Psalm 90

A Prayer of Moses.

1. Lord, Thou art our Dwelling Place from generation to generation.
2. Before the mountains came into being, or earth and world were created, Thou art, O God, from everlasting to everlasting.
3. Thou causest men to die and sayest: "Return, children of men."
4. For a thousand years are in Thy sight as yesterday when it is past, and like a watch in the night.
5. Thou sweepest men to destruction. They are a dream. They are like grass which suddenly withers.
6. It blooms in the morning but is transformed at night. It is cut down and withers.
7. For we perish because of Thy wrath, and we are terrified because of Thy furious anger.
8. Thou settest our iniquities before Thee, the sins unknown to us in the light of Thy countenance.
9. For all our days pass away under Thy wrath; we live out our years as though they were speech.
10. The years of our life are three score and ten; at the highest they are fourscore. What is best in them is trouble and toil, for they pass by rapidly, and we fly away.
11. Who realizes the power of Thy wrath, and who fears Thy furious anger?
12. Teach us to know the number of our days, that we may be guided by wisdom as we go about our tasks.
13. Turn Thy countenance upon us at last! Be merciful to Thy servants.
14. Satisfy us in the morning with Thy forgiving love, and we shall rejoice and be happy all our days.
15. Make us glad again as many days as Thou hast troubled us, and as many years as we have seen affliction
16. Let Thy work be manifest to Thy servants, and Thy glory to their children.
17. Let the favor 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 it.



Moses, the minister of death, sin, and damnation, is intent on terrifying the proud and to set squarely before our eyes our smugness in our sins and our terrible condition—Moses will not cover up or hide anything. Moses desires to drive a holy fear into our hearts, who are by nature like hardened and stupid criminals. He does not want to destroy us or let us remain terrified sinners wallowing in despair, but humble us to the point where we can receive consolation in order that our drooping spirits can be revived. For this reason Moses stresses the tyranny of death and of God's wrath and prays for a remedy against despair. Moses' special office is one of terrifying us sinners, an office we are greatly benefited by. This is Moses' most earnest prayer and concern.

Moses speaks straightforwardly about death and the facts of life. While a few others may meditate upon death so as to make death less appalling, only we who are in Christ, aware of God's great and awesome wrath over us, and who flee to God's mercy through Christ for shelter, receive the assurance of God's vengeance against death. Without an acute awareness of this mercy our minds are incited to anger against God, to blasphemy, and to impatience. He who fears death loses also that which constitutes life. Certainly, we all fear death. If you do not fear death you are either a liar, a stone, or a fool.

Dr. Moses Law terrifies us because he reminds us that while we are in the midst of earthly life, the snares of death surround us. We must deeply reflect on this, but more importantly, we must hear the voice of the Gospel which cheers us terrified sinners with its song: "In the midst of certain death, life in Christ is ours." Therefore Moses begins this terrifying Psalm reminding us that God is our dwelling place, our haven in the midst of The Storm. If you do not think you are in the midst of a most fierce storm, you are either blinded by greed, a moron, or headed for Hell.

(v. 1)   While it is true that we are the temples of God (I Cor. 6:19), it is more important to recognize that we dwell in God, or as Paul says, "our life is hid with Christ in God." (Col. 3:3) For this reason, while our bodies are at rest in the grave, our life is hidden with Christ in God and will be revealed in glory on the Last Day. We entrust these things to our Loving Father, and rather concern ourselves with rightly dividing the Word; that is not intermingling God's promises and threats. This is the highest art there is on earth. The person who even begins to practice this art is truly a Doctor of Theology. For this reason Luther warns by his own example that when he was a monk he had to lay this Psalm aside because he did not know at that time that the frightening truths Moses speaks to in this Psalm were not written to those who are already terrified. He did not know that Moses prefers most to preach to the hardened and self-assured masses, who are neither concerned about nor understand God's wrath, death, and all their own miseries.

