Lord, you have been our dwelling-place
throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn people back to dust,
saying, ‘Return to dust, you mortals.’
A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
Sooner or later everyone who is reading this is going to end up dead (with the obvious exception about our Lord’s return!). For understandable reasons death is not a very popular subject. It has been said that death is the last great taboo in modern society – certainly sex lost that position some time ago. Modern Western society lives at some distance from death. We use all sorts of euphemisms to make it sound less horrific, someone has ‘passed away’, we have ‘lost’ a loved one.
We run from death: cosmetic surgery, an affair with a younger lover, mid-life crises, cryonicsm…all betray our anxiety that we got a one-way ticket when we were born and we’re heading for a destination about which we’re none too keen.
Verses 3–6 sum up our predicament. We are like grass (v. 6) that springs up fresh in the morning and withers away by evening, scorched by the sun and dried by the wind. We might be proud of our success and our achievement but ultimately the Psalm reminds us that we are just dust (v. 3).
If the inevitability of dying is bad enough then our separation from God makes it intolerable. There is no hint here that death might be a gentle friend who ushers into a better life. ‘Life’s a bitch, then you die,’ so the saying goes.
Our lives are transitory, and even in the affluent West, they are often difficult – marked by heartache and tragedy and stained by an awareness of our failure to be the people God wanted us to be (v. 8). Failure to trust God leads to anxiety about death, our separation from God makes death a problem.
In contrast to his own finitude the Psalmist, by contrast, is keenly aware of God’s eternal nature. God was there before the mountains were formed – he is from everlasting to everlasting (v. 2). For God a whole millennium is just like a day or the watches of a night (v. 4, see 2 Peter 3:8).
Verse 12 is the pivot upon which the Psalm turns. The eternal God is the one who can teach us how to number our days aright. We might be grass, we might be dust, we are certainly not the people that God longs us to be, but we can turn to gain ‘a heart of wisdom.’ In the midst of life’s difficulties, and aware of our own failings, it is reassuring that we can turn to God and live wisely in whatever time we might have.
Even though we know the days of this life are numbered, it is God who can satisfy us – and knowing his unfailing love gives us cause to sing for joy all our days, whether they be many or few (vv. 13, 14). Indeed, if we have faced trouble (and I suspect that’s all of us) then there is the assurance that God will more than compensate (v. 15). God makes a similar promise to the prophet when he says he will restore the years that the locust has eaten (Joel 2:25). For the Christian the best times are still ahead and are guaranteed through the Risen Christ who has made our future secure.
In the light of God’s majesty, it might seem that whatever we might do is going to be irrelevant, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Psalm concludes with a somewhat surprising plea to ‘establish the work of our hands’ (v. 17). In the hit movie, Gladiator, the central character, Maximus, says, ‘What we do in life echoes in eternity.’ English cricketer and missionary CT Studd (1860–1931) said, ‘Only one life ‘twill soon be passed, only what’s done for God will last.’
We are grass, we are dust, we fall short of the mark, but incredibly God calls us to share in his mission to put things right (Ephesians 2:10). Here is a wonderful assurance that all we do in his service is seen and never wasted.