The Lord's Day Evening
December 28, 2008
“How Christians Should Approach the New Year”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now turn with me to the Ninetieth Psalm…Psalm 90. We are taking a break for this Lord's Day evening from our study in the book of Nehemiah. This is the last Sunday evening service of 2008, and I thought it might be useful for us to contemplate together a Psalm that has proved in the history of the church to be what we sometimes call a Watch-Night Service text. It has been customary in the church (and we've had them here on occasion) on New Year's Eve, for example, to have a service — sometimes held at the midnight hour. Spurgeon, for example, held one almost consistently every year. And looking back through the texts that he employed on those occasions, Psalm 90 proved to be one that he went to on a number of occasions.
As you will recall, this Psalm makes mention of the passing of time, and that very famous text that “our years are three-score years and ten, and if by reason of strength they be four-score years, yet they are weariness and toil.” Well, let's read Psalm 90 together, and before we do so, let's look to God in prayer.
Father, we come to You acknowledging once again that this is Your word. You caused it to be written. Men wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. And we pray now for Your blessing. Help us again to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, and this for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
This is God's word:
“A PRAYER OF MOSES, THE MAN OF GOD.
“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.
“You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!’
For a thousand years in Your sight
Are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.
“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.
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.
Who considers the power of Your anger,
And Your wrath according to the fear of you?
So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.
“Return, O lord! How long?
Have pity on Your servants!
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.
Let Your work be shown to Your servants,
And Your glorious power to their children.
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!”
Amen. May the Lord add His blessing to that reading of His holy and inerrant word.
The Puritans had a tendency to say that we ought to live our lives sub specie aeternitatis, that is to say, in the light of eternity; that we should spend our days reflecting on the brevity of life, reminding ourselves that here we have no eternal city but we seek one which is to come, whose builder and maker is God.
This is a Psalm by Moses, written during the wilderness period. Perhaps it's the oldest text in the Bible, written possibly before the Five Books of Moses. We’re not quite sure when the book of Job was written, and Job may outdate this Psalm, but it is possible that this is the oldest…from a human point of view, the oldest Scripture that we have. It was written during a time of great trial, then. Forty years in the wilderness…all those funerals. Some of us have reached the point in life where we seem to be always attending funerals. I remember the time when I never went to funerals. Now it seems they’re upon me all the time. Moses saw a lot of funerals, a lot of trials, a lot of difficulty. It's written in that context — reflecting on life, reflecting on what it means to be wise.
It's a characteristic of Hebrew poetry that the climax is not at the beginning or the end, but often in the middle. And it looks as though the fulcrum on which this entire Psalm turns is in verse 12: “Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.” The psalmist Moses is concerned that we may get a heart of wisdom. He wants us to be wise. He wants us to live wisely, to live in the light of eternity, to live in the glorious light of heaven, and that we might present ourselves to God and live for God, and be out and out for God.
In the cathedral in Milan there are three archways. Written over the first are the words All that pleases is but for a moment. Written over a second, All that troubles is but for a moment. And written over the third, All that is important is eternal. All that is important is eternal, and that seems to be the perspective of this Psalm. It wants us to get a grasp of the eternal, of the things that are important, the things that are lasting. Walk with me through that archway, the archway that says All that is important is eternal.
The Psalm divides into four sections, and each section is describing an attribute, a characteristic, a quality of God. This Psalm is all about God. In verses 1-2, Moses is describing the eternality of God. In verses 3-6, he's describing the sovereignty of God. In verses 7-12, he's describing the severity of God, and in verses 13 to the end he's describing the mercy of God. The eternality of God; the sovereignty of God; the severity of God; the mercy of God: it's all about God. You already get the picture, don't you, that to get a heart of wisdom you need to think about God? It doesn't begin with thinking about “me.” It doesn't begin with self-centeredness; it begins by focusing entirely upon God. Jim Packer reminds us again and again that the first question in Bible study is not “What is this passage saying to me?” It's an important question, it's a vital question, but it's not the first question. The first question is always “What is this passage teaching me about my God?”
