A Pilgrim’s Prayer

 Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children. And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.—
Psalm 90:16–17

The prayer of a pilgrim who had lived long and hard in this valley of tears. The prayer of Moses, the man of God. This psalm is the only one that we know Moses wrote. It was probably written near the end of his life as the children of Israel were about to enter the land of Canaan and as Moses surveyed the land from the mountaintop.

In this psalm Moses stands at the height of his faith. Having led Israel for many years, Moses now prays for Israel.

By the Spirit, Moses beholds God. He sees God, the perfection of all beauty and loveliness, the delightful and altogether lovely dwelling place of his people. “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God” (v. 2). The mountains may be removed and tossed into the midst of the sea, the earth may quake and the whole world be turned upside down, but from everlasting to everlasting God is God.

 The eternal God who always was. Even before the beginning, before time, before the worlds, before the mountains, God is. He is eternal: above time and beholding all time as one indivisible present. A thousand years are in his sight as yesterday and as a watch in the night.

What happened a thousand years ago? The church was in the night of the Dark Ages, oppressed by the false doctrine of works-righteousness; the earth was ruled by kings, emperors, tyrants, and popes; the gospel was just coming to our fathers as they worshiped rocks, wood, trees, and the hosts of heaven. To the Lord as yesterday, as a watch in the night, and as a moment ago.

The unchangeable God. Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away and brings with it countless changes to this fleeting world, but God is the same. He is, and he is from eternity to eternity the same in his being and in all his perfections.

Unchanging, then, also with respect to his people. Eternally, before the mountains and before the earth and the world, God is Jehovah, the covenant God. Jehovah, the great i am that i am. He is the dwelling place of God’s people in all generations. He is the house, the refuge, the home of God’s people in all generations. Up into his house, graciously and lovingly, God has taken his people and embraced them with his fellowship and friendship. From eternity he was filled with love and mercy toward his church, whom he chose as his own. From eternity he determined to bless them with the greatest possible blessing, even his own fellowship. From eternity he embraced his people as his own dear children, so that they might dwell with him in his house in the pleasant and blessed fellowship of his company, so that they might behold him and his glory and splendor as their God, and so that they as his people and dear children might be blessed in him.

Then Moses looks back from God to the earth, and he sees man. He sees man as he is lying under the curse and the night of sin and guilt. He sees man even as he is in the generations of God’s own people: carried away as with a flood; like sleep in the morning; like the grass that grows and flourishes for a morning and then is cut down and withers. Even the best of our days is labor and sorrow, and they are cut off and we fly away. All this because of sin and the wrath and anger of God. Consumed by his anger, and by his wrath are we troubled. Our secret sins and iniquities are set in the glaring light of his countenance. Who can stand before God? Who can approach him? Who may abide in the shadow of the Most High?

It is in this situation—seeing God, who is from everlasting to everlasting God and the dwelling place of his people in all generations, and seeing man as a mist and a breath of air, fleeting and sinful—that Moses cries out, “Return, O Jehovah! And let it repent thee concerning thy servants.” Instead of consuming us with labor and sorrow and with thy anger, let us taste thy mercy. Make us glad and fill us with joy. Let thy work appear to thy servants and thy glory unto their children. Set thy beauty upon us.

If we see the work of Jehovah, we will be glad. If his glory and beauty are upon us, we will rejoice. We will be satisfied too. We will lack nothing. Then Jehovah establishes the work of our hands too.

A good prayer, then, for pilgrims who face a new year.

Let thy work appear unto thy servants!

Moses calls this work of Jehovah his glory and his beauty. Work, glory, and beauty are all parallel in the text. They are different words for the same thing, though they explain it from different perspectives.

Why is it so difficult for us to see the work of Jehovah? Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.

God is a working God. “My Father,” said Jesus, “works hitherto, and I also work.” His labors are all perfect and true. He accomplishes them effortlessly by his omnipotent power and according to his determinate counsel. God works.

His work has many aspects and is rich and manifold. God has many works. The whole world is the work of his hands. In wisdom he made them all. By his almighty power he upholds and governs with his hand the whole world. So all of history and every event great and small are the work of Jehovah. Salvation is the work of God that in the church might be known the manifold wisdom of God. He unites his people to Christ, regenerates, calls, gives faith as a gift, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies them. Many and manifold are the works of God. The work of the Lord is perfect.

Yet, but one work! One particular work, the central work of God—the work of God around which all his other works are concentrated and of which they are a part and which they serve.

