Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
This Psalm consists of three divisions.
i. It is to Jehovah alone that Israel can appeal in their distress, though He seems to have forsaken them. He has proved Himself their refuge in each succeeding age: He alone is the Eternal God: the lives of men are at His sovereign disposal (Psalm 90:1-6).
ii. The brief and uncertain span of life is being spent by the Psalmist and his contemporaries under the cloud of Jehovah’s wrath for their sins. Few indeed lay the lesson to heart: O that He would teach them wisdom (Psalm 90:7-12).
iii. O that He would relent and return to His people, and once more manifesting Himself in His saving Majesty, bless them with renewed prosperity (Psalm 90:13-17).
The first two divisions of the Psalm lead up to the prayer for the restoration of God’s favour to Israel, which is its main purpose. The brevity of human life—appearing still more brief in comparison with Divine Eternity—is pleaded, as in Psalm 89:46 ff., as a ground for the speedier exhibition of mercy. Must generation after generation pass away without seeing the proofs of God’s love? But with all its plaintive tone of sadness, the Psalm betrays no trace of murmuring or impatience. It breathes a spirit of perfect submission to the Will of God. The faith which appeals unwaveringly to the God Who is chastening Israel for their sins; the resignation which accepts the transitoriness of human life as God’s decree, while it ventures tacitly to accentuate its sadness by contrasting it with His Eternity; the deep humility of the confession that it is for its sins that Israel is suffering; the earnestness of the prayer for the dawn of a brighter day in the renewal of God’s favour; all combine to stamp the Psalm as the utterance of a poet-seer who had learnt profound lessons of spiritual truth through the discipline of suffering.
Can that poet-seer have been Moses, as the title seems to affirm? The Psalm is worthy of him, and at first sight its contemplation of the transitoriness of human life, its acknowledgement of suffering as the punishment of sin, and its prayer for the restoration of God’s favour, seem appropriate enough to a time towards the close of the Wandering in the wilderness, and a natural utterance for the leader who had watched one generation of Israelites after another dying out for their faithless murmuring. But a closer consideration of the Psalm makes it difficult if not impossible to suppose that it was actually written by Moses. No weight is to be attached to the argument that the average length of life spoken of in Psalm 90:10 is not that of the Mosaic age, for the longer lives of Moses and other leaders may have been exceptional; and the absence of distinct reference to the circumstances of the Israelites in the prayer of Psalm 90:13-17 might be accounted for by the general character of poetical language. But the author appears to look back upon a long period of national existence (Psalm 90:1); and it is difficult to imagine that the leader of a great nation, at the outset of its national existence, when it was on the point of taking possession of the inheritance promised to it, could possibly have expressed himself in the language of Psalm 90:13-17. Its subdued tone is not that of one who is looking forward to a future rich in vast possibilities.
It has been urged in defence of the Mosaic authorship of the Psalm that it presents many points of resemblance in thought and language to the Book of Deuteronomy. The argument would not be conclusive, even if the Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy were undisputed, for the resemblances might be fully accounted for by the Psalmist’s familiarity with that book. But if, as is now generally held, Deuteronomy in its present form is far later than the time of Moses, the Deuteronomic language of the Psalm points to a later date than the Mosaic age.
To what period then may it be assigned? Probably to the time of the Exile. Its position in the Psalter is in favour of this view. It breathes the feelings of that period as they are expressed in Psalm 89:46 ff., and it finds a striking parallel in Lamentations 5:16-21.
How then came it to have the name of Moses prefixed to it? Possibly this was done by the compiler, who noticed the resemblance of the Psalm to Deuteronomy, and thought, as many have thought since, that it suited the situation of the Israelites in the wilderness. Possibly, as even Delitzsch admits is conceivable, it was written by some gifted poet to express what he conceived to be Moses’ feelings. This he might have done in all good faith, without any intention of claiming the authority of Moses for his own composition: and in doing it, he may have, consciously or unconsciously, reflected the circumstances and expressed the feelings of his own times.
