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This psalm is one of the most remarkable in the whole collection. It is said, in the title, to be “A Prayer of Moses, the man of God;” or, as it is in the margin, “being a Psalm of Moses.” The original word - תפלה tephillâh - means properly
(1) intercession, supplication for anyone;
(2) prayer or supplication in general;
(3) a hymn or inspired song.
Gesenius, Lexicon. In Psalms 72:20, the word is applied to the whole preceding part of the Book of Psalms - “The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended.” The word “prayer” would better represent the nature of the contents of this psalm than the word “psalm,” or “hymn.”
If the author was Moses, then this is the only one of his compositions which we have in the Book of Psalms. We know, from not a few places in the Pentateuch, that Moses was a poet as well as a lawgiver and statesman; and it would not be improbable that there might have been some compositions of his of this nature which were not incorporated in the five books that he wrote, and which would be likely to be preserved by tradition. This psalm bears internal evidence that it may have been such a composition. There is no local allusion which would make it necessary to suppose that it was written at a later period; there is nothing inconsistent with the sentiments and style of Moses in the Pentateuch; there is much that is in accordance with his style and manner; and there were numerous occasions when the sentiments of the psalm would be exceedingly suitable to the circumstances in which he was, and to the train of thoughts which we may suppose to have passed through his mind. The following remarks of Prof. Alexander seem to me to be eminently just and appropriate: “The correctness of the title which ascribes the psalm to Moses is confirmed by its unique simplicity and grandeur; its appropriateness to his times and circumstances; its resemblance to the law in urging the connection between sin and death; its similarity of diction to the poetical portions of the Pentateuch, without the slightest trace of imitation or quotation; its marked unlikeness to the Psalms of David, and still more to those of later date; and finally the proved impossibility of plausibly assigning it to any other age or author.” As a relic thus of most ancient times - as coming down from the most remarkable man in the Jewish history, if not in the world - as well as for its own instructive beauty and appropriateness to all times and lands - it is a composition of great interest and value.
This psalm is placed at the beginning of the fourth book of the Psalter, according to the ancient traditional division of the Psalms. Or, perhaps, the author of the arrangement - probably Ezra - designed to place this “by itself” between the two great divisions of the book, containing respectively the earlier and the later psalms. It may be regarded, therefore, as “the heart or center of the whole collection,” suggesting thoughts appropriate to the entire current of thought in the book.
The phrase, “the man of God,” in the title, is given to Moses in Deuteronomy 33:1; Joshua 14:6; Ezra 3:2; as a title especially appropriate to him, denoting that he was faithful to God; that he was a man approved by God. The title is indeed given to others, Judges 13:6, Judges 13:8; 1 Samuel 2:27; 1Sa 9:6-8; 1 Kings 12:22, et al.; but there was a special appropriateness in the title as given to Moses on account of his character, his eminent rank, and his influence in founding the Hebrew commonwealth.
It is impossible, of course, now to determine the time when the psalm was composed, but it may not improbably be supposed to have been near the close of the wanderings in the wilderness. The Hebrew people were about to enter the promised land; the generation that came out of Egypt was passing away; Moses himself felt that he was near the end of his course, for he had been apprized that he could not enter the land of promise to the borders of which he had conducted the people. These things were eminently suited to suggest such views of the shortness of human life, and of its frailty, as are here presented. At the same time, all these circumstances were suited to suggest the reference to the future, and the prayer in respect to that future, with which the psalm so beautifully closes. It seems, then, not improper to regard this psalm as one of the last utterances of Moses, when the wanderings of the Hebrew people were about to cease; when an entire generation had been swept off; and when his own labors were soon to close.
The main subject of the psalm is the brevity - the transitory nature - of human life; the reflections on which seem designed to lead the soul up to God, who does not die. The races of people are cut down like grass, but God remains the same from age to age. One generation finds him the same as the previous generation had found him - unchanged, and as worthy of confidence as ever. None of these changes can affect him, and there is in each age the comforting assurance that he will be found to be the refuge, the support, the “dwelling-place” of his people.
