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Moses' Psalm

Series: Psalms Book 4

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Jun 15, 2008

Psalm 90:1-17

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If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to the Psalms, to the Fourth Book of the Psalms, to the very first Psalm in the Fourth Book of the Psalms, Psalm 90. The Fourth Book of the Psalms runs from Psalm 90 to Psalm 106, and we’re going to be studying these books together, and today we are going to be in Moses’ Psalm: “The Prayer of Moses, the Man of God.”

What should it feel like to be a Christian? What does a true believer experience in his or her life with God in this fallen world? What ought our affections and desires to be fixed upon? How should we react to our circumstances? What should Christian experience be characterized by as we live together in a world filled with sickness, trouble, and sorrow?

The Psalms tell us. Here, God tells us how to respond to our misery and heartache; how to respond to pain and suffering and loss; how to cope with prayers, the answers to which have long been delayed; how to wrestle with our own sin, or how to cope when we’ve been sinned against. The Psalms are God’s own articulation of Christian experience. We’re going to be learning what our experience ought to be like together.

It is interesting that God has asked us not simply to know and understand the truth of Christian experience as it is expressed in Psalms, but He has expected His people to sing—to sing that experience. We’re going to find out in the middle of this Psalm that much of the psalm focuses in on suffering and death. Now, there are not many churches out there that say, ‘You know, let’s sing a song about suffering and death today!’ But it’s a standard part of life, and God ordered His people in the Old Testament, and ever since then, to sing about it.

A friend of Derek’s and mine wrote an article called “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” He commented about the fact that so much of the music that is written for believers today focuses on happy things, and he asks the question, “What do I sing when my heart’s broken? What do I sing when the lights in my world have gone out?” And his answer is, “Well, the Lord has written an entire hymnbook for me to sing, filled with songs about sorrow and pain, and suffering and heartbreak.” We have them right here in our Psalter, and the Lord has meant these for us so that we might express this experience in accordance with His word.

Well, let’s pray before we hear God’s word read.

Heavenly Father, we come before You and we acknowledge that Your word is more important than even food to our bodies. We cannot live without it. We know that our Savior taught us this, and when He taught us this, He was quoting a man who had lived 1400 years before His time, a man whose Psalm we will study today, “…for man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Grant that we would believe that as we hear Your word read and proclaimed, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Hear the word of God:

 

“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. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

We live in a world that moves at breakneck speed. We are constantly bombarded by busy-ness, and we are pursued by the very technology that has made our lives comfortable in so many other ways. I don’t think many of us would argue that those of us who live here today are amongst the most comfortable human beings that have ever lived on this planet; and yet, the very technologies that serve us also distract us.

There used to be a day where you could go on vacation and be “uncontactable.” Now your BlackBerry® brings your office to you. There used to be times where you and your family were uninterruptible; now there is no such place. Everywhere we are, our iPods®, our iPhones®, our BlackBerry’s, our text messages, our laptops…everywhere we go, we can be found. And what it means is that we spend the bulk of our lives on things which are trivial. They are short-term demanding, but very often long-term unimportant, and yet they preoccupy us.

A friend of mine said it’s a good thing that John Calvin didn’t have email, or else his 1400-page masterpiece,The Institutes of the Christian Religion, would have been two pages long, and he would have spent all his mornings answering email! Maybe you know the distraction of technology yourself, and the persistent tendency of this age to push us to what is immediate, but not most important.

Well, what is necessary in this kind of a context of constant distraction? What is necessary to put perspective on this busy life? It’s interesting to me that Moses answers that question here in this Psalm, and that God answers that question by what He asks us to do Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day, morning and evening.

First of all, He invites us to a place where there is just us and Him. He invites us to a technology fast. I understand that our church, in comparison to a lot of other churches around us, is kind of boring and plain. There’s no light show; there’s no constant bombardment with sound; there’s nothing fancy or visual; there are no skits; there’s no drama. It’s that way by design, so that you are not distracted from the things that are most important, and so that you have time to think about the first things of life instead of yet in another place being distracted by religious images and technologies. All we have to offer here is what lasts forever. All that we have to offer here is God, and His gospel in His dear Son. Nothing else. Nothing fancy. And isn’t that welcome in a world where we’re constantly bombarded 24/7, every second of the day, by something to distract us? Here God bids us come together and hear from Him, and to pray to Him, and praise Him about the things that are most important in life. And that’s exactly what we find in this Psalm.

