An audio of Simon Jooste’s address, “Reading the Psalms with the Reformers”, is available here.
An audio of Simon Jooste’s address, “Reading the Psalms with the Reformers”, is available here.
[Sermon audio here.]
Theme: We pray the prayer of Moses for God’s pity and favour with confidence in Christ, through whom we have become heirs of heaven.
The book of Psalms was the hymnbook for OT Israel as they worshipped God: both as a covenant community gathered together on the Sabbath, and as families and individuals in private. In the NT, the church has long held that the Psalms should have a central place in the worship and life of Christians.
In the Psalms God speaks to Israel and in turn God’s people respond in the form of prayers and songs. Most of the Psalms were written by Moses and arose out of specific trials and triumphs experienced by OT Israel. This is important to remember, because this means that we cannot apply a given Psalm without first considering its unique historic context. But even more importantly is that we must filter it through the event in all of history: the coming of Christ.
Israel lived in anticipation of the coming Messiah and in the midst of the types and shadows of the Old Covenant. We, however, live in an age of much fuller revelation. We look back to the historic events of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. In other words, while God’s character never changes, his promises of judgment and salvation are nevertheless manifested in different ways throughout history, and are brought to final fulfillment with the revelation of his Son. These insights help us to find our lives in this Psalm this morning.
So, how do we understand this Psalm of Moses originally addressed to Israel during or after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and on the verge of entering the Promised Land? How are we made relevant to this text when we don’t find ourselves trekking through a barren desert keeping our eyes peeled for a glimpse of the Promised Land in the Middle East?
What we shall see is that as corrupted children of our sinful father Adam we, like Israel, are also under God’s judgment. And yet, by faith in the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, God has saved you and I. The prayer of Moses to God for pity and favour on behalf of sinners in verses 15 and 16 – which is our focus this morning – has been answered finally through the crucifixion of Jesus. In Christ, God has exchanged our suffering and death, and he delivers to us through our suffering and death, not an earthly paradise but rather heaven itself.
Like any part of a passage of Scripture, we can only grasp its true meaning if we understand God’s action and speech in the surrounding context. So, let’s consider the verses leading up to Moses’ prayer for God’s pity and favour, which is the central theme of our Psalm this morning.
Moses, the man of God, begins his prayer on behalf of Israel by affirming the everlasting faithfulness of the Lord of Israel. God has been to Israel a secure “dwelling place.” Like a vulnerable animal that finds safety in its den, so Israel has found a safe home in Yahweh’s sovereign care. God had proven his care for Israel time and time again. The evidence of his faithfulness stretches back “generations” to that time when God’s people were once in bondage in Egypt. Even in such dire circumstances, God never abandoned Israel. And he ultimately delivered them in the Exodus through the Red Sea.
So great is God’s ability to protect his people that it even stretches back to a time when there were no generations – to a time when God had not yet created the world. This is why Moses exclaims in verse 2: “from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” The point is that God has always been there for his people – even from eternity: a time when the Lord was God before the world was. His care has been constant, despite the various trials his people have had to endure.
The eternality of God and the mortality of man
In verse 3, we start to get a clue why Moses begins his prayer by invoking the eternal faithfulness of God. Israel is in distress. Why? Because of the evil enemy called death. Israel, like all mankind – including you and I – has learned through bitter experience that we must “return” to the “dust” from which we came. But notice that it is God who returns the “children of man” to the dust. He is creator and sustainer of life. And he is the one who brings life to an end. And yet, he is also the author of new life, eternal life.
This reality of suffering and death has been in the face of the nation of Israel on a mass scale. Remember, by the time Moses is writing this Psalm, he has been successful in leading God’s people out of slavery in Egypt into the wilderness and toward the Promised Land. But now many, and if not most, of the generation of Israelites that survived the Exodus from Egypt have or are perishing in the wilderness before entering into the Promised Land of Canaan. This gets to the root of the lament of Moses and the Israelites. But this is also the cry of all of humanity who cannot escape the claws of suffering and jaws of death, which humbles us all to the nothingness of the dust of the ground.
