A prayer at the start of the year

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

Psalm 90

I was talking this week with Lydia about the origins of the names that we give to the days of the week (Sun-day, Moon-day, Tyr’s-day, Woden’s-day, and so on) and it got me thinking about this month of January and its connection (at least in some acccounts) with the Roman god Janus. Janus was the god of beginnings and endings, gates and doorways and passages. His most famous attribute, reflected in the statues of him that survive, was that he had two faces—not as a sign of trustworthiness, but as an expression of the fact that he stood at the point of transition, with one face looking forward and the other looking back.

So it’s not hard to see why the Ancient Romans drew a connection between the God Janus and the month of January. January is a Janus-like month, at the brink of the new year, with one face looking back over the ups and downs of the year that’s been, and the other face looking ahead to the unknowns of the year that has just begun. And in our own time, of course, here in Australia, that’s especially the case, as we shut almost everything down for the month of January and give ourselves a chance to rest and refresh and reflect.

With that in mind I want us to turn to Psalm 90, because Psalm 90 is a perfect psalm to reflect on at a time of the year like this; it’s a Janus-like psalm; a psalm for looking back and for looking forward. The first half is a reflection on the past, on God and the world and our place within it; and the second half – well, the last 6 verses – is a prayer to God about what lies ahead.

So we’ll look at those two halves of the psalm now – first, the reflection, then the prayer – as we spend a bit of time thinking about our own lives, and about the year that’s been, and about the year that’s about to begin.

A reflection             

Eternity (vv. 1-4)

Psalm 90 begins with a reflection on eternity—not the idea of eternity; not the abstract eternity of the philosophers and the mathematicians, but God’s eternity, from everlasting to everlasting. It starts with God, and his relationship with his people, and with the world. Verse 1: ‘Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. 2 Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. 3 You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.” 4 A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.’

One of the things you start to realise as you get older is that time is very short. I used to think a year was a long time. I remember walking home from school one afternoon in 1976, when I was in kindergarten, and thinking to myself: “I’ve been going to school for a whole ten weeks now.” It seemed like such a long time back then. Now it feels like I blink and another year’s gone by. 

Time is so short, and our lives are so short, compared to God and to eternity. In contrast to us, God is from everlasting to everlasting. He is older than the mountains and older than the earth. He has always been and he always will be; a century is a blink of an eye to him. 

Not only that; for generations, the writer also says, for generations he has been a dwelling place for those who have put their trust in him. The title at the top of the psalm tells us to read it as a psalm of Moses; to hear it, if you like, in Moses’s voice: Moses who was born in Egypt and spent most of his life wandering around in the desert. Moses who never set foot on the promised land, who got to see it from the top of Mt Nebo and nothing more. For four hundredyears before Moses, the people of Israel had been slaves in Egypt, and before that they were nomads—wandering Arameans, as Deuteronomy puts it. But they were never homeless, Moses says. They were never rootless. They always had a home, a dwelling place, a place where they belonged, long before they had a physical expression of that in the promised land. Their dwelling place was God. 

And for the Israelites of later generations—for the people of the exile, for the people who in all likelihood were the ones who put together Book IV of the psalter, still reeling under the impact of the disaster that is spoken about in Psalm 89—for the Israelites of the exile, this truth was everything. When you don’t have a secure and lasting place in the present, in this world, the fact that God is your dwelling place is of immeasurable importance. 

The same is true for us, of course, even when we think that we’re stable and secure. And if you’re feeling some of the rootlessness that goes with living for the kingdom of God and not for earthly security, then the reminder at the start of this psalm is a precious reminder. God is your dwelling place.

That’s the first thing that the writer of this psalm wants to remind us of: God has been around for a long time, and he’s not going away. And for generations he has been a home for those who put their trust in him. When your roots go down into God like that—and when they go down into God along with generations who have trusted in him for thousands of years—that gives your life a deep, deep stability. 

Transience (vv. 5-6)

In contrast to the eternity of God, verses 5-6, human beings are utterly transient. Verse 5: “Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—they are like the new grass of the morning: 6 In the morning it springs up new, but by evening it is dry and withered.” 