Moses points us to God, sin, and grace, and he bids us meditate on it, believe it, and sing it. That’s where we’re pointed to in this Psalm. If you look at verses 1-6, it is a reflection upon the character of God. Moses, as he thinks of how ephemeral and passing our life is, how quickly it goes, presses us to think about God. We see this in verses 1-6.

Then, second, in verses 7-12, Moses begins to reflect on suffering and death and judgment, and he draws a lesson from these things about sin. As far as Moses is concerned, if we are not pausing regularly to think about sin – about our sin – we’re not adequately prepared to face this life. And so first he points us to God (verses 1-6); secondly, to sin (verses 7-12); and then, third, to grace (verses 13-17). Verses 13-17 give us a five-fold petition that Moses lifts up; he means for us to make it our own petition as we plead for God’s grace, for we’re not only saved by grace, we live in constant dependence upon God’s grace every second of our lives. And so Moses points us – in this world moving at breakneck speed – to that which puts everything in perspective, and leads us to that which is most important in life by bringing to our attention God, sin, and grace. Let’s give attention, then, to the feast that he spreads for us.

I. God Himself is our home.

First, in verses 1-6, Moses makes it clear that God Himself is our home, our refuge, our city, and the place where His people belong. Look at his words in verses 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.”

Moses points us to the fact that God is His people’s refuge. Our refuge, our place of belonging, our place of safety is not found in anything that the world has to offer to us, but only in God himself; and God, unlike the ephemeral, transient, passing, instant-but-not-permanent world in which we live…God is eternal. He was, and is, and ever shall be. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world was made, He was already God. He has been the dwelling place not only to us, but generations before us, and He will be for generations to come, if the Lord should tarry. And Moses takes great comfort in that. It centers him in this crazy world.

You can imagine Moses in the wilderness under the constant pressure of shepherding hundreds of thousands – millions – of people. He could have been caught up in the moment, in the instantaneous, in the impermanent; but here he directs us to God, who is our home, refuge, city, and the place where His people belong. You know the motto of God’s people is ‘Here we have no continuing city, but God is our dwelling place, and we seek a city to come.’

And so Moses points us to what? To theology, to ground us in the busy-ness and the passing-ness and the transience of life. He points us to the eternality of God. He says if you want to be equipped and ready to cope with and to thrive in this crazy world of business and pressure around you, then you’re going to need to think a moment about God, and you’re going to need to draw strength from who God is.

And he says this about God: God is your only dwelling place; God is the only place where you will ultimately find your belonging; and, God lasts forever. He is unchanging, unchangeable; He is eternal.

Do you remember the scene in The Lord of the Rings? Was it Frodo or Sam, who looks up into the sky in one of the darkest moments in the story, and he sees a star? Now he’s in the midst of the land of the Dark Lord, and everything is black around him. Everything is dead, and everything is dying, and there is no hope. But he looks up and he sees one star shining; and he draws hope, he says, because at least that beautiful thing had not been darkened and besmirched by all the evil which surrounded him. Seeing one thing that was eternal and beautiful gave him hope in a hopeless moment.

Well, here is Moses saying to you, as you look at death and transience and transition all around you, as you see generations of men rise and pass away just like a flood…and how can our minds not be seared with the images that we’ve seen from Iowa this week, as we hear God say that we pass away like a flood? Or see in our eyes the picture of grass? Have you ever seen grass, or maybe even some little mushrooms, grow up on a wet summer morning in Mississippi? And you leave your house and your yard is full of mushrooms, but by the time you come home in the afternoon, they’re all gone. And the yard man hasn’t been! In the sun they wither up and shrink, and disappear. And Moses says that’s the way it is in this life. People come, people go. People live, people die. People move here, move there. It’s all so passing. It’s all so transient. But God is eternal, and He alone is your refuge.

God’s eternality is the answer to our transience. He is the hope in the midst of this passing world. We have no continuing city here, but He is our dwelling place, and we seek a city to come.

Moses is giving us a word of comfort here, but I must say even as I tell you that the Lord himself is our refuge, I have to emphasize that He is our refuge. Now that’s not only an encouragement, but there’s an exhortation in that. He’s our refuge in that God has not called us in this life to be Lone Rangers. There are generations after generations of our people who have gone before us to whom He has been a refuge. There are thousands of people, to whom Derek referred in the prayer, millions of people around the world who are our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ that we have never even met, and He is to them a refuge, too. But God has called us into that great company of saints, and they too can testify that He is the refuge and dwelling place of our people. And that ought to be to our comfort and encouragement. We are not making some sort of crazy monomaniacal claim that’s never been experienced by anyone else before. No, in fact, we are not Lone Rangers; we are part of a company that no man can number. As the sands of the seashore, as the stars in the sky, so is the company of the people who can say, ‘Yes, God is my dwelling place.’

