by gavin Matthews
When we look back at 2019, many people will remember the political upheavals that have dominated the national news. For others, national headlines fade into insignificance behind events closer to home; births, deaths, triumphs and tragedies alike. For all of us, the end of the year is a time to look back, to reflect and learn; to look ‘now’ and take stock of where we are; and to look forward to where we need to go, as the future beckons.
Centuries ago, a man did exactly that and his wisdom is recorded for us in Psalm 90. This ancient piece of writing calls us to renew our focus on God, orientate ourselves around Him; thank Him for every blessing that has gone before; examine our relationship to Him today; and to trust Him for what is to come.
You can read the whole Psalm here:
Moses begins his prayer retrospectively.
1 Lord, you have been our dwelling place
throughout all generations.
2 Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
Here there are two controlling thoughts. The first is that we have only come this far because The Lord has been with us. Whatever our experiences have been up to the present moment; we are here by the grace of God. The second is that God’s faithfulness to His people through the years, is predicated on the fact that God himself is eternal. While the Psalmist eases his way through grand poetry to make his point, my kids used to love the children’s song which said, “Our God is a Great Big God – and He holds us in his hands”. The prose is not so lofty, but the point is identical; God has held His people; and is able to do so because his arms are everlasting.
I remember as a youth reading Charles Finney’s lectures on revival. I came later to move away from much of his theology; while continuing to long for much of his experience! The part of those lectures which remains most strongly with me, is an exercise entitled “Breaking Up the Fallow Ground”, which the singer Keith Green had summarised and popularised. The first part of that involves writing a list of all the things for which you have never specifically thanked God, divided up into categories to focus the mind. I remember sitting at my parents’ dining room table with a pen and an A4 pad of lined paper, thinking “this won’t take long”. A couple of hours later, with this enormous list of blessings in nature, health, church, family, school, leisure, material possessions and spiritual blessings – I realised that I was something of a selfish, ungrateful brat in the House of God. I had simply taken for granted the many, many things God had given me. These were not things I had earned or deserved, or had any right to possess but were simply the overflow of the love of God towards His creation which had reached me.
While there are pains and disappointments from 2019, we need to look back not only with regret; but balance this with a healthy gratitude to God, for all He has provided. My general, vague sense of gratitude was brought into sharp focus when I wrote down all the good things for which I had never specifically given thanks. The end of the year is an ideal time to look back, and to give thanks.
The Psalm then looks at the “now”. Moses examines where he stands before God at the very moment that he cried this great prayer, and he gives powerful and eloquent voice to two profound themes, in comparing himself (and all humanity with him) to God.
The first comparison is in scale (v3-6) such as:
3 You turn people back to dust,
saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
As he stands addressing the God who is timeless, and unrestricted, his first impulse is look up the glory of God and stand in wonder. His second is to look down at his frail mortality and to adopt an attitude of deep humility before Almighty God. This is Psalm 90’s reality check for us. While humanity is honoured to bear the image of God, we are not God. At the year-end, many people take stock of whether their life-plan is on track; progress being made in careers, relationships, or mortgage payments (and there is nothing wrong with any of those things). However, this Psalm calls us also to ask ourselves if we hold God in ‘awe’ as He deserves. Few words have been so eviscerated of their content than “awesome”. There was a time when perhaps the Himalayas, or the Grand Canyon might qualify for the adjective; whereas now even a slice of pizza can declared to be so. However, invoking the genuine meaning of the word; perhaps the most profound question we can ask ourselves is whether we see that God is truly awesome.
The second comparison is in quality (v7-11) such as:
7 We are consumed by your anger
and terrified by your indignation.
8 You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.
9 All our days pass away under your wrath;
The Psalmist is struck here, not just by the scale of God, but by His purity and holiness. This in turn creates a deep sense of his own unworthiness before God. As he considers the perfection of God, his own sins; which once seemed trivial and of no consequence, loom large.
As we take stock of our lives, Psalm 90 summons us to assess our sins, as they are before God. Tellingly, the Psalmist is as burdened by his secret sins, as much as by his more public failures. He is not so much worried about shame before other people, as much as by the fact that he was not in a right relationship with God.
As we discern patterns of thought, speech or behaviour which fall short of the standards of God in our lives, these verses point us in the right direction.
12 Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
“Give us the wisdom to live well!”, the Psalmist cries, recognising that that depends on humility before God. I can think of no more appropriate a prayer for the start of a new year than that.
13 Relent, Lord! How long will it be?
Have compassion on your servants.
One of the greatest blessings that God offers us is forgiveness of our sins. The Psalmist knows that the judgement of God as something very real and serious. Furthermore, while some Psalms call only for God to judge Israel’s enemies, this writer is concerned with his own sins.
As New Testament Christians, we have a renewed certainty and assurance that when we trust Christ, and confess our sins, “he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9). This is because while the Old Testament believers knew that God would one day make some great provision for salvation in the future; New Testament Christians have seen it. Jesus, the son of God, gave his life at the cross, ‘as a ransom for many’. Such certainty does not mean that we take sin any less seriously than Psalm 90, or think that God will not judge; but it does mean that we have confidence that when we pray “Relent O Lord… have compassion on your servants”, that He has and He will!
Tim Keller expressed it beautifully when he wrote:
“The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”
The upshot is that as we examine our hearts before God in his eternal nature, and his Holiness, and inevitably find fault in ourselves; we can be made right with Him. In the grace of God in Christ, we can be right with God now.
Looking Forward (v14-17)
14 Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.
15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
for as many years as we have seen trouble.
16 May your deeds be shown to your servants,
your splendour to their children.
17 May the favour[a] of the Lord our God rest on us;
establish the work of our hands for us—
yes, establish the work of our hands.
As the Psalmist looked forward, he didn’t place his hopes and aspirations primarily in the nation, or in political, economic or relational successes. Rather, he looked to God for satisfaction in life, joy, love and gladness – and redemption from all the troubles in life which had burdened him. He also longed to see the glory of God revealed on earth. He wanted to see God’s favour on the people and for God to grant him success in the work he has ahead.
These words should be on our lips as we face uncertain times in 2020. We do not know what will happen in politics, economics, culture, or in the world. We don’t even know what will occur in our own bodies, families or homes. Yet, we entrust all these things to The Lord, asking Him to give us His love, joy, peace, hope and satisfaction. Minnie Louise Haskins famously wrote: “And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.”
Like you, we each have specific callings from God, and particular skills and gifts with which to get to work. Here at Solas, our particular calling is to share the gospel of Christ, and to help the church to do the same. Each of us who work for Solas, also has families we are part of, and churches in which we serve. In all these spheres, our prayer must be v17,
17 May the favour[a] of the Lord our God rest on us;
establish the work of our hands for us.
So please join us, as one year fades, and another rises. Firstly looking back, and thanking God for every blessing past. Secondly looking ‘now’ and making sure we are right with God, and then looking forwards, trusting God, and looking to Him, for love, joy, hope, satisfaction and fruitfulness.