If you bring together this week’s Psalm text with the Gospel text from Matthew 25, you may notice something curious. In Psalm 90 we are given some sober warnings about not taking God’s wrath lightly. The psalmist claims God had already afflicted his people for a long while and could do so again if they did not watch their step and try to live God-glorifying lives in the future. I will comment more on this aspect of Psalm 90 below.
But first notice that in the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25, having an undue fear of the Master and of his anger was the problem that kept the third servant in the story from doing what the first two servants did: namely, go out and make more out of the original sum given to each. The third servant’s timidity and hence his just stashing his talent away rather than risk losing it was premised on the idea that his Master was “a hard man.” Had he had more trust in his Master’s goodness and generosity as the first two servants had, he might have been OK.
So which is it? Psalm 90’s message to cower before the potential wrath of God or Matthew 25’s message that we should trust that in the end our God is not a figure so to be feared as to paralyze us into inaction?
Maybe the apparent difference in the message of these two passages reflects the periods of salvation history when each text first appeared.
I always tell my students in Psalms class to not put too much stock in the superscriptions on many of the psalms. Sometimes it is suggested where a given psalm came from, as in Psalm 51 and the superscription’s claim that David wrote this after Nathan confronted him about Bathsheba. And many psalms are attributed to David or a few other figures. In the case of Psalm 90 we are told—and this is the only psalm with this superscription—that this was of Moses.
The problem is that these superscriptions were not part of the original text of the Psalms and so few believe they are inspired. Even those psalms where the author is identified it is not clear whether the indication is that David or Moses or whoever wrote the psalm or if this is dedicated to that person or if this was written in the spirit of David or Moses or some other figure. In any event, we should not pin too much on the superscriptions.
More likely some later interpreters looked at various psalms and concluded that, for instance, Psalm 51 sure looks like it could fit the Bathsheba story and so someone stuck that into the superscription at the head of the poem. So also with Psalm 90: Moses may or may not have had anything to do with the composition of this song but this sure looks like something Moses might have thought or written and so his name got associated with it.
The Psalm, after all, opens by claiming that God had been Israel’s dwelling place or “home” for many generations and that this was a good thing in that for a long time Israel was a wandering, nomadic people without a home. Surely this called to mind the 40 years in the wilderness and hence (again) the association with the time of Moses. The wilderness was surely a place where the transient and fragile nature of life would come to mind on a regular basis. Grass might spring up in parched land and flourish for a few hours but a stiff desert wind could wilt that same grass in the course of a single day. Human life is like that in the desert too. If God did not send the manna and give Israel fresh water to drink—in miraculous ways in a few stories—then they would be as dead as withered grass.
But, of course, Israel ended up in the wilderness for as long as they did because of their unbelief. The 40 years or wandering was a punishment for faithlessness. Hence Psalm 90’s meditation on God’s anger and on the prudent human need to avoid this anger by being obedient. But this then brings us back to this sermon commentary’s opening question: how do we reconcile these somber warnings with the portrait of grace we get from Matthew 25 and its parabolic warning to trust God rather than fearing God?
Let’s just admit that for most of us who preach and for most people who listen to sermons, we don’t often talk like Psalm 90. We don’t try to frighten people into straightening up and flying right. If it is true that Psalm 90 seems to go overboard in pondering God’s wrath, we today in the church may go too far the other direction in not giving God’s anger or God’s offense over sin much thought.
There is something right about that. We are saved by grace alone. The Gospel is Good News, not depressing and fearful news. If salvation is left up to us, we fail every time. Thanks be to God, then, that Christ came and fulfilled all righteousness for us and then credited all of that righteousness to our spiritual bank accounts.
What we may forget, though, is that God’s sadness and hence anger over sin was real. It’s just that now that we are this far on the other side of Psalm 90’s period of salvation history, we now celebrate that God poured out that wrath on Jesus on the cross. The cost of our salvation was high because the price to be paid was so enormous.
No, as Christians saved by grace we should not go around cowering all our lives like a dog with a rolled up newspaper poised over his head. Jesus, after all, invited us to call God our Father and our Father clearly loves us. However, that does not mean we should forget what happened on the cross and the soul-crushing hell of what Jesus endured on our behalf. Jesus had to die not just any old death but specifically a cursed death because that is what sin did to God’s originally good creation: it cursed it.
Psalm 90, then, need not induce fear in us by pointing out God’s righteous anger on sin. But since we know what Jesus did, Psalm 90 can induce profound gratitude in us in taking all that heat for us.
Few writers in recent times have done as good a job at reminding us of the meaning of the cross than Fleming Rutledge in her landmark 2015 book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. In particular Rutledge highlights the curse of the cross and also the horrible public shaming of Jesus that the cross and that particular kind of death entailed. Appreciating both aspects is vital to understanding the how and the why of Christ’s death.
At one point Rutledge recalls the terrible death in 2000 of the young gay man Matthew Shepherd. Shepherd appears to have been tortured and beaten before finally being murdered by some local anti-gay thugs. When they were finished with their evil deed, they tied Shepherd’s body to a fence, a grim display for all to see. One of the police officers who found Shepherd’s body commented later to a local newspaper on the horror of the spectacle, saying that they tied him up “like a scarecrow” and also commenting that it reminded this police officer “of a crucifixion.”
We don’t like to think of God’s anger or wrath over sin. But it is real. That is why Jesus was hoisted up on a wooden spike, like a scarecrow, shamefully on display for all to see just how cursed he had become.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 15, 2020
Psalm 90:1-8 (9-11), 12 Commentary