The psalm consists of the following parts:
I. The fact that God is unchanging; that he is the refuge of his people, and always has been; that from the eternity past to the eternity to come, he is the same - he alone is God, Psalms 90:1-2.
II. The frailty of man - the brevity of human life - as contrasted with this unchanging nature - this eternity - of God, Psalms 90:3-11. Man is turned to destruction; he is carried away as with a flood; his life is like a night’s sleep; the human race is like grass which is green in the morning and is cut down at evening; - human existence is like a tale that is told - brief as a meditation - and narrowed down to threescore years and ten.
III. A prayer that the living might be able so to number their days - to take such an account of life as to apply the heart to wisdom; - to make the most of life, or to be truly wise, Psalms 90:12.
IV. A prayer for those who were to follow - for the coming generation - that God would continue his favors; that though the present generation must die, yet that God, who is unchanging and eternal, would meet the next generation, and all the generations to come, with the same mercies and blessings, enjoyed by those who went before them - prolonging these to all future time, Psalms 90:13-17.
The psalm, therefore, has a universal applicability. Its sentiments and its petitions are as appropriate now as they were in the time of Moses. The generations of people pass away as certainly and as rapidly now as they did then; but it is as true now as it was then, that God is unchanging, and that he is the “dwelling-place” - the home - of his people.
Lord - Not יהוה Yahweh here, but אדני 'Adonāy. The word is properly rendered “Lord,” but it is a term which is often applied to God. It indicates, however, nothing in regard to his character or attributes except that he is a “Ruler or Governor.”
Thou hast been our dwelling-place - The Septuagint renders this, “refuge” - καταφυγἡ kataphugē. So the Latin Vulgate, “refugium;” and Luther, “Zuflucht.” The Hebrew word - מעון mâ‛ôn - means properly a habitation, a dwelling, as of God in his temple, Psalms 26:8; heaven, Psalms 68:5; Deuteronomy 26:15. It also means a den or lair for wild beasts, Nahum 2:12; Jeremiah 9:11. But here the idea seems to be, as in the Septuagint, Vulgate, and Luther, “a refuge”; a place to which one may come as to his home, as one does from a journey; from wandering; from toil; from danger: a place to which such a one naturally resorts, which he loves, and where he feels that he may rest secure. The idea is, that a friend of God has that feeling in respect to Him, which one has toward his own home - his abode - the place which he loves and calls his own.
In all generations - Margin, “generation and generation.” That is, A succeeding generation has found him to be the same as the previous generation had. He was unchanged, though the successive generations of men passed away.
Before the mountains were brought forth - Before the earth brought forth or produced the mountains. In the description of the creation it would be natural to represent the mountains as the first objects that appeared, as emerging from the waters; and, therefore, as the “first” or “most ancient” of created objects. The phrase, therefore, is equivalent to saying, Before the earth was created. The literal meaning of the expression, “were brought forth,” is, in the Hebrew, “were born.” The mountains are mentioned as the most ancient things in creation, in Deuteronomy 33:15. Compare Genesis 49:26; Habakkuk 3:6.
Or ever thou hadst formed - literally, “hadst brought forth.” Compare Job 39:1.
The earth and the world - The word “earth” here is used to denote the world as distinguished either from heaven Genesis 1:1, or from the sea Genesis 1:10. The term “world” in the original is commonly employed to denote the earth considered as “inhabited,” or as capable of being inhabited - a dwelling place for living beings.
Even from everlasting to everlasting - From duration stretching backward without limit to duration stretching forward without limit; that is, from eternal ages to eternal ages; or, forever.
