The other day I walked out of my home and I heard children chanting throughout the neighborhood: “2020 sucks.” I initially chuckled but then began to think about the ominous way everyone has come to view 2020. To be sure, this year has been one, for our generation, like no other of confusion and death. Almost universally we look with hope that 2021 will be better. But I fear we have not yet taken to heart what 2020 is saying to us. Have we taken to heart what is evidently a wake up call sent to us from heaven?
With this in mind, Psalm 90 stands out as quite possibly the most helpful song for us to think through the good, the bad, and the ugly of 2020. I will evaluate these categories in reverse to leave the reader with a good word of hope in the end.
Psalm 90 is the only psalm authored by Moses in the psalter and was written for the tribes of Israel in the wilderness who faced many sorrows on their way to the promise land. It’s a psalm that draws you into the pain that Moses experienced during wilderness life. Moses had come to see firsthand the sorrows of humanity, and the transiency life under the sun.
This psalm was most likely written against the background of Israel’s rebellion in the wilderness, as recorded in the book of Numbers. The Lord rendered a great judgment on Israel: “They shall surely die in the wilderness. We read in Numbers 32, “And the LORD’s anger was kindled on that day, and he swore, saying, ‘Surely none of the men who came up out of Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land that I swore to give (Num. 32:10).”
How devastating it must have been for Moses to watch an entire generation of Israel fall to death in the wilderness, unable to enter the land. Adding grief to more grief, Numbers 20 tells us that Moses’ siblings, Aaron and Miriam, died in the wilderness. All Moses knew was a world of death coming out of Egypt. Those around him whom he loved, the closest of his family and friends, died before his face. Can you imagine his pain? Do you know this sorrow as the sentence of death is executed everywhere before our eyes, even upon those closest to us? The closer it hits to home, the more we know Moses’ pain.
With this context, we can appreciate the grief of Moses in the following words: “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 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 (Ps 90:3-6).”
Moses is thinking of the curse pronounced at creation: “From dust you were taken, and to dust you shall return (Gen. 3:19).” This is the ugly reality of life. We are all dying. The wages of sin is death. Death knows no favorites, it comes for us and our children; it calls in a moment, and completely redirects out lives into a new path of grief. As the lives of those closest to us expire before our eyes, our hearts are often crushed. There is no pain greater than to lose by death those closest to us, along with all of the painful forms death brings. Moses bemoans this: “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, you carry us away like a flood.”
The imminency of death is one of the many things 2020 says to us. Death is the ugly of our ever-present moment under the sun living in a broken world.
Things get worse for Moses and us. Along the way, he commits a public sin that dishonored the Lord in his striking of the rock in anger. As a consequence, the same sorrow that came upon Israel would come upon him. Moses, too, would die outside of the land, unable to enter. I can’t imagine the agony of his personal sin cutting him off from entrance into the land. Aaron has already died for his failure, and Moses knows that he is next. Moses captures the truly bad news about this life in a sweeping conclusion: God is no one to mess with. “For we have been consumed in your anger, you have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance (Ps 90:8).”
Sin is the greatest problem for everyone dwelling under the sun. Your greatest problem is not American’s decline, or your financial woes, or a bad marriage, or the presidential election, or even your health. Too many people have made these diversions the issues of first importance in their lives while this dreadful reality looms over them. We give ourselves to trivialities, wasting away our time in things that, in the big picture, have little value. Our greatest concern is what Moses holds out here, summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism, O&A 10: “God is terribly angry about the sin we are born with as well as the sin we personally commit. As a just judge he punishes them both now and in eternity.”
Believe it or not, agree or not, everyone stands in this awful predicament before the Lord. 2020 doesn’t just “suck”, the sorrows we are experiencing are evidence that we live under this sentence. This is truly the worst of all news. The summons can come to us at any moment, tonight your soul may be required of you, then what? Our rebellion from God, our departure from his will, our acceptance of Satan’s lie, has this as its reward: death. Then comes a final judgment and hell to follow, eternally, for the rebellion that was chosen by us in this life against God.
Sin and judgment is the bad news of this life. All have committed treason against the Lord and are deserving of our impending deaths. If this were the end of Moses cry, there would be no hope, but thankfully, there is good news to report.
Many struggle to see Moses’ answer in Psalm 90. Often, the solution of this psalm is presented rather moralistically, as if the imperative of verse 12 is the singular answer: “So teach is to number our days so that we gain a heart of wisom.” Moses, however, pleads for something else first. Is there a way to escape the awful predicament into which we find ourselves? For “who knows the power of his anger (see vs. 11)?”
Following the terrifying question, comes a heartfelt plea to the Lord: “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 (Ps 90:14). A beautiful covenantal word is chosen by Moses. Give us, O Lord, your “chesed”—your merciful, faithful, loving, kind, gracious love that we might be happy in the days of our affliction.
Yes, we can be happy and live with true comfort in this life, even in the face of death. Moses appeals to the good news God announced from the beginning and demonstrated after the breaking of the covenant on Sinai. God promised a mediator, an intercessor, someone who could come into our world of sorrow and bear for us the punishment our sins deserve. There would be one who, in our place, and for us, know the power of his anger so that we never would. God promised to send his son Jesus, out of his great love with which he loved us, to come and stand in Israel’s place and in ours. Jesus made the journey through the wilderness, enduring the wrath of God, making a sacrifice for our sins, and opened up the promise land to us.
I believe this is what Moses realized, standing on the mountain that day, that he was not the one to lead Israel into the land. A greater one to come would (not insignificantly named “Joshua”, the Hebrew name for Jesus) bring us into the land. This makes the first verse of Psalm 90 most glorious: “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. (Ps. 90:1)” Jesus is our land! Moses would lose nothing. By faith Moses looked for the revelation of God’s steadfast love in the face of Jesus Christ, seeing in him the much greater land that Abraham taught everyone to seek.
This is the good news from heaven that is made known to the ends of the earth. This is why the Heidelberg Catechism states so confidently that our deaths are not due to his wrath against us, but instead, because of his steadfast love, our deaths put an end to our sinning and provide an entrance into eternal life, into the presence of Christ.
Did you hear the glory announced in Psalm 90? It’s not an ominous psalm. Moses says: “You are my land, my happiness, my forgiveness, my joy, my wisdom, my everything, O Adonai”. With you there is no lack!” This is what Moses can celebrate in the face of death. There is a better land, a renewed creation, a place prepared for us and we will soon be there, together. This is more certain than death itself.
When you believe in Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven, the sting of death is taken away, and you have the Lord himself, who is your inheritance and your eternal life. These present sorrows, soon, will be no more–forever. Anyone who enters eternal life must repent and believe, they come to Jesus first to receive forgiveness of their sins. Have you come to this only place of happiness? It will change how you look at everything, especially 2020 and beyond.