At age 87, I think about death only occasionally.
By the witness of our local paper in its obituaries, many people live a very long life here in northern Michigan. So there is that. What drew me back to the hymn I consider here was witnessing Donald Trump’s premature flight to Mar-a-Lago from Washington D.C. prior to the Inauguration. His unprecedented departure recalled to me a line for Isaac Watts’s great hymn, “O God Our Help in Ages Past.” (In the new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God, the phrase is altered to “Our God Our Help in Ages Past,” thus linking the singing church more closely and intimately to the wondrous long-term sovereignty of God.)
Watts’s hymn concerns the reality of death and the reliable governance of God beyond the reality of death. I have found the fifth stanza to be pertinent to Trump’s early departure on Inauguration Day:
Time like an ever rolling stream,
bears all its sons away;
they fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.
(Glory to God, 687, in order to avoid male language has changed “all its sons” to “all our years,” a much less poignant rendering. Rather than such an anemic translation we might sing “bears us all away.”)
You cannot beat the roll of time. And so Trump departed. He will leave serious wounds behind, but the passage of time, maybe a long time, assures that he will have been a bad dream, a dream that dies at sunrise.
While the hymn plays upon Psalm 90, this particular verse referred me, first of all, to Psalm 73. In that Psalm, “the wicked” are characterized as uncaring in their wealth and cynical self-indulgence. The wicked are attractive to the Psalmist who envies them:
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled;
my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant;
I saw the prosperity of the wicked (Psalm 73:2-3).
But then the Psalmist comes to her senses and recognizes the uncompromising moral reality of life in God’s world:
Until I went into the sanctuary of God;
then I perceived their end (v. 17).
The Psalmist saw that for all of the attractive self-indulgence of the wicked, in the long run of God’s governance such a life is unsustainable, has no staying power, and so has no lasting significance. As a consequence, the Psalmist anticipates the risk and destiny of the indulgent rich whom he had envied:
Truly you set them in slippery places;
you make them fall to ruin.
How they are destroyed in a moment,
swept away utterly by terrors!
They are like a dream when one awakes;
on awakening you despise their phantoms (vv. 18-20).
They are bound to fail and to fall to ruin, because God has ordered the world otherwise. Verse 19 voices two strong verbs concerning their demise, “destroyed” and “utterly swept away.” Finally, they are only despised.
The Psalmist, like Watts, uses the word “dream” to mark the unreality of such a life. Watts has them “forgotten”; the Psalmist has them “despised.” Either way, they are gone!
But of course the hymn, unlike Psalm 73, does not make a moral distinction concerning the “wicked” or the “righteous.”
In the hymn, not only will the wicked be utterly swept away. All of us, every one of us, will be borne away.
Thus, even if President Biden does very well with his recovery program, as we all may hope, he too will be borne away, as will all those who support him and those who oppose him. The “rolling stream” of time is a great leveler, indifferent as it is to our moral distinctions. The wicked and the righteous face the same ending because the ever rolling stream of time is indiscriminate:
All this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God; whether it is love or hate one does not know. Everything that confronts them is vanity, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice. As are the good, so are the sinners; those who swear are like those who shun an oath. This is an evil in all that happens under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone. (Ecclesiastes 9:1-3)
The same sober recognition of reality is voiced in Psalm 90 which has guided and funded Watts in the articulation of his hymn:
You sweep them [morals] away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers …
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 (Psalm 90:5-6, 10).
In juxtaposing the verdict of Psalm 73 and the large vision of an ending in Psalm 90 and echoed by Watts, I have puzzled. On the one hand, in Psalm 73 the wicked are wept way. On the other hand, in Psalm 90 all are swept away, without moral distinction. The simple solution is to recognize that different Psalms are pertinent to different folk in different circumstances. When we take the long vision of Psalm 90 with Watts, we can recognize that our moral distinctions do not count for much. The Psalmist imagines that we all, without distinction, stand before a mighty shared wrath (Psalm 90:7-9).
Such a conclusion might lead to resignation or to indifference. None of it matters anyway!
Such a conclusion might be drawn by the cynically self-indulgent featured in Psalm 73 and by those tempted to self-centeredness:
Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is no one who does good (Psalm 14:1).
That, however, is not the judgment reached in the long history of faith. In that long history of faith, the faithful have always found that there are special occasions amid the ever flowing stream of time that are freighted with both summons and opportunity. For such freighted times, we have the urgency-noting term kairos. These are moments of time that are laden with urgent summons and opportunity to which the faithful may respond in eager obedience and glad investment.