Thou art God - Or, “Thou, O God.” The idea is, that he was always, and ever will be, God: the God; the true God; the only God; the unchangeable God. At any period in the past, during the existence of the earth, or the heavens, or before either was formed, he existed, with all the attributes essential to Deity; at any period in the future - during the existence of the earth and the heavens, or beyond - far as the mind can reach into the future, and even beyond that - he will still exist unchanged, with all the attributes of Deity. The creation of the universe made no change in him; its destruction would not vary the mode of his existence, or make him in any respect a different being. There could not be a more absolute and unambiguous declaration, as there could not be one more sublime, of the eternity of God. The mind cannot take in a grander thought than that there is one eternal and immutable Being.
Thou turnest man to destruction - In contradistinction from his own unchangeableness and eternity. Man passes away; God continues ever the same. The word rendered “destruction” - דכא dakkâ' - means properly anything beaten or broken small or very fine, and hence, “dust.” The idea here is, that God causes man to return to dust; that is, the elements which compose the body return to their original condition, or seem to mingle with the earth. Genesis 3:19 : “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” The word “man” here, of course, refers to man in general - all people. It is the great law of our being. Individual man, classes of people, generations of people, races of people, pass away; but God remains the same. The Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate render this, “Thou turnest man to “humiliation;” which, though not the sense of the original, is a true idea, for there is nothing more humiliating than that a human body, once so beautiful, should turn back to dust; nothing more humbling than the grave.
And sayest, Return, ye children of men - Return to your dust; go back to the earth from which you came. Return, all of you without exception; - kings, princes, nobles, warriors, conquerors; mighty people, captains, and counselors; ye learned and great, ye honored and flattered, ye beautiful and happy, ye youthful and vigorous, and ye aged and venerable; whatever is your rank, whatever are your possessions, whatever are your honors, whatever you have to make you lovely, to charm, to please, to be admired; or whatever there is to make you loathsome and detestable; ye vicious, ye profane, low, grovelling, sensual, debased; go all of you alike to “dust!’ Oh, how affecting the thought that this is the lot of man; how much should it do to abase the pride of the race; how much should it do to make any man sober and humble, that he himself is soon to turn back to dust - unhonored, undistinguished, and undistinguishable dust!
For a thousand years in thy sight - Hebrew, “In thy eyes;” that is, It so appears to thee - or, a thousand years so seem to thee, however long they may appear to man. The utmost length to which the life of man has reached - in the case of Methuselah - was nearly a thousand years Genesis 5:27; and the idea here is, that the longest human life, even if it should be lengthened out to a thousand years, would be in the sight of God, or in comparison with his years, but as a single day.
Are but as yesterday when it is past - Margin, “he hath passed them.” The translation in the text, however, best expresses the sense. The reference is to a single day, when we call it to remembrance. However long it may have appeared to us when it was passing, yet when it is gone, and we look back to it, it seems short. So the longest period of human existence appears to God.
And as a watch in the night - This refers to a portion of the night - the original idea having been derived from the practice of dividing the night into portions, during which a watch was placed in a camp. These watches were, of course, relieved at intervals, and the night came to be divided, in accordance with this arrangement, into parts corresponding with these changes. Among the ancient Hebrews there were only three night-watches; the first, mentioned in Lamentations 2:19; the middle, mentioned in Judges 7:19; and the third, mentioned in Exodus 14:24; 1 Samuel 11:11. In later times - the times referred to in the New Testament - there were four such watches, after the manner of the Romans, Mark 13:35. The idea here is not that such a watch in the night would seem to pass quickly, or that it would seem short when it was gone, but that a thousand years seemed to God not only short as a day when it was past, but even as the parts of a day, or the divisions of a night when it was gone.
Thou carriest them away as with a flood - The original here is a single verb with the suffix - זרמתם zerametâm. The verb - זרם zâram - means, to flow, to pour; then, to pour upon, to overwhelm, to wash away. The idea is, that they were swept off as if a torrent bore them from the earth, carrying them away without regard to order, rank, age, or condition. So death makes no discrimination. Every day that passes, multitudes of every age, sex, condition, rank, are swept away and consigned to the grave - as they would be if a raging flood should sweep over a land.
