Matthew Poole's Commentary
A Prayer of Moses the man of God. Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.Who, considering that terrible but righteous sentence of God concerning the cutting off all that sinful generation in the wilderness, of which see Numbers 14, takes that occasion to publish these meditations concerning mans mortality and misery in this life, which might be useful both to that and to all succeeding generations.
Moses, setting forth the eternity and providence of God, Psalm 90:1:2, describeth the misery and shortness of man’s life, Psalm 90:3-11; prayeth for wisdom to number his days, Psalm 90:12; and for the knowledge and sensible experience of God’s good providence, Psalm 90:13-17.
Although we and our fathers, for some generations, have had no certain and fixed habitation, but have been strangers in a land that was not ours, and afflicted for four hundred years, according to thy prediction, Genesis 15:13; and although we now are, and have been for some time, and still are like to continue, in, a vast howling wilderness, having no houses but dwelling in tents, and wandering from place to place, we know not whither; yet thou, O Lord, hast fully supplied this want, and hast been instead of and better than a dwelling-place to us, by thy watchful and gracious providence over us in all places and exigencies. And this is a very proper preface to this Psalm, to intimate that all the following miseries were not to be imputed to God, but unto themselves, who by their own sins had brought these mischiefs upon themselves.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.The mountains; which he mentions as the most fixed and stable part of the earth. Or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, i.e. from eternity; which is frequently described in this manner, as Proverbs 8:25,26 Joh 17:24 Ephesians 1:4, because there was nothing before the creation of the world but eternity. And thus the words here following do explain it. And this eternity of God is here mentioned, partly that men by the contemplation thereof might be wrought to a deeper sense of their own frailty and nothingness, which is the foundation of humility and of all true piety, and to a greater reverence and admiration of the Divine Majesty; and partly for the comfort of God’s people, who notwithstanding all their present miseries have a sure and everlasting refuge and portion. Thou art God; or, thou art the strong God. Thou hast thy power and all thy perfections, not by degrees, as men have theirs, but from all eternity. Or, thou art or wast, O God.
Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.But as for man, his case is far otherwise, his time is short; and though he was made by thee a happy creature, and should have been immortal, yet upon and for his sin thou didst make him mortal and miserable.
Sayest, or, didst say, i.e. pronounce that sad sentence here following,
Return, O men, to the dust, out of which you were taken, Genesis 3:19 Psalm 146:4 Ecclesiastes 12:7.
For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.A thousand years, if we should now live so long, as some of our progenitors well nigh did. As he compared man’s duration with God’s in respect of its beginning, Psalm 90:2, so here he compareth them in respect of the end or continuance.
In thy sight; in thy account, and therefore in truth; which is opposed to the partial and false judgment of men, who think time long because they do not understand eternity; or in comparison of thy endless duration.
When it is past; which is emphatically added; because time seems long when it is to come, but when it is past, and men look backward upon it, it seems very short and contemptible, and men value one hour to come more than a thousand years which are past.
A watch, which lasted but for three or four hours; for the night was anciently divided into three or four watches. See Judges 7:19 Mark 6:48 13:35 Luke 12:38.
In the night; which also hath its weight; for the silence and slumbers of the night make time seem shorter than it doth in the day.
Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.Them, i.e. mankind, of whom he spake, Psalm 90:8.
As with a flood; unexpectedly, violently and irresistibly, universally, without exception or distinction.
As a sleep; short and vain, as sleep is, and not minded till it be past. Or like a dream, when a man sleepeth, wherein there may be some real pleasure, but never any satisfaction; or some real trouble, but very inconsiderable, and seldom or never pernicious. Even such an idle and insignificant thing is human life considered in itself, without respect to a future state, in which there is but a mere shadow or dream of felicity, only the calamities attending upon it are more real and weighty.
Which groweth up, Heb. which is changed, either, first, for the worse, which passeth away, as some render the word; which having generally affirmed here, he may seem more particularly to explain in the next verse: or rather, secondly, for the better, as this word is sometimes used, as Job 14:7 Isaiah 40:31, which sprouteth out of the earth, and groweth more apparent, and green, and flourishing. And this interpretation is confirmed from the next verse, where this same word is used in this sense; where also
the morning is again mentioned, and that as the time, not of its decay, but of its flourishing.
In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.The whole space of man’s life is compared to one day, and his prosperity is confined to a part of that day, and ended in the close of it.
For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.We; either,
1. We men; or rather,
2. We Israelites in this wilderness.
Consumed; either naturally, by the frame of our bodies; or violently, by extraordinary judgments. Thou dost not suffer us to live so long as we might by the course of nature.
Thine anger, caused by our sinful state and lives.
Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.Thou dost not now cover, or blot out, or pass by our sins, as thou hast usually done to thy people; but thou dost diligently search them out, and accurately observe them, as a severe but righteous Judge, and art now calling us to an account for them.
Our secret sins thou dost not only punish us for our notorious and scandalous sins, which thine honour may seem to oblige thee to do, but even for our secret lusts, the murmuring, and unbelief, and apostacy, and idolatry of our hearts; which though hid from the eyes of men, thou hast set before thine eyes, and brought them to light by thy judgments.