Thus, even in the face of the ever-rolling stream that in the end leaves us all exposed, the faithful readily muster attentiveness and energy in order to engage in a performance of God’s intention for which the biblical word is “kingdom.” The Bible attests that the faithful are “all in” for that moment, without regard for being borne away. It is a primary mark of faith not only to yield in trust to God’s ever “rolling stream,” but to engage in laden moments when the will and goodness of God surge among us in peculiarly overwhelming ways.
While Psalm 90 with its wistfulness is “a prayer of Moses,” the narrative of the Exodus shows that Moses was “all in” with emancipation, even in the face of the dangerous presence of Pharaoh. Isaiah, even though he knew of the huge trouble coming to his people and city (6:9-13), was all in: “Here am I, send me” (6:8). And, of course, the gospel narratives tell us of the way in which the summons to “Follow me” on the lips of Jesus evoked a response of “immediately” from the disciples who were all in with his call (Mark 1:17-18).
None of this immediacy and urgency can override the continuing force of the ever flowing stream. But the faithful engage in no transcendent escape.
The faithful, rather, trust the ultimacy of the rule of God and give their lives over to the kairotic moment in front of them.
Thus, I suggest, is the wondrous difference between the faithful who will be borne away, and the cynically self-indulgent, also borne away who never notice such kairotic moments.
This double reality of the long term of faith-cum-death and the immediacy of kairos offers us a useful double vision. My impression is that the church is much better on the long term than on the immediacy of kairos. It is better on the long term, perhaps, because the church is a regular venue for funerals. That is something we do well and we are, in any congregation, regularly reminded of our mortality and the truth of our death. Or perhaps better because such an accent gives us a chance to witness to the abiding sovereignty of God’s gracious compassion.
Indeed, the Psalmist counts on that compassion and makes a bid for it:
Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us,
and as many years as have seen evil (Psalm 90:13-15).
The church, it strikes me, is not nearly as good in a consistent way about the kairotic moments that are thrust on us, that demand of us that we turn our energy and attentiveness away from the long term to the immediacy in front of us. The testimony of faith is that those who engage that turn are willing and able for the moment to leave the long term to God, and to “bet it all” on this moment. The saints whom we celebrate were, in every case, “all in” to a kairotic moment without any regard for being “borne away.”
I judge that we are now, in the U.S. church, at exactly such a moment that invites our attention away from the long term to focus on this moment in which the kingdom of God is crowding in on us and summoning us to sign on. The signs of the kairos are all around us:
§ The dismantling of patriarchy and the empowerment of women;
§ The fresh awareness that “Black Lives Matter,” and so an urgent redress of old habits of systemic racism;
§ The urgent recognition that poor people are among us with a requirement of security and dignity, and so a reordering of the policies and structures that evoke and sustain long-term poverty;
§ The emancipation, empowerment, and dignity of those who have been discriminated against for who they love.
§ The healing of creation that cries out in its long term woundedness.
The list can be extended and is familiar to us. All of these components (and others to be added) are all of a piece and together attest long term alienation from the will and purpose of the creator God. This is a moment when the emergence of the Kingdom of God comes upon us with a compelling immediacy.
I am, finally, drawn to the ending of Psalm 90. After the Psalmist bids for God’s compassion (v. 13), the Psalm ends with another petition:
And prosper the work of our hands —
O prosper the work of our hands (v. 17)!
This prayer is a recognition in the faithful that their work matters, they have done something that is noted in God’s purview. What they have done now receives the affirmation and guarantee of God in order that it might endure.
That petition is one that the “wicked” in Psalm 73 cannot utter. The wicked have no “work of their hands” that might endure or that might receive the guarantee of God; they have done nothing. They have shared nothing. They have given nothing. They have done nothing that coheres with God’s coming rule. Unlike those in Psalm 73, the faithful in Psalm 90 may pray in boldness and in hope that their work may continue to prosper. They, along with the wicked, are sure to be borne away by the ever “rolling stream” of time. But they have the assurance (that allows peaceableness) that their work coheres with “your work” (Psalm 90:16). They are not forgotten, not a nightmare, more than a dream, kept in compassion. Even while borne away, the voice of faith in Psalm 73 can still hope:
Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me with honor.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Psalm 73:23-26).
Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.
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