They are as a sleep - The original here is, “a sleep they are.” The whole sentence is exceedingly graphic and abrupt: “Thou sweepest them away; a sleep they are - in the morning - like grass - it passes away.” The idea is that human life resembles a sleep, because it seems to pass so swiftly; to accomplish so little; to be so filled with dreams and visions, none of which remain or become permanent.
In the morning they are like grass which groweth up - A better translation of this would be to attach the words “in the morning to the previous member of the sentence, “They are like sleep in the morning;” that is, They are as sleep appears to us in the morning, when we wake from it - rapid, unreal, full of empty dreams. The other part of the sentence then would be, “Like grass, it passeth away.” The word rendered “groweth up,” is in the margin translated “is changed.” The Hebrew word - חלף châlaph - means to pass, to pass along, to pass by; to pass on, to come on; also, to revive or flourish as a plant; and then, to change. It may be rendered here, “pass away;” and the idea then would be that they are like grass in the fields, or like flowers, which soon “change” by passing away. There is nothing more permanent in man than there is in the grass or in the flowers of the field.
In the morning it flourisheth - This does not mean that it grows with any special vigor or rapidity in the morning, as if that were illustrative of the rapid growth of the young; but merely that, in fact, in the morning it is green and vigorous, and is cut down in the short course of a day, or before evening. The reference here is to grass as an emblem of man.
And groweth up - The same word in the Hebrew which is used in the close of the previous verse.
In the evening it is cut down, and withereth - In the short period of a day. What was so green and flourishing in the morning, is, at the close of the day, dried up. Life has been arrested, and death, with its consequences, has ensued. So with man. How often is this literally true, that those who are strong, healthy, vigorous, hopeful, in the morning, are at night pale, cold, and speechless in death! How striking is this as an emblem of man in general: so soon cut down; so soon numbered with the dead. Compare the notes at Isaiah 40:6-8; notes at 1 Peter 1:24-25.
For we are consumed by thine anger - That is, Death - the cutting off of the race of man - may be regarded as an expression of thy displeasure against mankind as a race of sinners. The death of man would not have occurred but for sin Genesis 3:3, Genesis 3:19; Romans 5:12; and all the circumstances connected with it - the fact of death, the dread of death, the pain that precedes death, the paleness and coldness and rigidity of the dead, and the slow and offensive returning to dust in the grave - all are adapted to be, and seem designed to be, illustrations of the anger of God against sin. We cannot, indeed, always say that death in a specific case is proof of the direct and special anger of God “in that case;” but we can say that death always, and death in its general features, may and should be regarded as an evidence of the divine displeasure against the sins of people.
And by thy wrath - As expressed in death.
Are we troubled - Are our plans confounded and broken up; our minds made sad and sorrowful; our habitations made abodes of grief.
Thou hast set our iniquities before thee - Thou hast arrayed them, or brought them forth to view, as a “reason” in thy mind for cutting us down. Death may be regarded as proof that God has brought before his mind the evidence of man’s guilt, and has passed sentence accordingly. The fact of death at all; the fact that anyone of the race dies; the fact that human life has been made so brief, is to be explained on the supposition that God has arrayed before his own mind the reality of human depravity, and has adopted this as an illustration of his sense of the evil of guilt.
Our secret sins - literally, “our secret;” or, that which was concealed or unknown. This may refer to the secret or hidden things of our lives, or to what has been concealed in our own bosoms; and the meaning may be, that God has judged in the case not by external appearances, or by what is seen by the world, but by what “he” has seen in the heart, and that he deals with us according to our real character. The reference is, indeed, to sin, but sin as concealed, hidden, forgotten; the sin of the heart; the sin which we have endeavored to hide from the world; the sin which has passed away from our own recollection.
In the light of thy countenance - Directly before thee; in full view; so that thou canst see them all. In accordance with these, thou judgest man, and hence, his death.
