Treasury of David
The sacred poet commences by affirming his belief in the faithfulness of the Lord to his covenant with the house of David, and makes his first pause at Ps 89:4. He then praises and magnifies the name of the Lord for his power, justice, and mercy, Ps 89:5-14. This leads him to sing of the happiness of the people who have such a God to be their glory and defense, Ps 89:15-18. He rehearses the terms if the covenant at full length with evident delight, Ps 89:19-37, and then mournfully pours out his complaint and petition, Ps 89:38-51, closing the whole with a hearty blessing and a double Amen. May the Holy Spirit greatly bless to us the reading of this most precious Psalm of instruction.
Verse 1. Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. We must consider the whole Psalm as written for the tribes in the desert, and then we shall see the primary meaning of each verse. Moses, in effect, says: wanderers though we be in the howling wilderness—yet we find a home in you, even as our forefathers did when they came out of Ur of the Chaldees and dwelt in tents among the Canaanites. To the saints the Lord Jehovah, the self existent God, stands instead of mansion and rooftree; he shelters, comforts, protects, preserves, and cherishes all his own. Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests—but the saints dwell in their God, and have always done so in all ages. Not in the tabernacle or the temple do we dwell—but in God himself; and this we have always done since there was a church in the world. We have not shifted our abode.
Kings' palaces have vanished beneath the crumbling hand of time—they have been burned with fire and buried beneath mountains of ruins—but the imperial race of Heaven has never lost its regal habitation. Go to the Palatine and see how the Caesars are forgotten of the halls which echoed to their despotic mandates, and resounded with the plaudits of the nations over which they ruled, and then look upward and see in the ever living Jehovah the divine home of the faithful, untouched by so much as the finger of decay. Where dwelt our fathers a hundred generations since, there dwell we still.
It is of New Testament saints that the Holy Spirit has said, "He who keeps his commandments dwells in God and God in him!" It was a divine mouth which said, "Abide in me", and then added, "he who abides in me and I in him the same brings forth much fruit." It is most sweet to speak with the Lord as Moses did, saying, "Lord, you are our dwelling place", and it is wise to draw from the Lord's eternal condescension reasons for expecting present and future mercies, as the Psalmist did in the next Psalm wherein he describes the safety of those who dwell in God.
Verse 2. Before the mountains were brought forth.
Before those elder giants had struggled forth from nature's womb, as her dread firstborn, the Lord was glorious and self sufficient. Mountains to him, though hoar with the snows of ages, are but new born babes, young things whose birth was but yesterday, mere novelties of an hour.
Or before you had formed the earth and the world.
Here too the allusion is to a birth. Earth was born but the other day, and her solid land was delivered from the flood but a short while ago.
Even from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.
Or, "you are, O God." God was, when nothing else was. He was God when the earth was not a world but a chaos, when mountains were not upheaved, and the generation of the heavens and the earth had not commenced. In this Eternal One there is a safe abode for the successive generations of men. If God himself were of yesterday, he would not be a suitable refuge for mortal men; if he could change and cease to be God he would be but an uncertain dwelling place for his people. The eternal existence of God is here mentioned to set forth, by contrast, the brevity of human life.
Verse 3. You turn man back to dust.
Man's body is resolved into its elements, and is as though it had been crushed and ground to powder.
And say, Return, you children of men.
That is, return even to the dust out of which you were taken. The frailty of man is thus forcibly set forth; God creates him out of the dust, and back to dust he goes at the word of his Creator. God resolves and man dissolves. A word created and a word destroys. Observe how the action of God is recognized; man is not said to die because of the decree of fate, or the action of inevitable law—but the Lord is made the agent of all, his hand turns and his voice speaks; without these we would not die, no power on earth or Hell could kill us.
"An angel's arm cannot save me from the grave,
Myriads of angels cannot confine me there."
Verse 4. For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past.
A thousand years! This is a long stretch of time. How much may be crowded into it—the rise and fall of empires, the glory and obliteration of dynasties, the beginning and the end of elaborate systems of human philosophy, and countless events, all important to household and individual, which elude the pens of historians. Yet this period, which might even be called the limit of modern history, and is in human language almost identical with an indefinite length of time, is to the Lord as nothing, even as time already gone. A moment yet to come is longer than "yesterday when it is past", for that no longer exists at all—yet such is a chiliad to the eternal. In comparison with eternity, the most lengthened reaches of time are mere points, there is in fact, no possible comparison between them.