Happily the sublimity and pathos of this Psalm are wholly independent of the question of its date and authorship. Its use in the Burial Service gives it an additional solemnity of association; and it will not be forgotten that one of the finest hymns in the English language—Dr Watts’s “O God, our help in ages past,”—is based upon it.
For the title A Prayer cp. the titles of 17; 86; 102; 142; and the subscription to 72; and see Introd. p. xv. Man of God is a title of honour, applied to Moses (Deuteronomy 33:1; Joshua 14:6), and to other prophets and messengers of God, to express the close relation of fellowship in which they stood to Him.
A Prayer of Moses the man of God. Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.1. Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place] The Psalmist addresses God not by the covenant Name Jehovah (Lord), but by the title which designates Him as the Ruler of the world. He not merely is, but has proved Himself to be, Israel’s home, age after age, in all the vicissitudes of its history. The same word is used in Psalm 91:9. (A.V. habitation), and (in a slightly different form) in Deuteronomy 33:27, to which the Psalmist may be alluding. Some editors would change mâ‘ôn, ‘dwelling-place,’ into mâ‘ôz, ‘stronghold.’ In Psalm 71:3 (see note) there has probably been a confusion between these words, but it is unnecessary to alter the text here.
in all generations] More forcibly the Heb., in generation and generation, i.e. in each successive generation. So Deuteronomy 32:7 (A.V. many generations).
1–6. The Psalmist’s confession that God is Israel’s refuge; that He alone is the Eternal; that He is the sovereign Disposer of human life.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.2. the mountains] Named first because they were regarded as the most ancient parts of the earth. Cp. Deuteronomy 33:15; Proverbs 8:25; Habakkuk 3:6.
thou hadst formed] Lit. didst travail in birth with. The LXX and some other Ancient Versions, startled perhaps by the boldness of the metaphor, read the passive, and hence P.B.V., were made. For the metaphor of the birth of Creation cp. Job 38:8; Job 38:28-29; Genesis 2:4. The same words are used of Israel in Deuteronomy 32:18.
the world] The Heb. word tçbhçl denotes the fruitful, habitable part of the earth. Cp. Proverbs 8:31.
from everlasting to everlasting &c.] From eternity to eternity: from the infinite past (as men speak) into the infinite future, thou art El, the God of sovereign power. Cp. Isaiah 44:6; Isaiah 48:12. It is also possible to render, Even from everlasting to everlasting art thou, O God (cp. Psalm 93:2).
Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.3. The thought here is not merely that man’s life is infinitely brief in contrast to the eternity of God, but that it is absolutely at His disposal. The Psalmist plainly refers to Genesis 3:19, though he chooses different words to emphasise his point: Thou makest mortal man return to atoms. Enôsh denotes man in his frailty (Psalm 103:15): dakkâ, lit. pulverisation, implies the dissolution of the body into its constituent elements.
and sayest, Return &c.] Two interpretations deserve consideration: (1) ‘Return to the dust whence ye were taken,’ cp. Psalm 146:4; Job 10:9; Job 34:15. (2) ‘Return into being,’ a call to new generations to appear on the stage of history (Isaiah 41:4). Cp. P.B.V. “Again thou sayest, Come again, ye children of men.” In favour of (2) it is urged that and sayest implies fresh action on the part of God: and that the antithesis of the rise of new generations as the old pass away is more forcible than the synonymous parallelism of (1): but (2) involves a somewhat strained interpretation of Return, and the evident allusion to Genesis 3:19 is in favour of (1). The interpretations Return to Me (cp. Ecclesiastes 12:7), and Return to life in the resurrection, are untenable.