For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.Are passed away; or, turn away themselves or their face from us. They do not continue with us, but quickly turn their backs upon us, and leave us.
As a tale that is told; which may a little affect us for the present, but is quickly ended and gone out of mind, Or, as a word, as Job 37:2, which in an instant is gone, and that irrevocably. Or, as a thought, or a sigh, or a breath; all which come to one sense.
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.The days of our years; either,
1. Of the Israelites in the desert, who being twenty years old, and some, thirty, some forty, some fifty years old, when they came out of Egypt, and dying in the wilderness, as all of that age did, Numbers 14:29, a great number of them doubtless died in their seventieth or eightieth year, as is here implied. Or rather,
2. Of the generality of mankind, and the Israelites no less than others, in that and all following ages, some few persons excepted, amongst whom were Moses, and Caleb, and Joshua, who lived a hundred and twenty years; which is therefore noted of them as a thing singular and extraordinary. This sense suits best with the following words, and with the scope of Moses; which was to represent the vain and transitory condition of men in this life, and how much mankind was now sunk below their ancestors, who commonly lived many hundreds of years; and that the Israelites, though God’s peculiar people, and endowed with many privileges, yet in this were no better than other men; all which may be considered, either as an argument to move God to pity and spare them, or as a motive to awaken and quicken the Israelites to serious preparations for death, by comparing this with Psalm 90:12.
Threescore years and ten; Which time the ancient heathen writers also fixed as the usual space of men’s lives.
By reason of strength, i.e. by the strength of their natural constitution; which is the true and common cause of longer life.
Their strength; their strongest and most vigorous old age. Or, their excellency, or pride; that old age which is their glory, and in which men do commonly glory.
Labour and sorrow; filled with troubles and griefs from the infirmities of age, the approach of death, and the contingencies of human life.
It, either our age or our strength,
is soon cut off; it doth not now decline by many degrees and slow steps, as it doth in our young and flourishing age, but decayeth apace, and suddenly flieth away.
We fly away; we do not now go to death, as we do from our very birth, nor run, but fly swiftly away like a bird, as this word signifies.
Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.Who knoweth? few or none sufficiently apprehend it, or stedfastly believe it, or duly consider it, or are rightly affected with it. For all these things are comprehended under this word knoweth.
The power of thine anger; the greatness, and force, and dreadful effects of thine anger conceived against the sons of men, and in particular against thine own people, for their miscarriages.
According to thy fear, i.e. according to the fear of thee; as my fear is put for the fear of me, Malachi 1:6, and his knowledge for the knowledge of him, Isaiah 53:11. According to that fear or dread which sinful men have of a just and holy God. These fears of the Deity are not vain bugbears, and the effects of ignorance and folly or superstition, as heathens and atheists have sometimes said, but are just, and built upon solid grounds, and justified by the terrible effects of thy wrath upon mankind.
So is thy wrath; it bears full proportion to it, nay, indeed, doth far exceed it. It cannot be said of God’s wrath, which is said of death, that the fear of it is worse than the thing itself. But this verse is by many, both ancient and later interpreters, rendered otherwise, and that very agreeably to the Hebrew text, Who knoweth the power of thine anger, and thy wrath according to thy fear? i.e. either,
1. According to the fear of thee, or so as thou art to be feared, or answerably to thy terrible displeasure against sin and sinners. Or,
So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.So teach us, by thy Spirit and grace, as thou hast already taught us by thy word. Or, teach us rightly (as this word is used, Numbers 27:7 2 Kings 7:9)
to number, & c., as it follows. To number our days; to consider the shortness and miseries of this life, and the certainty and speediness of death, and the causes and consequences thereof.
That we may apply our hearts unto wisdom; that we may heartily devote ourselves to the study and practice of true wisdom, which is nothing else but piety, or the fear of God. And why so? Not that the Israelites might thereby procure a revocation of that peremptory sentence of death passed upon all that generation; nor that other men might hereby prevent their death, both which he very well knew to be impossible; but that men might arm and prepare themselves for death, and for their great account after death, and might make sure of the happiness of the future life; of which this text is a plain and pregnant proof.
Return, O LORD, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants.Return, O Lord, to us in mercy; for thou seemest to have forsaken us and cast us off.
How long; understand, wilt thou be angry; or, will it be ere thou return to us?
Concerning thy servants; i.e. of thy severe proceedings against us, and change thy course and carriage to us.
O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.Early; speedily or seasonably, before we be utterly consumed.
Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.Our afflictions have been sharp and long, let not our prosperity be small and short.
Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.Let that great and glorious work of giving thy people a complete deliverance, which thou hast long since designed and promised, be at last accomplished and manifested unto us, and in the sight of the world.
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.The beauty of the Lord, i.e. his favourable countenance, and gracious influence, and glorious presence.
Upon us; or, in us. Do not only work for us, but in us. And because the glorious work of thy hands is hindered by the evil works of our hands, be thou pleased by thy Holy Spirit to direct or establish (for this Hebrew word signifies both)
the works of our hands, that we may cease to do evil, and learn to do well, and turn and constantly cleave unto thee, and not revolt and draw back from thee, as we have frequently done to our own undoing.