Moses had, in the Ps. 90:1-6, lamented the frailty of human life in general; the children of men are as a sleep and as the grass. But here he teaches the people of Israel to confess before God that righteous sentence of death which they were under in a special manner, and which by their sins they had brought upon themselves. Their share in the common lot of mortality was not enough, but they are, and must live and die, under peculiar tokens of God’s displeasure. Here they speak of themselves: We Israelites are consumed and troubled, and our days have passed away.
I. They are here taught to acknowledge the wrath of God to be the cause of all their miseries. We are consumed, we are troubled, and it is by thy anger, by thy wrath (Ps. 90:7); our days have passed away in thy wrath, Ps. 90:9. The afflictions of the saints often come purely from God’s love, as Job’s; but the rebukes of sinners, and of good men for their sins, must be seen coming from the anger of God, who takes notice of, and is much displeased with, the sins of Israel. We are too apt to look upon death as no more than a debt owing to nature; whereas it is not so; if the nature of man had continued in its primitive purity and rectitude, there would have been no such debt owing to it. It is a debt to the justice of God, a debt to the law. Sin entered into the world, and death by sin. Are we consumed by decays of nature, the infirmities of age, or any chronic disease? We must ascribe it to God’s anger. Are we troubled by any sudden or surprising stroke? That also is the fruit of God’s wrath, which is thus revealed from heaven against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.
II. They are taught to confess their sins, which had provoked the wrath of God against them (Ps. 90:8): Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, even our secret sins. It was not without cause that God was angry with them. He had said, Provoke me not, and I will do you no hurt; but they had provoked him, and will own that, in passing this severe sentence upon them, he justly punished them, 1. For their open contempts of him and the daring affronts they had given him: Thou hast set our iniquities before thee. God had herein an eye to their unbelief and murmuring, their distrusting his power and their despising the pleasant land: these he set before them when he passed that sentence on them; these kindled the fire of God’s wrath against them and kept good things from them. 2. For their more secret departures from him: “Thou hast set our secret sins (those which go no further than the heart, and which are at the bottom of all the overt acts) in the light of thy countenance; that is, thou hast discovered these, and brought these also to the account, and made us to see them, who before overlooked them.” Secret sins are known to God and shall be reckoned for. Those who in heart return into Egypt, who set up idols in their heart, shall be dealt with as revolters or idolaters. See the folly of those who go about to cover their sins, for they cannot cover them.
III. They are taught to look upon themselves as dying and passing away, and not to think either of a long life or of a pleasant one; for the decree gone forth against them was irreversible (Ps. 90:9): All our days are likely to be passed away in thy wrath, under the tokens of thy displeasure; and, though we are not quite deprived of the residue of our years, yet we are likely to spend them as a tale that is told. The thirty-eight years which, after this, they wore away in the wilderness, were not the subject of the sacred history; for little or nothing is recorded of that which happened to them from the second year to the fortieth. After they came out of Egypt their time was perfectly trifled away, and was not worthy to be the subject of a history, but only of a tale that is told; for it was only to pass away time, like telling stories, that they spent those years in the wilderness; all that while they were in the consuming, and another generation was in the raising. When they came out of Egypt there was not one feeble person among their tribes (Ps. 105:37); but now they were feeble. Their joyful prospect of a prosperous glorious life in Canaan was turned into the melancholy prospect of a tedious inglorious death in the wilderness; so that their whole life was now as impertinent a thing as ever any winter-tale was. That is applicable to the state of every one of us in the wilderness of this world: We spend our years, we bring them to an end, each year, and all at last, as a tale that is told—as the breath of our mouth in winter (so some), which soon disappears—as a thought (so some), than which nothing more quick—as a word, which is soon spoken, and then vanishes into air—or as a tale that is told. The spending of our years is like the telling of a tale. A year, when it past, is like a tale when it is told. Some of our years are a pleasant story, others as a tragical one, most mixed, but all short and transient: that which was long in the doing may be told in a short time. Our years, when they are gone, can no more be recalled than the word that we have spoken can. The loss and waste of our time, which are our fault and folly, may be thus complained of: we should spend our years like the despatch of business, with care and industry; but, alas! we do spend them like the telling of a tale, idle, and to little purpose, carelessly, and without regard. Every year passed as a tale that is told; but what was the number of them? As they were vain, so they were few (Ps. 90:10), seventy or eighty at most, which may be understood either, 1. Of the lives of the Israelites in the wilderness; all those that were numbered when they came out of Egypt, above twenty years old, were to die within thirty-eight years; they numbered those only that were able to go forth to war, most of whom, we may suppose, were between twenty and forty, who therefore must have all died before eighty years old, and many before sixty, and perhaps much sooner, which was far short of the years of the lives of their fathers. And those that lived to seventy or eighty, yet, being under a sentence of consumption and a melancholy despair of ever seeing through this wilderness-state, their strength, their life, was nothing but labour and sorrow, which otherwise would have been made a new life by the joys of Canaan. See what work sin made. Or, 2. Of the lives of men in general, ever since the days of Moses. Before the time of Moses it was usual for men to live about 100 years, or nearly 150; but, since, seventy or eighty is the common stint, which few exceed and multitudes never come near. We reckon those to have lived to the age of man, and to have had as large a share of life as they had reason to expect, who live to be seventy years old; and how short a time is that compared with eternity! Moses was the first that committed divine revelation to writing, which, before, had been transmitted by tradition; now also both the world and the church were pretty well peopled, and therefore there were not now the same reasons for men’s living long that there had been. If, by reason of a strong constitution, some reach to eighty years, yet their strength then is what they have little joy of; it does but serve to prolong their misery, and make their death the more tedious; for even their strength then is labour and sorrow, much more their weakness; for the years have come which they have no pleasure in. Or it may be taken thus: Our years are seventy, and the years of some, by reason of strength, are eighty; but the breadth of our years (for so the latter word signifies, rather than strength), the whole extent of them, from infancy to old age, is but labour and sorrow. In the sweat of our face we must eat bread; our whole life is toilsome and troublesome; and perhaps, in the midst of the years we count upon, it is soon cut off, and we fly away, and do not live out half our days.
IV. They are taught by all this to stand in awe of the wrath of God (Ps. 90:11): Who knows the power of thy anger? 1. None can perfectly comprehend it. The psalmist speaks as one afraid of God’s anger, and amazed at the greatness of the power of it; who knows how far the power of God’s anger can reach and how deeply it can wound? The angels that sinned knew experimentally the power of God’s anger; damned sinners in hell know it; but which of us can fully comprehend or describe it? 2. Few do seriously consider it as they ought. Who knows it, so as to improve the knowledge of it? Those who make a mock at sin, and make light of Christ, surely do not know the power of God’s anger. For, according to thy fear, so is thy wrath; God’s wrath is equal to the apprehensions which the most thoughtful serious people have of it; let men have ever so great a dread upon them of the wrath of God, it is not greater than there is cause for and than the nature of the thing deserves. God has not in his word represented his wrath as more terrible than really it is; nay, what is felt in the other world is infinitely worse than what is feared in this world. Who among us can dwell with that devouring fire?