Death and eternity are the two great existential questions facing mortal man, and nothing accentuates the differences between God and man than this stark reality. God is eternal, immortal; man dies. Between the two modes of existence there is no comparison.
Moses was struck by this fact as he led the children of Israel through the wilderness. What had begun as an exciting adventure turned into a moral tragedy, which led God to pronounce the frightful sentence that a whole generation of Israelites would perish in the wilderness. Soon after this, or perhaps when it was all over, Moses was led to pen the words of Psalm 90, a somber reflection on death and eternity.
But Moses begins by reflecting on God’s eternity:
“Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
Or ever You formed the earth and the world,
Even from everlasting, You are God.”
(Ps. 90:1,2; NKJV).
Theologians have long speculated that God stands outside of time. But that is a philosophical concept, drawn from secular sources. It is not really found in the Bible. Rather, the Bible portrays God as existing for an endless succession of ages. Moses looks at the mountains, the every epitome of strength and durability, and points out that even they at one time did not exist. But God was there long before even that. God was there before even the earth itself existed.
“Before the mountains were brought forth,
Or even You had formed he earth and the world,
Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.”
The word translated “everlasting” (olam) means a long period of time in either the past or the future. Thus the idea here is that the duration of God’s existence defies human comprehension. In that regard He is infinitely greater than anything that we have ever experienced in the created reality.
Likewise from God’s perspective what seems like a long time to us is nothing to Him.
“For a thousand years in Your sight
Are like yesterday when it is past,
And like a watch in the night” (v. 4).
For us eighty years is a lifetime. A thousand years is virtually unimaginable. But to Someone who has existed from all eternity, however, it is scarcely the blink of an eye.
Man, however, must confront his own mortality. And this is the result of the sentence which God pronounce on us:
“You turn man to destruction,
And say ‘Return, O children of men.’” (v. 3)
Moses goes on to compare human existence to a dream or to grass, something that is here today and vanishes without a trace tomorrow. Herein lies the melancholy fact of human existence: as full of life and vitality as we may be today, there is nothing we can do to stop the approach of death. Eventually we must all die, and will be nothing more than a tombstone in a cemetery.
All of this should lead us to a profound humility in the presence of God. Here we are, frail, mortal creatures of the dust, here today and gone tomorrow, standing before God who is infinite, immortal and eternal. His eternity should overwhelm us, and we should have a proper sense of our own relative insignificance.
But secondly, God’s eternity should inspire our confidence in Him. We are subject to injury and disease, hunger and privation. Our grasp on life is tenuous at best, and the best of human aids may fail us when we need them the most. But God is eternal, untouched by the vicissitudes of human existence. He will always be there, always able to help. And, indeed, Moses ends his psalm by appealing to God for His help.
“And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us,
And establish the work of our hands for us . . .” (v. 17).
But most importantly of all, the eternity of God should cause us to value Him far above every earthly, created thing. Earthly things are finite, vulnerable to injury, and finally pass away. God is the eternal good, infinite perfection, untouched by earthly weakness and frailty. Which would we rather have? Only a fool would choose the former.
As the English Puritan Stephen Charnock put it, “And truly, since nothing but God is eternal, nothing but God is worth the loving; and we do but a just right to our love, to pitch it upon that which can always possess us and by possessed by us; upon an object that cannot deceive our affection, and put it out of countenance by a dissolution.”
And that consideration should be enough to arrest any temptation to sin. Again Charnock put it this way: “What transitory pleasures will not the thoughts of God’s eternity stifle? When this work [i.e., meditating on God’s eternity] busieth a soul, it is too great to suffer it to descend, to listen to sleeveless errand from hell or the world. The wanton allurements of the flesh will be put off with indignation. The proffers of the world will be ridiculous when they are cast into the balance with the eternity of God, which sticking in our thoughts, we shall not be so easy a prey for the fowler’s gin.” Charnock concludes by saying, “Let us therefore, often meditate upon this, but not in a bare speculation, without engaging our affections, and making every potion of the divine eternity end in a suitable impression upon our hearts.” Amen!