Let that work appear to thy servants.

Of that work Moses sang after the Red Sea: “Thou shalt bring them in, and plant them in the mountain of thine inheritance, in the place, O Lord, which thou hast made for thee to dwell in, in the Sanctuary, O Lord, which thy hands have established” (Ex. 15:17).

The psalmist sings the same thing: “He hath made his wonderful works to be remembered: the Lord is gracious and full of compassion. He hath given meat unto them that fear him: he will ever be mindful of his covenant. He hath shewed his people the power of his works, that he may give them the heritage of the heathen” (Ps. 111:4–6).

Concerning this work Paul encourages the church: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). The great work of Jehovah is the work of his covenant. Ever mindful of his covenant! Jehovah is our dwelling place in all generations. God is our God, friend, lord, and sovereign. We are his people, friends, and servants—we and our children.

It seemed that for four hundred years Jehovah had forgotten Israel. He tried and tested the Israelites in the fiery furnace of Egypt and with the hard bondage of the Egyptians. Then he came to his people by Moses and delivered them from the land of Egypt. He guided them by the hand of his servant Moses through the fiery deserts, and now they stand poised to enter through the door of Canaan. All this Jehovah did because he is the everlasting God and the everlasting dwelling place of his people; because he had loved them and chosen them from all eternity for his people; because he is unchangeable with respect to his promise; because he is ever mindful of his covenant.

A redemption that was wrought through the deep way of sin, death, and misery. That was God’s will. Pharaoh, God raised up to serve his purpose: for this cause have I raised thee up that I might show my power in thee and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. In the desert every trial and tribulation was the work of God to try Israel. He was always mindful of his covenant. Everything— Pharaoh, sin and death, trouble and sorrow, affliction and persecution—served the purpose of God for the redemption of his people and his covenant with them.

But a type of his work in Jesus Christ, the greater than Moses. Jesus Christ is the wonder, the work, the glory, and the beauty of God.

Jesus Christ came in our flesh: in him the fullness of the eternal and unchangeable God dwells and tabernacles with us. Wonder of wonders.

He suffered in the fiery furnace of God’s wrath for our sins on the cross. He went down into eternal desolation and misery on the cross for us. What a work!

And he arose and ascended into heaven. What glory and beauty!

He is our wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption; in him is grace and truth, and of his fullness we receive grace for grace; in him who is the beloved of god, the favorite, we are made accepted and have access to God. In Jesus Christ by faith, we know and see and have the work, the glory, and the beauty of God.

The whole covenant, our life and blessing, all of the blessings that we enjoy and that make us glad are God’s work, his glory, and his beauty in Jesus Christ. With his own beauty and loveliness, in Christ, God makes us beautiful new creatures created in his image unto good works that God before ordained that we should walk in them.

Let us see that!

Do you see it?

It is hard to see it.

We do not see it with the eye of the body.

What we see with the eye of the body is labor and sorrow. We see affliction and heartache and setback. We see death and misery. We see vanity. We see that we live seventy or eighty years and fly away. We see the troubles of the wilderness, and Canaan seems a long way off.

Some in Israel did not see it. They complained to Moses at every hardship and trial. When there was no water, they grumbled. When there was bread, they cried for meat. When Moses was gone a little too long, they sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play and trampled underfoot the blood of the covenant wherewith they were sprinkled. They accused Moses of taking them into the wilderness to kill them. They tempted God, demanding to know whether he was among them or not. They lusted after the things of Egypt. They, too, were brought out of Egypt and through the Red Sea; but they did not see the work of Jehovah, and they perished in the wilderness. With them God was not well pleased.

Even God’s own people sometimes were caught up in that. They did not see that the Lord, in Egypt, out of Egypt, and through the wilderness in all the trials and afflictions, was working a great work. It was all his work for them and their children, to bless them and to bring them into his holy habitation.

And that is why Moses weeps in the psalm, “Jehovah, return! Make us glad according to the years in which thou hast afflicted us. Do that by letting thy work appear unto us and thy glory to our children.”

 Let the beauty of Jehovah be upon us, and show us thy work.

This is the prayer for faith.

Cause us to see thy work by faith. Grant us strong faith to see thy work, for apart from that work of Jesus Christ in our hearts we do not see God’s work but see only labor, sorrow, and vanity.

Faith is thy work, not our work. Grant us faith. And with that faith grant us all the blessings of salvation.

 This is thy work, not our work.

