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A New Year's Day Reflection from Psalm 90 [1]

You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!”…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.[2]

Have you observed—and felt—the conflicting thoughts and emotions wrapped around New Year’s celebrations? We recall happy memories of the past year and anticipate the future with its hopes and possibilities.

Yet some memories are painful, and we feel sorrow and even grief at the loss of time. “What time hath done? Who can win back the wind? Beckon lost music from a broken lute? Renew the redness of last year's rose? Or dig the sunken sunset from the deep?”[3]

In Psalm 90, Moses confronts us with the stark reality of our human frailty and the only answer to it—God’s eternity and purity and grace. The psalm is blunt and sobering; but in its directness it provides tremendous hope to finite and sinful people like you and me.

Behold God the Eternal!

(And Man, Lost in Time)

…A thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night. With God, the ability to collapse time is absolute: he sees everything simultaneously before the beginning of time and beyond its end. We do not. Yet as the image of God, we do have the power of memory. And what a sorry condition! Have you ever looked through binoculars from the wrong end? Everything appears small and condensed and extremely brief. Life feels like that, and the longer you live, the more you feel it. Our memories, our knowledge of time just reminds us that our life on earth is fast running out. [4] Humankind is lost—lost in time. But lest we imagine that our condition is merely an existential dilemma that’s not our fault—a puzzle for philosophers and preachers to agonize over while the rest of us party—Moses tells us more.

Behold God, the Infinitely Pure!

(And Man, Lost in Sin)

…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. God’s pure and holy light exposes the real problem. It’s not our finiteness in time, but something much more devastating—sin. Sin shatters our relationship with the one Source of life, so death is the inescapable consequence. Moses experienced divine wrath against sin every day. Imagine this godly man witnessing a whole nation—an entire generation—perish in the wilderness because of God's fierce anger with their rebellion. Moses, too, would die on the wrong side of the Jordan. Man is lost in time because he is lost in sin.

Humankind feels alone in the universe and lost in fleeting time because we have rejected the God who made us for personal fellowship with himself. The modern mindset, human-centered and self-exalting, doesn’t get it. You see the results: greed, sexual perversion, hatred, senseless murders, war, and the cheapening of life, all deeply rooted in the human heart. How lost is man because of his sin? Very, very lost. And God is very, very angry with it. Are you ready now for grace?

Behold God the Gracious!

(And Man, Found by God's Covenant Love)

Return, O LORD! How long? Have pity on your servants! What a shocking prayer. The Lord had condemned sinners with the command, “Turn back to dust!” [5] Now, Moses cries out to God with a brilliant repetition of the same phrase, “Turn back! Lord, turn back to us!” He boldly uses God’s own words of judgment and turns them around in a plea for mercy! Moses asks the impossible—that an infinitely pure God would reverse his own curse on sin. The Lord accomplishes the impossible.

The grace of deliverance from sin and its curse

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. “Steadfast love” is the Hebrew hesed, a term used only for God's commitment to love his chosen people. Moses in desperation, and knowing the desperate condition of all humankind, banks on God's mercy. May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children. He understood those deeds as the Lord’s mighty saving works for his people—rescuing them, providing for them, conquering their enemies, bringing them into the land of Promise, and giving them the greatest of all blessings, his own presence dwelling in their midst. [6]

Fourteen centuries later, we hear the apostle John’s astonishment when he reflects on this psalm’s fulfillment. The Word became flesh and dwelt [7] among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. He knew the answer to Psalm 90’s urgent prayer—the coming of the One who rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. God’s absolute reign that Moses wrote about has become the Lordship of Christ, who pours out his grace and eternal life to all who surrender to him in faith. …You have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

The grace of meaningful labor and the wisdom to do it

So teach us to number our days [8] ,that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom ….And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it. Stand amazed at this Psalm’s trajectory! It begins with a vision of divine majesty, humbling us before the Creator who dwells in eternity. But in the end, it takes you down to street level—your street.

Your hands. Your work. Your days. Your time. Right there where you live, the beauty and delight [8] of God rests upon you just as the Father delights in his Son. We live forever with him if we are found in Christ through faith. And as you serve the eternal God, he makes our every minute in this time-bound universe abound with eternal significance.

Dear friend, serve your Lord Jesus Christ this year with confidence, knowing that every work of faithful labor, every tender act of kindness, every word of truth spoken in love, every opening of your heart in forgiveness, every good work, will sparkle like a diamond on that Great Day of the Lord. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

Blessings to you in 2018!

Andrew Selle

[1] Title taken from a message by Edmund P. Clowney, late president of Westminster Theological Seminary; I think the binoculars illustration is also his.

[2] Psalm 90:3, 13,14; other Scriptures, in italics (ESV unless otherwise noted) are Psalm 90:2; 5-6 (author’s translation); 4, 7-8, 13-14, 3, 16 (NIV), John 1:14, Colossians 1:13-14, John 17:2-3, Psalm 90:12,17 (KJV), 1 Corinthians 15:58. The title of Psalm 90, “A prayer of Moses, the man of God,” makes this the earliest of all the psalms and a vivid backdrop for its composition.

[3] Owen Meredith, in Hoyt’s New Cyclopedia of Practical Quotations (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Co.), 1940, p. 796

[4] “Men are led by reflection upon the brevity of time to give their earnest attention to eternal things; they become humble as they look into the grave which is so soon to be their bed, their passions cool in the presence of mortality...” C.H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Vol. II (McLean, VA: MacDonald Publishing Co.), p. 64-65.

[5] Surely, Moses is reciting the judgment on Adam and his race, to dust you shall return (Gen 3:19).

[6] He answers Moses’s plea of Exodus 34:9, …Let the LORD go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance. Instructions immediately follow for the Tabernacle in the middle of the camp—where blood sacrifice continually would be offered until the final Sacrifice would be made by the final High Priest (Hebrews 9:11-14).

[7] The word used means “to pitch a tent”—he “tabernacled” among us. Jesus fulfills all that the Tabernacle, and the later Temple, symbolized.

[8] To “number” means to wisely consider the amount of our time with a view toward using it well. One of the wisest things I've heard about time is that we tend to overestimate what we can do in the short-term and underestimate what we can do in the long-term. Make the most of every opportunity, for the days are evil (Ephesians 5:16).

[9] “The crowning contrast is between what was seen as perishable…and the abiding glory of what God does. Here is a heritage for our children in a transitory world; here is delight (17a; favour is too colourless a word)….” Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150 (Downers Grove: IVP, 1975), p.331


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