Man is nothing compared to the eternal and unchangeable Lord of the universe. Our lives may seem like they will never end. We may feel like we are invincible. Human empires might reign supreme for a thousand years. And, yet, “a thousand years” is like a day to God. God’s reign is not bound by time. Here, Moses testifies to the gaping chasm between God and us. This is highlighted by the fact that God lives eternally and our life in this world will come to an abrupt end. Compared to God, we are dismally mortal and transient creatures.
Like in the days of Noah, God has swept a whole generation of Israel “away as with a flood; they are like a dream…,” verse 5. Like the rest of humanity descended from Adam, Israel is as the fleeting nature of grass that “flourishes” for a time and then “fades and withers.”
But why are the Israelites dying in the wilderness? The answer is God’s “anger” and “wrath” because of their sin, which is found in verses 7 and 8. Israel’s “iniquities” have been laid bare in the presence of the most Holy God. And in response, God has justly punished Israel by killing off the first generation in the wilderness. Because of their disobedience after the Exodus, God made Israel wander in the wilderness for forty years – during which they suffered and died.
The plight of Israel in the wilderness is like a megaphone to the rest of humanity, by which God thunders: “I am just and I will judge sin!” Unrepentant sinners are those whose “days pass away under” God’s “wrath.” Because of their iniquity, the life of the rebellious – which lasts not much more than 70 years – “is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away, verse 10.”
Prayer for wisdom
And, yet, despite the reality of suffering and death that has been placarded before the Israelites, they seem to be no wiser concerning their condition before God! Moses writes: “Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you?” The Israelites are all too often guilty of passing their days in blissful ignorance of their sin and God’s judgment: as if they will live forever; as if they are divine.
Moses knows the perilous state of his people, which is why he asks God to give Israel wisdom: wisdom that leads to salvation. Look at verse 12: “So teach us to number our days that may we may get a heart of wisdom.” On behalf of Israel, Moses pleads with God that he would instill in the hearts of his OT church a realisation of their sin and finitude before the Almighty Lord of the universe. Simply put, here is a prayer for a proper fear of God that produces wisdom, which in turns leads to salvation.
Brothers and sisters, and children, the fear of God is what God teaches us through the ministry of his Word each Lord’s Day. Consider the movement of our worship service… It opens with God calling us into his presence and our reflecting upon his faithfulness as well as eternal majesty. We respond in praise. But we also become aware of our nothingness before God because we are sinners. And this is reinforced as God sets before us the unattainable standard of his perfect moral law. At this point in the service, we respond by confessing our sins to him. And then… we plead to God for mercy. And we ask him to turn in favour toward us.
Prayer for the favour of God
This is what Moses does on behalf of the OT church in verses 13 through 15. In verse 13 Moses cries out to God for mercy: “Return, O Lord! How long? Have pity on your servants!” Moses and Israelites have known the goodness of God. But in the wilderness, it seems as though God has abandoned them. So, they want God to turn to them in compassion. The people want God to turn from judgment to pity them in their suffering and distress. They want the return of God’s favour!
In verse 14 Moses writes: “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil.”
The prayer of Moses here is for nothing less than a new beginning with the steadfast love of God. They want the long night of suffering and death to break with the morning of a new day of renewed joy and gladness. Israel wants God to give them days of blessing in proportion to the many years they have seen evil in the wilderness.
On one level and in terms of the immediate historical horizon, the evidence of God’s favour that Moses is praying for here is the Promised Land of Canaan: a land flowing with milk and dripping with honey to satisfy the souls of the nation of Israel. Moses prays that God will act upon his promise to give Israel the land of Canaan as an inheritance. In the prayer of verses 14 and 15, we have strong echoes of the final chapters of Deuteronomy, where Moses prepares the nation for entrance into the Land.