For this reason Moses begins his prayer by laying hold of God and believing that He is merciful, gracious and wants to help. This is the first requisite of prayer. This is the true prayer of faith, without which prayer cannot be prayer. How will a person pray who does not believe that God is kind enough to hear those who pray to Him, but who either despise God or despairs of Him. In this prayer of faith we believe we pray with Adam and every other pupil of faith. This faith creates the true church, which has always existed, though at times was only seen by the eyes of God. There always have been, always are, and always will be those who glorify God and teach rightly about God, even though their number may be extremely small. The true church is not a perfectly holy society or completely free of flagrant faults and blemishes, but the true church does pray, "Forgive us our debts as we also forgive our debtors." The true church is made up of those who move forward in the process of sanctification, who day by day "put off the old and put on the new man" (Co. 3:9f). The church receives in this life the first fruits, not the tenth part, much less the fullness of the Spirit. We are in the process of putting off the flesh.

When we are minded to pass judgment on the church we must not look for a church in which there are no blemishes and flagrant faults, but for one where the pure Word of God is present, where there is the right administration of the Sacraments, and where there are people who love the Word and confess it before men. We are certain that there will always be some who are members of the church. Otherwise, how could God have been our Dwelling Place from eternity?

(v. 2)  We do not worship a new or poplar God, now matter how much we sin and quest for anything that is new, including new thoughts and concepts about God Almighty. God is the One who begets even the mountains, coming forth from Him from nothing as the baby from the womb and the trees from the ground. Man, created to worship and enjoy God forever, came forth from God to live forever in obedience to the Word and to be like God. Man was not created for death. Therefore, our death is a genuine disaster. Man's death is in itself truly an infinite and eternal wrath. Although horses, cows, and all animals die, they do not die because God is angry with them. Animals die because for some other reason it seemed good to God that they should die. Man dies because we provoked God's wrath; our death is the inevitable and deserved consequence of our sin and disobedience.

(v. 3)  Because of sin we fell from grace and now suffer the crushing punishment of death. God reduces us to nothingness. This is frightening and most terrible wrath that man dies because of God's wrath! For is not man a creature made subject neither to angels nor to demons but only to the Divine Majesty? Yes, were we not created in the image of God, to live and rule? Moses does not say: "The devil reduces men to nothingness," but "Thou Thyself does this, Thou, who has existed before there was a heaven and an earth. It is a false notion that good things originate in a good god, and evil things in an evil god. Moses does not attempt to find a way to mitigate an inescapable evil. He rather teaches us to refer both good and evil to the one God and to learn how these evils may be overcome. It is about this that Moses is principally concerned.

We did not come into being by accident, do not suffer by accident, and we do not die by accident. Even animals do not die by accident. They die because we make them die (Gen. 1:28). Their experiences are directed by man. How much more is death and the end of man's life due to a definite cause! Therefore as life is the result of God's designing, so death is the result of God's wrath. It is He who causes man to die. It is He who plunges us from life to death. God indeed uses the devil to afflict and to kill us. But the devil cannot do this if God does not want sin to be punished in this way. We are, therefore, "as sheep to be slaughtered" (Rom 8:36). We are slaughtered as quickly as others can replace us, as we "return," continuously born into this life, though subject to the same tragic condition. We all must die.

Reason does not know that we die because of God's wrath over sin; or that there is a remedy against this wrath and that this remedy is God's grace. In Genesis God says: "Be fruitful and multiply" (Gen 1:28). Here Moses prays to Him: "Thou makest the children of men return." There God says: "You are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Gen. 3:19). Here Moses says to Him: "Thou causest men to die." In one brief statement God thus at the same time established and devours the whole human race. Some are turned to dust and perish; others are born into similar sorrows. But who would seriously mind being a pauper of death in this life if in the end he becomes wealthy? It is indeed a terrible thing to be hungry, but our pleasure is all the greater when afterwards we sit down to a full meal.

(v. 4)  In this verse Moses has us view things human as God views them. He transports us from time into that life in which there is no time. Also, Moses wants us to be impressed with the greatness of God when He is in an angry mood. If a person were to live as long as Methuselah, who rounded out almost ten centuries, we would believe that such a man is in a more favorable situation than the rest of mankind. We would also believe that he could not be an object of God's wrath. Moses speaks otherwise. He tells us that it is not only God's wrath as such which deeply perturbs man, but also His speedily executed wrath. We die too fast and may not comfort ourselves with the thought that we can defer and retard death. Our life is an extremely short and, nevertheless, wretched life, and, in addition, is followed by eternal death. The fact also is that Methuselah did not live a thousand years. What if he had lived that long? Moses tells us that a thousand years are, from God's point of view, like the day that passed yesterday.

