A Trek into the Wilderness
Don Garlington | Thursday, February 22, 1996
Copyright © 1996, Don Garlington
I am calling this "A Trek into the Wilderness," because of the heading of the psalm, which specifies that the author is Moses. If you follow the biblical account, you know that Moses lived the first forty years of his life in Egypt, and then found it necessary to leave. He went out into the wilderness for another forty years before he led the children of Israel out of Egypt. As he writes Psalm 90, Moses and his people are going around in circles in the desert, and so they are literally in the wilderness.
In biblical theology, the wilderness is not so much a place as it is a condition. It can also be a place, but it is mainly a condition. When you read the book of Hebrews, the writer says that all of us who have left the bondage of the old land (the land of Egypt, in symbolic terms), and are now headed to the heavenly Jerusalem, find ourselves at the present time in the wilderness. It is not a literal wilderness, but rather, a place of testing, a place of determining whether the people of God will be obedient for the sake of their relationship with God.
Wilderness is one of the chaos symbols of the Bible, because the desert is an uninhabited land. Other chaos symbols are darkness, and thorns and thistles. These things speak to us of the way that chaos encroaches upon the ordered universe. When you read Genesis 1, you see the idea of cosmos emerging out of chaos, and this idea continues all the way through the Scriptures to the end of the book of Revelation. If the garden of Eden was the symbol of God's presence and the place of his dwelling, then the wilderness, in a sense, is a reverse piece of symbolism. So the Israelites were in the place of chaos.
What Does the Wilderness Have to Do with Us?
Now some may say, "Well, you are just speaking about a theological extraction because we are not in the wilderness in any perceptible sense." But when you consider that the wilderness is, in fact, a condition, you see that it is as real as all the evils that beset the world. It is as real as the terrible situations we read about in the papers every day. It is as real as the grave itself. And so, far from being a piece of abstract theology, the condition of the wilderness is something that strikes very close to home, or at least it should.
Thus, we find ourselves in the wilderness just as we are alive. But apart from the wilderness connection, what does Psalm 90 have to say to us? Well, it really speaks to us of things that are very basic. What are these things? Man's mortality and God's dealings with man, including his anger. Whether you are a Christian or not, these things apply to you. For myself, I find that the older I get, the more basic things matter, such as the basic issue of life itself.
Some years ago, as I was lying in bed, watching the minutes on the clock change, I thought, "There goes another minute that cannot be replaced; another minute that brings me closer to the grave; another minute that not only increases the number of gray hairs on my head, but actually brings me face to face with my own mortality." Psalm 90 is important because it speaks directly to life's basic issues. It talks about God's eternity, but it does so with respect to my temporality. Then it goes beyond that and says the reason for my temporality is death--the outworking of the wrath of God, the wages of sin, that everyone born into this creation must experience.
Bad News or Good?
This psalm has a dark side, that of facing our mortality, but there is a bright side also to this psalm, as we discover wisdom, security and hope in this wilderness. If you read the psalm superficially, it may seem to be all dark, but it really isn't because there is this bright thread that runs through it.
Psalm 90 addresses these basic issues in a mature and realistic way. By any reckoning when Moses wrote this psalm he was not young. He was eighty during the exodus, and he lived to be 120, so he may have written this when he was a hundred years old or so--we don't know precisely. But here is someone who has put off the rosy spectacles of youth. When you are young, you have your whole life ahead of you, and you concentrate on your education, your job, or your family, which is natural. But there comes a point when you begin to look back upon what has happened, and you begin to reckon, not only with the things that you have accomplished, but with the things you haven't accomplished. Some call this the mid-life crisis, and it is not always a pleasant time to see how much time has gone by and consider what you have or haven't done.
But Moses is not cynical. Do you remember how Mark Twain, having lost his wife and daughter, became very bitter and angry in his old age? He decided to lampoon biblical religion from one end to the other, which he did with all of the skill and wit he could bring to the subject. But, although he is viewing things in a mature and realistic way, Moses is not cynical.
The Bad News
Let us, then, look at the two sides of Psalm 90, if we can--the bad news, first, and then the good news. The term "bad news" might seem surprising because we are told by the psalm that God is forever, which, in itself is not bad news. But I am using the term "bad news" because God's eternity is not stated in the abstract, but rather in relation to our temporality, to the way that we are here today and gone tomorrow.
Look at verses 3-6: "You turn men back to dust, saying, 'Return to dust, O sons of men.' For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning--through in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered."
In my youth we used to talk about the endless summer, but summers don't seem so endless anymore. In fact, they seem to go very rapidly, because I have a different perception on life. We know this happens, but Moses presses the point because he views our lives in light of the eternity of God. When seen in that light, our lives are simply specks, flickers on the screen, and then they are gone. All that we accomplish, all that we can do, all the intelligence that we have been given, is gone. At the end of his life Einstein rued the fact that we come into the world involuntarily and we are here but for a passing moment. And Einstein himself, with all his great genius and all that he accomplished, is now gone.