This is the prayer for truth to be preserved among us, especially the truth of the covenant. There is no work of God apart from the truth. If we are to see the work of God, the truth must be maintained among us. Let us see the truth in all its glories and beauties.

Let the glorious confession of the truth and a holiness of life be preserved among us. This is the beauty of the church and of the people of God: they confess the truth and live holy lives.

The church may be ever so full of thin and outwardly beautiful people; she may be ever so outwardly impressive; but if she denies the truth—gross unholiness in itself—and besides is full of unholiness, she is an ugly church. How ugly it is to say that God loves all men; to say that man contributes to his salvation; to say that our works merit with God; to say that the way to the Father is by works in addition to faith in Christ; to say that we can come to the Father and be received in mercy only by meeting his demands of obedience. That is ugly!

Let thy beauty be upon us, so that we confess the truth and live holy lives.

Upon us thy beauty!

The prayer for the Holy Spirit. That God may dwell with us in and through the Spirit of Jesus Christ. That he may work within us and upon us to see his glory, work, and beauty.

Also, upon our children! Threescore and ten, perhaps fourscore, is the number of our years. What remains is God’s covenant. The covenant of God, his work, is with us and our children. Not only grant all these things to us, but also grant that they be preserved in our generations, among our children, so that God’s covenant continues among us.

Let them see thy work, and let thy glory and thy beauty be upon them too.

Prosper our work then.

We must first understand that it is all God’s work.

If we see that…

If we understand that…

If we will not scoff at and ridicule that…

Our whole lives, all our labors in his covenant, in his church, and in his kingdom, every gift of grace that we have received, all that is delightful and pleasant in the covenant—marriage, children, family, and friends in the Lord—is all God’s work.

If the Lord shows that to us and sets his beauty upon us—graciously—we know, too, what it means to pray that God will establish the work of our hands.

In his covenant he gives us a work. Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is the Lord who works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.

He calls us to work because it is God who works in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure.

It is work in connection with truth and sound doctrine. There is no work that the Lord establishes apart from the truth. He curses work apart from the truth and brings it down into vanity and the grave. If work is not on the basis of the beauty, work, and glory of the Lord, all that work is vain and futile. It is vain and futile because it is not rooted in the truth of the gospel. Not being rooted in the truth of the gospel, it is not labor in the Lord. Not being labor in the Lord, it is not the work of the Lord. And the Lord curses those works, and the works perish with those who work them.

The work of our hands is that share of the Lord’s work that he gives to us in the covenant and church and home and school. It is all his, and he gives us to labor in it.

The work of the Lord is the work of the church institute. It is the work of preaching the gospel to all nations. The work of the Lord is the preaching of the gospel, both in the established churches and on the mission fields. It is the work of training men to be gospel preachers. It is the work of administering the sacraments. It is the work of the church in discipline and in ruling the church by the elders. It is the work of the deacons in taking up and distributing the alms. This is the great and central work of the Lord.

The work of the Lord is the work of the entire life of the believer. It is the work of the daily fight against sin, the daily sorrow over sin, the daily renewed zeal to fight against sin and to live a life of holiness to the Lord. The work to confess the truth and to reject the lie. It is the enduring of persecution and mockery for the sake of the gospel.

It is the work of a man who labors to support his family and the poor and the causes of the church, the school, the covenant, and the kingdom of Jesus Christ. It is the work of raising our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord in the truth. Mothers at home, who shun careers in the world, are laboring in the work of the Lord. It is the work of the mother teaching her children at home the truth of God’s covenant and the vanity of seeking this life.

This includes importantly the Protestant Reformed schools. It is the work of the teachers in the Protestant Reformed Christian schools to teach our children God’s covenant.

Establish thou the work of our hands; yea, the work of our hands, establish thou it. Except Jehovah build the house, they labor in vain who build it.

And so make us glad and satisfy us early with thy mercy, so that we, in the midst of this life of labor and sorrow, may rejoice and be glad all our days—in the Lord and because of his beauty and glory and work—knowing that our labors are not in vain in the Lord.

And he does establish our work. Moses prays twice for the same thing. Not in doubt but in the assurance of faith that the Lord will establish it. The prayer of faith rooted in the truth of God and of his everlasting covenant and made sure in the cross of Jesus Christ. He is our dwelling place in all generations. From everlasting to everlasting he is God—our God—and we are his people. —NJL

Sword-and-Shield-January-2021.pdf (reformedbelieverspub.org)


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“For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men,” Titus 2:11