Establish the Work of Our Hands
Back at the end of April, we began this series in the book of Psalms which we’ll finish up next Sunday. Over the spring and summer we’ve looked at 20 out of the 150 total psalms in the book of Psalms.
Back at the beginning of the series we talked about how helpful the Psalms are to us today because they shine the spotlight on the full spectrum of human experiences, and show us what it looks like to walk by faith in God both when life is going really well and w hen life is not going really well.
One of the most important ideas that I think has come out of this series is the idea of lament. At least one third of the Psalms deal with themes of sorrow and sadness and struggle, and they show us how to relate to God when we’re in that spot and when we’re feeling that way.
And we’ve seen how important these psalms of lament are for us today in our cultural moment. We live in a culture that tells us that we should expect, even demand, to feel happy all of the time. And when we don’t feel happy, we don’t really know what to do. And we’re increasingly turning to substances or unhealthy behaviours in an attempt to take the sad feeling away.
But the Psalms of lament show us a better way. They show us how to get honest with God, and talk to God about what’s going on, and they show us how to fight for joy in God as we walk through whatever our difficulty is.
So here at our second-last stop in this series, Psalms, we come to another psalm of lament. This Psalm has many of the same elements as the other psalms of lament we’ve considered. But it’s also unique in a few important ways.
One of its unique elements is the author. You can see in the title that this Psalm is attributed to Moses. And among the Psalms, this is the only one that bears Moses’ name.
Many of us are very familiar with the story of Moses, the Hebrew baby who was found by Pharaoh’s daughter and grew up as Egyptian royalty, only to run away and spend forty years in exile out in the desert, and then return and lead his people out of Egypt through the Red Sea and through the wilderness for another forty years as they waited to enter the Promised Land.
We know so much about Moses. But Psalm 90 gives us a very unique glimpse inside Moses’ head. This Psalm best fits with the end of Moses’ life, as the Israelites were making their final preparations to cross the Jordan and enter into the Promised land. And it shows us what was going on inside Moses’ mind at that stage in his life, as he reflected back and processed everything he had been through. It shows us what it would have felt like to be Moses.
So does it surprise you that Moses is lamenting? After everything he’d been through, after all the signs and wonders and face-to-face conversations with the living God, why is Moses sad?
God is Eternal…
As we dig in to Psalm 90 to try to answer that question, what we find is that the first couple of verses don’t really sound like lament. They sound more like praise and worship. “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, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Psalm 90:1–2).
These verses speak about how God is eternal. God is forever. God always has been and always will be. He’s been the refuge of His people in all generations. And in fact, before this world had ever been created, God was God. He was God in all of the everlasting eternal years behind us, and and He will be God into all the everlasting, eternal years ahead of us.
This is one of the most important attributes of God that makes Him God. He is eternal. He’s not just another part of this creation. No-one made Him. He never had a beginning and He will never have an end.
…And We Are Not
Now we could spend a lot of time on verses 1 and 2, because they are so rich in implications for theology and philosophy. But the reason Moses is bringing this up, what’s making him think about God being eternal, is the fact that we are not. It’s that difference between God and us that is so strong on his mind.
And we see this right away in verse 3: “You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!’” (Psalm 90:3). This is talking about our death. Back in the garden of Eden, God told Adam that if he disobeyed and ate the forbidden fruit, he would die. And after Adam did eat the fruit, what did God say to him? “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
And those are the exact words that Moses is pointing to here in Psalm 90. We are each going to die and our bodies are going to return to the dirt from which we were made.
And even if we have a long life—even if we could live for a thousand years—that’s still nothing compared to God. Verse 4: “For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night” (Psalm 90:4). Verses 5 and 6 further reflect on how short and fleeting our lives are. Like a dream, like grass, we don’t last long. Death sweeps us away like a flood.
Look at verse 10: “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away” (Psalm 90:10).
My mom died ten years ago. And when people ask and find out that she died at 54, I so often hear something like “Wow, she was so young.” But according to Moses, according to Psalm 90, we all die young—compared to God. Whether you’re 54 or 104 or 994, it’s just a blink.
Death by Wrath
So Moses writes Psalm 90 to lament the fact that we die. But more specifically, he also writes Psalm 90 to lament the reason that we die. And this reason was already pointed to in verse 3. It’s a reason that many people today, even many Christians today, are uncomfortable with. But the consistent teaching of the Bible is that death is a result of God’s wrath against our sin.
When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they were punished with death. Not immediate death, but the process of death that slowly took them down. And in verses 7 and 8, Moses looks around him and sees the same reality at work around him.
“For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh” (Psalm 90:7–9). And then in verse 11: “Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you?” (Psalm 90:11).
Now again, Moses has seen this up close and personal. He had seen all of the plagues on Egypt and all of the death that it produced. And he probably writes this out in the wilderness where they spent forty years waiting for a whole generation to die off because they had rebelled against God and refused to obey Him.