For all our days are passed away in thy wrath - Margin, “turned.” The Hebrew word - פנה pânâh - means to “turn;” then, to turn to or “from” anyone; and hence, to turn away as if to flee or depart. Here it means that our days seem to turn from us; to give the back to us; to be unwilling to remain with us; to leave us. This seems to be the fruit or result of the anger of God, as if he were unwilling that our days should attend us any longer. Or, it is as if he took away our days, or caused them to turn away, because he was angry and was unwilling that we should any longer enjoy them. The cutting off of life in any manner is a proof of the divine displeasure; and in every instance death should be regarded as a new illustration of the fact that the race is guilty.
We spend our years as a tale that is told - Margin, “meditation.” The Hebrew word - הגה hegeh - means properly
(a) a muttering, or growling, as of thunder;
(b) a sighing or moaning;
(c) a meditation, thought.
It means here, evidently, thought; that is, life passes away as rapidly as thought. It has no permanency. It makes no impression. Thought is no sooner come than it is gone. So rapid, so fleeting, so unsubstantial is life. The Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate in some unaccountable way render this “as a spider.” The translation in our common version, “as a tale that is told,” is equally unauthorized, as there is nothing corresponding to this in the Hebrew. The image in the original is very striking and beautiful. Life passes with the rapidity of thought!
The days of our years - Margin, “As for the days of our years, in them are seventy years.” Perhaps the language would better be translated: “The days of our years! In them are seventy years;” or, they amount to seventy years. Thus the psalmist is represented as reflecting on human life - on the days that make up the years of life; - as fixing his thought on those days and years, and taking the sum of them. The days of our years - what are they?
Are threescore years and ten - Not as life originally was, but as it has been narrowed down to about that period; or, this is the ordinary limit of life. This passage proves that the psalm was written when the life of man had been shortened, and had been reduced to about what it is at present; for this description will apply to man now. It is probable that human life was gradually diminished until it became fixed at the limit which now bounds it, and which is to remain as the great law in regard to its duration upon the earth. All animals, as the horse, the mule, the elephant, the eagle, the raven, the bee, the butterfly, have each a fixed limit of life, wisely adapted undoubtedly to the design for which they were made, and to the highest happiness of the whole. So of man. There can be no doubt that there are good reasons - some of which could be easily suggested - why his term of life is no longer. But, at any rate, it is no longer; and in that brief period he must accomplish all that he is to do in reference to this world, and all that is to be done to prepare him for the world to come. It is obvious to remark that man has enough to do to fill up the time of his life; that life to man is too precious to be wasted.
And if by reason of strength ... - If there be unusual strength or vigor of natural constitution; or if the constitution has not been impaired or broken by toil, affliction, or vicious indulgence; or if the great laws of health have been understood and observed. Any of these causes may contribute to lengthen out life - or they may all be combined; and under these, separately or combined, life is sometimes extended beyond its ordinary limits. Yet the period of seventy is the ordinary limit beyond which few can go; the great mass fall long before they reach that.
Yet is their strength - Hebrew, “Their pride.” That of which a man who has reached that period might be disposed to boast - as if it were owing to himself. There is, at that time of life, as well as at other times, great danger lest that which we have received from God, and which is in no manner to be traced to ourselves, may be an occasion of pride, as if it were our own, or as if it were secured by our own prudence, wisdom, or merit. May it not, also, be implied here that a man who has reached that period of life - who has survived so many others - who has seen so many fall by imprudence, or vice, or intemperance - will be in special danger of being proud, as if it were by some special virtue of his own that his life had been thus lengthened out? Perhaps in no circumstances will the danger of pride be more imminent than when one has thus passed safely through dangers where others have fallen, and practiced temperance while others have yielded to habits of intemperance, and taken care of his own health while others have neglected theirs. The tendency to pride in man does not die out because a man grows old.