But it also means that saying that God is our refuge is not some form of escape from personal responsibility. For God is our refuge in the Christian life, and one of the ways that we will experience that God is our refuge and express the reality that God is indeed our refuge is in our relationships with one another, for the Lord is “our refuge.” That means that I can’t pursue a life of communion with the triune God, of seeking and pursuing after God and fellowship with Him to the exclusion of loving my neighbor, to the exclusion of fulfilling the responsibilities that God has given to me in my wife and in my children.

This last week, Sean Lucas of Covenant Seminary drew to my attention a passage from a new biography of A.W. Tozer. Now I’m sure that many of you in this room have read A.W. Tozer before, with much profit. So have I. What I’m about to say is in no way a criticism of A.W. Tozer. All of us are sinners. All of us have our blind spots. All of us have our shortcomings and failings. That is part of being totally depraved, and that we are!

But in this biography, Tozer’s biographer, Lyle Dorset, points out that whereas Tozer spent much of his life pursuing communion with God, and strongly called on the church to stop pursuing satisfaction in this world and to seek satisfaction only in Jesus Christ…while he spent most of his ministerial life doing that, he had a distant and cold relationship with his wife and with his children, to the point that when he died, his wife remarried. She married a man who had come to faith in Christ under Tozer’s ministry, and she was asked after that marriage how it was, and she said this:

“I have never been happier in my life, because I knew that Aiden Tozer loved Jesus Christ, but I know that my husband now loves me.”

Now, I don’t know anything about that relationship, and there are ten thousand different explanations that are potential to that circumstance. But I do take this as word of warning: If we pursue God without our pursuit of God being worked out in godly relationships, especially with those that are closest to us, it may well be that our pursuit of God is an escape from responsibility rather than an aid to godly, grace-based responsibility in our relationships with one another.

And, husbands, isn’t that an important message? Fathers, isn’t that an important message on Fathers’ Day? We cannot be zealous in our pursuit of God and also at the same time ignore pursuing our wives and pursuing our children, so that they know what we love them with our life and breath and death, so that our love for God is used in our relationship with one another, for the Lord is our refuge. Not just my refuge, but our refuge.

Well, there’s Moses reminding us that we’re never going to find our place of belonging, our place of safety, the place which is our home, our dwelling place, our habitation, in the world. We’ll find it only in God, for here we have no continuing city, but we look for a city to come, and here our only dwelling place is in God.

II. Our sin.

But then Moses asks us to think about sin. The only problem we face is not simply the problem of transience, of passing away, of death. No, death is actually rooted in another deeper problem, and that problem is sin. And so in verses 7-12, Moses bids us think about suffering and about death, and about God’s judgment. And then he asks us to draw a line from those three things to sin.

Many of you know the name Bart Ehrman, the brilliant young New Testament scholar at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He once was an evangelical Christian; he has now denied the faith. He no longer believes in Christianity. He doesn’t even believe in the existence of God. What was it that led Bart Ehrman to reject Christianity? To reject the gospel? To reject the message of the Lord Jesus Christ? Suffering. He looked out in the world. He looked at his friends who were experiencing enormous suffering in their lives, and he drew a deduction: If there is suffering like that in this world, there cannot be a God.

No, my friends, that’s the wrong deduction to draw from suffering. In fact, I would pose to you that suffering proves the existence of God. I don’t have time to work that out for you, but here’s how it goes. When we look at suffering – any kind of human suffering – what is our immediate response? “That ought not to be.” But especially when we look at unjust suffering, our response is, “That ought not to be.”

When we hear an aged woman, her family a victim of the Holocaust, tell the story of being carried to the death camps with her parents, and watching the soldiers shoot her father in front of her eyes, and watching her older brother refuse to leave his father’s limp body unattended to on the ground – running over to his father and cupping his father in his arm, and then having the soldiers say ‘If you do not move away we will kill you’ – and her older brother refusing to do so. And so she watches her older brother be killed. And then her mother. And then she is left to live her life the rest of her days with that memory etched, emblazoned, upon her brain and on her heart. Every fiber of our being cries out, “That is wrong!”