Who, besides Moses, has ever portrayed human life so graphically? Moses informs us that life is not a span of time, but as it were, a violent toss which catapults us into death. Therefore the most terrible misfortune befalling man is this; he is not aware of his frightful condition, namely, of God's wrath and the brevity of human life, though he sees it with his own eyes and feels it. For this reason Moses has us transport ourselves outside time and has us look at our life as God sees it. Luther states that he is fifty-one years old, but the entire time of his life, if viewed by him correctly, passed as rapidly as if he had been born the very day he commented on this majestic Psalm. Luther agrees with the philosopher who states: "The past is gone; the future has not arrived; therefore we have, of all time, only the now. The rest of time is not because it has either passed away or has not yet arrived." Moses, therefore, deliberately magnifies God's wrath far beyond popular opinion and judgment.

(vv. 5-6)  God sweeps over, or causes a destructive inundation, as floods do. This word pictures the entire human race as being carried away, as it were, by a flood. One generation after another passes away like a roaring stream. Why, then, are we still proud? Why do we become guilty of such despicable conceit, like those who scorn God because we find satisfaction in the pleasures of this life? Why do we not rather learn rightly to evaluate God's wrath, to understand our life, and to know what our life really is and with what terrific speed it is carried forward to destruction, that is, from a small drop of blessing to a sea of curse? Our speedy life of destruction is like sleep which leaves us faster than we can become aware of it.

Childhood is the flower of life. When adolescence arrives, the petals begin to become unsightly; for cares and manifold dangers impede the quiet flow of life, whereas childhood does not know, and does not fear, these cares and dangers. Therefore the early part of man's life appears to pass with incredible haste. It is just as the poet says: "The very best time of life, the first, flees away from poor mortal man; sickness follow, then melancholy old age and weariness, and, finally, the cruel hand of inexorable death." Moses is describing for us our sad condition by telling us how we view it, not how God views it. We experience that someone who lives today is dead tomorrow. Besides and beyond death, reason sees nothing else, and reason is always more concerned about our sorrowful and miserable condition than it is about life. This is due to our natural existence. We are ungrateful when surrounded by good things and dissatisfied when surrounded by evil things. We are most mindful of the things that are bad and most unmindful of the things that are good.

Thus the day runs its course as a result of God's good will. But the fact that we are changed and transformed into black night is the result of God's wrath. In this way Moses leads over to the real point of his discourse, and he complains, not without tears, about the burden of God's wrath. It is as if he were saying: "Is it not a most terrible calamity that only man, in contradistinction to all other living creatures, lives such a miserable life and afterwards perishes because of God's wrath?"

(v. 7)  Who can continually give thought to God's wrath and not mutter disapproval? Even the innocent creature cannot bear its sufferings without intense protest. A hog that is slaughtered expresses its revolt and distress by its squeal. But reason is determined to escape God's wrath. It proposes either the way of disdain or the way of blasphemy. Erasmus makes the point that the Christian religion possesses the stone of Tantalus (from which we get the word "tantalize"—Tantalus was condemned to suffer unending hunger and thirst. In addition, a huge rock hung over him, ever threatening to tumble on him), since after the sorrows of this life man is condemned to eternal fire as well. What can be, so Erasmus argues, a more effective remedy against this evil than unbelief or insanity, which refuses to believe God's threat? Therefore Epicurus advises: "Become either insane or incredulous and thus rid yourself of this feeling of wrath and sin when you find yourself in the throes of miseries and death."