Labour and sorrow - The word rendered “labour” - עמל ‛âmâl - means properly “toil;” that is, wearisome labor. The idea here is, that toil then becomes burdensome; that the body is oppressed with it, and soon grows weary and exhausted; that life itself is like labor or wearisome toil. The old man is constantly in the condition of one who is weary; whose powers are exhausted; and who feels the need of repose. The word rendered “sorrow” - און 'âven - means properly “nothingness, vanity;” Isaiah 41:29; Zechariah 10:2; then, nothingness as to worth, unworthiness, iniquity - which is its usual meaning; Numbers 23:21; Job 36:21; Isaiah 1:13; and then, evil, adversity, calamity; Proverbs 22:8; Genesis 35:18. This latter seems to be the meaning here. It is, that happiness cannot ordinarily be found at that period of life; that to lengthen out life does not add materially to its enjoyment; that to do it, is but adding trouble and sorrow.
The ordinary hopes and plans of life ended; the companions of other years departed; the offices and honors of the world in other hands; a new generation on the stage that cares little for the old one now departing; a family scattered or in the grave; the infirmities of advanced years on him; his faculties decayed; the buoyancy of life gone; and now in his second childhood dependent on others as he was in his first; how little of happiness is there in such a condition! How appropriate is it to speak of it as a time of “sorrow!” How little desirable is it for a man to reach extreme old age! And how kind and merciful the arrangement by which man is ordinarily removed from the world before the time of “trouble and sorrow” thus comes! There are commonly just enough people of extreme old age upon the earth to show us impressively that it is not “desirable” to live to be very old; just enough to keep this lesson with salutary force before the minds of those in earlier life; just enough, if we saw it aright, to make us willing to die before that period comes!
For it is soon cut off ... - Prof. Alexander renders this, “For he drives us fast;” that is, God drives us - or, one seems to drive, or to urge us on. The word used here - גז gāz - is commonly supposed to be derived from גזז gâzaz, to cut, as to cut grass, or to mow; and then, to shear, sc. a flock - which is its usual meaning. Thus it would signify, as in our translation, to be cut off. This is the Jewish interpretation. The word, however, may be more properly regarded as derived from גוז gûz, which occurs in but one other place, Numbers 11:31, where it is rendered “brought,” as applied to the quails which were brought or driven forward by the east wind. This word means, to pass through, to pass over, to pass away; and then, to cause to pass over, as the quails were Numbers 11:31 by the east wind. So it means here, that life is soon passed over, and that we flee away, as if driven by the wind; as if impelled or urged forward as chaff or any light substance is by a gale.
Who knoweth the power of thine anger? - Who can measure it, or take a correct estimate of it, as it is manifest in cutting down the race of people? If the removal of people by death is to be traced to thine anger - or is, in any proper sense, an expression of thy wrath - who can measure it, or understand it? The cutting down of whole generations of people - of nations - of hundreds of million of human beings - of the great, the powerful, the mighty, as well as the weak and the feeble, is an amazing exhibition of the “power” - of the might - of God; and who is there that can fully understand this? Who can estimate fully the wrath of God, if this is to be regarded as an expression of it? Who can comprehend what this is? Who can tell, after such an exhibition, what may be in reserve, or what further and more fearful displays of wrath there may yet be?
Even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath - literally, “And according to thy fear, thy wrath.” The word rendered “fear” would here seem to refer to the “reverence” due to God, or to what there is in his character to inspire awe: to wit, his power, his majesty, his greatness; and the sense seems to be that his wrath or anger as manifested in cutting down the race seems to be commensurate with all in God that is vast, wonderful, incomprehensible. As no one can understand or take in the one, so no one can understand or take in the other. God is great in all things; great in himself; great in his power in cutting down the race; great in the expressions of his displeasure.
So teach us to number our days - literally, “To number our days make us know, and we will bring a heart of wisdom.” The prayer is, that God would instruct us to estimate our days aright: their number; the rapidity with which they pass away; the liability to be cut down; the certainty that they must soon come to an end; their bearing on the future state of being.
