A STUDY OF PSALM 90
John H. Paterson
“So teach us to number our days that we may get us an heart of wisdom ”
“I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten …
and ye shall eat in plenty” (Joel 2:25).
THERE is a part of the basic dilemma of being human which we do not often refer to explicitly, but which often presses very heavily upon us: the problem of living in time. It is not merely that we never have enough time for all the things we want to do, or that as Christians we must be good stewards of our time, as of our other God-given resources. It is also the fact that we are time-based creatures and that, immediately, makes us actors in a human tragedy. The tragedy is that we can never re-live or re-capture yesterday; that we can never know all we need to know about tomorrow in time to do what we should do in it. This is a problem that we need wisdom in solving, as the psalmist recognised: “So teach us to number our days that we may get us an heart of wisdom.” The wise man learns to reckon with time.
There is another aspect of the problem, too. With time we change. We are not the same people that we used to be. And those we deal with change just as we do. Our relationships with them change and, in the end, even that great word of the Scriptures, “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever” returns to mock us. He is the same: we are not. We have changed. And out of this dilemma arises temptation — the temptation to try to alter, or halt, or even speed up, the passage of time. But there can be no escape for time-based mortals and certainly no rest for the Christian who cannot accept his place in this dilemma.
What the psalmist says is that we should accept our place, and that if we can do so life will be much more peaceful and settled than otherwise it will be. He says, “O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” If only we can come to terms with time, then some of the tension will be removed. Once we can accept our situation then we may rejoice and be glad but, until we do this, we shall be fighting against something, struggling to escape. The psalmist recognised that there is no escape and that the sooner we, too, recognise it the less tension there will be in our time-based lives. If only we can be convinced that what we experience are indeed God’s mercies, that He is not capricious, and has not set up this time-scale simply to mock us, then life will be a lot easier.
So what are these things that we have to accept? At this point we need to look more closely at the 90th Psalm. Perhaps its most important feature is contained in its title line: it is the only psalm in the book which is attributed directly to Moses. And as soon as we say that, things begin to fall into place. This is Moses’ Psalm and Moses knew a great deal about the passage of time. If we read the psalm again in the light of Moses’ experience, [73/74]we find that we have a whole set of new insights upon it.
THE first thing about time which we have to recognise is that life does not get easier as time goes by, and it is an illusion to imagine that it does. Moses says, “Satisfy us early“, because later on the tests will come on this very point. Let us get this clear at the beginning, and then we may be able to rejoice later on, when the difficulties arise.
In Moses’ experience, of course, the hardest part came right at the end. Moses’ life was divided into three sections, each of forty years, and unquestionably the hardest was the last. And in those last forty years it is not unrealistic to suggest that the very hardest moment of all came right at the end, when, after dragging those recalcitrant people behind him through the wilderness for forty years, he finally got them to the edge of the Promised Land and God said: ‘You are not going in!’ This was the hardest blow of all, and we can only marvel at Moses’ calm acceptance of God’s verdict — the verdict of the God of the Rock which Moses in error had struck: “He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4). This is the reaction of a man who has learned wisdom. Let us not expect things to get easier as we go on: the reverse is more likely to be the case.
And I think we can see why it should be so. Surely this is not the caprice of God, but it fits a pattern — the purpose of God for us all. For this God of ours is avowedly using time as an instrument, and His purpose in using it is to bring about change — moral change, moral increase and growth in moral stature. And the way He seems to work is to alternate revelation, or instruction, with out-working. He shows us something and then He works it out in practice in our lives. So it should not surprise us, surely, if the very last lap is uphill. That is God working out the last lesson; putting into practice the last thing He has shown us. If He keeps the best to the last — and He may well do so — then it is not inappropriate that that should prove the hardest lesson to apply.
It must surely be in some such way as this that we explain why, in the lives of so many of God’s people, the last lap is a particularly difficult one. Just when we feel that they have earned a respite, things get more difficult still. But it fits the pattern, for, in the purpose of God, moral stature is to go on increasing to the very end.
THE second thing that we need to get settled seems to be that for long periods it may well appear that nothing is happening at all. Here is Moses, over eighty now and going round in circles in the wilderness with a lot of people who never wanted to be there in the first place, and the years are ticking past. After eighty, a person has not got a great deal left to look forward to; at least that was how Moses felt (verse 10): “The days of our years are threescore years and ten, or even by reason of strength fourscore years; yet is their pride but labour and sorrow; for it is soon gone, and we flyaway.” There speaks the eighty-year-old, and at eighty he is going round in circles in a desert and getting nowhere. Here is a man, then, who knows what it means to have a long period when nothing appears to be happening at all, and no progress is being made.
