Psalm 90: The Brevity of Life


As a pastor I am always torn about how a funeral should be done. Funerals have changed in tone from a time of mourning to a time of celebrating a life. They are no longer times of introspection and reflection but times of therapy. Here is the trouble, there is no instruction in the Bible which tells us exactly how we are to conduct a funeral, or a wedding for that matter. The regulative principle of worship tells us how we must worship when we come together as the people of God, we are to sit under apostolic teaching, read the Bible publicly, pray, break bread, give alms to the poor and worship together on the Lord’s Day. For this reason I have had to come up with a philosophy of funerals for myself and here it is. I am primarily a preacher of the gospel, it is not my business to bury people or to marry people. These are officially functions of the state with legal implications. However being some of the most significant times in our lives these are the times when we need God’s truth to speak into our lives. So if I am approached to do a funeral, I say yes on one condition, that I have the freedom to preach the gospel.

I think three things should legitimately happen at funerals. Firstly, we need to stop and be reminded of the reality of death, be quiet and humble and listen to God. We have just been faced with the reality with which we will all have to do business with. We must all die and face God in judgement and so we must stop trying to candy wrap death and face its true realities. Ecc. 7:2-5, ‘It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.’ Secondly, I do think we can legitimately celebrate the life of the person that we are burying. However, I cannot go along with the humanistic and dominant way in which a person gets whitewashed and positive language tries to cover up the terrible reality and tragedy of what death is. We must stop and acknowledge the gift of that life of that person as given by God. Our culture is very quick to leave God out of everything and many modern day funerals are a sign of this. Don’t misunderstand me, it is important for the family to mourn together and talk about their loved ones. What troubles me is the way this has replaced listening to God. Thirdly, funerals are good times to remember the fragility of life and how those strains in families, those stupid fights and grudges are not worth hanging onto and I strongly encourage families to bury the hatchet and support one another.

In the name doing a reality check we turn to Psalm 90. Psalm 90 is a reality check reminding us of the frailty of life, the holiness of God and our need of God. This is a psalm written by Moses. Now there are only three times that Moses wrote poetry. He wrote a song when Israel had passed through the Red Sea, on the day he left Israel to die, and this psalm. This is not one of Moses throw away poems but a rare distillation of deliberate thought. One of the tasks in preaching a psalm is to try and find some historical narrative that connects with the psalm. These are not always easy to find. Numbers 20 is probably the best suggestion for the background to this psalm. Numbers 20 is the darkest chapter of Moses’ personal life. In this chapter we are told that his sister Miraim dies, v1-2. It is very tersely stated but we can only imagine how this would have weighed on Moses. Then in the very next verse we see Israel complaining about water and Moses strikes the rock twice in disobedience to God and is forbidden access to the promised land. Aaron his brother is then stripped of the high priesthood and dies at the end of the chapter. Can you imagine his pain? Your right to enter the promised land removed and your brother and sister dying, what are the thoughts that go through your mind? Psalm 90 has been suggested as Moses meditation on this time in his life.

The tone of the psalm is not one you would expect. He does not blame God but in v1-2 speaks of God’s faithfulness and eternity, ‘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.’ Although Moses will not see the home he longs for in the promised land, he has a permanent home in God. He has suffered personal loss but also has personal consolation in having God as his God. He has just suffered the loss of entering Canaan and has had the loss of a whole generation who were to die in the wilderness brought home to him again as well. Although he is not personally experiencing the fulfilment of the promises of God, nor his brother and sister, and the generation that died in the wilderness; though man dies quickly, God is eternal, and He is faithful. Though we may not see the fullness of blessing and the fulfilling of all promises and the overcoming of all enemies, our life is short and He is eternal. He will bring His promises to pass. And in the meantime while we wait He is the dwelling place of His people.

We are going to divide this psalm up into two parts. In v3-11 we will look at the brevity of man, in particular the relationship of death and sin. Then in 12-17 we want to reflect on the prayer requests that Moses puts forward in light of his reflections on sin and death.