Again, this is something that most of us only start to realise as we get older. I used to think as a kid that life was stable and permanent. There were certain things that happened every Sunday; every school holidays; every Christmas, as part of the eternal order of being. My parents looked the same from one year to the next. Nothing changed. If I had grown up in a family that was always moving, or if I’d been an orphan or a refugee or if my parents had split up when I was a kid, it might have been different. But as it was, I grew up kind of assuming that things stayed the same.

And then one by one my grandparents died, and my parents’ hair started going grey, and then it was my hair, and I started to realise that things aren’t as permanent as they seemed when I was a kid. In contrast to God and to his word and to his faithfulness, everything in this world is transient. Everything changes, and people change, and we come and go. 

Wrath (vv. 7-11)

But it’s worse than that. The psalm doesn’t just focus on the fact that we live such transient lives; it also points us to the fact that this is a sign that we live under the shadow of God’s wrath and anger. There is so much in us and in our world that is rightly subject to the wrath and judgement of God. Verse 7: “We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation. 8 You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. 9 All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. 10 Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. 11 If only we knew the power of your anger! Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due.”

Even in the very best of circumstances, death is always sad. It brings things to an end; it severs relationships; it tears people apart. And it casts a shadow back, even over a life where there has been a lot of happiness, so that the writer can say, verse 10: “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.” 

Even when life is good, it’s still bad, because it’s so brief; it’s all over so quickly. Worst of all, death reminds us of the broken fellowship between the human race and God. It reminds us that we live under God’s wrath, that we’re outside the garden of Eden; that we’re sinful people, and that God sees our sins—verse 8: even our secret sins.

That’s the content of the reflection in verses 1–11: life is transient, and we live it under the shadow of death, under the shadow of the wrath of God; but behind it all, underneath it all, verse 4, is an eternal, everlasting God, who has always been from eternity to eternity, who has always been a shelter and a refuge and a dwelling place for those who put their trust in him. 

A prayer

And having spoken to God about those things, the writer moves in verse 12 from statements to petitions; if you like, he moves from meditation before Godinto prayer to God. And in essence, he asks God for three things.

For wisdom (v. 12)

First, verse 12, he asks God for wisdom. This first petition really is the pivot that the whole psalm turns on. In theme, with its focus on the brevity of our days, it goes with what comes before it. In form, as an imperative, a petition, it goes with what comes after and introduces the string of petitions in the second half of the psalm. This really is the lynch-pin.

The psalmist says: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Teach us to know how little we are, and how brief our lives are, compared to God and his eternity. Teach us to take to heart the content of the reflections in the previous verses, to enjoy the eternity and immensity of God, and to know our own brevity and lightness of being; we are specks, vapour, feathers on the breath of God. So teach us not to be conceited and foolish, but to be wise and humble. 

There’s a great poem by Percy Shelley, who was actually an atheist himself, which takes the shine off it a bit, but it’s still a fantastic depiction of the blindness and futility of men and women who try to live in denial of these realities. If you were lucky you may have had a teacher who made you memorise it when you were at school. It’s called ‘Ozymandias’, and it goes like this:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

Most of us don’t necessarily harbour ambitions of world domination, or hire sculptors to immortalise ourselves in big stone statues. But it is still dangerously possible for us to indulge a kind of cut-down version of the same sort of folly. We are still dangerously liable to think of our families or our careers or our ministry as some sort of monument to ourselves. We still try to build up achievements and accomplishments as if they were what mattered, as if they would last. 

Celebrations and anniversaries and new years and so on can sometimes bring with them a subtle temptation to triumphalism and self-congratulation—in the very act of lifting up our hands to thank God for the great things that he has done we can somehow be simultaneously managing to pat ourselves on the back for the great things we have accomplished. 

And the writer of the psalm says: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

For grace (vv. 13-17)

He prays for wisdom; and second, he prays for grace. Verse 13: “Relent, Lord! How long will it be? Have compassion on your servants. 14 Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. 15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble. 16 May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children. 17 May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands”

Again and again the Bible reminds us that right at the core of the way we relate to God and come before him is the prayer of a sinner for grace. Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy. We never outgrow that, we never transcend it, and we should beware any version of the gospel or any pattern of ministry that obscures it. 

It was built into the whole structure of the old covenant, in the law of Moses, under which there was no way of approaching God, no way of coming to God that was not in some way mediated through the sacrificial system, and through the Day of Atonement that framed all of the other sacrifices and prayers. 

