Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Our dwelling-place


Ps 90 is ascribed to Moses, which would make it the inaugural psalm of the Psalter. There is no good reason to doubt this attribution. Aside from general arguments for the authenticity of these superscriptions, (Cf. R. Beckwith, "The Early History of the Psalter," TynB 46.1 (1995), 1-27; B. Waltke, "Superscripts, Postscripts, or Both," JBL (1991), 110:583-96.), the Psalm itself is inwoven with threads from the fiat and fall and flood and genealogies of Genesis (Gen 1-10), as well as strands from the song of Moses and benediction of Moses (Deut 32-33). It is important to keep this uppermost in mind, for the Mosaic authorship is a key feature in unlocking our Psalm.

It was written in the waste-howling wilderness of the Sinai desert to a throng of emancipated slaves. For half a millennium and more, the only thing they had had to preserve their sense of corporate identity was an oral tradition of God’s covenant with Abraham. Bereft of their homeland, and laboring under the harsh hand of a foreign overlord, this thin memory, this distant promise was the only glue holding them together. They were a people, not owing to a piece of ancestral land, or a chest full of heirlooms, but owing only to their dignity as a covenant people, called into being when God called Abraham out of Ur. The word of God, a word spoken once to Abraham, was their one and only enduring bond.

And now they had not even the land of Goshen to call their home away from home. Rather, they were nomads, living from hand-to-mouth, and day-to-day, on God’s gratuitous provision. Once again, the word of God was their only bond, and the grace of God their only bread.

Under inspiration, the ancient oath and oracle of God to their father Abraham was at last committed to writing, and not only that, but backward from Abraham and up through the post-diluvian dispersion, the Flood, the Fall, the garden, the Sabbath, and the six days of creation; then forward from Abraham and down through Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Judah, to the giving of the law.

I. The Immutable God (1-2)

As nomads and fugitives, exiled from their homeland for five hundred years, the Israelites had no dwelling place to call their own. And if we were to turn back the clock, even Abraham, their patriarch and father in the faith, was himself a drifter and expatriate. So the whole history of the Jews, from Abraham to the Exodus generation, had been one of roving homelessness. Outwardly rootless and often uprooted, their only cove and constant, in-between gaping stretches of divine silence and apparent inactivity, had been the mere promise and sheer providence of God.

At yet, at a deeper level, their earthly eviction had freed them to enjoy a more enduring residence. For "the Lord had been their dwelling-place." Notice that Moses has cast this statement in the past tense, and not the future. This was not a future prospect. It did not await the conquest of the Promised Land. Neither did it await the better country to come (Heb 11:16). Rather, their indwelling with God was a present possession of "every passing generation."

Let us remember that the man who wrote this also wrote all those heaving genealogies in Genesis and Numbers. As he writes this, we may well imagine that roll call parading by his mind’s eye—the generations of Adam, Abel, Seth, Enoch, Noah, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Judah, of Caleb and the Levitical census. "Remember the days of old, the years of many generations" (Deut 32:7).

And before the generations of men there were the generations of the heavens and earth (Gen 2:4). It was Moses who wrote about the "formation of the earth and the world," when the Lord God first formed the dry land by raising the "mountains" and high hills out of the primeval deep (Gen 1:9; cf. 7:19). This was the man who wrote of Ararat and Mt. Moriah. And the mountains were landmarks mapping the wilderness wandering, from Horeb to Pisgah, from Pisgah Abarim, from Abarim to Hor, from Hor to Lebanon, from Lebanon to Gerizim, from Gerizim to Ebal, and at last from Ebal to Nebo.

Over against man’s mortality and transience, Moses sets the eternality and transcendence of God. For before all men, begotten and born, before the birth of the world, there was the unbegotten God, "from everlasting to everlasting." On the face of it, we might suppose that such a comparison would be distinctly unedifying. If our plight lies precisely in our flux and finitude and fallenness, then to turn from this to the surpassing plenity of God’s existence would appear to render God utterly remote and only accentuate our sense of individual isolation and social fragmentation.

Yet, as is often the case, the word and wisdom of God confounds our earthly expectations. For Moses locates the point of contact at the point of contrast, where God is never nearer to our need than when he is most outwardly and evidently distant. "For the eternal God is our dwelling-place, beneath his everlasting arms" (Deut 33:27).

Moses was the man who formally recorded the Lord’s covenant with Abraham and his seed. And the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not the God of the dead, but the living. For as the living and ever-living God, all who die in him live with him and in him and to him (Lk 20:38).

The disclosure of God as the timeless sovereign of the universe may strike a recent reader as something of a bland truism. For we come to the text, not only at the other end of the canon, but with another two thousand years of well-read tradition—of Augustine and Anselm, Calvin and Edwards.

But in reading this psalm we are transported back in time to the front-end of the revelatory record. We are returning to the headwaters of the true faith. Without Moses, there would be no Augustine or Anselm, Calvin or Edwards. This is theology in the making. And like the making of the world, it is fully formed at the very outset—for this is not so much a making as it is the unveiling of the preexisting truth of the preexistent font of all truth.

What we may take for granted was no truism to the idol-makers of Ur or the priesthood of Egypt. What we find in Ps 90 is no feeble groping towards the light, but a flood of light let down from heaven as God dispels the clouds of darkness by the power of his incandescent inspiration.

II. Mutable Man (3-6)

Moses was the man who wrote about the making of man from the dust of the earth (Gen 2:7), a clay doll imprinted with God’s image and animated by his Spirit. A high dignity—and high pedestal from which to tumble. Taken from the dust, he was cursed to "return to dust" (cf. Gen 3:19)—he and every son of Adam, from Abel to the last man, women and child before our Lord’s return. Man’s mortality is not a natural liability, but a malediction.

