Expositor's Dictionary of Texts
A Prayer of Moses the man of God. Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.Psalms 90
When we have passed that limit of age which Psalm xc. indicates as the most usual boundary of human life, the near horizons become for us those of the world beyond this present life.
—Ernest Naville to the Countess de Gasparin, La Comtesse Agénor de Gasparin et sa Famille, p. 426.
Psalm XC. was read by the Rev. J. McCormick over the victims of the great Matterhorn disaster of 1865. The Prayer Book from which it was read was found on the body of the Rev. Charles Hudson, one of the dead. Mr. McCormick wrote: 'Imagine us standing with our bronze-faced guides, leaning on their axes or alpenstocks, around that singular grave, in the centre of a snow-field, perhaps never before trodden by man, with that awful mountain frowning above us, under a cloudless sky—in the very sight, as it were, of the Almighty—and try and catch the sound of the words: "Lord, Thou hast been our refuge from one generation to another. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and world were made, Thou art God from everlasting, and world without end. Thou turnest man to destruction: again Thou sayest, Come again, ye children of men."'
The Old Faith—What Is Pantheism?
I. Pantheism is the attempt to reduce everything that exists to one vast principle. It sounds very plausible, but it can never get over one great difficulty at the very outset; mind is not matter, nor is matter mind. It is attempting to be too wise, and to forget the limited nature of our thoughts, our minds, our experiences. The earliest philosophers were materialists. They also made the mistake of trying to discover one principle for everything. The earliest Pantheist, on the other hand, was a nephew of Plato who ruled the school of Athens about 350 years before Christ He thought that all that we mean by God was produced finally out of the long development of nature.
II. Meaning of Pantheism.—Pantheism derives its name from its motto, meaning one and all—that is, everything is God. According to this view God is the universe itself; beyond and outside (and before) the universe He does not exist, but only in the universe. He is the Soul, the Reason, the Spirit of the Universe, and all nature is His body.... The main point of Pantheistic belief is that the Soul of the Universe is not a personal, self-conscious Being who appears in His whole power and character in any one event or at any one moment, so as to be conscious of Himself or to make us conscious of Him; but that this Soul of the Universe is nothing but the one ever-same essence, filling everything and shaping everything by an unconscious necessity, unfolded only by the laws which govern everything, but apart from existing things having no reality to be seen or heard.
III. Insuperable Difficulties.—There are insuperable difficulties in Pantheism. The idea of a universal substance which exists without a Creator, by laws which had no author, merely brings us back to the great, ultimate question of all religion and all science—How did these things begin? And the answer of revelation that there is an eternal self-existing Being, who inhabiteth eternity, whom we know by His attributes of law, goodness, power, beauty, love, omnipotence, omnipresence, eternity, light, and truth, and who is known to us in part by His words, is in reality the only reasonable answer that can be given. The Pantheists are apt to insist on the difficulty they allege in conceiving of a Personality that is unlimited. But that difficulty only exists because our own personality is limited, and our experience is confined to our own personality. If we were to confine all theory and all belief to mere personal experience we should find little help in thought or life or conduct. The universal substance of which the Pantheists speak is just as much beyond our own experience. So it is with the eternity of that substance which they proclaim. It is equally beyond our experience to say whether the universe is limited or extends for ever and ever. We are surrounded by mysteries, and we can but rest on that explanation which appears most reasonable and best supported.
—W. M. Sinclair, Church Family Newspaper, 1907, p. 212.
Reference.—XC. 1, 2.—A. M. Fairbairn, The City of God, p. 35.
These verses are the burial song of the Russian Church.
