One of the best investments I made with my time during my recent sabbatical was to study through (almost all of) the Psalms – I’m hoping to study those still left in my own time over the next few weeks. Like so many others before me, I found that the Psalms increased my faith and hope in Jesus. I also found that they provided me with God-given vocabulary to reflect on and pray about my life and ministry.
One highlight came during my time in Book 4 of the Psalms – a block of songs which seem to have been used by the nation of Israel as they sought to make sense of their time in exile and the circumstances of their miraculous return home.
Several of the prayers and songs in this block appeal to the character and renown of God – that he might show mercy. The psalmists knew that the humiliation of Israel in exile was not only painful for God’s people, but the nations might understand that Israel’s God was impotent.
One psalm I found poignant was Psalm 90, which opens Book 4. We don’t know if this prayer ‘of Moses’ dates from Moses’ own lips verbatim or whether it was ‘remixed’ for use in the exile. Either way, it reflects on how a whole generation – those born in the wilderness before Israel’s crossing into Canaan, a generation whose experience was echoed by those in exile – had known nothing of the LORD except his rebuke and discipline. The psalm conveys a sense of sadness and perhaps regret that whole generation has never first-hand experienced the grace and deliverance of God. Human life – already brief and uncertain – is made all the worse when spent under the cloud of God’s wrath. Must a generation pass by without seeing the proof of God’s saving love?
The psalm closes with a prayer for wisdom that Israel might live wisely and well in their own time – perhaps that they might be open to the chastening work still to be done in them in their lack. But, aware at they are still in the ‘night’, they ask that the dawn might arrive soon. And that when the dawn comes and the LORD shows mercy and displays his power, the joy of God’s people might be proportionate to (and even exceed) the depth of their humiliation.
And so I was spurred again to pray for myself and for my town, my country and my continent. Whilst the exile was a unique moment in salvation history, it doesn’t take a massive leap of imagination to see the contemporary echoes. The LORD seems impotent and defeated. His people are so often a laughingstock: sometimes we deserve that reputation. I live in a large town in Yorkshire and suspect that the number of believers here may not reach far into four figures. I think of my own generation, and the generation of students with whom I work, and fear that it may come and go without any real experience of the one true God’s saving power.
Yet – even in the wilderness and even in exile – Israel knew that, far away from home, the LORD was sovereign over all. He could and would one day show mercy. He was at work in making his people wise during the night, but that the morning would surely come. So they could pray: ‘let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us.’
There are some exciting things happening in Yorkshire, in Britain and in Europe. I don’t want to take these for granted. There seems to be a steadier trickle of new life. Perhaps the dawn is nearer than it was. But the reality is that it’s still very dark. And so Psalm 90 can be our prayer too: that the LORD could make us wise; that we might we open to his chastening work and that our hearts might be refined and won afresh to him. And in the meantime we pray: show mercy on us and on our generation. May the favour of the Lord our God be upon us in our day too.