And Moses himself was about to die for the same reason. He had disobeyed God in a public way, and as a result, God told him that he would die before he got to see the Promised Land that he had spent decades leading the people towards.
So when Moses says in verse 7 that “We are brought to an end by your anger,” that’s not just a royal “we.” He really was a part of this. Death is God’s response to sin.
And the Bible tells us that this is true for all of us. Romans 3:23 says that “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” And just a little bit later, we read that “the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23).
For Adam and Eve, for Israel in the wilderness, and for you and I today, our own death is a reminder of our sin which has earned that death.
I don’t know if you struggle with that this morning. Like, I know that some people probably deserve to die because of their sin, but me? I’m surely not that bad. Come on, it’s the long weekend, and I’m in church.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had thoughts like that. If you have, it might be worth it to take a second look at verse 8. “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence” (Psalm 90:8).
Haven’t we all done things in secret, whispered things behind people’s backs, imagined things in the dark corners of our mind, looked at things when we were alone, and we’re so glad that nobody else knows?
Now just imagine for a moment that someone knocked on your door today and told you that they were part of a secret film crew and they had captured everything. All of those comments, mutterings, all of the things you did when you thought you were alone. They used special equipment to read all of your thoughts and imaginations. And it’s all going to be uploaded to YouTube this afternoon.
My guess is that many of us would say something like, “I’d rather die than have that happen.” Isn’t that interesting? “I’d rather die.” Maybe deep down we do understand that our sin deserves death. Maybe it’s not such a stretch for God to see all of our secret sins and continue to uphold His standard that the wages of sin is death.
But it’s still hard, isn’t it? Even if we acknowledge that it’s true, it’s still a tough pill to swallow. And it was a tough pill for Moses to swallow, too.
Remember that this is a psalm of lament. Moses isn’t happy about this. As he thinks about our sin and God’s wrath and how short our lives are, he’s not ok with it.
But instead of running away from God, instead of getting mad at God, Moses pours out his heart to God. That’s the whole purpose of lament: talking to God about the things that make us sad or angry.
And then Moses takes that next step beyond lament, a step that we’ve seen over and over in the Psalms, and he prays. He begs for God’s help and mercy. He asks God to do something.
And that’s what we find now in verses 12-17. Moses’ prayer that comes in response to his lament. And this prayer really comes in three parts. There’s three main requests here. And we’re going to look at all three in order.
A Prayer for Wisdom
The first request is a prayer for wisdom. And that’s in verse 12: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”
You may have heard the phrase before, “The way to make your days count is to count your days.” And that’s not all that far off the mark. Moses understands that even though it’s not fun to remember that we’re going to die, even though it might make us sad, it’s really important.
As we count our days—as we remember that each day that goes by is one day closer to our own death—we will be compelled to make the most use of those days, to establish the right priorities, to live for what is truly important and truly significant. In other words, we’ll get a heart of wisdom.
How many stories have you heard of someone who approached the end of their life and was faced with their own death, and looked back with regret at how they had lived? And how much better would it be to live every day with the awareness that our time is running out, so that we make the most of that time?
That’s what Moses is praying for here. The ability to do that. The ability to number our days so that we get that heart of wisdom.
A Prayer for Joy
Second, Moses prays for joy—the joy that is found in God’s presence. “Return, O Lord!” he prays in verse 13. “Have pity on your servants!”
In other words, if our life is so short, please don’t be angry with us the whole time. Please let the life that we do live be marked by the joy that only you can bring. “Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,” he prays in verse 15.
And right there in verse 14 are those wonderful words which we’ve read for the past two weeks. “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14).
Do you hear what he’s saying? “Oh God, let us see and experience your steady, loyal, promise-keeping love once again. And let us be satisfied by it, so that our short days can be filled with joy and not with sorrow.”
Like we’ve seen in the past few weeks, real joy and real satisfaction are only found in God. And this verse teaches us to pray for this: for God to satisfy us with Himself.
And this is Moses’ second request. He’s asking God to come and be with His people in a real way, to forgive their sins and fill their short lives with the joy and the gladness and the satisfaction that comes from being at peace with God.
A Life That Counts
Finally, Moses prays that God would make our lives count. And you might think that this is just repeating the prayer for wisdom. But Moses understands that even if we are living in a wise way, there’s so much that’s out of our hands. There’s so much we can’t control. So he asks God to bless our work and make it count.
“Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” (Psalm 90:16–17).
It’s not hard to imagine Moses at the end of his life, seeing how fickle the people were, how quickly they turned away from obeying God and how quickly they forgot everything God had done for them. And as Moses considers his own death, it’s not hard to imagine him wondering if everything he worked for, everything he spent his whole life doing, was just one big waste.
Was he just going to die and be forgotten and the people were going to carry on and do whatever they were going to do anyways? Was Moses’ life work for nothing?
In the final two verses of this Psalm Moses prays that this wouldn’t be the case. He’s praying that God Himself would work on behalf of His children, that they would see His glorious power on display. That God’s favour, or beauty, would rest on His people and thus that the work of their hands—the things they did, the things they spent their lives working for—would be established. Would matter. Would last. Would mean something. Would not be a waste.