What frivolous advice, says Luther. For suppose you are unable to be incredulous and you fear that what you now disdain you might, after this life, experience to be true? Or suppose you are unable to become insane, so that it is impossible for you not to give thought to this impending peril? Therefore we must pay close attention to Moses' way of warning us. We must learn to regulate and control the complaint which issues from our heart when we are overwhelmed by God's wrath and death. There is nothing wrong with feeling God's wrath this way, though we must not fall into foolish error of disdaining or blaspheming God because of tribulation. It happens, of course, that the complaints of saints who suffer such trials also include at least an element of blasphemy. Or shall we excuse Job, who cursed the day of his birth? (Job 3:1-3) Shall we excuse Jeremiah who became bitter because God did not destroy him in the womb? (Jer. 20:17)

And yet it is not a bad sign so to be incensed. But we must govern and control such eruptions with a sure hand. An adolescent feels sexual desire; but God forgives it, provided that he checks and keeps it under control or marries. So also Christians are troubled by agitations of a muttering, blaspheming, and doubting heart; but these agitations must be controlled lest they eventuate, as they do in the case of godless people, either in disdain of God or in despair. Such control is effective only if we firmly believe that God has not rejected us because we happen to be aware of them. Although the cause for such thoughts lies partially within us, since they are the product of original sin, they are nevertheless helped along and augmented by the Tempter, that is, by Satan. Thus it happens to pious men and even women that contrary to their own will, they are seized by an intense sexual desire. When a person is seized by that desire, his whole being is captured by it, so that he sees, hears, and thinks about nothing else than what that desire suggests. In like manner the hearts of people are overwhelmed by anger, anxiety, hate, and other passions.

In such trials self-control is necessary. We must, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, get hold of ourselves and be certain that we will not perish because we happen to experience these passions. It often happens that a Christian earnestly desires to get rid of the impure passions of his heart but does not succeed. Then one must follow this advice: First, one must not despair of attaining salvation; secondly, you must resist such passions; you must not approve of them or give way to them; but at the same time you must also in fervent prayer ask for divine help. Such trials do not come to us that we should be guided by them and act in accordance with them, but that we should resist them and engage in battle with them through prayer. We must remember Satan's ability to transform himself into an angel of light and entice us away from prayer and the Word and then attack and overpower us in our nude and helpless condition. Humbly confess yourself to be a sinner—such humiliation before God pleases Him.

As Christian men we must remember that our death, together with all other miseries of this life, is to be equated with God's wrath. We must not be like pigs and altogether without feeling, not appreciating that our miseries are inflicted by God. Isaiah is altogether right when he says: "The people did not turn to Him who smote them" (Is. 9:13). Let's not open the window for Satan to come in-we are not ignorant of his devises! When we are deeply distressed, therefore, we must believe that the time has come not to despair but to sigh (Rom. 8:28). Therefore sigh for your deliverance, which will surely come. We know that these miseries and all other afflictions are laid on us that we might be humbled and "not be condemned" (I Cor. 11:32). Remember that even martyrs felt the pain of their torments. But in each case they controlled their feelings and were victorious. And so all saints feel God's wrath, but they overcome this feeling through Christ. This feeling is an aspect of the mortification of the flesh. We should pray that in our last hour we may not experience this terror and fear, even though we are unable to endure death without a murmur. Paul reminds us: "Fighting without and fear within" (2 Cor. 7:5). But in our daily life these fears are necessary. They enable us to mortify our old man and to awaken him lest he snore in perfect smugness.

(v. 8)  When our conscience becomes aware of sin, it cannot but feel and conclude that God is incensed and that, as a consequence, man must die. The Hebrew word for "unknown" designates the things within us that are hidden and secret. These things, Moses says, have been placed, so to speak, in the brilliant light of the sun; "Thou seest them." And "Thou wilt not," as Job says, "hold me innocent" (Job 9:28). This observation, too, is not far removed from blasphemy, as becomes evident when one inspects the heart as it contemplates these words. The heart indicates indeed that it desires to get rid of sins. But it says: "This is impossible for me." Whose fault is it that this is impossible? God's, of course, who sees the most hidden things within us, who condones nothing, who takes note of everything, and who enters everything, even the most trifling matters, into His ledger of accounts. Talk about a Parent who cannot be pleased!

As result of this thought, even our best works displease us, since heaven and earth seem to be full of our sins. This is the climax of the drama which God enacts with us. His intention is that we play our part in full awareness of our sins and of death. Yet it is not an evil thing to have this awareness, to complain about our miseries, and to conclude that there is nothing within us but damnation. Indeed, you should complain and sigh this way. You should also try to arrange and govern your life in accordance with such sighing. Then it will happen that one becomes aware of salvation.