And as a watch in the night.
A time which is no sooner come than gone. There is scarce time enough in a thousand years for the angels to change watches; when their millennium of service is almost over it seems as though the watch were newly set. We are dreaming through the long night of time—but God is ever keeping watch, and a thousand years are as nothing to him. A host of days and nights must be combined to make up a thousand years to us—but to God, that space of time does not make up a whole night—but only a brief portion of it. If a thousand years be to God as a single night watch, what must be the life time of the Eternal!
Verse 5. You carry them away as with a flood.
As when a torrent rushes down the river bed and bears all before it, so does the Lord bear away by death the following generations of men. As the hurricane sweeps the clouds from the sky, so time removes the children of men.
They are as a sleep.
Before God men must appear as unreal as the dreams of the night, the phantoms of sleep. Not only are our plans and devices like a sleep—but we ourselves are such. "We are such stuff as dreams are made of."
In the morning they are like grass which grows up.
As grass is green in the morning and hay at night, so men are changed from health to corruption in a few hours. We are not cedars, or oaks—but only poor grass, which is vigorous in the spring—but lasts not a summer through. What is there upon earth more frail than we!
Verse 6. In the morning it flourishes, and grows up.
Blooming with abounding beauty until the meadows are all besprent with gems, the grass has a golden hour, even as man in his youth has a heyday of flowery glory.
In the evening it is cut down, and withers.
The scythe ends the blossoming of the field flowers, and the dews at flight weep their fall. Here is the history of the grass—sown, grown, blown, mown, gone; and the history of man is not much more. Natural decay would put an end both to us and the grass in due time; few, however, are left to experience the full result of old age, for death comes with his scythe, and removes our life in the midst of its verdure. How great a change in how short a time! The morning saw the blooming, and the evening sees the withering.
Verse 7. For we are consumed by your anger.
This mortality is not accidental, neither was it inevitable in the original of our nature—but sin has provoked the Lord to anger, and therefore thus we die.
This is the scythe which mows and the scorching heat which withers. This was specially the case in reference to the people in the wilderness, whose lives were cut short by justice on account of their waywardness; they failed, not by a natural decline—but through the blast of the well deserved judgments of God. It must have been a very mournful sight to Moses to see the whole nation melt away during the forty years of their pilgrimage, until none remained of all that came out of Egypt.
As God's favor is life, so his anger is death; as well might grass grow in an oven as men flourish when the Lord is angry with them.
And by your wrath are we troubled.
Or terror stricken. A sense of divine anger confounded them, so that they lived as men who knew that they were doomed. This is true of us in a measure—but not altogether, for now that immortality and life are brought to light by the gospel, death has changed its aspect, and, to believers in Jesus, it is no more a judicial execution. Anger and wrath are the sting of death, and in these believers have no share; love and mercy now conduct us to glory by the way of the tomb.
It is not fitting to read these words at a Christian's funeral without words of explanation, and a distinct endeavor to show how little they belong to believers in Jesus, and how far we are privileged beyond those with whom he was not well pleased.
Whose carcasses fell in the wilderness. To apply an ode, written by the leader of the legal dispensation under circumstances of peculiar judgment, in reference to a people under penal censure, to those who fall asleep in Jesus, seems to be the height of blundering. We may learn much from it—but we ought not to misapply it by taking to ourselves, as the beloved of the Lord, that which was chiefly true of those to whom God had sworn in his wrath that they would not enter into his rest.
When, however, a soul is under conviction of sin, the language of this Psalm is highly appropriate to his case, and will naturally suggest itself to the distracted mind. No fire consumes like God's anger, and no anguish so troubles the heart as his wrath. Blessed be that dear substitute,
"Who bore that we might never bear
His Father's righteous ire."
Verse 8. You have set our iniquities before you.
Hence these tears! Sin seen by God must work death; it is only by the covering blood of atonement that life comes to any of us. When God was overthrowing the tribes in the wilderness he had their iniquities before him, and therefore dealt with them in severity. He could not have their iniquities before him, and not smite them.
Our secret sins in the fight of your countenance.
