God is everlasting truth (Psalm 90)

The following is one of the hymns of praise that we sang and the sermon from the evening service this past Sunday:

 

The God of Abraham Praise

The God of Abraham praise, who reigns enthroned above;
Ancient of everlasting days, and God of Love;
Jehovah, great I AM! by earth and Heav’n confessed;
I bow and bless the sacred Name forever blessed.

The God of Abraham praise, at Whose supreme command
From earth I rise—and seek the joys at His right hand;
I all on earth forsake, its wisdom, fame, and power;
And Him my only Portion make, my Shield and Tower.

The God of Abraham praise, whose all sufficient grace
Shall guide me all my happy days, in all my ways.
He calls a worm His friend, He calls Himself my God!
And He shall save me to the end, thro’ Jesus’ blood.

He by Himself has sworn; I on His oath depend,
I shall, on eagle wings upborne, to Heav’n ascend.
I shall behold His face; I shall His power adore,
And sing the wonders of His grace forevermore.

Tho’ nature’s strength decay, and earth and hell withstand,
To Canaan’s bounds I urge my way, at His command.
The wat’ry deep I pass, with Jesus in my view;
And thro’ the howling wilderness my way pursue.

The goodly land I see, with peace and plenty bless’d;
A land of sacred liberty, and endless rest.
There milk and honey flow, and oil and wine abound,
And trees of life forever grow with mercy crowned.

There dwells the Lord our King, the Lord our righteousness,
Triumphant o’er the world and sin, the Prince of peace;
On Sion’s sacred height His kingdom still maintains,
And glorious with His saints in light forever reigns.

He keeps His own secure, He guards them by His side,
Arrays in garments, white and pure, His spotless bride:
With streams of sacred bliss, with groves of living joys—
With all the fruits of Paradise, He still supplies.

Before the great Three-One they all exulting stand;
And tell the wonders He hath done, through all their land:
The list’ning spheres attend, and swell the growing fame;
And sing, in songs which never end, the wondrous Name.

The God Who reigns on high the great archangels sing,
And “Holy, holy, holy!” cry, “Almighty King!
Who was, and is, the same, and evermore shall be:
Jehovah—Father—great I AM, we worship Thee!”

Before the Savior’s face the ransomed nations bow;
O’erwhelmed at His almighty grace, forever new:
He shows His prints of love—they kindle to a flame!
And sound thro’ all the worlds above the slaughtered Lamb.

The whole triumphant host give thanks to God on high;
“Hail, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” they ever cry.
Hail, Abraham’s God, and mine! (I join the heav’nly lays,)
All might and majesty are Thine, and endless praise.

Psalm 90

God is Everlasting truth

 

This life is a riddle: one big paradox.  Things are not what they seem.  When life is going well, our pride tends to swell.  We like to think that we are pretty good, perhaps even immortal.  It seems like life could go on forever: just getting better and better.  However, when life starts to fall apart, the dark clouds of despair quickly descend upon our perception of the world and ourselves.  Everything can appear hopeless.  But is either response an appropriate reading of reality according to God’s Word; according to how God sees things?

In Psalm 90, we find Israel struggling to make sense of their lot in this world.  In the midst of this struggle, God gives them crucial insights into who he is and who they are, which helps solve the puzzle of human existence.  In this Psalm, we find the proper antidote to our human pride and twisted perception of reality as we encounter God as everlasting judge, but also merciful Savior.  In this prayer of Moses, God teaches us about the way of salvation and true worship.  Here we learn why we as Christians should approach God with both fear and trembling, and joy and thanksgiving.  For our sins truly deserve God’s holy wrath, but have nevertheless been forgiven through the blood of Jesus Christ.

God’s past faithfulness and his universal judgment (vv1-5)

In order to understand the first section of our passage, vv1-5, we must see its relation to the rest of Psalm as well as its original context.  It is evident from the Psalm as a whole that Israel is in distress.  Now Moses does not give us specifics as to why.  I think it is safe to assume that what Israel is experiencing here are the various kinds of suffering that come with living in this world of sin.  There is something of a parallel here with the wisdom of the book of Ecclesiastes.  Ecclesiastes speaks about the shortness and seeming meaningless toil of human existence.  Like the nation of Israel under Moses and later for Israel as a post-exile community in Jerusalem, none of us escape the curse of living in a fallen world.

