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Lord, Thou Hast Been our Refuge

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Life is short. Eternity is long.

Psalm 90 NKJV
A Prayer Of Moses the Man of God. Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, Or ever You had formed the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God. You turn man to destruction, And say, “Return, O children of men.” For a thousand years in Your sight Are like yesterday when it is past, And like a watch in the night. You carry them away like a flood; They are like a sleep. In the morning they are like grass which grows up: In the morning it flourishes and grows up; In the evening it is cut down and withers. For we have been consumed by Your anger, And by Your wrath we are terrified. You have set our iniquities before You, Our secret sins in the light of Your countenance. For all our days have passed away in Your wrath; We finish our years like a sigh. The days of our lives are seventy years; And if by reason of strength they are eighty years, Yet their boast is only labor and sorrow; For it is soon cut off, and we fly away. Who knows the power of Your anger? For as the fear of You, so is Your wrath. So teach us to number our days, That we may gain a heart of wisdom. Return, O Lord! How long? And have compassion on Your servants. Oh, satisfy us early with Your mercy, That we may rejoice and be glad all our days! Make us glad according to the days in which You have afflicted us, The years in which we have seen evil. Let Your work appear to Your servants, And Your glory to their children. And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, And establish the work of our hands for us; Yes, establish the work of our hands.
The 90th Psalm is titled “A Psalm of Moses the Man of God” which probably makes this the oldest Psalm in the Bible. It has inspired great music. Isaac Watts paraphrased the words in the hymn “O God our Help in Ages Past.” This in turn was incorporated in Raiph Vaughn-Williams in his choral work: “Lord, Thou Hast Been our Refuge” which is perhaps the greatest choral work of the 20th century. It is a masterpiece of tone painting. It is haunting, sober, and somber. The text of the psalm is mixed with Watts hymn. When one comes to the final organ interlude followed by the final words by the chorus with the trumpet sounding out “O God our Help in Ages Past, it brings tears to my eyes. It also haunts me that Vaughn-Williams was at best an agnostic. How could an unbeliever capture the words of Moses so magnificently?
The 90th Psalm forces us to recognize who we are in the sight of the eternal God. He is not here just for our generation but has been for all generations. How many generations have come and gone? In fact, even before the earth was created and the hills formed, God was there. He is from everlasting to everlasting. As great as God is, he desires that He would be our dwelling place. He wants us to live in Him. He created Adam and Eve for everlasting fellowship with Him. This should set a joyful tone.
But then we are faced with the sobering reality that we are mortal. God has turned us to destruction. This should force us to ask why this is? When we take time to reflect, it is because we are sinners. We desired our own dwelling place apart from Him. When we turned from Him, we turned from life itself. Surely our unregenerate works shall follow us to destruction. But we are then told to return to Him. There is a road to life, and that life is in Him. When I contemplate another great work of the 20th Century, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which has the same sad tone of Vaughn-Williams, I am forced to see the sad reality of our mortality. I remember it being played on the TV when the Twin Towers in New York were destroyed by the planes. I remember when I was young going us into the towers when it was only complete to the 59th floor. I looked down and saw the little Trinity Church which for generations was the tallest building in New York. So much work done with pride. Yet in the space of little more than an hour, it lay in ruins. Why?
Barber later put the words of the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) to the Adagio. These are the words of John the Baptist. “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world.” These are words which deserve our deepest contemplation. Even though our days are threescore and ten, or if by reason of strength fourscore, there is light at the end of the tunnel. But the answer to a life our toil and trouble is not in ourselves. We instead have to think upon the answer that God has provided. It is indeed mysterious that God the Son would come down to bear our sins upon the cross. It was He who bore our destruction. It is He who gives us hope for eternal life. How much of this Moses understood in his day we cannot ascertain. But he does know now. He is now with God in His eternal home. Even though our lives are like the grass of the field which dies in the noonday heat, there is hope. Even though a thousand years of our time is but a watch in the night for God, he remembers our mortality.
The psalm reinforces our mortality with many powerful metaphors. We know that God is angry with our sins. Even the secret sins cannot be hid from God. We are troubled and consumed with the feeling that our works deserve the wrath of God. In the light of this, Moses calls us to number our days and to apply our hearts to wisdom. Having made a sober assessment of ourselves, it is time for us to make a sober assessment of who God is. God’s anger can be turned. The everlasting, perfect, all-knowing and all-powerful God considers us who are but dust and ashes. We now contemplate that God is a God of mercy. For those who believe, mercy, not wrath, is the final word. Eternal life, not death has the final word. Our saddened heart is made glad by the works of God which are eternal and not our own. We are to glory in the work of God and not our own. Instead of ruin and the ugliness of our sin, we inquire of the beauty of the LORD. It is He who is able to establish our works and not we ourselves. So the psalm ends with the repeated “Establish the work of our hands.” It is these words in Vaughn Williams work which are sung as the trumpet plays. Watts ends the hymn with the words “and our eternal home.”
