the weight of despair (because what good is anything, if we really are that small?), or we turn to the only source of help we have: the God who is big enough to save us from the despair we feel.
Prayer 1: “Teach us” (v. 12-15)
So this is where Moses tells us how to respond to these truths he’s been laying out for us, these horrible facts of God’s eternity compared to the shortness of our lives.
There are three applications here, three responses, in the form of three separate prayer requests.
12 So teach us...
Before we look at what he asks God to teach us, we need to see the brilliance of where Moses takes this whole prayer. He sets out all of the reasons we have for despair, and rather than trying to talk himself out of that despair, he lays it all before God and says, “Teach me!”
It seems a bit counter-intuitive. Why would you look for help in the One who is crushing you? Why would you call out to the One who is the reason for your despair?
You do it because if God is big enough to crush us, he’s also big enough to protect us from being crushed. It’s the difference between being in a building and being under it. God’s “Godness”—his immensity, his eternity and power and wisdom and goodness—is the only sure refuge and dwelling place we have.
So placing himself under God’s care, Moses asks God to teach us.
It’s not a general request for general knowledge. There are lots of things we need to learn from God, but given what’s come before, there is one thing Moses wants to learn, along with all of God’s people.
So teach us to number our days…
I’ve had this conversation with our son on more than one occasion. He’s seven years old. He asked me how long he would live. I told him I didn’t know for sure, but healthy people can live anywhere between seventy and a hundred years old, sometimes even more, often a little less.
The funny thing is, I thought talking about death in this way would bother Jack, but it didn’t. Eighty years feels like an eternity to a seven-year-old, and the idea of death is a purely theoretical notion—kids think they’re invincible.
And for most of our lives, so do all of us.
We all know our lives are short, of course, but there’s a difference between knowing and knowing. In our minds, we know that we won’t live for very long, but most of the time we don’t feel it. We don’t feel the weight of imminent death rushing onto us.
That’s because most people, for most of their lives, feel relatively strong. No matter where they are, no matter what circumstances their in, the majority of human beings don’t realize how fragile they are until it’s too late to do anything about it. And no matter how many signs we have of God’s wrath against sin—sickness and death and suffering—we can never truly grasp it on our own.
In order to understand our mortality in any way which will make a difference, we need God’s help.
Moses knows this. He knows that no matter what he says about God’s eternity and our short lives, it won’t really sink in unless God teaches these truths to our hearts.
So he asks God to teach us to number our days, to realize how fragile we are, how small we are in the grand scheme of things.
But to what end? A simple knowledge of our own mortality, I would think, would simply cripple us. We’d never want to leave the house.
Moses wants to understand his own fragility for a very specific reason:
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
To put it simply, when we truly realize how short our lives are, we are able to see our lives more clearly.
First of all, when we realize how short our lives are, we begin to recognize the beauty in simple, ordinary things we tend to take for granted. We pay attention. We savor every time we get to see our kids laugh, every good meal, every sunny day, every good book, every act of kindness, because we realize that it could well be our last in this life.
And most importantly, when we realize how brief our time in this life really is, we want to make every moment count. We want to make the most of every opportunity. We want to make wise decisions. We don’t want to waste our time on things that don’t matter.
We can’t come by this kind of knowledge, deep in our hearts, outside of divine intervention.
We might think, Sure we can. People who have near-death experiences, or who have recovered from a serious illness, feel their own mortality in a way they couldn’t otherwise.
That’s true. But even these people (and I know several) often say that this awareness of their own mortality doesn’t last. They are very aware of the shortness of life for a time, but then after a while, as life continues on its course, they get numb to it. They fall back into old habits and old attitudes. They feel strong again, so it’s easy to forget how weak they once were.
We cannot make teach wisdom to our own hearts; we need God’s help. We need him to teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Prayer 2: “Satisfy Us” (v. 13-15)
13 Return, O Lord! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
So Moses goes back to what he was saying before—he reminds us of the crushing weight of God’s wrath against sin. He asks God honestly, How long is this going to last? How long are we going to have to suffer in a broken world? Have pity on us!
Most people, when asking God for this kind of pity, would simply pray, Make it stop. Let it all end.
But Moses doesn’t do that. He is very specific about what kind of pity he is asking for. V. 14:
14 Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Essentially, Moses prays for a reversal of the state we’re in.
Man rebelled against God, and because of that rebellion, we are subject to pain and suffering and very short lives.
Moses prays that all of that would go back to the way it was before sin. That God, rather than judging us, would satisfy us. That rather than afflicting us for our sin and allowing evil to come upon us, God would make us glad.