“Don’t let my life and my work be a waste,” is what Moses is praying here. “Let your favour be open us, and establish the work of our hands. Make what we do matter.”
Moses’ Perspective… And Ours
So there we have Moses’ lament and Moses’ prayer. God is eternal, and we are not. Our lives are short and marked by the wrath of God against our ever-present sin. And so he begs for wisdom, and for joy, and for a life that matters.
Now let’s ask a very important question. As Moses would have concluded a prayer like this, what assurance did he have that these prayers would be answered? What would he have been looking to for confidence that God was going to answer him? What was Moses basing his hope on?
We know that Moses had faith in God. Hebrews chapter 11 tells us that Moses had some sort of a faith in a reward that would come to him (Hebrews 11:27). But Moses’ faith could only see so far. He lived before God had told them much about what happens after we die.
There was so much he didn’t know.
Could Moses have imagined that his whole life, everything that God used him to say and do, was just one part of God’s big plan to prepare the way for Jesus?
Could Moses have guessed that God’s own son was going to come and take on a human body and be the first person ever to perfectly live the life that Moses’ law described?
Could Moses have guessed that, just like they killed those Passover lambs to spare the people from death, so Jesus, God’s own son, would be killed as the perfect substitute to pay for all of the sins of God’s people?
And could Moses have guessed that three days later, Jesus would walk out of his own grave, alive? That death itself would lay powerless and defeated behind him?
Could Moses have imagined those words coming out of Jesus’ mouth: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25)? Or these words: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)?
Could Moses have imagined that Jesus would so completely rewrite the rules on death that instead of being the end of the line, a black hole waiting to swallow us up, death becomes the beginning of eternal joy in the presence of God himself? So much so that the Apostle Paul could write, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21)?
Could Moses have imagined how thoroughly God was going to answer his prayers here in Psalm 90?
We don’t know. But we do know that Jesus has changed everything. Jesus has re-written the rules. And when we trust in Jesus, our relationship with death completely changes. It has completely lost its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55).
So does Psalm 90 even mean anything for us anymore? Is it just a historical relic of the way people used to think before Jesus came?
I don’t think so. On this side of the resurrection of Jesus, what we find is that can still pray Psalm 90—but it means something so much better and so much richer to us today because of Jesus and what He’s done.
So consider verse 12, where Moses asked God to “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” This side of the empty grave, we can still pray the same. But we don’t number our days as if they are running out and then that’s it.
We number our days because each day is one day closer to eternity. Each day is one day closer to the day when we will see God and He will make all things new.
So numbering our days is still the path to wisdom, but in a far more hopeful way than Moses likely imagined.
Second, Moses prayed for joy. And like we’ve seen in the past two weeks, this is a prayer we should still pray in a full-throated way. Because we know that when Jesus died as our substitute on the cross, He purchased eternal, indestructible joy for all who believe in Him.
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1–2).
So we pray for joy. And we look forward to the fullness of joy in the presence of Christ. And we taste that joy here and now today through the power of hope.
A Life That Counts
Finally, we can pray with Moses that God would establish the work of our hands and make our lives count. But we can pray this with so much assurance because of the resurrection of Jesus.
And we see this in 1 Corinthians 15. That’s a whole chapter of the Bible that talks all about the resurrection of Jesus and the return of Jesus and our own resurrection and the New Creation that God has promised to create.
And at the very end of what chapter, Paul writes,“Therefore, my beloved brothers”—therefore, because Jesus has risen from the dead, and because of all that He’s promised to do—“be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
What a promise. And what an answer to Moses’ prayer. “Establish the work of our hands!” “In the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
Because Jesus is alive and is going to keep all of His promises, nothing we do for Him is a waste. He sees it, He is going to reward us for it, and He is going to make it matter both in this life and in the life to come. Nothing we do in and for Jesus is a waste.
So what about you? What’s the work of your hands? Maybe it’s your day job. Maybe you don’t particularly enjoy some parts of it, but you’re trying to respect your boss and do your best for Jesus’ sake.
Maybe it’s work with your family. Putting meals on the table, teaching toddlers how to get dressed and learn the alphabet.
Maybe it’s work here at the church. Helping out in the kitchen, counting the offering.
Whatever it is, God has promised that our work for Jesus is not a waste. He is going to establish it and make it count for eternity.
Moses has been dead for 3500 years, and here we are, still learning from his life and words. God truly established the work of his hands.
And can you just imagine, 3500 years from now, what God might be doing with your work today? The people that might be in heaven because of your faithfulness? The eternal reward you might be enjoying for your faithfulness in the little things today?
That’s what Psalm 90 invites us to pray for and trust in in.
So let’s do that. We’re going to sing here one last song, and then we get to go out and live Psalm 90. There’s seven days ahead of us before we gather again here. Seven days to count, seven days to enjoy God, seven days to work and trust God to make that work count for eternity.