In the genealogies, in the Flood, in the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah, in the plague of the firstborn, in the inundation of Pharaoh's army, in the judgment on Korah and his following, Moses himself had witnessed or recorded death upon death piled high as the everlasting hills.

His inspired eye had reviewed the precipitous drop in man’s longevity—from boundless immortality to "a thousand years" (cf. Gen 5:27), and then a century (Gen 6:3), or sudden death at a brother’s hand (Gen 4:8). He had seen them all "swept away in the flood" of Noah, had see with his own eyes the yearly deluge of the Nile and flash-flooding in the Sinai (cf. Isa 35:6b-7). He had inwardly seen green "grass" spring up on the "morning" of the third day, watered by the rivers of Eden; and he had outwardly seen the grasslands wither and brown by "evening" under the desert sun and scorching sirocco (cf. Isa 40:6-8)—or even by the brimstone of God’s fiery judgment (Deut 29:23). He had written about God coming to men in fleeting "dreams"—to Laban, Jacob, Joseph, Pharaoh and Abimelech.

Our sense of time is heightened by the Fall, for the Fall narrows life into a tight corridor of singular and successive generations. Without the Fall, life would not have this extreme linearity of longitude without latitude. One generation would still follow upon another, not in the dislocation of death and dissolution, but in an ever-branching and broadening simultaneity of coming without going, and succession without ceasing.

In God's sight, "a thousand years" are like "a watch in the night," for the distance between infinitude and finitude is incommensurable and intransversible. Let us remember that a thousand years for Moses were a billion years for us; for Moses measured time in solar years and generations, and not in light years and geological ages. (And in that respect we should take our cosmology and geology from Moses.) Moses is using the smallest and largest units available to him to express a qualitative rather than quantitative difference. For Moses, years began with days, and days began with a very first day; for Moses, generations began with a first man and woman. Hence, the Maker of days falls outside the timeline. Strictly speaking, there are no degrees of distance between the Lord and the world, for time is like an etching, a negation, a limit—whereas the being of God comprises a perfect plenity.

III. Man under Wrath (7-12)

The chief barrier between God and man is not metaphysical, but moral. Moses wrote to a people living under the wrath of God, for the forty-year pilgrimage was itself a sentence for their craven timidity (Num 13-14). From this standpoint, all their "days" and "years" were onerous. Their days "pass away"—or, more literally, decline like the setting sun (cf. Jer 6:4). "Secret sins" may be hidden to our neighbor or even ourselves, but all things alike lie naked and answerable to God (Heb 4:13)—much as the unrelenting Sinai sun. Added years only add "labor" and "sorrow," for the ground is accursed and the womb is accursed (Gen 3:16-19).

But to be God-fearing is not to be fearful for its own sake; "fear" is a divine trial and deterrent to sin and sorrow (Exod 20:20). Without the wrath of God there is no fear of God, without the fear of God there is no "wisdom" of God (Ps 111:10; Prov 9:10), and without a teachable spirit, (Ps 51:1) there is no faculty for wisdom (Prov 3).

To "get a heart of wisdom" means more literally to "harvest a heart of wisdom" (cf. Gen 4:3-4). Unlike the backslider and reprobate, whose days diminish like the setting sun (v9), the elect of the Lord should "number their days" as a field-hand bundles wheat by the bushel. For the unbeliever, length of days elongate as backward-casting shadows—but the path of the righteous is like the dawning of the equatorial sun (Prov 4:18).

IV. Man under Grace (13-17)

"How long?" This question throbs and echoes down the outstretched corridor of the canon. In the OT, it rebounds to the cross. In the NT, it rebounds to the Consummation. We need to cultivate a generosity of spirit. We need to keep in mind that in asking this question we are asking God to slam the door behind us. There is always someone ahead of us, and someone behind. We were only enabled to escape the antechamber of hell because God did not slam the door on us. And thus we should resist our natural fear of fire and go back into the burning building to pull another hell-bound sinner from the flames. We may be singed in the effort, but that is the cost of discipleship.

Yet if God’s heavy hand of chastisement brings sorrow, his forgiveness brings felicity. "All the days and years" of an unbeliever are passed under the wrath of God, but the "days and years" of a believer are brimming over with "joy" and "happiness." For the believer is content to rest in the Lord’s covenant "love," which is renewed every morning (Lam 3:23).

And now, in rounding out the psalm, the lawgiver circles back in thought and time to the everlasting covenant which the Lord long ago "established" with the Abraham and his seed for all generations to come (Gen 17:7). Man’s handiwork is as naturally perishable as matinal grass, but in the everlasting hands of God it may be "beautified" and "confirmed" for time and for all eternity.

VI. Man in Christ

For many readers, the impression left by the Psalm is of a somber providence. God is great and we are small, and we live out our little lives under the frowning countenance of his overshadowing wrath.

But this is a rather skewed view of the Psalm. What we find in this Psalm is less than the Gospel, but more than the law. What is so striking is not that that the mood is so subdued, but that the tone is so hopeful. For when you consider that this was written on the dark side of the cross, was written in the land of scorpion and scoria, that just two members of the Exodus generation would survive to dwell in the Promised Land, and that its own author was debarred from the final destination, it should shame us and humble us and goad us to live out our lives in the full light of glory of the Gospel of grace.

I'm reminded of a trip I once took to the rock churches of Cappadocia, hollowed out of the odd conical hills. It was, in a way, a delayed homecoming, for it brought us very near Eden and the Ark. Yet the severity and austerity of the region, with its dry riverbeds and naked terrain, also served to intensify the loss of primeval Paradise; while the condition of the ancient and abandoned churches, situated in a country overrun by followers of a false God, bore wordless witness to our passing pilgrimage. For here we have no continuing city, but God has been our dwelling-place in every generation.

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