Dr. Stoughton, describing the funeral of John Hampden, says: 'His remains were conveyed to the churchyard of Great Hampden, close beside the old family mansion, where the patriot had spent so much of his life in the studies and sports of a country gentleman. Through lanes under the beech-covered chalk hills of the Chilterns a detachment of his favourite troops, bareheaded, carried him to his last resting-place—their arms reversed, their drums and ensigns muffled—mournfully chanting as they slowly marched along the dirge from the book of Psalms: "Lord, Thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations. Thou turnest man to destruction. Thou carriedst them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up. In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth." When the funeral was over, the soldiers retiring from the village church to their quarters made the green woods and the white hills, that summer day, resound to the beautiful prayer, so appropriate to their circumstances, Psalm XLIII.: "Judge me, O God, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation: O deliver me from the deceitful and unjust man. For Thou art the God of my strength: why dost Thou cast me off? Why go I mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? O send out Thy light and Thy truth; let them lead me." John Hampden met his death in June, 1643, in the beginning of the great civil war. He died in prayer, with the words, "O Lord God of hosts! great is Thy mercy; just and holy are Thy dealings unto us sinful men. O Lord, save my bleeding country. Have these realms in Thy special keeping. Lord Jesus, receive my soul! O Lord, save my country; O Lord, be merciful to—" His speech failed, and falling backwards he expired.'
References.—XC. 4.—C. Vince, The Unchanging Saviour, p. 49. D. Swing, American Pulpit of Today, vol. i. p. 176. XC. 9.—J. Parker, City Temple Pulpit, vol. vi. p. 272. R. D. B. Rawnsley, Sermons in Country Churches (1st Series), p. 299.
Threescore Years and Ten
The whole ever-shifting mysterious thing we call life is full of hope and parable and morning; still there is the morning star, that child of hope, that centre and source of infinite light. There is not a heart here in all these multitudes of people that has not been broken or will be broken. Every man is on the way to his own grave; yea, though he be laughing at the graves of others or heeding not that they are passing by him in blackness, the dead that are going to be buried, yet the fool is on the way to his own last freehold.
I. Life is short—yet so long. It is a contradiction in number; it is a paradox in reality. How short our life is! A flash—gone! How long! when will this black-robed procession unwind itself and get around the road and pass the corner that we may not see it any more? Yet life is short; for it is like unto something that is evanescent when it is treated of aright. It is a post among the hills and the valleys; it is a smoke rising up and fading away; a wind that comes for a little time, and then passeth on to blow on other acres and other worlds.
Life is short, therefore I can intermeddle with only a few things, therefore I had better consider which are the truly great and worthy things; therefore I must buy up the opportunity, redeem the time, and make the most of this dower more than gold with which God has blessed my personality. Our greatness is in our consciousness, its largeness, its intelligence, its sanctification; that is how we stand.
II. And not only is life short, but life needs help. The strongest man will say that; however rich a man is, he cannot do without some other man. There are times when it is so dark that even the outputting of the hand is a gospel. Oh to feel a holding hand, a familiar grip! it makes the darkness light, it brings sustenance to the soul. We cannot do without one another. The weakest may help the strongest. Paul said, 'Brethren, pray for us'. There is the mightiest man in the Church asking some man and woman heart to pray for him, when the water is deep and cold and the night so dark. It is a wonderful thing this, that we all need help, if not today yet tomorrow.
III. No help that can be given to man is so gracious, so complete, as the help that is given by the Son of God. On these three grounds I stand; millions stand on the same grounds and praise the same Saviour. Jesus Christ comes to us when other people are engaged with the feast and are pledged to the dance and have no time for old sorrow and wordless misery. Jesus Christ says, 'Call upon Me in the day of trouble'; nobody else will want to see you; call upon Me; look in your diary, and you will find the day of trouble is a disengaged day, a vacant line; others will come to you on all the other days, but call upon Me and I will fill up that space for you. Jesus Christ will go where no one else can go.
—Joseph Parker, City Temple Pulpit, vol. III. p. 136.
The Dying Year
The slow, sad experience of life wrought out in the Psalmist a twofold result—he has learnt the secret both of detachment and attachment. This aged pilgrim grows more and more weaned from the world and detached from things trivial and temporal. Such should be the effect of the right numbering of days and the years as they escape us—to learn at last that though the world passeth away and the lust thereof, yet he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.
I. Like all the greatest spiritual poetry, this Psalm has a deep undertone of remorse and retribution. Which of us can gaze forward into his own future without a sense of judgment to come? And who dare face that future except by humble trust in the miracle of God's reparation and atonement.
