Establish the Work of Our Hands! A Theology of Work from the Prayer of Moses

Moses, the Man of GodAfter a sweeping prayer about eternity, death, and the God who is everlasting, why does Moses turn our attention in Psalm 90:17 to the comparatively mundane? In the final verse, after a poetic plea for an eternal perspective, Moses closes with a final request about God “establishing the works of our hands.” As a matter of fact, he makes it twice: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” Why is this so important to him, and what does this have to do with eternity and relating to the God who is from everlasting to everlasting?

Moses has been turning our attention back to the Creation and Fall story throughout this Psalm, speaking of the curse of death, satisfaction in the presence of God, the return of the children of men to the dust from which they were created, etc,  and here he does it again. Adam was not created to sit around on a cloud with Eve gazing at a light. He was created instead to work, to establish something with his own hands, as God’s vice-regent created in his own image, cultivating and keeping the garden in which God had placed him, to the glory of his Heavenly Father. (Gen 1:26-30; 2:15-20) When sin enters the Garden, this same impulse to do something with lasting significance remains, but it is twisted. It is twisted now into ugly ambition to build and establish something in our own strength for the glory of our own name, as at Bable. (Gen 11:4) This driving desire to work comes out in all sorts of ways, whether on the job, in a consuming hobby, in the family, or any number of other areas. No one wants to give their time and energy to something that is just going to fall apart and be forgotton. In this sense, we are all indeed purpose-driven, though our purposes are hopelessly corrupted by sin.

But what Moses tells us here is that part of learning to “number our days” by the grace of God, and part of gaining the God-given “heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12) means reclaiming our work for the glory of Christ. Our years may only be seventy, or eighty by reason of strength, but during that span, the man or the woman with the heart of wisdom is called to continue his or her labor. But this time, she is not doing it in her own strength, for her own namesake, but is crying out instead to the everlasting God to establish that work for her. This seems to be the very instructions that Jesus gives to his disciples in the upper room in the middle of a conversation about the Trinity and the spread of the Gospel after he leaves. As he sends them out in his name, he does not tell them to grit their teeth and just get the job done, instead he tells them that they are to ask the Father. “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” And this fruit, because his own electing purposes stand behind it, “will abide.” (John 14:12-14; 15:16 )Paul would later commend the same practice to the Corinthians, saying, “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor 10:31)

In these days of economic turmoil, this speaks powerfully to our theology of work and labor and personal accomplishment. There may be men and women in their thirties and forties who cannot focus on the preached Word of God on the Lord’s appointed day of rest, because all they can think about is getting back to work, laboring in a project, earning a little more on the paycheck, desperate to establish something with the work of their own two hands. They will be commended by that in our culture as hard workers. As go-getters. And yet the barns they are tearing down in order to build up bigger ones will be swept away and forgotten in a matter of a generation. But there are others in our congregations – godly widows who spend their days alone in their homes, overlooked as completely insignificant by our society. And yet they regularly spend their time pouring out prayers to their Heavenly Father for the souls of their children and grandchildren, for God’s blessing to be upon their church and their pastor and Sunday School teacher. Their labor may not look like much now, but the Lord God to whom they cry out has promised to establish their work for eternity. The prayers of these ladies, and the efforts of Sunday School teachers, and the sweat of the humble men who offer up an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay to the glory of God throughout the week . . . will be commended and established in the Kingdom of Christ for eternity. As a pastor, I’m trying to learn how to speak to both sides, to call out to them with the comforting and stirring Gospel cry of Psalm 90:14, “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”

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About Eric Smith

Sinner saved by the grace of Jesus, husband of Candace, father of Coleman and Crockett, West Tennessean, pastor of Sharon Baptist Church, student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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