Rightly, Moses calls sin a secret thing, the true magnitude of which the mind of man cannot encompass. Even as God's wrath, even as death, is infinite, so sin also is infinite. Therefore all that can possibly be said about man's tragic condition Moses says in this verse. It cannot be said better. It is left to us to murmur and complain with an honest face and in childlike fashion.

(v. 9)   "Pass away" suggests an exceptional belittling or detraction of human life. It means that our life does not turn its face to us, as if it were moving toward us, but rather its back, since it hurries off with dazzling speed. Therefore if one were to count all the years from the day when Adam committed the first sin down to this present moment, one would find that all these years in their totality, together with the entire human race, are nothing else than a retreat and a flight. What's more, this flight is itself a punishment imposed by an incensed God. Moses clearly wants to terrify our hearts so that we might, as a result of experiences, lay aside all feelings of self-assurance, and, in the fear of God, learn to pray at the same time.

Moses also de-emphasizes our miserable lives by comparing life to "speech," which is a kind of echo which comes to an end and discontinues after the shortest possible time. What moves along faster than the human voice? Sight indeed is faster, but sight fastens on only a single object. It cannot at one and the same moment be transferred to various objects in such a way that it correctly identifies each.

(v. 10)   Moses does not have in mind precisely seventy or eighty years, no more and no less. Rather, since, as a rule, people reach this age, he has in mind the terminal aspect of seventy or eighty years. Whatever exceeds that terminal point does not deserve to be called "life," since all things most essential to life are then absent. People who live beyond that point no longer really enjoy food and drink; they are, as a rule, unable to do various kinds of work; and they keep on living to their own disadvantage. From God's point of view, a life of seventy or eighty years is like a sound proceeding from the mouth, which vanishes most rapidly. From our point of view, it is like a flight in which we experience nothing but toil and trouble.

Consider! Is it not a great tragedy that, although all older people suffer and experience the same thing, there are so pitifully few who, as I would say, are fully aware of the things they are experiencing? It is just as a German proverb has it: "There is no fool like an old food." Who among all people is there who, even though he has become old and decrepit, realizes that old age, death, and similar experiences are punishments? Yes, as a result of an inexplicable folly, many become rejuvenated in old age not only with respect to their sense capacities but even also with respect to sexual desire. Hail Viagra! Oh, misery of miseries! If we calmly look at the facts, we discover that in place of a single lust that seriously affects youth there arise in old people, I would say, a hundred more grievous and hurtful lusts, such as envy, anger, anxieties, impatience, the many griefs they cause, and the bad examples they set. Old age is in itself an illness. It is, therefore, truly called a life burdensome to itself as well as to others. Although this is not true for all, what are these few when compared with the remaining mass of mankind? One swallow does not make a summer.

Luther tells of a story he was told as a child. A certain patriarch prayed that God might reveal to him how long he would live. When he discovered that he would live fifteen hundred years more, he began to build a small hut in the desert, large enough for him alone. This story illustrates that even a life extending over hundreds and hundreds of years is nothing more than a flight and an exceedingly fast journey. The way people build houses nowadays, you would think that they expected to live in them forever.

(v. 11)  There are unbelievably few people who give thought to the magnitude of God's wrath and to God's horrible and furious anger. All the rest of mankind live out their lives in smugness, though God's furious anger is ever present, is always active, and hovers above them continually. They are not worried about their sins and God's wrath. They indeed feel their misery, but they neither know nor believe it. They believe the opposite to be true. There are even those who dare to prefer this miserable existence to yonder life and become exasperated at the thought that they were created for immortality. These are like the man who, when he heard his pastor dwelling at length on heaven and the fellowship of the beatified saints, he exclaimed: "What do we care about heaven? What we need is flour!" Such people in no sense feel death. Like irrational brutes, they are truly insensitive and regard everything as meaningless.