"Their Span Is But Trouble and Sorrow"
If that is not depressing enough, Moses adds to it and tells us that we are not just mortal but we are in trouble. In verse 9 he says, "All of our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan." He goes on to say how one can expect, on average, to live seventy or eighty years, but even so, he says, "their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away." Do you remember what Jacob said when he came before Pharaoh? In Genesis 47:9, when he was 130 years old, Jacob said, "My years have been few and difficult." That summarizes this point in a very real sense.
If you are a Christian, you may ask, "How can it be that we are under the wrath of God? Didn't Christ die to satisfy the wrath of God and to take it away (in theological terminology, to propitiate the wrath of God, to cover sin)?" The answer is yes, very much so. But this is not what Moses is talking about. Moses is speaking about what might be described as a canopy of wrath that lies over the planet and which is due to the activity of the first man. In Romans 5 the Apostle Paul reasons that there are really just two human beings who head up the whole race--the old race is headed by the first Adam, and the new race is headed by the last Adam, Jesus Christ. Because of the work of the first Adam, there is what one might say a disease-laden atmosphere on the planet Earth.
Now, if you go into a room where someone is sick, and there are disease germs in the air, it doesn't matter if you are a Christian or not, you will get sick if you breathe the air. Or suppose you are in an area where there is a lot of pollen and dust. It doesn't matter about your spiritual condition. If you breathe the air long enough and you are susceptible to allergies, then you will get watery eyes, sniffling and all the other miseries that accompany allergies.
Why do bad things happen to Christians? Bad things have probably happened to you. Have you ever gone along, minding your own business, and something comes out of nowhere and hits you on that occasion? Parents may raise their children up to a certain age, and one day as they are walking across the street by themselves, a car hits them and they are dead in an instant. Why do bad things like that happen?
In a sense we are not given a lot of information, but in another sense we are given a reason and principle. It is because this wrath lies over the planet, and everyone who is born into this creation experiences it to one degree or another. That is a hard fact, and many don't want to hear it. But in the biblical perspective it is the answer, and as far as I am concerned, the only one that really makes any sense.
How do you react to the bad news? We can say life is miserable, and then at the end you die. Woody Allen tells a joke about two people who go into a restaurant. At the end of the meal, one says, "That food was terrible," and the other says, "Yeah, it was, but the portions were small." And Allen concludes that the quality of life is not good; it can leave a bad taste in your mouth; and yet it is over with so very quickly. This is the reflection, not of a Christian theologian, but of a person who is sensitive to reality, observing how we really react to life.
The Bright Side
What is the good news in all of this? In verse 12 we read that there is such a thing as wisdom. Moses says, "Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom." Wisdom is the great lesson Moses deduces from considering the wrath of God.
He could have drawn a different conclusion. Some, believing there is wrath, or believing in some impersonal force manipulating their lives, conclude that because of all these things, they might as well drown themselves in sensualism, alcohol, drugs, or intellectual pursuits. I have been in academia long enough to know that the great idol of the university campus is intelligence and scholarship. Immersing oneself in the pursuit of knowledge can be well-intentioned, but it may also be a way to shut these other things out of mind. Moses says because there is such a thing as the wrath of God, which we always have to contend with, and that knowledge should impart wisdom to us.
Why? I think Moses means to say that this knowledge gives us perspective, because it shows us that there is a rationale behind everything that is going on. I may not be able to penetrate the veil of that rationale, put my finger on every situation and say, This happened for this reason and that happened for that reason. Reasons may elude me, and yet, in principle, I know that there is a mind, a purpose, behind all that happens, and even when it seems that some impersonal principle of wrath is being worked out, God's intelligence is in control.
That being so, it means that ultimately I have to do with God. I could turn bitter or cynical, but wisdom says in and through everything there is a purpose and a plan. To some it may sound simplistic to come to the point where you simply trust that such things are so, and leave it to the Judge of all the earth to do right. But if you are not trusting in the Judge of all the earth to do right, what are your alternatives? There aren't any, really--not any that are rational.
So wisdom enables us to cope in this wilderness, this place of chaos. We are in a place of danger, testing, and temptation. Why? God, who made the world to be a cosmos, has allowed it to lapse into chaos for the time being, for his reasons. It is a lack of this wisdom that turns us into cynics or sensualists.