And we know that God did answer the cry of Moses for pity and favour. We know that under the leadership of Joshua, Israel crossed the Jordan and took possession of the Land. In the Promised Land, God manifested his favour toward Israel in very tangible ways, and unlike any other nation on earth. He made known his glorious power to the children of Israel, verse 16, and he made the work of their hands prosper beyond compare, verse 17.
The favour of God secured eternally in his Son
All very well for the Israelites who did indeed enter the Promised Land and enjoy its fruits. But how does this Psalm apply to those Israelites living after the exile of God’s people from the Promised Land? What about God’s oppressed people living in Babylon? What about us today? Do we perhaps throw this Psalm out, or even the whole book of Psalms for that matter, because they no longer seem relevant to the NT church?
The answer to these questions turns on the fact that the evidence of God’s favour toward his people is not ultimately found in a piece of real estate in the Middle East. No, what the Israelites were to understand is that the Promised Land was a type or a foretaste of heaven that is to come. Canaan was only a h’orderve. In other words, the prayer for the bestowal of God’s favour in verses 14-15 of our passage is on another, ultimate, level a prayer to be satisfied with the joy and gladness of heaven.
This central truth of the Psalms and the OT at large is why the Israelites in exile could also take this Psalm to their lips in worship and prayer. They could cry out to God for pity and favour as sinners because his answer depends not on the breakable covenant at Sinai but on the unconditional covenant of grace made in eternity, and in history with the Patriarch Abraham in Genesis 15.
Beloved, we too, as God’s NT church, take this Psalm to our lips and hearts on the basis of the one covenant of grace, which cuts through both Testaments. But the difference is that unlike Israel in the wilderness, in the Promised Land or in exile, we sing and pray this Psalm at a time in the history of salvation when God’s favour toward sinners has finally been secured in his Son, the long-awaited Messiah of the OT. Unlike Israel of old, we have the privilege of far greater revelation of and access to the kingdom of heaven, which has become down to earth in Jesus Christ.
So, when we sing and pray this Psalm, we are asking God for nothing less than heaven itself. And we do so with unmatched confidence knowing that God has ratified his promise of eternal life by sending his Son.
Consider this Saviour of ours. Do you see how he is the fulfillment of this Psalm before us this morning? In his life of suffering and death, he identified with sinners by living the life on earth that is brutally short and filled with all kinds of evil. But he also, through his life of torment that culminated in his horrific crucifixion on a cruel Roman cross, overcame sin, death and hell and opened up the gateway to Eternal Paradise!
Beloved, Jesus lived a life in which he entrusted himself perfectly to the care of his heavenly Father. He lived a life of unceasing praise to God. He experienced the bitterness of the brevity of this life in his own mortal flesh, without sinfully murmuring and complaining. He drank the cup of God’s wrath down to its very dregs, one gulp at a time until the Father turned his back on him – and the innocent Jesus was swept away in the flood of divine judgment, for our sins. Jesus numbered his days with perfect wisdom and absolute precision. Throughout his life he anticipated and prepared himself for the hour of his death in obedience to God. And when it came, he cried out, “It is finished.”
In his death, burial and resurrection Jesus earned once and for all the God’s favour for us. He turned away God’s wrath and he earned nothing less that heaven for you and I.
May the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ fill us with reverential fear this morning. For, we are sinners who stand before a holy God. But at the same time we have his eternal favour through the blood of his Son. May we by faith grow in this fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom that leads to eternal life.
And as we do so, may we not lose heart as we continue to suffer the many evils that this life – with God’s permission – sends our way. God’s Word to us this morning assures us that our pain is not a foretaste of hell. In fact, the terrors of conscience we experience, the loved ones we lose, the jobs that are taken from us, relationships that go south and the diseases that riddle our bodies are there to test and strengthen our faith – so that we would not foolishly look for heaven on earth, but rather fix our gaze up our Saviour, who will one day return with a new world of perfection in his hands, for you and I. Amen.
Simon Jooste, RCSS AM service, 21 July 2013