It is in light of current distress that Moses recalls God’s past faithfulness to his people, in v1.  God has been to Israel a “dwelling place”.  Like an animal that finds safety in its den or lair, so the people of God have found a safe home in Yahweh’s sovereign care.  God had proven his faithfulness to Israel time and time again.  The evidence of his faithfulness stretches back generations to that time when God’s people were in bondage in Egypt.  Even in such dire circumstances, God never abandoned Israel, but ultimately delivered them in the great Exodus through the Red Sea.  Later in Israel’s history, they would have recalled God’s deliverance from Babylonian captivity.  So great is God’s ability to protect his people that it even stretches back to time when there were no generations; to a time when God had not yet created the world. This is why Moses exclaims in V2: “from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”  The point is that God had always been there for his people – even from eternity.  His care has been constant, despite the various trials his people have had to endure.

In vv3-5, Moses recalls how God had demonstrated his ability to protect his people, by crushing their enemies: returning them “to dust.”  Mortal human beings are a fleeting nothing compared to God’s eternal power and omnipresence.  God created man from the dust, and to dust shall man shall return.  Even mighty earthly nations like the Egyptians, Canaanites and Assyrians are ultimately frail and irrelevant in God’s presence.  They may rule for as long as a thousand years, but this is like passing day in God’s sight.  What the world fears and stands in awe of, God considers nothing more than a dream; like grass that can renew itself up to a point, but eventually withers and dies.  Mankind is under the illusion of immortality.  He does not know how to number his days.  He is oblivious that God will bring him to a swift and certain end.

For Moses and his people, there was a day when God was a safe haven for them.  While frail and transient mortals perished around them, Israel remained steadfast under God’s eternal care.  But nowstarting in v6 – it is though Israel’s lot in this life has become no different from the rest of the world.  Once they had flourished like any nation might do, but now they too are like grass that fades and withers.

What do we make of Israel’s predicament here?  Can you identify with them?  Does God’s faithfulness sometimes seem like distant memory to you?  Do you sometimes feel like you are being swept away into nothingness like the rest of the world?

God’s judgment upon his people (vv6-12)

In vv6-12, we find a shift from praise to lament as Moses continues his prayer to God on behalf of Israel.  Once Israel was the apple of God’s eye, but now they are the object of his eternal wrath – or so it seems.  Their plight is like that of the wicked and the pagan nations described in vv3-5V7, “For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed.”  Trust in God no longer seems impossible for Israel. [p] But it is not as if God’s anger toward his people is without good reason.  It is not as if Israel had done nothing to deserve it.

In v8, we read that Israel is aware of her guilt.  But, why?  Like Adam in the garden and every person since then, Israel had sinned, time and time again.  They had a sordid history of being unfaithful and wayward.  Israel’s sin against God is all the more heinous considering how good God has been to them in years gone by.  Israel was the recipient of God’s covenant and his promises.  They had received God’s law at Mount Sinai.  They knew what their duty was toward God.  But these benefits were not enough to keep them from acting out in wicked ingratitude toward God.  Israel knew they were guilty law-breakers, and therefore, like the rest of humanity, condemned before the holy God of the universe. [p]

No sin escapes God’s gaze, even those things we think and do in secret.  V8, “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.”  God’s presence is like a searching spotlight that penetrates every nook and cranny of our lives and exposes us for who we truly are.  Our conscience tells us that we have sinned and convicts us of guilt before God.  Israel knew that their wickedness deserved God’s judgment.  They felt the weight of God’s condemnation in their hearts and experienced it in the brevity and turmoil of their lives.  V9, “For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh.”

Unlike the pagan nations surrounding them that believed in their sinful pride that they could live forever by depending on their own resources, Israel understood the human condition for what it truly is: fleeting and miserable.  We live for about seventy or eighty short years.  But, v10, who even wants to live for that long?  For our lives are just filled with “toil and trouble.”  These are pretty heavy and sobering truths…

But Moses does not break off his prayer in the throws of lament, feeling the conviction of sin and aware of the brevity of life filled with suffering, under God’s wrath.  There is more to the riddle of life and the puzzle of reality than this.  In v11 and following, Moses gives us more truth about God and ourselves from God’s perspective.

The thing about Israel is that they suffered from the same tendency that we all have sinners, which is to presume upon God’s goodness and lapse into self-confidence.  Can you perhaps relate?  Think about it.  When things are going well in our lives, we tend to become over-confident and smug in our relationship with God.  And before you know it, God is simply our buddy and our lover.  We’re good, God is good, and it seems that there was never any problem between us… What’s all the fuss about?

You could say that Moses and Israel had been in that place, but had come to understand the foolishness of it.  Why?  Because the realization of sin, death and God’s judgment had cut through their over-confidence, chipper attitudes, upbeat songs and oversized grins.  God has made them pause.  While the nations go on their merry way, thinking that life is “all good”, Israel is forced to ponder God’s wrath and anger.  Their experience under God’s law and his judgment had taught them the proper way of relating to God: which is with fear and reverence.  By considering the brevity of their days on earth, Israel has gained crucial wisdom into what it means to submit to God and cast themselves upon him alone for salvation.

Brothers and sisters, here is crucial insight into Scripture, worship and the Christian life.  Think about it.  God’s love and grace revealed in the gospel makes little sense without knowing our dire condition as sinners under God’s judgment.  This reality we all too easily forget or just outright suppress.  That is why, like Israel of old, when we come together to worship God we begin with praise: like at the beginning this Psalm.  We extol God for who he is and we praise him for his goodness and love toward us.  But then we are made aware of our sinful and weak condition before him through the reading of the law, and our conscience is convicted with guilt.  The law exposes our sin.  If we understand our condition correctly, we know that we cannot please God with our obedience.  We are without spiritual life and helpless to save ourselves.  Therefore, we are driven to confess our sins to God and cry out to him alone for salvation!

God’s promise of salvation (vv13-17)

By the time we get to v13, which opens the last section of Psalm 90, Moses has solved the riddle of this life.  In mercy, God has used the law and the sufferings of this life to show Israel her sin and mortally, so that they might cry out to God.  Sinful presumption and ingratitude has been replaced with fear and reverence toward God.  For he alone is the holy and everlasting judge of the universe.  So Moses cries out: “Return, O Lord!  How long?  Have pity on your servants!”  In the midst of beholding God’s sovereign and everlasting power and justice, Moses pleads for mercy.  He pleads that God would not look over the short and miserable life of mankind.  And we should do the same this evening.  Moses asks that God would join his fear with the “satisfaction of God’s love”; with everlasting “joy” and “gladness” (v14).  He prays that God would make known his “glorious power” (v15), shower him with “favor” and establish the work of his hands.  God is holy judge, but also merciful redeemer.  He kills, but he also brings back to life.  He wounds, but he also heals.

Brothers and sisters, may the knowledge of God as eternal judge and our condition as fleeting sinners, bring us to repentance and contrition this evening.  Let us not presume upon God and his goodness.  For God is a consuming fire and it was at an inestimable cost that he paid for our sins in order to satisfy his justice.  Let us instead fear God.  Let us not murmur and complain when he disciplines us with all kinds of difficulties and troubles in this life.  But let us rather be glad, for God chastises those whom he loves (Heb 12), so that we don’t perish with the rest of the world.

Beloved, let us rejoice that God did hear the cries of Moses and Israel.  For in the fullness of time, God’s justice was finally and fully satisfied in the crucifixion of his Son for the sins of mankind – for our sins.  Jesus came as one greater than Moses to be the perfect mediator between God and man.  He left the Father’s dwelling place in heaven, took on the frailty of human flesh, and endured a life of perpetual suffering.  And throughout it all, he never complained; and not once was he ever unthankful.  Jesus never sinned.  As the perfect substitute, he incurred the full measure of God’s wrath so that God could have pity on us.

Yes, God is holy judge.  But he is also infinitely merciful Savior in Jesus Christ.  This is the answer to the riddle of life.  This is the gospel, which is our only hope in a world that is cursed: where life is brutish and short.  May God establish us in faith and may he prosper his church, as he promises he will, by his Word and Spirit, through Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

Simon Jooste

Reformed Church Southern Suburbs, Rondebosch, November 4, 2012

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