That we may apply our hearts unto wisdom - Margin, “Cause to come.” We will bring, or cause to come, a heart of wisdom. By taking a just account of life, that we may bring to it a heart truly wise, or act wisely in view of these facts. The prayer is, that God would enable us to form such an estimate of life, that we shall be truly wise; that we may be able to act “as if” we saw the whole of life, or as we should do if we saw its end. God sees the end - the time, the manner, the circumstances in which life will close; and although he has wisely hidden that from us, yet he can enable us to act as if we saw it for ourselves; to have the same objects before us, and to make as much of life, “as if” we saw when and how it would close. If anyone knew when, and where, and how he was to die, it might be presumed that this would exert an important influence on him in forming his plans, and on his general manner of life. The prayer is, that God would enable us to act “as if” we had such a view.
Return, O Lord - Come back to thy people; show mercy by sparing them. It would seem probable from this that the psalm was composed in a time of pestilence, or raging sickness, which threatened to sweep all the people away - a supposition by no means improbable, as such times occurred in the days of Moses, and in the rebellions of the people when he was leading them to the promised land.
How long? - How long shall this continue? How long shall thy wrath rage? How long shall the people still fall under thy hand? This question is often asked in the Psalms. Psalms 4:2; Psalms 6:3; Psalms 13:1-2; Psalms 35:17; Psalms 79:5, et al.
And let it repent thee - That is, Withdraw thy judgments, and be merciful, as if thou didst repent. God cannot literally “repent,” in the sense that he is sorry for what he has done, but he may act “as if” he repented; that is, he may withdraw his judgments; he may arrest what has been begun; he may show mercy where it seemed that he would only show wrath.
Concerning thy servants - In respect to thy people. Deal with them in mercy and not in wrath.
O satisfy us early with thy mercy - literally, “In the morning;” as soon as the day dawns. Perhaps there is an allusion here to their affliction, represented as night; and the prayer is, that the morning - the morning of mercy and joy - might again dawn upon them.
That we may rejoice and be glad all our days - All the remainder of our lives. That the memory of thy gracious interposition may go with us to the grave.
Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us - Let the one correspond with the other. Let our occasions of joy be measured by the sorrows which have come upon us. As our sufferings have been great, so let our joys and triumphs be.
And the years wherein we have seen evil - Affliction and sorrow. They have been continued through many wearisome years; so let the years of peace and joy be many also.
Let thy work appear unto thy servants - That is, thy gracious work of interposition. Let us see thy power displayed in removing these calamities, and in restoring to us the days of health and prosperity.
And thy glory unto their children - The manifestation of thy character; the display of thy goodness, of thy power, and thy grace. Let this spreading and wasting evil be checked and removed, so that our children may live, and may have occasion to celebrate thy goodness, and to record the wonders of thy love.
And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us - The word translated “beauty” - נעם nô‛am - means properly “pleasantness;” then, beauty, splendor; then grace or layout. The Septuagint renders it here, λαμπρότης lamprotēs, “splendor;” and so the Latin Vulgate. The wish is clearly that all that there is, in the divine character, which is “beautiful,” which is suited to win the hearts of people to admiration, gratitude, and love - might be so manifested to them, or that they might so see the excellency of his character, and that his dealings with them might be such, as to keep the beauty, the loveliness, of that character constantly before them.
And establish thou the work of our hands upon us - What we are endeavoring to do. Enable us to carry out our plans, and to accomplish our purposes.
Yea, the work of our hands establish thou it - The repetition of the prayer here is emphatic. It indicates an intense desire that God would enable them to carry out their plans. If this was written by Moses, we may suppose that it is expressive of an earnest desire that they might reach the promised land; that they might not all be cut down and perish by the way; that the great object of their march through the wilderness might be accomplished; and that they might be permanently established in the land to which they were going. At the same time it is a prayer which it is proper to offer at any time, that God would enable us to carry out our purposes, and that we may be permanently established in his favor.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Psalms 90". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany