Eternal Perspective in a Time of Isolation: A Meditation on Psalm 90 (with Sermon Video)

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[This is the first message in a series, Steadfast Psalms for a Scattered People]

This week our church was “cancelled.”

Praise around the throne of God went on unceasing, but our church didn’t gather because of the now-infamous and still-dangerous Coronavirus. With this unwanted hiatus, our elders decided to offer a devotional meditation for our congregation. This was not an attempt to replace church—an online “gathering” cannot reproduce what the body of Christ gathered does. Yet, we wanted to feed the flock from the scriptures. And this week that word came from Psalm 90, a prayer of Moses, the man of God.

You can watch the video here. What follows is a more fulsome meditation on this Psalm.

In these days of self-imposed and government mandated isolation, we need to learn from those who have walked the path of isolation and walked it well.

In the Bible, few have experienced soul-crushing isolation like Moses. At forty, Moses was a prince in the household of Pharaoh. Yet, in the blink of an eye, Moses went from the center of power in Egypt to the backside of the dessert, where he would chase sheep for another forty years.

Moses: How God Makes a ‘Man of God’

Born to Jewish parents, Moses was saved by Pharaoh’s daughter and adopted into the royal family (Exodus 2). Scripture doesn’t tell us about Moses’s upbringing in Egypt, but Acts 7:22 gives us a snapshot: “Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.”

In the chronology of Acts 7, Moses’s wisdom and worldly powers came before the age of 40. We can imagine that in the halls of power in Egypt, Moses rose to prominence with gifts that would later be revived by the Lord. Such power, combined with a growing interest his family heritage, led him to stand up for Israel in the ways he had been taught in Egypt.

How do we know? Stephen gives us the story of Moses’s attempt at delivering Israel by himself, an event that would alter his life for the next four decades.

23 “When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. 24 And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. 25 He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. 26 And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’ 27 But the man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ (Acts 7:23–28)

As an Egyptian lord, Moses sought to deliver his people, the sons and daughters of Israel. Yet, his methods needed correction. Would God be pleased for Moses to strike down the Egyptians one-by-one? This is what Moses “supposed” (v. 25), but his supposition reflected the “wisdom of the Egyptians”(v. 22), not the wisdom of God.

In God’s wisdom, Moses the mighty son of Pharaoh’s daughter would need to undergo a long period of re-education. How long? Forty years—one year for every year he spent in Egypt.

As Acts 7:29–30 indicate, Moses fled Egypt and “became an exile in the land of Midian” for forty years, when it was discovered that Moses had killed an Egyptian. What Moses did, killing a man in secret (so he thought), was immediately brought to the light. And now, Moses for the next four decades would herd sheep on the backside of the Midian desert.

Incredibly, this forty year period would extinguish Moses’s self-reliance, making him the most humble man on earth (Num. 12:3), and it would prepare him to lead the people of God for forty years through the same wilderness. What Moses could never have orchestrated, God did. And in this life, we find the man God used to deliver Israel from Egypt—not because of his great words and mighty deeds, but because as a humbled servant, he was a fit vessel for God’s purposes.

Such is the way that God works with all his people. When he redeems us in Christ, he is just beginning to fashion us for his purposes. Just as the newborn babe cannot fathom what his life will amount to, neither can the newborn in Christ. Ephesians 2:10 says that God creates us in Christ Jesus for good works. In other words, our lives are not decided by our isolated wills. For everyone made alive in Christ, he has made us for his purposes—and today, for all living through COVID-19, his purpose is to shape us by this international pandemic.

The question for us, only a few days into this (long?) period of isolation, is what does God want to do with us? How will he shape us with this inescapable shut down? And how will we respond?

How we will respond will largely determine if this pandemic crushes us or conforms into the image of Christ. And seeking the latter, we would do well to learn from Moses and his forty years of exile.

Psalm 90: A Prayer of Moses, the Man of God

Psalm 90 is the only Psalm of Moses in the Psalter. Because Moses predates David and all the other named psalmists, it is probably the oldest psalm. We don’t know exactly when he wrote it. Some have suggested that it should be read with Deuteronomy 32, the song of Moses. But I am inclined to see it as a prayer written by Moses when he between seventy and eighty years of age. Verse 10 says, “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty.” It is very likely, Moses mention of seventy or eighty years is a reflection on that decade in his own life.

