If you were to ask me what I take to be among Scripture’s most comforting passages, my answer may surprise you: Psalm 90 and Ecclesiastes.
Psalm 90 is Israel’s poignant lament that, even though they are God’s chosen people, they are also Adam’s children, subject as he was to God’s righteous anger at their sin. Moses’s poetry in Psalm 90 leads us, step by step, deep into the cellar of their life’s brevity, pain, and toil. The third verse begins that descent by echoing God’s words to Adam in Genesis 3:19:
You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of Adam!” . . .
You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
For we are brought to an end by your anger;
by your wrath we are dismayed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.
For all our days pass away under your wrath;
we bring our years to an end like a sigh. (Psalm 90:3, 5–9)
We aren’t exactly sure of the details — perhaps, as Allen Ross argues, Moses penned this psalm at the end of Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness (A Commentary on the Psalms, 3:26–27). Whatever the specific backdrop, the Israelites had gone through a period of intense suffering and had thus learned the hard way that God’s anger against their sin meant that, even if they lived unusually long lives, their best years would be but toil and trouble that would soon be gone, and then they would fly away (verse 10).
Ecclesiastes is best understood “as an arresting but thoroughly orthodox exposition of Genesis 1–3,” as David Clemens observes. In particular, it makes “the painful consequences of the fall . . . central,” clarifying how disconcerting life after the fall can be. The Preacher knows that God generally administers his providence through the world’s regular causal processes (Ecclesiastes 1:4–7, 9). Fools and sluggards generally get what they deserve because they refuse to conform to creation’s ordered patterns (Ecclesiastes 4:5; see also Proverbs 6:6–11; 20:4; 24:30–34). Wisdom is better than folly because the wise understand and honor those patterns and thus can see where they are going, while fools stumble around in the dark (Ecclesiastes 2:13–14).
But still, “time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). In other words, what God, in the course of his ordinary providence, ordains creation’s structures and processes to bring us, is not only outside our control but also beyond our finding out. Yet nothing can be added to what God does, nor anything taken away from it. “God has done it, so that people fear before him” (Ecclesiastes 3:14).
A healthy, holy fear of God’s providence thus keeps us humble and dependent as we acknowledge that he has so ordered life “under the sun” that, however hard we may strive to understand what was or is or will be, we won’t fathom much. “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it” (Ecclesiastes 8:17 NIV).
More specifically, we can’t tell from what is happening whom God truly loves, since the same events happen to good and bad alike. In this fallen world, righteousness is not always rewarded, and wickedness doesn’t always receive the punishment it deserves: “There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous” (Ecclesiastes 8:14; 7:15). How God will apportion good and bad, joy and sorrow, ease and difficulty to each of us in our earthly lives exceeds our grasp (Job 9:1–12; Luke 13:1–5).
The stark realism of Psalm 90 and Ecclesiastes may seem disheartening. Yet, the apostle Paul tells us that “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope” (Romans 15:4 NIV). So how do these passages encourage us and give us hope?
They remind us that, since the fall, suffering is an ordinary part of human life under sin’s regime. God’s judgments in Genesis 3:16–19 anticipate some of the sorts of suffering that are now endemic to human life. Genesis 4 then drives home just how excruciating human life can be: Adam and Eve’s first son, Cain, murders their second son, Abel, and then is condemned to be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.
“Since the fall, suffering is an ordinary part of human life under sin’s regime.”
Yet we must not conclude that our lives will be nothing but unrelieved suffering. In addressing the pagan polytheists in Lystra, Paul reminds them that God had not left himself without a witness, “for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17). Eve’s daughters will suffer physically and emotionally as they marry and have families (Genesis 3:16), but they may experience great joy in their marriages and families as well. Adam’s sons will always have to scratch out a living (Genesis 3:17–19), but the end of long days may still be satisfying if we have labored as we should.
Psalm 90 and Ecclesiastes caution us against expecting settled happiness now. Since the fall, even creation itself groans because of its subjection to the futility of sin (Romans 8:18–21). And so, if life gets bad for us, it isn’t a sign that Christianity is untrue or that God has abandoned us. In fact, when we have faced significant suffering and survived it, we often experience the opposite: we find we can rejoice in our suffering, knowing that it teaches us endurance, and that endurance makes us stronger and deeper in ways that prompt us to hope for our final and complete salvation as we sense God’s love for us through the presence of his Holy Spirit (Romans 5:3–5; James 1:2–3; 1 Peter 1:3–9).
To be a Christian means to believe in our Lord’s bodily resurrection (Romans 10:9), and to believe in his resurrection entails believing in our own resurrections (1 Corinthians 15). Our hope for the ultimate redemption of our bodies is, as Paul puts it, the hope in which we were saved (Romans 8:24).
This hope, Paul tells us, keeps us from losing heart, for while “our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). No matter what is happening to us, we can recognize that it will ultimately count as little more than a “light momentary affliction” that is “preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17–18; Romans 8:18).
“Our suffering can and should prompt us to look up and long for what God has prepared for us.”
Our suffering, in other words, can and should prompt us to look up and long for what God has prepared for us. And what is that? It is a life of no more sorrow, no more tears, when sin and death will be no more (Revelation 21:4). It is the life of complete joy in communion with God that our Lord has prepared for those who wait for him (Isaiah 64:4).
Psalm 90 and Ecclesiastes encourage me to look only to God and not to anything or anyone in this world for every good thing (Psalm 90:13–17). They also assure me that, for those of us who have become his children through faith in his Son’s work, God’s anger against our sin will last for only a moment, while his favor toward us will last forever. While our weeping may last through the night, unending joy will come to us in the morning (Psalm 30:5).Mark Talbot (PhD, University of Pennsylvania) is an associate professor of philosophy at Wheaton College and the host of the podcast When the Stars Disappear. He is also the author of When the Stars Disappear and Give Me Understanding That I May Live.