16 May 2011

Nothing But Toil and Trouble

A Meditation on Psalm 90
by Phil Johnson

A Prayer of Moses, the man of God. Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
3 You return man to dust and say, "Return, O children of man!"
4 For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.
5 You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning:
6 in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.
7 For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed.
8 You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.
9 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?
12 So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.
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!


egarding the shortness and misery of this life, Moses wrote, "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" (Psalm 90:9-10).

This is a common theme in Scripture: our days are few and full of trouble (Job 14:1). In case you have wondered, it's not just you; we all experience misery and affliction. That's the nature of earthly life. The earth itself is cursed. Moses gives a nod to that fact in the phrase "all our days pass away under [God's] wrath." In the King James Version, the second half of that verse says, "We spend our years as a tale that is told." The Hebrew expression actually means, "We finish our years like a groan."

That's true, isn't it? Life ends with a groan. The end of life is like an extended sigh of pain. Life doesn't generally get more pleasant as we get older; in fact, it typically works the other way: life gets harder and more trouble-filled. At the end you die, and if you're "fortunate" to live long enough to die of old age, the end of your life will be like a drawn-out sigh. Meanwhile, this life is filled with moaning and affliction. All nature groans (Romans 8:22-23).

That reality leads Moses to reflect on the reality of divine wrath against sin. Moses, you recall, had sinned by losing his temper at Meribah in front of the whole nation. There was no water when Israel arrived at Meribah, and (as usual), complaints and rebellion were brewing among the people. So God gave Moses these detailed instructions: "Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle" (Numbers 20:8).

Instead, with the nation gathered before him, Moses went into a rage: "Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?" And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice" (vv. 10-11). As a result, Moses was forbidden to lead the nation into the promised land (v. 12). Aaron likewise was kept out of Canaan and died immediately after the incident at Meribah (vv. 23-29).

It seems an extremely harsh punishment for a seemingly minor (and completely understandable) transgression. In Psalm 90:11, Moses acknowledges this, but he implicitly affirms the justice of God: "Who understands the power of Your anger and Your fury, according to the fear that is due You?"

In other words, no matter how much we might fear God's wrath, His wrath against sin turns out to be more than equal to the worst thing we could ever imagine. That's why the biblical descriptions of hell are so awful. God's wrath is infinitely worse than anyone really fears.

But notice: that doesn't cause Moses to despair. He knows about—and has tasted—the goodness of God as well. And that's what launches him into the petition phase of his prayer. Verse 12: "So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom." In other words, help us to keep both the brevity of this life and the realities of eternity in perspective, so that we can be truly wise people.

And then Moses pleads with God for compassion: "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." (vv. 13-14).

Moses realizes that even though he can't erase the consequences of his sin, his life isn't hopeless. He's not dreading what's ahead or seeing the future with a grim outlook at all. He knows the mercies of God are inexhaustible, and God abundantly pardons. God can restore even the years that the locust has eaten. So Moses prays for a special outpouring of God's blessing. Verse 15: "Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil."

In other words, Give us blessing at least equal to our trouble. "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!" (vv. 16-17).

God answered that prayer. The work of Moses' hands was certainly established. His life's work was by no means wasted. And he wasn't kept out of the Promised Land forever. Because at the transfiguration, when Christ revealed His glory, Moses and Elijah were there, talking with Him. Moses got blessing equal to his trouble—and infinitely more. After all, God was His dwelling place—and God is a better dwelling place than the land of Canaan.

That's the whole point of Psalm 90. We are dying creatures. Our earthly comforts are few and they are only temporary. This life is going to end shortly. And even if you die of old age, it's a long process of decline to get to that point. The very best you can hope for is that your life will end like a drawn-out groan.

But if God is your dwelling-place then you have an eternal habitation, because He Himself is eternal. Not only that, if God is your dwelling place, then He can bless you even in this sin-cursed world. He will even bless you more than the days you have been afflicted. Certainly, the blessings of heaven are infinitely greater than all the miseries of this life combined.

Romans 8:18: "For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us." There's a lot for the believer to look forward to, no matter how miserable life gets.

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16 comments:

James Hogan said...

Thanks for this post, Phil. Good words to ponder on my lunchbreak today. And Romans 8:18 - one of my favorite all-time verses!!

donsands said...

Excellent lesson, and truth. It's encouraging to understand that we will have dark days; days of depression. Agony is a godly thing, just as joy is. Though I long for joy so much more.

"Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days."

Paul prayed that we would understand how much Christ loves us. I pray that I would know and embrace this love that is unknowable.

Thanks.

Solameanie said...

Wonderful!

Mark B. Hanson said...

Thanks for the good words, Phil. As I grow older (you and I are about the same age), the pieces are beginning to rust out or fall off. As a young Christian, I had hoped that the rapture would rescue me (brother Hal L. implied that we would be gone by 1988).

But now I find myself aging as my parents and grandparents do and did, (and as believers have for 1,970+ years) and it is only the expectation of glory and the promised restoration to come in Christ that keeps the darkness away. I wonder how those who don't believe can get through it.

And I have yet to get anything really serious (like your back problem). For (or from) all the blessings of modern times, we sure have a much lower threshold of pain!

Sir Aaron said...

Great Post, Phil.

culgurl95 said...

I love this. Very hopeful and in a better view of life.

Susan said...

Hi Phil, I remember your preaching this sermon maybe a couple years back at Grace, and this is as encouraging to me now as it was then. Thank you for the revisit--the Lord knows I really needed it today.

Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...

Oh, Phil, this is absolutely one of the best article's I have ever read on this blog.

God bless you for this!!!

mittelstadt said...

Thanks. Just the message I needed today.

Deb said...

Excellent article! Perfectly timed for this season of my life.
Home run! (literally)

Stefan said...

"The very best you can hope for is that your life will end like a drawn-out groan." Oy vey!

Psalm 90 sure is a melancholic psalm. The first time I read it, my mind jumped to Meribah, and all the grief Moses had seen in his lifetime.

Needless grief, too, for a people who had been supernaturally delivered from slavery in Egypt, and were firsthand witnesses to the grace and providence of God!

cmt122 said...

Phil preached on Psalm 90 back in April of 2005 at my church in Michigan! He focused on verse 8 “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.” I must say it was an amazing sermon! I found it a little weird that last Monday I just pulled it out of the archives and was listening to it and then I see the blog today! One line from the sermon that shook me went something like this “If there is anything that you indulge in secretly that you wouldn’t dream of doing or saying in front of your pastor, but you can do it knowing that God is looking at you is the heart of atheism! And the person who does that is showing more respect for the creature than he does the creator God!” That messed me up! It made me think of all the little so called dumb things that I do that I write off as dumb when it’s really sin! A little joke here, a stupid comment there, I would never do it in front of my pastor but I do it in front of God! Thanks for the sermon and the blog Phil! God bless!

Ps. Can I post a link to the sermon?

CT

Susan said...

(Weird...where did my comment from this afternoon go?)

Anyway, just wanted to say that I remember Phil preaching on this Psalm a couple years ago at Grace, and it is as encouraging to me today as it was back then. The Lord knew I needed to hear this today....

Bobby Grow said...

Amen!

Clara said...

Wow, I have been feeling so depressed and hopeless about the way my life is going that I've almost given up on God and church and reading the bible...this was a great post. It gives me a lot to think about. Thank you.

Nicole said...

I'm with Solameanie. Absolutely wonderful. Thanks Phil. :)