If this is correct, Psalm 90 was written at a time when Moses was contemplating his own death. In his own words, God has granted people a lifespan of seventy years, maybe eighty if they are stronger. This obviously is a general principle, not a rule of law or science. But this verse invites us to consider what was going on in Moses’s mind on the backside of the desert, exiled because of his murderous actions in Egypt.

If this psalm emerged in the days of his shepherding—something David would later emulate, writing psalms while he watched sheep—Moses reveals the heart of wisdom that God gave to him, as he numbered his days.

Indeed, Scripture clearly reports that Moses’s life had three sections, forty years in each. For the first forty years, he grew up a mighty man in Egypt. For the next forty years, as he traded out the wisdom of Egypt for a greater wisdom of God, he became a man God could use. Finally, in his last forty years, God used Moses in incredible ways—the desire that Moses had to deliver his people was granted to Moses, but only after a forty years of isolation in the desert.

Indeed, if anyone is able to speak to us a word of wisdom in a time of isolation, it is Moses. And in Psalm 90, we find a prayer that gives us perspective and a pathway to wisdom, no matter what the circumstances we are facing. So let’s take a look at his prayer. For in it, we will see three truths about God and five points of ongoing wisdom.

Wisdom Begins with a Fear of God

In Psalm 90, we find three sections. First, Moses reflects on God the creator and judge (vv. 1–6). Second, he recalls his own life that stands under the wrath of God (vv. 7–11). And third, he issues a prayer, petitioning God to grant wisdom and mercy (vv. 12–17). Indeed, the whole of the Psalm is a prayer (see 90:ss), but the prayer begins with meditation on God above man and man before God. Only then does it move to supplicating God’s grace.

We can learn much from this pattern of prayer. And in the specifics of what Moses says, we can also learn. So let’s consider each section.

God the Everlasting Creator

First, Moses reflects on God’s eternal character and the actions that brought the world into existence. He says in vv. 1–2.

   Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

Verse 1 reflects a truth that is comforting to any and every exile—refuge is not a place that we can run to or fashion for ourselves. God is our dwelling place, no matter where our circumstances take us. While Moses would receive a vision on Sinai of God’s heavenly dwelling place, and he would be the one to translate that to the earthly tabernacle, this verse rightly directs us to find refuge in God himself. Importantly, the tabernacle and later temple were not the ultimate hope of finding God. Rather, they were temporary means of seeking the God who dwells in heaven—the one who would eventually come and dwell with us in the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:14).[1]

In this setting, where Moses had remained for thirty-plus years, Moses was led to reflect on the events of world history. It is unlikely that Moses had written Genesis when he penned this Psalm, but it is likely he knew the events that would later be included in Genesis 1–11. In fact, we can see the creation, the fall, the ages of the patriarchs, the flood, and the renewal of life and death after the flood in verses 2–6. Let’s consider them in order.

Verse 2 recalls the formation of the earth. While God is eternal, his world is not. It came into being when he spoke the world into existence, and so verse 2 reads,

   Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

Next, the fall of mankind is described. In Genesis 3, God issues his judgment on Adam’s sin, and in v. 19, we find these words, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In Psalm 90, Moses describes the same event in verse 3:

   You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”

Then in verse 4, Moses moves on to say,

   For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.

Multiple commenters have observed the way this verse reflects the age of the patriarchs in Genesis 5. You may remember the inordinate length of days that God gave to Methuselah and other sons of Shem. Before the flood, these great men lived to nearly 1000 years. Could Moses be recalling the age of their lives in these verses? It seems likely.

For the very next thing that he says recalls the flood and the new creation that came on the other side of the flood. Genesis 6–9 describes the flood as God’s judgment to sweep away sinful humanity, and it explains how God replanted the earth when the flood subsided. So here, Moses says poetically,

   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.

In all, we find in Moses’s words an incredible meditation on the beginning of the world.