This is truly the worst disaster befalling us, that in the course of our life we contend with countless misfortunes, that our life is short and in constant jeopardy, that we continually face the certainty of death, but that we nevertheless neither sense nor adequately understand all this. Who can satisfactorily explain this incredible stupor? Who considers God's furious anger; that His furious anger is as great as God is great. It is an infinite anger and immense wrath. Yet man does not feel it. Rather, people in their smugness scorn God. In the midst of earthly life snares of death surround us. And yet we do not tremble. We do not believe. On the contrary, we move about in utter smugness even when every peril presses down on our necks. Those who understand what Moses says and accept it as true will amend their ways and show themselves compliant to their teachers. Others continue in their damned condition, and in their smugness scorn their perils until they experience them. Therefore this feeling of death, this humiliation and contrition are to be coveted.

(v. 12)  From the beginning of his prayer to this point Moses stressed the truth that another life succeeds this life, however, not just another life, but a life either of wrath or grace. For otherwise it would be meaningless to call upon a King who dwells beyond this life, yes, even beyond this world, if there were no other life and no other world. Human eyes do not see God as they see the emperor, nor do they hear Him as they do a human being. The fact is, God dwells outside the range of our vision, yes, even outside the thoughts of the human heart. Consider how the prophets pray and implore God as the One who dwells beyond everything visible to us, and you will appreciate that in these very invocations they confess a future life which follows this life, a life in which either God's grace or God's wrath prevails.

Moses wishes to kindle within us the fear of impending wrath and the hope of life eternal, especially because of original sin which is so great that we do not even feel the other evils we endure. Because of original sin we are victims of eternal wrath and death and, what is worse, we do not even realize our terrible lot. It would be bad enough if original sin were something unknown and secret. What adds to the evil of original sin is the fact that the punishment of sin is also unknown and secret. Therefore Moses wants us to "number our days" that we might truly consider how miserable and tragic life is.

Moses wants us to become arithmeticians. His one aim is that we do not falsely project for ourselves an endless number of years, as tyrants in particular do, who either expect to live an exceptionally long life or hope to be able in a single critical hour to overcome all perils. He wants us to reflect on what we are and to equate even a hundred years of this life with a mathematical point and the smallest fraction of a second. Luther laments that if he had not discovered how earnestly and fervently Moses prays in this verse, it would never have dawned on him that one must pray for what Moses prays in this verse. He thought that everyone's heart was as disturbed and as fearful of the perils of death as his own. When he carefully investigated the situation, it became evident to him that among ten thousand persons there are hardly ten who give thought to this important matter. The vast mass of humanity lives out its life as though there were no death and, for that matter, no God. When they are overwhelmed by miseries, they still dream of happiness; and when, in the most critical perils that surround them, they are deliriously self-assured.

Moses wants us to "be guided as we go about our tasks." This life is such a nature that it does not permit us to stand idly by and do nothing. It rather compels us to move about, that is, to be actively engaged in the home or community affairs. Our prayer should be: "God, grant us grace that we may wisely meet our responsibilities, that is, that we may perform them in humility and in Thy fear, ever mindful that because of our sin we are subject to Thy wrath." The highest wisdom is the fear of God, (Proverbs 9:10), to know God's wrath and, as a result, to live and to perform everything we do with humble hearts. Scripture thus exalts the fear of God. It impresses on men so to live that they fear God's wrath at all times and feel that they have merited death. This is the first element of salvation, when, because of sin, we see no deliverance. This is the highest wisdom: To go about our tasks in full awareness of God's wrath. In this way we are made ready, like the earth for the plow, to receive the divine seed, the fruit of which is eternal life.

(v. 13)  This is the chief part of Moses prayer. He notes that there are some who live in the fear of God, count their days, and go about their tasks wisely. He prays in behalf of these few, whom he calls God's servants, that God would comfort them. This petition includes in veiled language a prophecy of the coming Christ, since eternal salvation could be achieved only by Christ. Moses is here speaking of a conversion of God's whole wrath and death, not of a temporal but of an eternal conversion. He prays unhesitatingly for the gift of eternal life. If there were no other life except this temporal and physical life, what else would we need God for? We have dominion over all creatures (Gen. 1:28), over fish, birds, and the beasts of the field. This would be sufficient for this physical life with its orders of state and family.