II. What does it mean to 'number our days'? It means 'to take the measure of our days as compared with the work to be performed, with the provision to be laid up for eternity, with the preparation to be made for death, with the precaution to be taken against the judgment to come. It is to estimate human life by the purposes to which it should be applied, by the eternity to which it must conduct.' It means to gauge and test our own career in the light of its moral and spiritual issues. And as God teaches us this we understand the secret of true wisdom. For wisdom lies in a just estimate of the real values of things.
—T. H. Darlow, The Upward Galling, p. 436.
References.—XC. 12.—H. P. Wright, Preacher's Magazine, vol. xix. p. 37. J. E. Vaux, Sermon Notes (4th Series), p. 2. XC. 14.—H. S. Wilmot-Buxton, A Year's Plain Sermons, p. 413. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. lx. No. 513. J. Bush, A Memorial, p. 104.
A Message of Undying Hope
The Psalmist here is looking out over a scene of great disappointment and failure. He sees in his mind's eye human life in its beginning, and in its end. And as he looks out over so much apparent failure his heart fails him. As he looks out and draws near to the end of his reflection on life, he utters the words which prevent despair, for as he looks out upon the failures he looks also beyond, and he knows that the work of God can never fail. He knows that though the work may seem to fail, though one man lives and dies and has apparently wrought but little, there are other hands to take up the work, other voices to deliver the message.
I. No Work for God Fails.—That is the secret of the saints' hope. They have done their work in fear and yet in faith, and they have laid themselves down, conscious that their work cannot fail. We, who reap the fruits of their labours, know at any rate that their toil has not been in vain. In our hand we hold the martyr's robes, red with the blood of the faithful, and stained with the tears of the penitent. We understand as the inspiration of their lives falls upon us that their work is eternal. And so, as we see the glory, as we gather where they have sown, we understand why it is that in the kingdom of God there is no such thing as failure.
II. The Call to Duty—That is the message of the past; it is not a sentimental reflection on the days which are gone, nor is it a tearful meditation upon things which are gone, but it is rather the call to duty. For if the past is our inspiration, we are the fulfilment of its hopes and desires. The elders in every age are able to resign their tasks because they know that they will not appeal to the younger generation in vain. What answer shall we give them? Shall we not tell those whose days are being numbered that their faith is not misplaced, and that their confidence is sure?
III. A Message of Undying Hope.—And therefore, if the thought of the Psalmist becomes for us our warning and our hope, we of the younger generation do grow impatient as we wait for the day of the Lord. We want to see Him King. We would take Him by force, if need be, as men tried to take Him of old; we want to see Him King in street, in lane, in home, in workshop; we want to see Him King whereever the evil passions of men are rending them as the devil rent them of old; we long with a great longing today for the crowning of Christ. The pitiable thing is that the time is so short; we can do so little in the short span of our life. That was indeed a pathetic picture which some years ago took the world by storm. It was the picture of an artist who sat before his unfinished canvas with his brush slipping from his nerveless and dying fingers, conscious that he must pass away before his work was finished. The tragedy and pathos of it was that the time was short, that he would have given his right hand for another year of life, and it was not given to him. That is our feeling, and therefore the message of the Psalmist rings out today its cry of eternal and undying hope, because it tells us that our unfinished work shall be finished. It tells us that there is no task which He has set us that God will not complete hereafter; no message that He has bidden us deliver which shall not be uttered in time.
This was the favourite text of Bishop Gordon, the pilgrim missionary of the Punjab, who was known as 'the Christian Fakir'. 'We should be thankful,' said this devoted pioneer,' if the work is ours, so that God's glory is manifest to the next generation.'
References.—XC. 16.—J. M. Neale, Sermons on Passages of the Psalms, p. 208. XC. 16, 17.—H. M. Butler, Harrow School Sermons, p. 424. G. Brooks, Outlines of Sermons, p. 241.
Working As Unto God
These are the closing words of a most pathetic Psalm which we have sung in our service this morning. For ages it has been regarded as the poem or prayer of Moses, the man of God. Nor is there any reason to doubt the authorship. For us the Psalm is pathetic, not only because of the circumstances under which it was written, but especially from its place in our burial office. It has been heard by many of us on some of the saddest days of our lives, grandly contrasting the brevity of man's life with the eternity of the being of God, and earnestly pleading, 'Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish Thou the work of our hands upon us'.
