God’s Word for You
Psalm 90:5-8 sin and death
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, September 10, 2021
Luther rightly says that the rest of the writers of the Scriptures “extracted and learned much from this psalm.” In verses 5-8, the brevity of human life is set against the frightening background of our sinfulness and the coming judgment.
5 You sweep them away like a flood.
They are like sleep in the morning,
like grass which changes quickly.
6 In the morning it sprouts and grows.
By evening it is cut down, and it withers.
Translations treat these five phrases in different ways because the poetry is not easy to render into English. Also, Moses’ turns of phrase were not identical to later Hebrew writers. In the first line, mankind is compared to the sticks and rubble swept away by a sudden flood of water. Moses refrains from saying “the” flood, but mankind dies just as surely from natural causes as those wicked millions did when the rains started pouring down on the seventeenth day of the second month in Noah’s six hundredth year (Genesis 7:11). There is no way to turn to escape death. Or put more gently, man’s life departs just as surely as sleep does when a man wakes up. But here again is that gospel hint, that life follows death just as waking follows sleeping. There is the promise of heaven for us.
The next three lines are about grass and its strange, quick life. Grass withers, grass dies, but there is more grass after the rain comes. So it is with mankind in general. A generation comes and goes, but there is another generation there afterward. Why does this happen? Where did death come from? This is what Moses answers next:
7 Surely, we are consumed by your anger,
and by your wrath we are terrified.
8 You have laid out our guilty deeds in front of you.
Our hidden sins are revealed in the light of your face.
Death is the punishment for sin. This was the threat under which Adam and Eve worshiped before the Fall: “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). But unlike the flowers, the grass, the animals and the stars, mankind suffers death because of his sin. Trees and grass and fish and deer perish because God ordained that their lives would be this way. But man perishes on account of his sin. Since the fall, the death of an animal is a painful matter (perhaps it wasn’t that way in the beginning). Luther: “Even an innocent creature cannot bear its sufferings without intense protest.” The hog squeals. The calf bellows. The bullhead stings the hand that caught it. The tree creaks as it is cut down. A star meets its death with the most terrifying and violent explosion of all: a supernova. Why? Because all life wants to live. Luther quotes Augustine here: “It is positively far better to be than not to be” (LW 13:108). A few decades after Luther published this, Shakespeare made his most famous Lutheran character wrestle with the same words. The sinful nature sometimes wrestles with despair, and reasons itself into the opposite conclusion. Thoughts of suicide are not far removed from blasphemy, but they are often a symptom of despair rather than unbelief. When a loved one dies in this way, it is a terrible tragedy, and we pray for God to extend his mercy to those who die of depression and sadness in this way. It is never wrong to pray for God’s mercy. “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I call to you all day long” (Psalm 86:3).
We know our many sins. The more we study the word of God, the more sins in our lives are exposed and brought to light. “I would not have known what sin was except through the law” (Romans 7:7). We pray that as more and more of our guilty deeds are brought to light, God would also bring his Son our Savior to light. What darkness overshadows your joy this day? Let the bright glory of Christ fill you with God’s holy light (1 Peter 2:9). What doubt or trouble lurks in the corners of your heart? Let the loving compassion and mercy of Jesus drive it away, because his love means your forgiveness and salvation (2 Peter 3:15). What sin hangs heavily around your neck? Let the Lord Jesus unfasten it and throw it behind his back (Isaiah 38:17). Let the love of God calm your worries, and know that you have a place with him forever in his Paradise.
Pastor Timothy Smith