There are no secrets before God; he unearths man's hidden things, and exposes them to the light. There can be no more powerful luminary than the face of God, yet, in that strong light, the Lord set the hidden sins of Israel. Sunlight can never be compared with the light of him who made the sun, of whom it is written, "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all."
If by his countenance is here meant his love and favor, it is not possible for the heinousness of sin to be more clearly manifested than when it is seen to involve ingratitude to one so infinitely good and kind. Rebellion in the light of justice is black—but in the light of love it is devilish. How can we grieve so good a God?
The children of Israel had been brought out of Egypt with a high hand, fed in the wilderness with a liberal hand, and guided with a tender hand, and their sins were peculiarly atrocious.
We, too, having been redeemed by the blood of Jesus, and saved by abounding grace, will be truly guilty if we forsake the Lord. What manner of persons ought we to be? How ought we to pray for cleansing from secret faults? It is to us a wellspring of delights to remember that our sins, as believers are now cast behind the Lord's back, and shall never be brought to light again: therefore we live, because, the guilt being removed, the death penalty is removed also.
Verse 9. For all our days are passed away in your wrath.
Justice shortened the days of rebellious Israel; each halting place became a graveyard; they marked their march by the tombs they left behind them. Because of the penal sentence their days were dried up, and their lives wasted away.
We spend our years as a tale that is told.
Yes, not their days only—but their years flew by them like a thought, swift as a meditation, rapid and idle as a gossip's story. Sin had cast a shadow over all things, and made the lives of the dying wanderers to be both vain and brief.
The first sentence is not intended for believers to quote, as though it applied to themselves, for our days are all passed amid the loving-kindness of the Lord, even as David says in the Psalm 23:6 "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life."
Neither is the life of the gracious man unsubstantial as a story teller's tale; he lives in Jesus, he has the divine Spirit within him, and to him "life is real, life is earnest"—the simile only holds good if we consider that a holy life is rich in interest, full of wonders, chequered with many changes—yet as easily ordered by providence as an author arranges the details of the story with which he beguiles the hour. Our lives are illustrations of heavenly goodness, parables of divine wisdom, poems of sacred thought, and records of infinite love; happy are we whose lives are such tales.
Verse 10. The days of our years are threescore years and ten.
Moses himself lived longer than this—but his was the exception not the rule: in his day life had come to be very much the same in duration as it is with us. This is brevity itself compared with the men of the elder time; it is nothing when contrasted with eternity. Yet is life long enough for virtue and piety, and all too long for vice and blasphemy. Moses here in the original writes in a disconnected manner, as if he would set forth the utter insignificance of man's hurried existence. His words may be rendered, "The days of our years! In them seventy years"—as much as to say, "The days of our years? What about them? Are they worth mentioning? The account is utterly insignificant, their full tally is but seventy."
And if by reason of strength they be fourscore years—yet is their strength labor and sorrow.
The unusual strength which overleaps the bound of threescore and ten, only lands the aged man in a region where life is a weariness and a woe. The strength of old age, its very prime and pride, are but labor and sorrow; what must its weakness be? What panting for breath! What toiling to move! What a failing of the senses! What a crushing sense of weakness! The evil days are come and the years wherein a man cries, "I have no pleasure in them." The grasshopper has become a burden and desire fails. Such is old age.
Yet mellowed by hallowed experience, and solaced by immortal hopes, the latter days of aged Christians are not so much to be pitied as envied. The sun is setting and the heat of the day is over—but sweet is the calm and cool of the eventide: and the fair day melts away, not into a dark and dreary night—but into a glorious, unclouded, eternal day!
The mortal fades to make room for the immortal; the old man falls asleep to wake up in the region of perennial youth.
For it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
The cable is broken and the vessel sails upon the sea of eternity. The chain is snapped and the eagle mounts to its native air above the clouds. Moses mourned for men as he thus sung: and well he might, as all his comrades fell at his side. His words are more nearly rendered, "He drives us fast and we fly away;" as the quail were blown along by the strong west wind, so are men hurried before the tempests of death. To us, however, as believers, the winds are favorable; they bear us as the gales bear the swallows away from the wintry realms, to lands
"Where everlasting spring abides
And never withering flowers."
Who wishes it to be otherwise? Why should we linger here? What has this poor world to offer us that we should tarry on its shores? Away, away! This is not our rest. Heavenward, He! Let the Lord's winds drive fast if so he ordains, for they waft us the more swiftly to himself, and our own dear country.
Verse 11. Who knows the power of your anger?
Moses saw men dying all around him: he lived among funerals, and was overwhelmed at the terrible results of the divine displeasure. He felt that none could measure the might of the Lord's wrath.
Even according to your fear, so is your wrath.
Godly men dread that wrath beyond conception—but they never ascribe too much terror to it: bad men are dreadfully convulsed when they awake to a sense of it—but their horror is not greater than it had need be, for it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of an angry God.
Holy Scripture when it depicts God's wrath against sin never uses a hyperbole; it would be impossible to exaggerate it. Whatever feelings of pious awe and holy trembling may move the tender heart, it is never too much moved; apart from other considerations the great truth of the divine anger, when most powerfully felt, never impresses the mind with a solemnity in excess of the legitimate result of such a contemplation.
What the power of God's anger is in Hell, and what it would be on earth, were it not in mercy restrained, no man living can rightly conceive. Modern thinkers rail at Milton and Dante, Bunyan and Baxter, for their terrible imagery; but the truth is that no vision of poet, or denunciation of holy seer, can ever reach to the dread height of this great argument, much less go beyond it.
The wrath to come has its horrors rather diminished than enhanced in description by the dark lines of human imagination; it baffles words, it leaves imagination far behind.
Beware you who forget God lest he tear you in pieces and there be none to deliver. God is terrible out of his holy places. Remember Sodom and Gomorrah! Remember Korah and his company! Mark well the graves of lust in the wilderness! Nay, rather bethink you of the place where their worm dies not, and their fire is not quenched! Who is able to stand against this justly angry God? Who will dare to rush upon the bosses of his buckler, or test the edge of his sword? Be it ours to submit ourselves as dying sinners to this eternal God, who can, even at this moment, command us to the dust, and thence to Hell.
Verse 12. So teach us to number our days.
Instruct us to set store by time, mourning for that time past wherein we have wrought the will of the flesh, using diligently the time present, which is the accepted hour and the day of salvation, and reckoning the time which lies in the future to be too uncertain to allow us safely to delay any gracious work or prayer. Numeration is a child's exercise in arithmetic—but in order to number their days aright the best of men need the Lord's teaching. We are more anxious to count the stars than our days, and yet the latter is by far more practical.
That we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
Men are led by reflections upon the brevity of time to give their earnest attention to eternal things; they become humble as they look into the grave which is so soon to be their bed, their passions cool in the presence of mortality, and they yield themselves up to the dictates of unerring wisdom; but this is only the case when the Lord himself is the teacher; he alone can teach to real and lasting profit.
Thus Moses prayed that the dispensations of justice might be sanctified in mercy. "The law is our school master to bring us to Christ", when the Lord himself speaks by the law. It is most fit that the heart which will so soon cease to beat should while it moves be regulated by wisdom's hand. A short life should be wisely spent. We have not enough time at our disposal to justify us in misspending a single quarter of an hour. Neither are we sure of enough life to justify us in procrastinating for a moment. If we were wise in heart we should see this—but mere head-knowledge will not guide us aright.
Verse 13. Relent, O LORD, how long?
Come in mercy, to us again. Do not leave us to perish. Do not allow our lives to be both brief and bitter. You have said to us, "Return, O children of men", and now we humbly cry to you, "Return, O preserver of men." Your presence alone can reconcile us to this transient existence; turn unto us. As sin drives God from us, so repentance cries to the Lord to return to us. When men are under chastisement they are allowed to expostulate, and ask "how long?" Our fault in these times is not too great boldness with God—but too much backwardness in pleading with him.
Have compassion on your servants.
Thus Moses acknowledges the Israelites to be God's servants still. They had rebelled—but they had not utterly forsaken the Lord; they owned their obligations to obey his will, and pleaded them as a reason for pity. Will not a man spare his own servants? Though God smote Israel—yet they were his people, and he had never disowned them, therefore is he entreated to deal favorably with them. If they might not see the promised land—yet he is begged to cheer them on the road with his mercy, and to turn his frown into a smile. The prayer is like others which came from the meek lawgiver when he boldly pleaded with God for the nation; it is Moses-like. He here speaks with the Lord as a man speaks with his friend.