"Get a Heart of Wisdom"
It is very important to notice that verse 12, which speaks of wisdom, connects with the previous verse, verse 11, and makes the same point that the book of Proverbs makes frequently. Moses asks, "Who knows the power of your anger? For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you." And then he says, "Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom." This echoes the teaching, especially of the wisdom literature, that wisdom consists in the fear of God. This wisdom is not sophia , in the Greco-Roman sense of the term. It is not the pursuit of philosophy, technology, science, or art. Those things represent Greek wisdom. This wisdom consists in a trust that the God who really is in control is going to vindicate himself, vindicate his truth, and vindicate all those who put their trust in him.
Now we have modern sophia all the way through the university systems of the modern industrialized world. So when we say that wisdom, in the biblical perspective, is actually keeping one's mouth shut in the presence of God the Creator, that introduces a new wrinkle, doesn't it? This does not throw out the wisdom of learning or the love of learning. It does not throw out our technology, science, communication, art forms and all the rest. But what it does say is that earthly wisdom, especially as it transpires in the context of the canopy of wrath, is to be subordinated to the fear of God, who has enabled all of that to be possible in the first place, because he is the Creator, and the whole of the creation bears his imprint. We are not against knowledge--we are very much for it--but it is knowledge in its place, knowledge brought under the headship of the Lord Jesus Christ.
How do you get wisdom? It is stated in verse 12: "Teach us to number our days aright that we may gain a heart of wisdom." Moses is telling us to use the process of subtraction! He has already said that, on average, one can expect to live seventy or eighty years. Now, you consider wherever you are along life's way, and subtract it from seventy and eighty, that tells you how much more you have got to go.
Suppose I am forty years old. Subtract forty from seventy--that leaves only thirty years to live, which is not very long. Subtract it from eighty, and it is only forty years; again, not very long. Wherever you are along the line, there is the benchmark, the seventy or the eighty, which we are all approaching. When you view it in those terms and you say to yourself, "I only have fifty years to go," this knowledge will either scare you to death or light a fire under you, or both.
So we get this wisdom by considering where we are along the way of life's journey. This wisdom tells us that life won't last much longer, and therefore, we can cope. But it also says, because life is not very much longer, we'd better get busy and do something with our lives. Many who reach middle age tend to talk of their misspent youth. May we not waste our vigor, our alacrity of intellect, our opportunities! They are ours for a precious few years and then they are gone. The wise will number their days, and live in the fear of God.
As we consider our mortality, what else do we find in this psalm? Moses speaks of true security. Remember, he wrote this in the context of the wilderness, where they were literally going around in circles, breaking up the camp, going for a few miles, setting up the camp, and then striking it again. They repeated that process over and over. These people were condemned to wander because of their breach of faith. But the psalm begins on this note: "Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or your brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God." Psalm 91 begins on the same note: "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, 'He is my refuge and my fortress, my God , in whom I trust.'"
There is security, but it is not to be found down here. Now you may think that it is. You may say, "One of these days, when I finally get settled, when I get the job that I want, I am going to have the dream home that I have longed for all these years, and I will be secure." Perhaps that will happen to you, and you will decorate and landscape your home precisely to your tastes. Everything will be in perfect order, just the way you like it, and you will settle down. But then one day, because you hit that benchmark of seventy or eighty years, a "For Sale" sign will go up in front of that house, because you have no need of it anymore. And a family will move in there with two German Shepherds and six kids, and everything will be changed in two weeks. The writer of Ecclesiastes told how a man will accomplish many things and store up wealth, but when he dies, a fool may inherit them. There is not much security down here. This is why Psalm 90, especially as it flows into Psalm 91, is bracketed by this notion of God being the dwelling place of Israel. True security can never be found in the wilderness.
Finally, Moses speaks of hope. Although the word "hope" may not be found, especially in verses 13-17, the idea is very much present. The whole of Psalm 90 is a prayer, and then within that prayer you find the prayer of verses 13-17. Now Moses has pondered the wilderness with all its problems and pitfalls. And then he cries out in verse 13, "Relent, O Lord! How long will it be?" Do you remember in the book of Revelation how the people before the throne, when they see the things that are going on on earth, cry out, "How long?" Moses says, "Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble."
Moses wanted the period of the wilderness wandering to be over with so that the people could go into the land. That was their goal. The only reason for being in the wilderness was to finally get to the land. The second generation of the Israelites did finally make it into the land, but that is ancient history for us. What does this have to do with us today? This is where we have to read Psalm 90 in the light of the whole Bible, and especially in the light of the New Testament. I teach a course in biblical theology, which is a technical term meaning the tracing of motifs from the Old Testament through the New Testament, and bringing in Jewish historical information along the line. As you do this, you see how a thread is developed from the earliest parts of the Old Testament all the way into the New Testament.
When you follow that methodology and fit Psalm 90 into that framework, you realize that the land of Israel in the Old Testament is simply a symbol for something else. In the Old Testament the land figures very prominently in all the prophecies of restoration, new creation and paradise. But then you come to the New Testament, mention of the land falls away, for the most part, and where it does appear, things are transposed into a higher key.