Well, my friends, if there is no God that is not wrong. It just happened. The only person who can respond to that consistently and say “That is wrong” is someone who believes in the God of the Bible, because without the God of the Bible that’s not wrong, it just happened. I’d have to work that argument out some more, but you understand what I’m saying.

Moses, when he looks out at suffering, doesn’t draw the deduction that there’s some problem with God. No, the deduction goes the opposite direction! It’s so interesting…one of my professors used to say, “Twentieth century man looks at suffering of the world and asks, ‘Why suffering?’ whereas in all the ages before, wiser people asked, ‘Why sin?’ because sin brings suffering into this world.” And that’s exactly what Moses wants us to do. He wants us to look at suffering, he wants us to look at death, he wants us to look at judgment, and he wants us to draw a line back to sin, for God has appointed suffering and death and judgment in response to sin. The logic of the Christian life is we always draw a line from all misery and all death back to sin, and we learn to hate sin and fear God thereby.

But in this busy world, even with all its suffering, we are so distracted that we rarely ever draw that line. In spite of all the signs of God’s displeasure around us, that message never registers until God brings it home. You know, part of the nature of sin is that men hardly ever realize the relationship between death and sin, and the reason is they’re always living for the moment. They’re never thinking about the last things, the final things, the permanent things. So does it surprise you that Moses says in verse 12, “Teach us…” what? “…to number our days.”

What’s the message? Do not live constantly caught up in the here and now, in the moment. Number your days. Think of the eternal, and look around at suffering and death and judgment, and draw a line to sin, and learn to hate sin like God hates sin.

III. Grace.

So there Moses points us to God, then to sin, and finally in verses 13-17, he points us to grace. He lifts up a petition…five parts to it:

“Return, O Lord! How long?

Have pity on Your servants!”

Just as the Lord returns us to dust, the believer comes back and says, “Return, O Lord, to us.” In other words, have mercy on us and forgive us for our sins.

Then, second:

“Satisfy us in the morning with Your steadfast love,

That we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”

Satisfy us with Your covenant love. Satisfy us with Your lovingkindness. Satisfy us with Your steadfast love. Satisfy us with Your grace. Make us to taste of Your grace, O Lord.

We may fear God, we may number our days, but if we do not receive His saving grace there is no health in us.

And then Moses asks us to pray:

“Make us glad for as many days as You have afflicted us,

And for as many years as we have seen evil.”

 It’s a prayer that the Lord would restore the years that the locusts have eaten.

“And let Your work and Your majesty be shown

to Your servants and to their children.”

 In other words, Lord, show me Your kingdom being built, despite all the trouble land sorrow in this world.

       And, finally:

            “Confirm the work of our hands.”

Let the favor of the Lord be on us. Establish the work of our hands—Lord, don’t let my life’s work be meaningless! Don’t let it count for nothing!

Now you may be thinking to yourself, ‘How did God answer this prayer for grace to Moses?’ Moses may well have prayed this prayer after the incident of Numbers 20, when God told him that he would not enter into the Promised Land. And in Deuteronomy 34:1, and then in verses 3 and 4, we’re told that at the end of his life, God took Moses up onto the mountain. He showed him the whole Promised Land of Canaan, and then He said this to Moses: ‘Moses, you will  see it with your eyes, but you will never set foot in it.’ And in the next verse, the fifth verse, Moses is buried on a mountain outside the Promised Land.

Now you may ask yourself the question, how did God answer Moses’ prayer that He would make him glad for as many days as He had afflicted him, and as many years as he had seen evil? And how did He answer Moses’ prayer that the Lord’s favor would be upon us, and that the work of his hands would be established? Moses had lived his life for the one purpose – forty years in the wilderness – to get the people of God into the Promised Land. And now God is saying, ‘Moses, you’re never going to set foot there.’ Have you ever wondered whether God was a little unfair with Moses?

Well, where’s the next time you see Moses in the Bible? The next time you see Moses in the Bible is in Luke 9. There we find Moses, in verses 28-31, on a mountain talking with Jesus. The Lord answered Moses’ prayer in a way that he never could have imagined, far beyond all that he could ask or think. Do not think that if you will go to the loving Lord, your refuge, that He will disappoint you in His answer of grace.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, we bow before You and we thank You for the Psalms. We thank You for the truth of them. We thank You that You ask us to sing about yourself, sing about our sin, sing about our sorrow, and sing about Your redemption. Grant that as we do so in these next few moments, that we will sing with faith in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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