I. The eternality of God.
And Psalm 90 is teaching us at least four things about my God, the first of which is this: God's eternality.
“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.”
He begins by thinking about…well…home. Home is the place where we're most safe, our dwelling place, and the psalmist Moses is saying God is my home, God is my refuge, God is my dwelling place. And God is a place of refuge. God is a place of safety. God is a place that makes me feel at home because He never changes, because He's eternal, because He's outside of space and time. He is the God, you remember, in Revelation 4:8, “who was, and who is, and who is to come.” From everlasting to everlasting, before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the world was formed, before–well, can I say it? And I don't necessarily mean anything, but people talk about “the big bang”–how God brought the world into existence in six days.
Before all that, before there was a creation, before there was a world, before there was a moon, before there were stars, before there were planets, before there was this cosmos, there was God. Because God always has been and always will be. It's a statement of what theologians call the asceity of God. That's a lovely word, a nice one to throw out…a great word for Scrabble™. The asceity of God, the self-existence of God. We exist because God made us. We are dependent creatures. God is dependent on no one. There is no moment in time when God was not. He is the uncreated Creator. He's the one who spoke the mountains into being, the world into being. He is the original cause. “In the beginning, God….” “In the beginning…the Word….” In the beginning, Jesus. God exists in Himself. We exist because He made us. We exist because He sustains us.
We are creatures of space and time. We are also creatures of age and decay. Some of you might have gone to see a movie called Benjamin Buttons. I've seen the trailer. If you want to see Brad Pitt looking eighteen years of age, it's the movie for you. It's staggering what they manage to do to a man who, I guess, is in his forties. He genuinely looks eighteen. It's about age. In this case, growing from an old man to an infant. It's a sort of crazy story, but it's about age and it's about society's involvement and concern and worry about age. Because we age. But God never ages. He's outside of time. God's not concerned with moth and rust and everything else that decays and falls apart. How can you be sure about anything? How can you be sure about anything in this world? And Moses is saying I can be absolutely sure about God and about God's word, and about God's promise, and about what God has revealed Himself to be because He never changes. He's outside of space and time. He exists in Himself, and therefore He's my refuge.
Here's a word for 2009, to look to God and to trust Him with all of our hearts as the one solid unchangeable factor in a changing world. It's a very different world on December 28, 2008, than it was on December 28, 2007. Many of us would not have believed we would be in the position we're in now. Things have changed, and they will always change. But God remains the same, and He is my refuge. He's my dwelling place. He's my home. He's my security.
II. God's sovereignty.
Secondly, God's sovereignty, in verses 3-6. He begins to talk about death:
“You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!’”
In 1734, Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon on this portion of Psalm 90. Actually, it was verses 5-6…”You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that has renewed in the morning, and in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.” He preached it at the funeral of a young man — a very young man — who died suddenly in the space of a couple of days from some kind of lung infection. He preached about death. He preached about the brevity of life. We have threescore years and ten — seventy years, perhaps eighty years. If by reason of strength, maybe eighty years…but not much more than that. God brings us all to an end, and Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon on that text. It had a profound effect. Within a matter of a few months, several hundred young people in the town of Northampton had been converted as a result of that text and thinking about the sovereignty of God in life and in death. They are very solemn words, aren't they, at a gravesite? “Earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes. We hereby commit this body to the ground in sure and certain knowledge of the resurrection of the body from the dead and the life everlasting. Earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes.”