For us, Moses’s mediation on God’s creation teaches us to do the same. When looking for refuge (see v. 1), we should remember the power of God to create and sustain the world. Such reflection on God’s goodness in creation bolsters our confidence that God can take care of us. At the same time, remembering the opening pages of history recalls God’s judgment on humanity. And this leads us to verses 7–11.

God the Righteous Judge

Next, Moses reflects on his current condition under the wrath of God. This condition is one he shares with all humanity. Personally, Moses may be thinking in these verses of his own transgression in killing the Egyptian. Is this the “secret sin” disclosed by God’s light (v. 8). It seems likely, especially if these verses are written at a time when Moses is seventy or eighty years old (v. 10).

In context, these five verses begin and end with the wrath of God (vv. 7, 11). Wrath is also mentioned in the middle (v. 9). And even before these verses, the mention of the flood is an image based upon the historical prototype of God’s judgment on sin (see Genesis 6). All in all, Moses’s reflection on wrath is long and detailed.

Moses is not a modern man nor a liberal theologian who seeks to deny the judgment of God. Instead, he looks deeply into this reality, and by it he gains a heart of wisdom. By looking at the death his sin deserves, he is brought to a place where he cries out for mercy and wisdom. This is what we find in verses 12–17. But first let’s consider what Moses says of God’s wrath. In verses 7–11, he writes,

   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.
10    The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
11    Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?

From these reflections on God’s judgment, we can make two observations, that gives us great wisdom. First, our lives whether long (1000 years, like the patriarchs) or short (70–80 years, or less) will come to an end because of God’s judgment. Death is not a benign inevitability or a natural part of the world; death is the judgment of God. Our sins, even when hidden, demand God’s righteous response. And since Adam ate the forbidden fruit, death has been God’s righteous judgment (Gen 2:17; 3:19).

Second, mankind lives all his days before the wrath of God. This does not mean, that God does not extend incredible patience and mercy to mankind. Even vessels of wrath, whose sins are storing up God’s judgment (Rom. 2:4), receive much goodness from God. What Moses is considering is the fallenness us of world.

As offspring of Adam, we enter the world as God’s enemies and unless he intervenes and grants us life from above, we will continue to provoke him to anger. Mankind does not go to the grave in strength. “Rest in Power” is a humanistic fable that unbelievers tell their children. The truth is God requires from us the breath he grants to us, and here Moses is meditating on the fragility and brevity of life.

From these two observations, we might ask with Moses: Who considers the power of God’s anger? Who will learn from God’s judgment? Indeed, sober reflection upon death elicits wisdom. When our lives brush up against death, we often find new light to consider our lives. God’s wrath, while frightful, should produce in us holy fear. And such holy fear is the beginning of wisdom.

By contrast, the greatest folly comes from thinking we are invincible. Foolishness grows best in our minds when we trust in our own strength. By contrast, those who know and meditate on their own mortality, find wisdom. Wisdom grows best in our hearts, when we know and embrace our weakness. Though it took years—40 years chasing sheep in the wilderness—Moses came to know this weakness. Crushed by decades of obscurity, Moses the man mighty in word and deed (Acts 7:22) became the most humble man on earth (Num. 12:3).

We should remember that such wisdom was not natural to Moses. Schooled in Egypt, he had to be taught the ways of God. And in Psalm 90, we are given insight into how God might have taught him these things. Moses had to bow the knee to God as the one, true creator and the judge who had the right to put him to death. Such acknowledgement of God’s wrath renewed Moses mind and led him to seek God’s mercy—which we find in verses 12–17.

God the Wise and Merciful Lord

Finally, after meditating on God as creator and judge, Moses’s “prayer” comes to a time of supplication in verses 12–17. In this outline, we learn something about prayer. Moses does not begin with petitions, demanding God to work. Rather, he first ponders who God is. Only after rooting his thoughts in God as creator and judge is he ready to seek God’s mercy, which is what he does beginning in verse 12,

12    So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Here, Moses begins with a general petition for wisdom (v. 12). This wisdom is based upon rightly counting our days. Interestingly, the whole psalm pays close attention to time.