The words give expression to a prayer, an implication, and a desire.
I. A Prayer.—'Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us.' Does the petition seem too bold for mortal man, begirt with infirmity and debased by sin? Let us remember the Holy Scriptures themselves encourage and warrant it. Must we ponder the glories of nature, in the crimson of the sunlit sky, the carpet of flowers in a summer wood, the dancing freeness of the waves of ocean, and must we say these are the folds of the skirts of the Most High? We may most truly thus reflect. And yet by this means we should never be able to conceive of the true beauty of the Lord our God. For this consists in the moral excellence of the Eternal. And, therefore, when the Lord would cause His glory to pass before Moses, He proclaimed the name of the Lord as 'gracious and merciful, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth'. And when we would behold the beauty of the Most High, we need not visit scenes of splendour, we need not wait to behold the blushing morn or crimson even, we need not plant ourselves on some lofty promontory to gaze upon the 'many-smiling face of ocean,' now gentle in its lapping, and again cruel in its rage. Far better shall we apprehend the Divine glory if we contemplate the Man of Sorrows, Who had not where to lay His head, and ponder reverently His truthfulness as before Pontius Pilate He witnessed a good confession; His gentleness as He took the children in His arms, and put His hands upon them and blessed them; His patience as He was speechless before His judge and prayed for His murderers. In these consist the true beauty of God; not in self-assertion, or display, or vindictive wrath. Let young men and young women learn that distinctions of title, accumulations of wealth, even stores of learning, cannot impart to the human character one-half the beauty that comes from truthfulness and gentleness and patience; from the things which are the very beauty of the Lord our God.
II. An Implication.—The text implies that man's time and energies are engrossed by work. The Divine dignity of work is set forth by the Saviour as in magnificent terms He asserts, 'My Father worketh hitherto, and I work'; and again as He reflects, 'I must work the works of Him that sent me while it is day: the night cometh when no man can work'. The simplicity and unity of all work is taught by the Lord's answer to the question, 'What must we do that we may work the works of God?' Instead of elaborating a list of various details, Jesus Christ returned one comprehensive, all-sufficient response: 'This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him Whom He hath sent'. Never let us think of our work as irksome, to be if possible avoided and scamped, a hindrance to our religious life. Rather, whatever the work allotted to us, we must regard it as chosen for us by our God, to be quickened, illumined, glorified by a living faith, and discharged in the name and to the glory of our God. Various, indeed, is the work to which we are called: some to labour with their hands in hard toil; others to toil with their brains in a labour no less irksome; others, again, to the responsible and difficult duty of the administration of wealth; others, once more, to the hardest of all toil, in the patient endurance of sickness and of pain. But, whatever the toil allotted to us, in the faith of Christ it is to be undertaken, and in that faith completed.
III. A Desire.—But, as we think of work, thus simple in its motive and aim, yet ever varied in its details, does not one earnest yearning fill our spirits? Though we may be but ordinary persons with only average abilities and opportunities, yet does not one question thrill us with a chilling anxiety? Our work, at which we have toiled so unsparingly year after year, what will be its end, its climax; will all be swallowed in a sea of nothings? Alas! from many a quarter the answer might seem to offer no brighter prospect Look where we will in the narrow circles of our families and towns, or the larger view of nations and empires, one law of change seems everywhere triumphant. And yet the Hebrew Psalmist encourages us to express one of the deepest longings of our nature in the prayer, 'Establish the work of our hands upon us'. Nor is the prayer too bold or fruitless. For while the dreams and toils of earth and of selfishness must vanish and be engulfed, the work done in the name and for the sake of Christ, though it be but the gift of a cup of water, shall live on in its influence and its recompense. It makes all the difference in the world whether we work merely because of custom, through necessity, or consciously for Jesus, because of His Cross and love. Such faith saves our work from being monotonous or irksome, it makes it not in vain in the Lord, a building which will endure even though it be tried by fire.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.
Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.
For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.
Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.
In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.
For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.
Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.
For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.
The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.
So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
Return, O LORD, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants.
O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.
Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.
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.