And that this gladness, this satisfaction, would not be temporary, as our lives are temporary. He prays that we might rejoice and be glad all our days, that we might be glad for as long as we’ve been miserable.
All any man or woman living today has ever known has been a short life in a broken world. So essentially, Moses says to God, “All we have known is brokenness, for as long as we can remember; so I’m asking you to satisfy us, for as long as we can imagine.”
This reversal he prays for is only possible if the sin which has broken us is taken away. You can’t reverse the effects of sin without solving the essential problem of sin.
This prayer is a prayer of faith. At this point in time, no one understood God’s wrath against sin better than Moses. It was to Moses that God gave his Law, with all of its numerous instructions on how to protect the people from God’s punishment, through repeated sacrifices and offerings. No one understood better than Moses both the reason why those sacrifices were necessary, and why they couldn’t solve the essential problem of sin.
And yet, he had faith that through the Law he had received, God would solve the problem of sin.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews says (Hebrews 11.23, 26):
By faith Moses...considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.
The “reproach of Christ” was the solution which the sacrifices of the Law could not be. It was God himself, becoming a human being, fulfilling the Law for his people, taking their sins on himself, and giving himself as the ultimate and final sacrifice for those sins. Christ died so that his people wouldn’t have to, and he did it once and for all.
And although Moses may not have known the details of how it would all play out, he had faith that God’s solution to the problem of sin—the reproach of Christ—was greater than all the treasures of Egypt. He had faith that God would satisfy his people with his steadfast love, that we would rejoice and be glad all our days. So that’s what he prayed for.
Prayer 3: “Work in Us” (v. 16-17)
Lastly, Moses prays that the work of God’s people would be the work of God himself.
16 Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
17 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!
There are multiple contrasts at play here that are impossible to miss.
The most obvious one is that in v. 16 he says, “Let YOUR work be shown to your servants,” and in v. 17 he says, “Establish the work of OUR hands.”
In other words, our work has to be his work. Our work will only be of lasting significance if it is done through his glorious power.
And then there is the simple contrast between the temporary nature of everything we do (as he spoke of in the first eleven verses of this psalm), and the lasting glory of what God does.
Once again, we see that we are horribly finite and temporary, and God is wonderfully eternal and powerful.
So Moses prays that God would take his work and apply it to our work. That he would take something which, under ordinary circumstances, would be flimsy and short-lived, and make it durable, and worthwhile.
And because of Christ’s work on our behalf, it’s finally possible. After all this time it seems we’ve spent working for nothing, finally we have the possibility of not laboring in vain. Finally, we can work for something which will last not only beyond our lives, but beyond our children’s lives, and their children’s lives.
In Christ, we work for something which will last forever, which will be of eternal significance.
This is a painful psalm. It is a psalm in which we are confronted with those aspects of our nature which scare us the most, which cause us to doubt the significance of anything we do, given just how fleeting it all is.
But we had to go through all of that pain to get to this assurance. Because otherwise we might be tempted to think that if our work succeeds, it’s our doing.
But it’s not, and that’s good news.
Only the eternal God can make something eternally significant. And now, in Christ (to quote Derek Kidner), “not only God’s work…will endure, but, with his blessing, the work of our hands as well.”
So as we kick off our time in the Psalms this summer, let’s do it right.
Let’s pray with Moses, that God would teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom. Let’s pray that he would satisfy us and make us glad, for all eternity, because of his Son’s sacrifice for us. Let’s pray that he would make our work his work, through his glorious power.
And if you don’t know Christ, I’d like to tell you something.
All this week, as I've been thinking about this psalm, and praying these prayers for myself and my family and my church, I’ve been praying for you. I’ve been praying that this psalm would unsettle you. That what Moses wrote here might scare you a bit. That God would make these words hit you, make you realize just how little time you have, and make you see that you have so little time because you—like all of us—have rebelled against a holy God.
I’ve been praying you realize these things because if we don’t see the problem, we won’t look for the solution to that problem.
And the solution, as I’ve already said, is Jesus Christ.
It is because he lived, died and was raised that we can truly learn to number our days, for a heart of wisdom. It is because he lived, died and was raised that we can have hope of lasting satisfaction in God. It is because he lived, died and was raised that we can work for something which will endure, because it’s not just us working, but God working in us, for his glory.
So remember what Moses did. He sat unsettled under these heavy truths until he was at the brink of despair…and then he ran to the only hope of rescue he had.
Let these words unsettle you this morning, and then run to Christ, our eternal Lord and Savior. Repent of your sins, and place your faith in him. And if you do that, know that these three things we are praying for are promised to you as well.