(v. 14)  Moses has in mind not some particular mercy, but rather that truly universal mercy which takes into account the whole disease of which he complained up to this point. Scripture indeed often uses the term "mercy" to denote a particular and temporal blessing. But here the text itself and the scope of Moses' prayer compel us to understand "mercy" in its most general sense, that is, as a universal deliverance from the universal perdition caused by sin and death. Moses means to say: God, grant us overflowing mercy. We ask for a plenitude and abundance of Thy mercy. In our misery, which lies on the entire human race like a heavy burden, a particular and, as it were, droplike mercy does not suffice, but rather a deluge and an ocean of mercy which completely assuages our feverish thirst.

(v. 15)  Moses prays for an ever-effective remedy against the evils with which we are afflicted since our birth and which always cling to us—we ask for an eternally valid remission of sins. It is clear that in these sweeping words the prophet is praying for the coming of Christ into the flesh. Our redemption could not take place except through the sacrifice of that blessed Seed (Gen. 3:15). This mystery had, of course, to be made known in veiled language that saints living in a later day might know how they were to be saved. Luther states he is indebted to the Holy Spirit for this insight. Through the help of the Holy Spirit, God's saints understood what Moses was saying. If you do not pay attention to the context, you will never understand the burden of Moses' petition: That Christ might come into the flesh and redeem the world from sins and death.

(v. 16)  "Work" here means a compensation or reward. The sense is a reward or premium which God gives those who, trusting in His mercy, have endured the terror of death and the other perils of which Moses has spoken. Because we have been plagued by sins and terrified by death and have been the most abject slaves of demons, give us Thy work as compensation in lieu of the work of Satan. Thus Moses' manner of speech and meaning agrees with what John voices in his First Epistle: "The Son of God appeared to destroy the works of the devil" (I John 3:8). The devil's work is to crush us under his feet and, because of our sin, to dispatch us from life unto death. God indeed also claims for Himself the work of slaying man, as we heard above in verse 13. In Scripture God expressly says: "I kill and I make alive" (Deut. 32:39). But Isaiah distinguishes between these works of God and says that some are His "alien" works and others his "natural" works (Is. 28:21).

God's "alien" works are these: To judge, to condemn, and to punish those who are impenitent and do not believe. God is compelled to resort to such "alien" works and to call them His own because of our pride. By manifesting these works He aims to humble us that we might regard Him as our Lord and obey His will. God wants us to regard the evils that we experience as coming to us with His permission. If He had not permitted it, the devil would never have afflicted Job so fearfully. God permits evils to come to us; for it is His will that, when we have been chastened, we cast ourselves on His mercy. So the verse before us serves the purpose of making men mindful of the divine Benefactor. This realization will then permeate human hearts so that they will not doubt the remission of sins. Only then will God's work or mercy become truly manifest, and hearts will become sure of their redemption. Then they will see life, salvation, and their righteousness. Like David, they will be "strengthened with a sure Spirit" (Ps. 51:12).

Moses employs a beautiful turn of speech when he calls this work of God His glory. When it says that God is clothed in beautiful raiment, it means to tell us that God appears and becomes manifest in the hearts of men through His glorious and magnificent works, in which, as it were, He seems clothed in shining apparel. These works of God are the following: That Christ was made for us our Righteousness, Wisdom, Sanctification, Redemption (I Cor. 1:30), Light, Joy, and all that is good; that Christ is our Way, Truth, and Life (John 14:6). When God appears to us in these works of life, salvation, and righteousness, He truly appears in His glory. Yet before He so appears, He is truly, as Moses says, "under dark waters" (Ps. 77:19).

Therefore trembling consciences, which do not see His work of glory, fear Him and imagine Him to be the devil; for they cannot picture Him as having a lovely form or costume. They arm Him with swords and lightning, as though, in reality, nothing in heaven or on earth were more repulsive and more horrible than an incensed God. As such a God He did appear on Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:18).

(v. 17)  Moses speaks of a flood of grace coming upon us. "Until now," so Moses prays, "we have prayed for Thy work. When Thou art active, we do nothing and are no more than spectators and recipients of Thy gifts. We are entirely passive. In the wake of this Thy work we come with our work, after we have been justified and now live as saints in obedience to Thy Word. And this work is pleasing and acceptable to Thee. But this work (the second mention of "work" in this verse refers to our work), too, is the result of Thy grace and of that work which Thou didst first perform. Therefore may the favor of the Lord our God rest on us. May we please Him, since we were reconciled to Him through the death of His Son."

