New Year’s Day is a time when we reflect on the passage of time, the end of one year and the beginning of the next. We look back over the past year, often filled with its trials and difficulties, and we look forward to the coming year, resolving somehow to do better. But too often our view of things encompasses just those two years. Sometimes we need to look at the bigger picture and ask ourselves, what are we accomplishing in life as a whole?
It is not a new question. In fact, over three thousand years ago Moses asked essentially the same question. In Psalm 90 he gives us a meditation on the meaning of life, and basically asks the question, how does it all add up in the cosmic scheme of things?
The occasion of the psalm was tragic. Moses had been called by God to lead the nation of Israel out of Egypt and into the promised land of Canaan. Yet things had not gone so well after their departure from Egypt. On several occasions the people had sinned and provoked God to anger. Finally, when they were on the verge of entering the Promised Land they lost heart and revolted against Moses. At the bottom of their revolt was a lack of faith in God Himself, a lack of confidence that God would fulfill His promises. In response God decreed that none of the adults alive at that time would enter Canaan – they would wander in the wilderness until all of them had died. The whole story can be found in Numbers chapters 13 and 14.
Thus Moses had the sad occasion of witnessing the generation of people he had led out of Egypt perishing in the wilderness without ever receiving the promised blessing. And Moses realized that this sad turn of events was all the result of the people’s sin. A more disheartening circumstance is hard to imagine.
Thus Moses approaches God in prayer and intercedes on behalf of the people. But what could he say? The facts of the case were already perfectly well known to God, and the guilt of the people was undeniable. Moses had to make his appeal on some other basis.
Moses begins by addressing God this way: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations’ (Ps. 90:1; ESV). Here he draws attention to the kind of relationship that Israel had enjoyed with God in the past. God had always been their “dwelling place” – His abiding presence was their comfort and security, their refuge in the time of distress. It was this relationship that had been disrupted by the recent turn of events.
Moses then acknowledges God’s sovereignty. He is the eternal God – “from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (v.2), and the destiny of mankind is in His hands – “You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!'” (v. 3). Moses is stuck in particular by the contrast between God’s eternity and man’s mortality – “For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past’ (v. 4), and as for man he is like a mere dream, or like the frail grass in the dry Middle Eastern climate – here today and gone tomorrow.
Then Moses frankly acknowledges that Israel’s (and by extension all of mankind’s) predicament is directly the result of sin: “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence” (v. 8). The result is that “all our days pass away under your wrath” (v. 9). Human life has become fragile and fleeting. We are here perhaps seventy or eighty years, and our time here on earth is often marked by “toil and trouble” (v. 10).
Having frankly acknowledged the nation’s predicament, Moses then makes his plea for their pardon. He asks God to “Have pity on your servants” (v. 13). He looks forward to a restoration of the nation’s relationship with God, with all the blessings that that entails. “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (v. 14). He asks that God’s work in their midst might become evident to all, and that He would “establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” (v. 17).
The point of it all is this: “Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you?” (v. 11). God is certainly a God of love, but let it never be forgotten that He is also the Almighty; He is our Creator, and He is absolutely holy – He hates sin and is resolved to deal with it. This does not meant that we ought to spend our days here on earth in perpetual gloom; but God wants us frankly to acknowledge our sin and confess it, so that communion with Him can be restored and that we might be able to “rejoice and be glad all our days.” Life is ultimately about a relationship with God, and that relationship should result in heartfelt peace and joy.
This new year, let us learn “to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (v. 12). Let us make each of the days that remain to us here on earth count for God’s glory and our own eternal happiness!