And in the New Testament it’s the same, too. Jesus, you’ll remember, drew a contrast between the prayer of a Pharisee, who said to God, “thank you that I am better than other people,” and a tax collector who prayed “Lord be merciful to me a sinner,” and went home justified. Nor is that the kind of prayer you just pray once, when you’re converted. If the Lord’s prayer is a kind of pattern for how we should pray every day—for our dailybread, and so on—then every day we should be praying: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” 

And so here in Psalm 90, the models the same sort of prayer. He prays to God for compassion and favour and steadfast love; on the basis of God’s character and his name and his glory, he prays that God will be compassionate and merciful, so that his people might be restored and forgiven—and not just restored and forgiven, but satisfied and joyful and glad, and filled with a vision of God’s splendour. He prays for grace.

For permanence (v. 17)

And thirdly, verse 17, he prays for permanence. It’s a surprising way to end the psalm, isn’t it. You’d think from what he says earlier that the work of our hands was just irrelevant—that it didn’t matter; that a person who had a heart of wisdom and humility wouldn’t care what happened to the works of his hands. And yet the writer of the psalm finishes by praying not once but twice, for emphasis: “establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands.”

I think he’s picking up on the fact that the transience of everything we do—the fact that it all breaks down and dies, and nothing lasts—that the transience of everything we do is a judgment from God; that we’re made for something more permanent than that. And so he finishes by praying that God in his grace would give us the chance to make something, to build something, to do something that does last; that does make a difference; that does stand up and not fall down; not as some sort of proud achievement of our own, but as something that God has established; that God has done through us; that God has caused to stand. And so he prays: “establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands.”

Jesus 

This side of Jesus we see with added depth and clarity the way in which the prayers of this psalm come to be answered. 

In Jesus, the prayer for wisdom finds its ultimate answer. He is the one who humbles us and teaches us what it is to live wisely in relationship with God. And he is the one who is wisdom for us: he incarnates in his life and in his death the humble wisdom of the servant, spending the brief hours of his life on earth doing the will of the Father. 

In Jesus, the prayer for grace finds its ultimate answer. In him, and only in him, the long years of exile come to an end, and tears become joy, and the jaded and the weary see the splendour of God.

And in Jesus, too, there is the ultimate answer to that final prayer for permanence. Everything in this world dies and passes away; everything has a use by date. But if we are in Christ, if we are resurrection people, then we have a part in the next world, in the world that lasts forever. So Paul says at the end of 1 Corinthians 15: “Therefore, my dear friends, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

2019

How does all this affect the way that we will pray for each other and what we will set our sights on during 2019? 

Well, in the first place, it reminds us that we should expect that not everything will go smoothly during the coming year. Our home is in God, not in this world; he is where our stability is, not in this world down here. And so we can can expect that the year that’s coming will bring changes and upheavals and difficulties. We can expect to see all sorts of signs that we’re living in a fallen world, that we’re part of a human race that is separated from God and under his wrath. Those things should not surprise us; but we should also know that we have a dwelling place in God, and that he is not going to disappear or abandon us in the year ahead.

Secondly, Psalm 90 reminds us to pray that we will learn wisdom from the things that happen to us in the year ahead. That we will be humbled by the events that God brings into our lives, and that he will cause us to trust in Jesus more, and to know that we depend on him. Pray that you will be a wiser person in 12 months’ time.

Thirdly, Psalm 90 reminds us to pray that God would continue to be gracious to us. It reminds us that we can get to the end of the year and look back over it and know that there is a whole lot of sin and failure and wrongdoing there as we look back; that we can be honest about that stuff and still not be crushed by it; that we need to come to God and pray that he will be merciful, that he will forgive all the sin of the year that has gone in Jesus’ name, and give us a clean slate for the year ahead, and continue to be in relationship with us.

And fourthly, Psalm 90 is an encouragement to give ourselves to the work of the gospel during the year ahead. It’s an encouragement to us to throw our energy into the work that God has promised that he will establish, the work that lasts for eternity; the work that even the gates of hell cannot prevail against.

So let’s pray for one another now; let’s pray that God would give us wiser hearts in the year ahead – that we would see things as they really are; that God would continue to be gracious and patient with us for Jesus’ sake; and that as we give ourselves to the work of the gospel in the year that’s coming, God would establish the work that we do, and that we would have the chance to do things in 2019 that would have consequences that last for eternity.