Moses wants the Lord to be glad and kindly disposed toward those to whom He revealed His work, so that we might not tremble in His presence but be assured that He is pleased with what we are and what we have. Moses voices this petition for the reason that, although we have been delivered from death, there nevertheless remain even in God's saints the dregs of sin, which are accompanied by manifold flagrant offenses, as well as by many kinds of sufferings and afflictions. These both exist within us and outside us. If God, therefore, wanted to be most exacting in His demands, He would be incensed at us every passing moment. And so this verse asks God not to be offended at that remnant of sin which is still left in us because of our flesh, and not for this reason to deprive us of life and the remission of sins but rather to remain friendly and kindly disposed toward us. It also asks that we might remain friendly and kindly disposed toward Him. To show forth God in His glory does not mean to show how He is in Himself apart from us, but to show that He is friendly toward us and glorious and filled with joy over us. And this our God, so Scripture says, rejoices over us when we are persuaded that He is not incensed at us but is our kind and loveable Friend.

But this is an exceedingly essential petition, because "our flesh is weak" (Matt. 26:41), our heart trembles, and our conscience experiences the worst possible fears. Therefore we become frightened at the slightest occasion. When our hearts are troubled with sorrow, then truly God Himself sorrows, who died that we might be justified, holy, and full of joy. This petition causes us to say: "O Lord, Thou hast given us Thy Son. Preserve unto us this gift. We often sin in word, often in deed, and more often in thoughts. All this impairs our joy. Whether, therefore, we sin, whether we are careless and ungrateful, continue nevertheless to be our God. Be a God who is kind and gracious. Therefore grant that we may be kept in the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit."

As God establishes the work of our hands "above us," that is, after we have been justified, grant that the doctrine might remain pure, lest sects invade the church and pervert the Sacraments and the administration of the Sacraments, corrupt the Word, etc.; and that hypocrites do not set aside Moses' Law when law must prevail and so that the Gospel be not corrupted and thus God and the Holy Spirit who dwells within us be grieved. Therefore there should be no uncertainty in doctrine, and souls should not be in doubt regarding God's will toward them.

Whatever, therefore, is done in the church must rest on certainty and must never be a "beating of the air" (I Cor. 9:26). Truly the petition of this verse is necessary, because this work of God which we perform in our ministry is attacked on the outside by the devil and on the inside by our own heart. Therefore it is difficult to cling to the faith that God is kindly disposed toward us and not to doubt God's work. But whoever doubts is not apt either to teach or to learn, but is "unstable in all his ways" (James 1:8) and is driven hither and yon.

There is a reason, therefore, why Moses prays for the establishment and confirmation of the work of our hands. He wants those who teach to be as certain as those who receive the Word, so that the sure foundation against which "the gates of hell cannot prevail" (Matt. 16:18) might remain so that everyone might be certain of the Word and work of God. In his repetition of the petition, "Establish Thou the work of our hands," Moses is thinking of the work which has to do with political and domestic affairs. He is praying that God might grant universal peace and that there be no chaos in the world, even as Paul exhorts us to pray "for kings and for all that are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life" (I Tim. 2:2).

Peace is essential not only that we might be able to provide for our bodies, but also that the youth might be trained and educated and that teaching might be carried on in the churches. God instituted political government chiefly for the reason that through its operation, activity, and help peace might be preserved. When there is relaxation of discipline, the education of the youth becomes impossible. Rebellion and wars make it impossible to teach the Word aright in the church. With Moses one must pray for peace, that God might direct the works of our hands, which are not above but in our hands. For the things having reference to the political or economic order are subject to reason, according to the passage: "Have dominion over the fish of the sea," etc. (Gen. 1:28).

Luther closes this spectacular exposition: "Now you have Moses' psalm as I interpreted it according to the insights which the Lord granted me. Later we shall, if the Lord lengthens my life, interpret Genesis; thus, when our end comes, we shall be able to die joyfully, being engaged in the Word and the work of God. May God and our Redeemer grant this. Amen."

Forgive me if I have taken too much liberty with Luther's exposition. My heart's desire is to condense so as to entice others to the reading of this great prophet, Luther. May God richly bless the reading of His Word.

Timothy Vance
January 30, 1999