  • Verse 1 speaks of the God who is a dwelling place in all generations.
  • Verse 2 remembers the time before creation and describes God as being “from everlasting to everlasting”
  • Verse 4 relativizes 1,000 years. While a millennium is long by human standards; it is nothing to God.
  • Verse 6 speaks of morning and evening, the two poles of a day.
  • Verse 9 speaks of all our days and years, coming to pass before our eternal God.
  • Verse 10 identifies the common length of life, as seventy years. This is a vast difference from the patriarchs and heightens the brevity of life and the severity of God’s judgment.
  • Verse 12 calls for us to count the number of our days to learn wisdom.
  • Verse 14 finally asks God to satisfy in the morning and to be glad all our days.

From this quick survey, we can see how Moses is reflecting on time, in the light of God’s eternity. This is where wisdom comes from—when God’s people count the shortness of their days, in light of the length of God’s eternity, it enables us to make the best use of our lives (cf. Eph. 5:15). All in all, verse 12 is the appropriate prayer and response to a man who passes his days under God’s wrath.

Yet, this prayer for wisdom is but the beginning of wisdom. For as we will see in verses 13–17, such meditation leads us to seek God as a merciful redeemer. Indeed, such an eternal perspective teaches us what really matters and how to live our lives with God’s eternal plans in mind. This is the definition of wisdom—to live life with God in mind. And as we close, we can draw out five points of wisdom from verses 13–17.

Wisdom That Applies in All Generations

As Moses finishes his prayer, he concludes with five petitions.

13    Return, O Lord! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
14    Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
15    Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
16    Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
17    Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands!

From these five petitions, we can glean at least five points of wisdom. Together they flesh out the wisdom described in verse 12, and individually they give us wisdom for our allegiances, appetites, afflictions, affections, and activities. Let’s consider each.

1. Wisdom for our allegiances (v. 13)

Created to serve the Lord, it is impossible to not serve somebody. In this verse, Moses identifies himself as the Lord’s servant, and he seeks the Lord’s mercy. In our humanity, we are bundle of physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual needs. And often these needs go on for a long time, pressing us to ask “How long!”

In elongated moments of need, wisdom seeks God first (Matt. 6:25–34). Instead of looking to government, work, friends, or savings first, wisdom aligns itself with God and seeks his mercy in our times of need (cf. Heb. 4:14–16). Counting our days teaches us not to dabble with other weak and fickle providers. Instead, we should seek the Lord for his mercy first, knowing that all good gifts—even those that come through human means and institutions—come from our father in heaven (James 1:17).

2. Wisdom for our appetites (v. 14) 

Again, human nature dictates that we live to satisfy our longings. Even the man who seeks to take his own life, Blaise Pascal noted, is seeking to satisfy his desire for happiness. The question for us is, Where do we seek satisfaction?

Moses, standing in the wilderness with sheep for forty years and then with the obstinate sheep of Israel for another forty years, teaches us to look to God for satisfaction. He prays “satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love.” Indeed, we need to be satisfied by God day-by-day, and wisdom comes in seeking his promises and his love every morning.

Even if our Bible reading and prayer is found at another hour of the day, we must enter the day with eyes set on the Lord, so that his lovingkindness would fill our hearts. The alternative is to enter into the day with a hungry soul. And a hungry soul will always seek satisfaction in idols. Truly, the greatest ways to fight idolatry is to feast on the Lord and his faithfulness (Ps. 37:3). This the wisdom Moses commends here, and something we should seek every day.

3. Wisdom for our afflictions (v. 15) 

Dwelling under the wrath of God in this fallen world, it is not surprising that we have afflictions—turmoil within and troubles without. As Christians, our troubles are multiplied, because we live in a world that is no longer our own and the enemies of God are our enemies too. As citizens of a future kingdom, tribulation is the norm, and we will not enter the kingdom of God apart from such pains (Acts 14:22).

With this in mind, Moses prays for gladness that matches, or even exceeds, the number of days of affliction. For him, God answered his prayer in a unique and specific way. For every day he spent without the Lord in the Midian wilderness (forty years) would be repaid with a day with the Lord when the Spirit of God led the people of Israel through the Red Sea and throughout the Wilderness (another forty years).