You notice what he says. He says in verse 4, “A thousand years in Your sight are but as yesterday.” What is time to God? A thousand years ago King Canute was trying to stop the sea from coming in. A thousand years ago, one of my favorite people in all of history lived: Ethelred the Unready. A thousand years ago, it was the Battle of Hastings…William the Conqueror…the Norman invasion of Anglo-Saxon England. The history of this country is what, 500 years? …1493, Puerto Rico was discovered by Christopher Columbus (I think). It's like yesterday. Do you remember what you were doing yesterday? Yesterday afternoon, Saturday afternoon? For God, a thousand years ago is just like yesterday. Our lives are like the dew that appears in the morning and are gone, like a vapor. We've had some London fog days in the last couple of weeks, and then by noontime when the sun arises and burns away that dew, it is gone.
Do you know what this is saying? It's saying many things, but it's saying at least two things. It's saying first that you and I can't live one day longer than God has planned. Think about it. You can't live one day longer or one day shorter than God has planned. It is appointed unto man once to die. God has appointed the day. But it's also saying life is short.
I have a family member, a career military family member who says [far too frequently for my liking]…he says, “Life is short, and then you die.” There's no gospel in those words, you understand, but he says them! “Life is short, and then you die.” He usually says it to his children when they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Life is short. Life is very short.
I was contacted a couple of days ago from someone on FaceBook. I remember her. I was fifteen, in high school. I remember her. I remember where she lived. So I wrote to her. (She asked if she could be “my friend” on FaceBook. Sure! [Laughter.] And I wrote to her and I said how wonderful it is. I haven't seen her in forty years…forty years I haven't seen her. She has seven sons. She wrote back within a few hours, and she says, “I don't remember you, but I remember your brother.” [Laughter.] I was devastated. [Laughter.] Life is short. Forty years had gone by. That's half of the greater lifespan, the eighty years part as opposed to the seventy years part, the “if by reason of strength they be four-score years,” that's half of it gone.
Many of you in this building tonight, like myself, are past the half way point. I could get more personal, but I won't. Life is short.
Wesley was asked — John Wesley was asked a famous question. He was…you know he did this colossal amount of riding on the back of a horse, thousands and thousands and thousands of miles, preaching. He was asked one day what he would do if he knew he was going to die tomorrow. And apparently he opened up his diary and looked at it, and said, “I would do precisely as I had planned.” What a way to live! Living each day as if it meant something, redeeming the time, buying up each moment, each second as useful for God, because only what's done for Jesus will last. God is sovereign, sovereign over time.
III. The severity of God.
Thirdly, God is severe. Yes, in verses 7-12,
“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.”
This is not, you see, “God is sovereign; therefore, it doesn't matter what I do, He’ll clean up the mess.” No, there are clear and painful consequences to sin. That's what the psalmist is saying. This is the wilderness period, after all. This is the time of God's anger. God was chastising them. Life is too short to spend half of it under the chastisement of God. There are consequences for wrong choices. An entire generation perished as a consequence of wrong choices.
What they lacked — you see it there at the end of verse 11 — is the fear of God. Do you remember what the psalmist is trying to say to us here? How do you get the heart of wisdom? What is the beginning of wisdom? The fear of God: recognizing that God is God, recognizing that God is great, recognizing that God is powerful, recognizing that God is holy, recognizing that God has revealed His holy character in His word. Yes, living like that.
Spurgeon was saved on January 6, 1850, you remember, in a snowstorm. You remember he had gone to hear someone and wasn't able to get there because of the snowstorm, and turned into this little Baptist church. And a preacher (a poor preacher, according to Spurgeon) was in the pulpit and he kept on repeating the text. The only good thing about this preacher was he kept repeating the text, “‘Come unto Me and be ye saved,’ saith the Lord.” And Spurgeon was sitting up in the balcony, and apparently the preacher pointed directly at him, and Spurgeon was saved. Well, two weeks later he wrote the following prayer:
“O great and unsearchable God, who knowest my heart and triest all my ways, with a humble dependence upon the support of Thy Holy Spirit, I yield myself to Thee. As Thy own reasonable sacrifice, I return to be Thine own. I would be forever unreservedly, perpetually Thine. Whilst I am on earth, I would serve Thee; and may I enjoy Thee and praise Thee forever.”
