Book 4 (Psalms 90–106)
Book 4 of Psalms places the brokenness of the world—including human mortality—in the context of God’s sovereignty. None of us is able to make our own life—let alone the whole world—as it should be. We suffer, and we cannot shield those we love from suffering. Yet God remains in charge, and our hope for all things to be put right rests in him.
Book 4 begins with the somber Psalm 90. “You turn us back to dust…our years come to an end like a sigh” (Ps. 90:3, 9). This psalm focuses our attention on the difficulty and the brevity of life. “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away” (Ps. 90:10). The brevity of life shades every aspect of our life and work. We have only so many years in which to earn enough to support our families, save something for times of hardship or old age, contribute to the common good, do our share in God’s work in the world. When young, we may be too inexperienced to get the kind of work we want. When old, we face declining skills and abilities and sometimes age discrimination. In between, we worry whether we are on a fast enough track to achieve our objectives. Work was meant to be a creative co-laboring with God (Genesis 2:19). But the pressure of time makes work feel like “toil and trouble.”
What then are we to do? Invite God to inhabit our work, no matter how toilsome it may seem. “Let your [God’s] work be manifest to your servants…prosper for us the work of our hands—O prosper the work of our hands!” (Ps. 90:16-17). This does not mean merely placing reminders of our Lord in our places of work. It means getting God into the “work of our hands.” This includes our awareness of God’s presence at work, our recognition of God’s purpose for our work, our commitment to work according to God’s principles, and our service to those around us, who after all are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27; 9:6; James 3:9).
Psalm 101:2 illustrates how we become equipped for doing God’s work. “I will study the way that is blameless. When shall I attain it? I will walk with integrity of heart within my house.” Cultivating good character before God and people is our first task. If we have children, one of our jobs is to help them learn the knowledge of God’s ways and grow in godly character. We are doing God’s work when we manage our homes well and give our children the chance to grow up strong and be prepared for the hardships of life. For the nihilist and the cynic, the cruelty of life justifies immorality and selfishness. For the believer, it is all the more reason to cultivate character.
From the beginning, God intended human work as a form of creativity under or alongside God’s own creativity (Genesis 1:26-31; 2:5, 15-18). Human work is meant to fulfill God’s creative intent, bring each person into relationship with other people and with God, and glorify God. Psalm 104 gives a delightful depiction of this creative partnership. It begins with a broad canvas of the glory of God’s creation (Psalms 104:1-9). This leads naturally to God’s active work in sustaining the world of animals, birds and sea creatures (Ps.104:10-12, 14, 16-18, 20-22, 25). God provides richly for human beings as well (Ps. 104:13-15, 23). God’s work makes possible the fruitfulness of nature and humanity. “From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work” (Ps. 104:13).
The work of humans is to build further, using what God gives. We have to gather and use the plants. “You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate” (Ps. 104: 14, alternate reading from NRSV footnote f). We make the wine and bread and extract the oil from the plants God causes to grow (Ps. 104:15). God provides so richly, in part, by populating his creation with people who labor six days a week. Thus, while this psalm speaks of all creatures looking to God for food, and God opening his hand to supply it (Ps. 104:27-28), people still have to work hard to process and use God’s good gifts. Psalm 104 goes so far as to name some of the tools used for the work of God’s world—tents, garments, beams, fire, ships (Ps. 104:1, 2, 3, 4, 26, respectively). Intriguingly, the Psalm happily ascribes use of such tools to God himself, as well as to human beings. We work with God, and God’s ample provision comes in part through human effort.
This Church Janitor Crafts High-End Bow Ties for Stars like Beyoncé
Reflecting on his work as a church janitor and bow-tie craftsman, Christopher Chaun Bennett says, "In the end it's really about my doing God's work, serving." Read Boston Globe reporter David Filipov's article and watch the accompanying video interview with Bennett here.
Even so, remember that we are the junior partners in creation with God. In keeping with Genesis, human beings are the last creatures mentioned in Psalm 104. But in distinction from Genesis, we come on the scene here with little fanfare. We are just one more of God’s creatures, going about their business alongside the cattle, birds, wild goats, coneys, and lions (Ps. 104:14-23). Each has its proper activity—for humans it is work and labor until the evening—but underneath every activity, it is God who provides all that is needed (Ps. 104:21). Psalm 104 reminds us that God has done his work supremely well. In him our work may be done supremely well also, if only we work humbly in the strength his Spirit supplies, cultivating the beautiful world in which he has placed us by his grace.