For us, the repayment of gladness for affliction is even greater. While we cannot guarantee material comfort on this earth for the afflictions we face, the resurrection of Christ promises that all who trust in Christ will be raised with Christ eternally. Indeed, Paul says, “For this light momentary affliction 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” (2 Cor. 4:17–18). We can pray with confidence, therefore, that whatever troubles we have now, they will be as nothing compared to the kingdom Jesus is bringing when he returns.

In the waiting period, wise disciples keep this future reality on the forefront of their minds. Such a hope tempers the pain we have now and it helps us turn away from immediate satisfaction in illicit pleasures. Instead, it gives us strength to live for the Lord, whether we contract COVID-19 or are kept virus-free.

4. Wisdom for our affections (v. 16)

Moses prayer also teaches us to look to the Lord and his works. Indeed, if our focus is self-centered, if our relationship with God looks for him to bolster and improve our works, we will ultimately be disappointed. As Moses himself learned, God does not always give us what we want—even when it is a good thing.

Moses did not get to enter the Promised Land. Like Abraham before him and Elijah after him, Moses was one of countless saints who died with longing in their hearts. (Abraham longed for his inheritance; Moses longed to be in the land; Elijah longed for revival). Yet, Moses does not pray for his own success; he prays to see God’s glorious works displayed.

There is much wisdom in this prayer, for God loves to reveal his glory to those who ask in faith. More broadly, we can say Christianity is not a system of self-actualization: “With God on my side, I can do all things.” Rather, Christianity is a belief system that calls individuals to die to their dreams and desires, so that they arise with the hope of Christ’s glory preeminent in their hearts. Wisdom, therefore, leads us to place our affections in the works that God is doing—whether that comfort or suffering for the church today.

5. Wisdom for our activities (v. 17)

Finally, Moses prayer teaches us to hold our works lightly. While God’s works are perfect in power and eternal in their efficacy (see Ps. 90:1–2), ours are not. In fact, if anything goes well in our works, it is grace. Living under the wrath of God (vv. 7–11), we should even be surprised when good things happen.

We shouldn’t be surprised that God manifests his goodness to those who take refuge in him. But when he permits us to accomplish our goals, we should count it a gift of his gracious mercy, not something he owes us. Moses, mighty in word and deed, had to learn humility. And part of that humility can be seen in this verse. He did not treat his works as secure in themselves. Instead, he entreated the Lord to confirm the works of his hands.

We should do the same. In success, we should give praise. In failure, we should content ourselves in God and the refuge he gives us. In all of our days, we should trust that God is working all things for our good, for those who love God, and are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28–29). All in all, this sort of God-centered way of life is the beginning of wisdom. Moses had to learn it and so do we.

Let us not lose heart in these days, therefore. Instead, let us continue to do what Moses did and said in Psalm 90:1—Let us seek the Lord as our dwelling place and walk in the wisdom that an eternal perspective gives us.

In these strange days of the Coronavirus, God is still at work, accomplishing his eternal plans. May he give us his wisdom to trust him and to walk in his ways. For truly, in every generation, this is his unchanging promise, that he is our dwelling place in this life and in the one to come. Let us hold fast to that hope, so that we may gain a heart of wisdom as we learn how to number our days.

Soli Deo Gloria,ds

______________________

[1] Additionally, Moses word of comfort had particular application for those returning from the exile. Remember: Moses’s psalm is placed in the Psalter at the start of Book 4 (Pss 90–106). The theme of Book 4 is one of a new exodus. In the flow of the Psalms, this psalm is connected to Psalm 89 by the plaintive request “How long” and the theme of wrath (cp. Pss 89:46 and 90:11–13).

In Psalm 89:44, it was God’s righteous wrath that tore down David’s throne. David’s sons had abandoned the covenant, and God responded with wrath, sending them into exile. Now, in Psalm 90, as Book 4 recounts the way that God would lead his people back to himself, Book 4 begins with a Psalm of Moses—the man God raised up from exile to lead Israel out of Egypt. What word could be more comforting than Moses’s prayer, declaring the steadfast love of God and the offer of refuge in God’s eternal dwelling place. This is how the psalm fits into the Psalter and into God’s plan of redemptive history.

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