Summary: We need to see ourselves for who we truly are in the light of the eternity of God.
Lord, Thou Hast Been our Refuge: An Exposition of the 90th Psalm
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.”