That was his prayer.
Living in the fear of God. Living a life of consecration. Living a life of holiness. That's how God would have us live in 2009, living for Him. Not living for ourselves, not even living for our families, but living for Him — out and out for Him, the heart given to Him.
IV. The mercy of God.
But then, fourthly and finally, the mercy of God. Do you see it there in verse 14? I love this verse: “Satisfy us in the morning with Your steadfast love.”
Let me say a couple of things about that.
Steadfast love: it's the great Hebrew word for God's covenant mercy, God's special mercy, God's cross-centered mercy, God's Christ-centered mercy.
Satisfy us in the morning with Your steadfast love. Here's Moses saying…and this is Moses in the wilderness period… saying here's the heart, here's the secret of a wise life. It's gospel-focused. It's gospel-focused. It has an eye to the way of forgiveness, and the way of forgiveness is through God's covenant mercy; that there is mercy with God, that He may be feared. God is merciful. He sent His Son to die for us. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for a friend.” It's as though Moses is saying, ‘Here's the heart of wisdom. It has a cross-shape to it.’
Do you notice that he says in verse 14, “Satisfy us in the morning…”? You know, when you get up in the morning and you remember that God is merciful the day goes so much better.
“Satisfy us in the morning,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”
Some of you are grumpy. There's no beating around the bush about it. Some of you are grumpy. And the reason your days are filled with grumpiness is perhaps what Moses is getting to here in verse 14, that you’re not satisfied with the mercy of God. It doesn't ravish you, it doesn't fill your heart, it doesn't fill your soul. It doesn't cause you to be lost in wonder, love and praise as you think about the love of God, the steadfast love of God. Fill your heart with it in the morning!
You know, maybe that's what we need to do in 2009, get back to that…back to morning exercises with God. “Oh,” you say, “I don't need to do that. That's legalism. I can do that at night. I can do that when I'm driving up I-55.” [Well, you’re a better person than I am!] [Laughter.] Start the day, Moses is saying…start the day remembering the mercy of God, that you are a saved sinner, a sinner saved by grace. And Moses is saying your day will go so much better. It will be filled with joy and gladness.
But you notice further on down in verse 17,and I’ll end with this, “Let the favor of the Lord our God….” Do you see that little word favor? He's ringing the changes on the idea of mercy and steadfast love, and now favor. And this word favor…it's a word…and if you have a text that has little footnotes in it, look down at the footnote, because it says “or beauty”. I think the Hebrews had a way of understanding God that sometimes we've lost. To the Hebrew mindset, to the Mosaic mindset–remember this is Moses, this is Moses who wrote those long five books full of law, detailed law, but Moses knew that God was beautiful. God was a thing of beauty — can I put it that way? God was altogether beautiful! Ravished by the beauty, the sheer beauty…captivated by the sheer beauty of God. Anything or anyone that you've ever considered beautiful — a person, a wife, a husband, a child, a grandchild…music, art, literature, a flower, a bird, a dog — anything or anyone that you consider beautiful is but a pale reflection of the beauty of God, and here's the Psalmist saying ‘I'm ravished, and I want to be ravished, and I want constantly to be ravished by the sheer beauty of God.’
Oh, that's what I wish for all of you! That's what I pray for all of you, as I pray for myself, for 2009.
There's something wonderful about the changing of the year. You can turn the page. There have been all kinds of sins and catastrophes in 2008, and God is a God of forgiveness. There is mercy with God, that He may be feared. And we take it to the cross, and we have all of those sins washed in the blood of the Lamb. And there's 2009, and there's this prayer: “Satisfy us in the morning with Your love.” May God so grant it.
Let's pray together.
Father, we thank You for Your word, this word of Moses three and a half thousand years ago and yet ever new. And we pray that You’d hide it now within our hearts for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
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