For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.4. The precise connexion of the thought is obscure. Some commentators connect Psalm 90:4 with Psalm 90:2, treating Psalm 90:3 as a parenthesis. ‘Thou art eternal, for lapse of time makes no difference to Thee.’ But it seems preferable to connect Psalm 90:4 directly with Psalm 90:3. ‘Thou sweepest away one generation after another, for the longest span of human life is but a day in Thy sight: though a man should outlive the years of Methuselah, it is as nothing in comparison with eternity.’
when it is past] Strictly, when it is on the point of passing away. A whole millennium to God, as He reviews it, is but as the past day when it draws towards its close,—a brief space with all its events still present and familiar to the mind. Cp. 2 Peter 3:8, where the converse truth is also affirmed; Sir 18:10.
and as a watch in the night] A climax. Said I like the past day? Nay, time no more exists for God than it does for the unconscious sleeper. The Israelites divided the night into three watches (Lamentations 2:19; Jdg 7:19; 1 Samuel 11:11). The division into four watches mentioned in the N.T. was of Roman origin.
How could the profound truth that time has no existence to the Divine mind be more simply and intelligibly expressed? To God there is no before and after; no past and future; all is present. To Him ‘was, and is, and will be, are but is.’ It is only the weakness of the finite creature that ‘shapes the shadow, Time.’
Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.5. Thou carriest them away as with a flood] A single word in the Heb. suffices to draw the picture. Man is compared to a building swept away by a sudden burst of rain such as is common in the East. Cp. Isaiah 28:2; Isaiah 30:30; Matthew 7:25; Matthew 7:27.
they are as a sleep] As those who are asleep. Or, they fall asleep, in the sleep of death. Cp. Psalm 76:6; Jeremiah 51:39; Jeremiah 51:57; Nahum 3:18.
in the morning &c.] Another figure for the transitoriness of human life, developed in Psalm 90:6. Cp. Psalm 103:15-16; Job 14:2; Isaiah 40:6 ff. Its significance depends on the peculiar character of some of the grasses in Palestine. “The grasses of the Jordan valley and the Dead Sea basin are very peculiar, seldom becoming turf-like, or compact in growth, shooting up in early spring with the greatest luxuriance, and then as rapidly seeding and dying down, scorched and burnt up at once, and leaving for the rest of the year no other trace of their existence than the straggling stems from which the seeds and their sheath have long been shaken.” Tristram, Nat. Hist. of Bible, p. 453.
The P.B.V. follows the LXX, Vulg., and Jer. in its rendering, and fade away suddenly like the grass. The verb may mean to pass away as well as to grow or shoot up, but it must clearly have the same meaning in both verses, and Psalm 90:6 appears to be decisive for the latter meaning. Some commentators indeed render passes away in both verses, but the sense in the morning it flourishes and passes away is unsatisfactory. The double rendering dried up and withered in P.B.V. comes down through the Vulg. from the LXX.
In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.6. it is cut down] Or, it fadeth. Cp. Psalm 37:2.
For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.7. For &c.] This is the Psalmist’s reason for reminding God of the frailty of human life. We—Israel—have been consumed through thine anger, and through thy wrath have we been dismayed. He speaks of it not as a general truth but as an actual experience. Dismayed is a word specially used of the consternation inspired by Divine judgements. Cp. Psalm 6:2-3; Psalm 48:5; and the cognate subst. terror, Leviticus 26:16.
7–12. Human life is at best brief and uncertain; and Israel’s life is being spent under the cloud of God’s wrath for the punishment of its sins.
Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.8. Instead of ‘hiding His face’ from their sins He sets them all before Him, and drags them all to light. Elsewhere ‘the light of God’s countenance’ denotes His favour; here a slightly different word, lit. the luminary of Thy face, is used to denote His Presence as a searching light from which nothing can be hid. Our secret [sin] is rather the inward sin of the heart unseen by man but known to God (Psalm 44:21, a cognate word), than sin of which the sinner is himself unconscious (Psalm 19:12), though this may be included.
For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.9. are passed away] Lit. turn or decline towards evening (Jeremiah 6:4). We are “a generation of thy wrath” (Jeremiah 7:29). Our life is drawing to a close under a cloud; there is no sign of ‘light at evening-tide.’
we spend &c.] Lit. we consume our years as a sigh: they are past as quickly as a sigh, itself the expression of sorrow and weariness. The meaning of the word is however uncertain. Some explain, as a thought, comparing Theognis, 979, “Swift as a thought gay youth is past and gone”: the Targ. gives as a breath: A.V. follows Jerome, “consumpsimus annos nostros quasi sermonem loquens.”