To understand this, picture a time line that starts at a lower point and ends at a higher, climatic point. You might say that the land of Palestine, where Moses wanted to go, is relatively low on the scale. But then when you come to the New Testament where these things are transposed into the higher key, the land idea becomes the new heavens and the new earth. You see this idea in Isaiah 65 and other passages: "Behold, I create a new heavens and a new earth." It is what is called in theological terms a type and an antitype. The type means an imprint, a foreshadowing, and the antitype is the fulfillment, the substance, the real thing. What we are saying is the land of Canaan is only a picture, and what it is doing is depicting a much higher reality, which is the new heavens and the new earth. When you see it in that perspective, studying Psalm 90 makes a lot of sense, because the wilderness is no longer the wilderness of Sinai or Judea, but, rather, it is the condition in which we find ourselves as we are going to a heavenly homeland. And when that comes to pass historically, it means that the perspective is enlarged so as to include the whole of created reality, the whole of the universe. The whole of the coming age, the writer of Hebrews says, has been subordinated to Christ.
What Is Our Hope?
Now I don't wish for this to sound like "Tales of the Unexpected," but when you put certain passages together and see them in terms of this time line of salvation history and draw certain inferences, then the land to which the people of Israel were going becomes at the end of time the expanding universe of God, the vast reaches of the universe itself.
What do I mean by this? You see, the mandate given to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden was to subdue the earth. They were created to be of the earth and earthy, as the apostle puts it. They had a mandate to deal with the place from which they had been taken. Now the idea of subduing the earth has been greatly misunderstood. It does not mean to rape the earth, because there is a program of ecology built into the process called subduing the earth. Rather, it means to find all the powers, mysteries and marvels of creation and to harness them and create from them. Subduing the earth includes developing science, art, literature, communications, and whatever other capabilities are inherent within the earth, and we see this process in the many marvelous things that we enjoy at the end of the twentieth century.
But when you transpose into this higher key, that is, when we talk about the coming age, then you really take off, because there are passages that imply very clearly that the body with which Adam came into the world was not meant to be the ultimate body. There is, as the Apostle Paul said, going to be a spiritual body, created and fully indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and equipped for a task that takes us far beyond planet earth again, to the farthest reaches of the universe to explore and subdue what is there.
Hope in the Wilderness
This is the biblical hope, which it goes far beyond the here and the now. This body that is now confined to space and time is going to be a body like the resurrection body of Christ himself, who was able to materialize in the middle of a room where the doors were locked and disappear again in the presence of his disciples. This body will have amazing capacities. You know, even the most intelligent person uses about only about ten percent of the brain. Imagine one hundred percent of the human brain being engaged and a body with the capacity to house that brain, with all the potential that a human being has, and then set that loose upon the universe. It's astounding to consider!
What about heaven? Remember how excited astronomers got when Voyager's images from Saturn came, and they discovered that the rings of Saturn are actually composed of millions, if not billions, of ringlets, going this way and that way? What if you actually saw the rings of Saturn and were able to explore Saturn?
The language of heaven occurs in both testaments, and we are not wrong to use it, but in popular thought we have abstracted heaven from earth and have conceived of heaven as being sort of a Christian version of nirvana. And of course, in cartoons and media and movies, you see ghosts and all, and heaven is portrayed as being an ethereal place in which you get wings and halo and your own little cloud, and the harp, of course. That is pretty much the way it is represented, isn't it?
I was in a theological bookstore a few years ago, and saw a cartoon to that effect. There was a man with the white robe, the wings, the halo, the harp and all of that. The caption said, "I wish I had brought a magazine." Why? Because it is so boring up on the cloud. It is better than burning, but it is so boring--on your cloud, playing your harp, seeing others do the same, perhaps chatting with them some--and doing that forever. Well, if that is heaven, then I don't blame people for rejecting it. But that is not God's heaven. God speaks of a new creation with all of its wonders, beauties and harmony, and we are set loose to have it as our own, following the Lamb wherever he goes.
That is the hope that Psalm 90 offers when you see it in that perspective. We are in the wilderness, and we are going to be there for a little while longer, but take courage! One day we can stop going around in circles. When the true security of heaven comes down to earth and the Lord Jesus is with us, that will be ours forever. Samuel Rutherford wrote a poem in the eighteenth century, "The sands of time are sinking, the dawn of heaven breaks. . ." It speaks of "the streams on earth I've tasted more deep I'll drink above: there to an ocean fulness his mercy doth expand, and glory, glory dwelleth in Emmanuel's land." Biblical hope is precisely that. It is rooted, a new phase of world history is coming, and we have a place in that world history. Amen.
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Copyright © 1996, Don Garlington
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