Verse 14. O satisfy us early with your mercy.
Since they must die, and die so soon, the psalmist pleads for speedy mercy upon himself and his brethren. Godly men know how to turn the darkest trials into arguments at the throne of grace. He who has but the heart to pray need never be without pleas in prayer. The only satisfying food for the Lord's people is the favor of God; this Moses earnestly seeks for, and as the manna fell in the morning he beseeches the Lord to send at once his satisfying favor, that all through the little day of life they might be filled therewith.
Are we so soon to die? Then, Lord, do not starve us while we live. Satisfy us at once, we pray you. Our day is short and the night hastens on, O give us in the early morning of our days to be satisfied with your favor, that all through our little day we may be happy.
That we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Being filled with divine love, their brief life on earth would become a joyful festival, and would continue so as long as it lasted. When the Lord refreshes us with his presence, our joy is such that no man can take it from us. Apprehensions of speedy death are not able to distress those who enjoy the present favor of God; though they know that the night comes, they see nothing to fear in it—but continue to live while they live, triumphing in the present favor of God and leaving the future in his loving hands.
Since the whole generation which came out of Egypt had been doomed to die in the wilderness, they would naturally feel despondent, and therefore their great leader seeks for them that blessing which, beyond all others, consoles the heart, namely, the presence and favor of the Lord.
Verse 15. Make us glad according to the days wherein you have afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.
None can gladden the heart as you can, O Lord, therefore as you have made us sad, be pleased to make us glad. Fill the other scale. Proportion your dispensations. Give us the lamb, since you has sent us the bitter herbs. Make our days as long as our nights.
The prayer is original, childlike, and full of meaning; it is moreover based upon a great principle in providential goodness, by which the Lord puts the good over against the evil in due measure. Great trial enables us to bear great joy, and may be regarded as the herald of extraordinary grace.
God's dealings are according to scale; small lives are small throughout; and great histories are great both in sorrow and happiness. Where there are high hills, there are also deep valleys. As God provides the sea for leviathan, so does he find a pool for the minnow; in the sea all things are in fit proportion for the mighty monster, while in the little brook all things befit the tiny fish.
If we have fierce afflictions we may look for overflowing delights, and our faith may boldly ask for them. God who is great in justice when he chastens, will not be little in mercy when he blesses; he will be great all through: let us appeal to him with unstaggering faith.
Verse 16. Let your work appear unto your servants.
See how he dwells upon that word servants. It is as far as the law can go, and Moses goes to the full length permitted him. Henceforth Jesus calls us not servants but friends, and if we are wise we shall make full use of our wider liberty. Moses asks for displays of divine power and providence conspicuously wrought, that all the people might be cheered thereby. They could find no solace in their own faulty works—but in the work of God they would find comfort.
And your glory unto their children.
While their sons were growing up around them, they desired to see some outshinings of the promised glory gleaming upon them. Their sons were to inherit the land which had been given them by covenant, and therefore they sought on their behalf some tokens of the coming good, some morning dawnings of the approaching noonday.
How eagerly do godly men plead for their children. They can bear very much personal affliction if they may but be sure that their children will know the glory of God, and thereby be led to serve him. We are content with the work, if our children may but see the glory which will result from it: we sow joyfully, if they may reap.
Verse 17. And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us.
Even upon us who must not see your glory in the land of Canaan; it shall suffice us if in our characters the holiness of God is reflected, and if over all our camp the lovely excellencies of our God shall cast a sacred beauty. Sanctification should be the daily object of our petitions.
And establish you the work of our hands upon us; yes, the work of our hands establish it.
Let what we do be done in truth, and last when we are in the grave; may the work of the present generation minister permanently to the building tip of the nation. Godly men are anxious not to work in vain. They know that without the Lord they can do nothing, and therefore they cry to him for help in the work, for acceptance of their efforts, and for the establishment of their designs.
The church as a whole earnestly desires that the hand of the Lord may so work with the hand of his people, that a substantial, yes, an eternal edifice to the praise and glory of God may be the result. We come and go—but the Lord's work abides. We are content to die so long as Jesus lives and his kingdom grows. Since the Lord abides forever the same, we trust our work in his hands, and feel that since it is far more his work than ours, he will secure it immortality. When we have withered like grass our holy service, like gold, silver, and precious stones, will survive the fire.