Now it is a simple and observable fact that, at the beginning of our Christian experience, things seem to happen very fast. One of the interesting aspects of working among young Christians is that, for them, things develop very rapidly. There is so much to learn, and every day seems to bring some new and exciting discovery. But later on, as anybody who has got past that stage will bear out, there are long stretches where it really seems as if nothing is happening at all. The greatest trials may well come then, in the blank periods. Has the Lord forgotten? Is nothing more going to happen? Have we reached a standstill? We need to be clear that such times will very probably come, and although we assure each other that God is really there, in the silence, we know how difficult these times may be. We can at least be prepared for them.
THE third thing about time that we need to see and accept is that we cannot dictate it. We know this, of course, but we tend not to be positive enough in our attitude. When the Lord disappoints our hopes, as He sometimes does, about a particular piece of timing, we all say. ‘Oh well, it evidently wasn’t His time.’ But under our breath, so to speak, we may go on believing that He has made a mistake. We are not really reconciled to His timing by mouthing our little phrase. We accept in principle that His timing is [74/75] better than ours, but if we had been in charge it would have happened now.
We need to realise that, on this point, He is not only quite deliberate but also very definite — that time and timing are permanently outside our competence. Surely those New Testament words have an application much wider than their immediate context: “It is not for you to know times or seasons, which the Father hath set within his own authority” (Acts 1:7). There is a division of labour here, and time belongs to His competence and not to ours. There is no appeal against this for Moses or for anyone else. Moses would have loved, as we all should, to have a few more weeks, to go over into the promised land and enjoy a sense of achievement: “At that time I made this plea to God: ‘O Lord God, please let me cross over into the Promised Land. … I want to see the result of all the greatness and power you have been showing us'” (Deuteronomy 3:23-25, Living Bible). But he was blocked at the very threshold of the land. God was quite emphatic, and if He would not change His timing for Moses there is no good reason why He should for us. We must accept this, not in the fatalistic way in which the Easterner says ‘Kismet’, or in the reproachful way which indirectly is a rebuke to God for not knowing His own business best, but in a positive way by saying, ‘I know the timing is not my business but His; that I can’t affect it and He won’t allow me to.’ This is a part of the problem of being time-based and yet having to deal with a God who is eternal, to whom a thousand years have no more ultimate significance than one day (verse 4). He has got all eternity to mature His plans. We have not; so, we are always in a hurry. We want to see it now. If, says Moses, we can recognise in this disposition of things the “mercies” of God, then we can rejoice and be glad. The tension will ease when we recognise that He has deliberately arranged it so, and that He has done it in His mercy.
IF all this forms part of our human dilemma, what can we say? In particular, what good news have we for each other? If this is the formidable problem we face, what is the Gospel message with regard to the tragedies of time? The good news is summed up, surely, in a word from the verse in Joel’s prophecies with which we began: “I will restore to you the years which the locust hath eaten.” We cannot affect or alter time, but He can, because He stands outside it. He is a God of restoration. He can do what human beings have always wished they could do — put back into time the missing content of the past; the years which the locusts have eaten. What a wonderful verse this is!
So here we have good news indeed, and good news, in particular, for all those of God’s people who live under the shadow of past mistakes. Some lives are permanently stunted by the memory of the past, like that of a Christian who once said, very sadly, to me: ‘I can see where, years ago, I went wrong, and things have never been the same since.’ For ten or fifteen years he had lived under the shadow. Even worse is the case of those who live under the shadow, not of their own mistakes, but of the mistakes of others — the Christian woman who never got married because a Christian man hesitated with his proposal; or the children who suffer from the mistaken ideas of their parents. All of us have had locust years, and He can restore them. What took years to develop or go wrong, He can restore in a single moment.
He is a God of restoration. He is a God of purpose. He is manipulating time to serve His purpose and, in the end, what matters is the purpose and the image into which He is changing us. So we come to the last verse of this 90th Psalm: “Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us.” If we remember that it is Moses who is speaking, then our thoughts turn easily to an incident in Moses’ life of which he may well have been thinking. Once, after a period of speaking to God, he came back to the people and, to their astonishment, his face shone. There was marked on him an image which was not his own, the image of God. The people who looked at him could see God in him, the image of the Eternal. Then, as time went on, that image faded away. He put a veil over his face so that this fact would be concealed, but the glory gradually faded. Now this is the man who is praying, in his own psalm, “Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou …”. Oh, for a glory which will not fade away with time! Oh, that there may be seen in us the image which it is God’s purpose to generate in our lives — the enduring glory of God, the beauty of the Lord our God upon us. [75/76]