What does this psalm teach us today? We live in a very troubled world. People live in great fear of the Coronavirus. It is said to be deadly. And for many, it certainly has been. And for some of us, it may prove deadly. Only God knows the truth of the matter. There is so much deception and wrong information about the virus which causes even greater fear. We in America are very troubles about the future of our country. We wonder if the election is legitimate or not? There is great fear of civil war here. The lockdowns are endangering the lives of millions in the world as supply chains break down. Will there be another world war? Is this the end of the world? In other words, we are forced to confront out mortality. As I am now growing old, I feel my infirmities. They are harbingers of the end of my life. As I near the threescore and ten, how much more time do I have left. I have one fewer days to number every morning. Has my life amounted to anything at all? In this we consider we are but dust. And we need to take the time to consider this. We need to repent and follow Him.
There was a Day of Atonement in the Jewish Calendar. It was a day of fasting and mourning. It was a time to confess sins. These sins would be transferred to the scapegoat in that day. But this points to the day the Lamb of God would be born in Bethlehem who would bear our sins outside the camp. Thank God who loved us sinners so much that He sent His only begotten Son to bear our mortality so that we might share His life eternally. It is in the midst of these sorrows that we realize that there was only one Day of Atonement but three weeks of feasts in this calendar. More time should be reserved for celebrating the goodness of the everlasting God who has born us again to eternal life.
We think in contrasts. If everything is uniform, we are blind. We are blind if it is totally dark. We can be blinded by the light. We are also blind in the uniform greyness of the fog. There is temporal, and there is eternal. We cannot fully comprehend what eternity is like, but we believe that God is in charge of our eternity. Our helplessness should not lead us to despair. Even though we might despair in ourselves, we are not alone. The God of all generations has offered us His dwelling place. We need to think about these things.
When we gather to worship, we do need hymns and psalms that teach us the proper perspective. It is indeed saddening to me that a lot of our music is escapist. It does not deal properly with the present reality. We can get euphoric about heaven, but how much brighter the hope of heaven is when we realize what we have been delivered from. How reassuring it is that the God of eternity leads us through the confusion to His eternal home? The somber mood of the present is contrasted by the coming joy. We might travail in sadness for a season, but joy comes in the morning. Sadness and joy are not enemies. Christian sadness is what leads to true joy. We cannot just sing happy songs. We need music that stimulates our thinking as well.
I can remember being at a church service where a speaker was trying to encourage older people to get into contemporary music. The worship leader led us in “Mercy is falling, is falling, is falling. Mercy is falling like sweet spring rain.” This was followed by a bunch of “ooing.” He said this was the modern A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” How could he even compare the two? Luther’s hymn was written to buttress the Evangelicals in a time of great difficulty and persecution. It is a paraphrase of the 46th Psalm. I kept thinking to myself. How would this praise chorus have played out at that time? Maybe it was a good time in America, but in Syria, the Christians had missiles raining down on them and not sweet spring rain. They did not need happy music. They needed to be encouraged in their sorrows. I could only wish that our musicians would be sensitive to what the 90th Psalm and other Scriptures tell us. If even an agnostic like Vaughn-Williams could understand how the text of the 90th Psalm was to be read, how much more the Christian?
One can think of a monument to human arrogance the Titanic. The unsinkable ship sank in just a few hours. It is said by some that the band’s last song was the somber “Nearer My God to Thee.” This would have been a most appropriate hymn to sing as the pride of Britain lowered to the cold water of reality. However, others said the band played happy music instead. The hymn makes the reality of death a steppingstone to a greater reality. The happy music would have demonstrated a contempt for death as well as a contempt for God as well who gives life. Who knows what they played for sure. We can only hope for the former.
Another place we need the sobriety of the 90th Psalm is at funerals. Funerals are becoming less Christian every day. We seem unable to confront the reality and pain of death and try to lighten things with humor and stories from the life of the deceased rather than upon the eternity of God. We have glib stories of pop going up there to make a mansion for mom. Never mind that it is Jesus Himself who is preparing our eternal dwelling place. Funerals need to be time of sober reflection and evangelism. We should admit the sorrow of death. People need to be reminded that this, too, is their lot. They need to know the truth of their situation. Those who are already Christians need to be reminded of their eternal hope in Jesus Christ. If we are going to celebrate life, let us celebrate the life of Jesus.
As we call upon God to establish our works, let us pray that these works be found worthy of Him. This means we are to offer the best. There are many bible translations which do not appreciate that the words God has spoken are beautiful words. The “King James” or “Authorized Version” understood that the Bible should speak beautifully. They translated the Hebrew poetry into good English poetry even though the form of poetry used by the Hebrews was different than English. Despite the structural changes in English, it is still my favorite. The music we write and sing should be beautiful as well. In everything we do, we should do it for the glory of the Lord.
He was the hope of ages past. He is our hope as long as our life here endures. And He is our eternal home.
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