The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.10. The punctuation of A.V. is misleading. Render:
The days of our years—therein are threescore years and ten,
And if we be of much strength, fourscore years:
And their pride is but travail and misery,
For it is swiftly past, and we have taken flight.
Our lifetime (Genesis 47:8-9) is but short at best; and all its ostentation, all upon which man prides himself, does but bring trouble and has no real value (Job 5:6). Is the Psalmist thinking of the contrast between the triumphant utterance of Numbers 23:21, “Misery hath not been beheld in Jacob, nor travail been seen in Israel,” and present experience? For taken flight cp. Job 20:8.
Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.11. Who knoweth the power of thine anger,
And thy wrath according to the fear that is due unto thee? (R.V.)
Who understands or lays to heart the intensity of God’s wrath against sin so as to fear Him duly with that reverence which is man’s safeguard against offending Him? Cp. Psalm 5:7; Proverbs 3:7; Proverbs 8:13; Proverbs 16:6; Exodus 20:20; Deuteronomy 5:29.
So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.12. So teach us] So then, as Thy fear (Psalm 90:11) which is “the beginning of wisdom” requires, make us know how &c.: give us that discernment which we lack.
that we may apply &c.] That we may get us an heart of wisdom (R.V.). The verb is used of garnering in the harvest. The second line combines the thoughts of Deuteronomy 5:29; Deuteronomy 32:29.
Return, O LORD, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants.13. A combined reminiscence of Exodus 32:12 and Deuteronomy 32:36. Cp. too Psalm 6:3-4. Return is the most obvious rendering; but the passage in Ex. suggests that the meaning may be, Turn from thy wrath; how long wilt thou be angry? Cp. Psalm 80:4. God’s change of attitude is spoken of in Scripture after the manner of men as repenting or relenting; not of course that He can regret His course of action, or be subject to mutability of purpose.
13–17. Prayer for such a restoration of God’s favour to His people as will gladden the members of it through the brief span of life. Perhaps the connexion with the preceding verses is the hope that Israel’s resipiscence may prepare the way for Jehovah’s return.
O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.14. O satisfy us in the morning with thy lovingkindness] Israel is still in the night of trouble. O may the dawn soon come! Cp. Psalm 30:5; Psalm 49:14; Psalm 143:8.
that we may rejoice] Or, shout for joy, as Psalm 5:11, and often.
Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.15. Make us glad according to the days &c.] Let the joy of restoration to Thy favour be proportioned to the depth of our humiliation. Cp. Isaiah 61:7. The form of the word for ‘days’ (y’môth) occurs elsewhere only in Deuteronomy 32:7; and the word for afflicted is the same as that rendered to humble thee in Deuteronomy 8:2-3; Deuteronomy 8:16.
Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.16. Let thy work appear] Manifest Thy power on their behalf. God’s work denotes especially the exertion of His saving Providence. Cp. Psalm 92:4; Deuteronomy 32:4; Habakkuk 3:2.
thy glory] Thy majesty, manifested in their deliverance. Cp. Psalm 111:3; Isaiah 40:5. The division of the clauses is of course purely rhythmical. The sense of the whole verse is, Let Thy working and Thy majesty appear unto Thy servants and abide upon their children.
And let the beauty 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 thou it.17. the beauty] Or, pleasantness: the gracious kindliness of Jehovah. Cp. Psalm 27:4; Proverbs 3:17.
the work of our hands] A phrase characteristic of Deuteronomy, where it occurs seven times. All the ordinary undertakings of daily life are meant, not necessarily any particular enterprise.
The Psalmist’s prayer is for the restoration of Israel. In the renewed life of the nation (Lamentations 5:21) the servants of God will recover the gladness of their individual lives, now quenched and dead. The time had not yet come when the hope of personal immortality could be appealed to as the consolation of sorrow and the consecration of effort (1 Corinthians 15:58).