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Bible Commentaries

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and Homiletical

Psalms 90

Verses 1-17


Psalms 90:0


Psalms 90:0

A Prayer of Moses the Man of God

          Lord, thou hast been our dwelling-place in all generations.

2     Before the mountains were brought forth,

Or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world,
Even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.

3     Thou turnest man to destruction;

And sayest, Return, ye children of men.

4     For a thousand years in thy sight

Are but as yesterday when it is past,

And as a watch in the night.

5     Thou carriest them away as with a flood: they are as a sleep:

In the morning they are like grass which groweth up.

6     In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up;

In the evening it is cut down, and withereth.

7     For we are consumed by thine anger,

And by thy wrath are we troubled.

8     Thou hast set our iniquities before thee,

Our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.

9     For all our days are passed away in thy wrath:

We spend our years as a tale that is told.

10     The days of our years are threescore years and ten;

And if by reason of strength they be fourscore years,

Yet is their strength labor and sorrow;

For it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

11     Who knoweth the power of thine anger?

Even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.

12     So teach us to number our days,

That we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

13     Return, O Lord, how long?

And let it repent thee concerning thy servants.

14     O satisfy us early with thy mercy;

That we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

15     Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us,

And the years wherein we have seen evil.

16     Let thy work appear unto thy servants,

And thy glory unto their children.

17     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.


Contents and Composition.—The oft-repeated assertion that this Psalm consists of two parts loosely connected, and that the supplicatory portion, strictly considered, is not introduced until the beginning of the so-called second part, is altogether without foundation. The truth is that the Psalm bears a supplicatory character in its very first word, which invokes God as the Lord. It presents also in Psalms 90:12 a real petition prepared by its contrast in Psalms 90:11, namely, a prayer that the contemplation of mankind before described may bring forth its good fruit in the heart; and to this the prayer in Psalms 90:13 ff. for renewed manifestations of Divine favor is attached. Both petitions have the same foundation, the confession to the eternal and only God, who forms the unchanging place of refuge for the ever-changing race of mankind, who, in their perishableness, have to suffer the judgments of God’s wrath for their sins. They are divided into two classes: those who allow these judgments to fall unmarked, and those who, terrified by them, are brought to reflection and urged to a saving search after God, truly fearing Him, and impressed with a sense of the true meaning of life. These serious reflections are presented in their necessary relations to one another with solemn emphasis, and in language which has a striking similarity to expressions occurring in the Pentateuch, and especially in the Book of Deuteronomy. It is certainly true that that period of national distress would naturally evoke reflections upon the evanescence of human life, and the universal sinfulness of man, so closely related thereto. This would especially be in accordance with the religious conception of the world in the Hebrew mind (Olsh., Hupfeld). But if we are justified in seeking a definite historical occasion for the origin of the Psalm, the last years of the long wandering through the desert, and especially an allusion to the Divine sentence of death in Numbers 14:28 ff. are probably indicated here. This supposition has an altogether different ground of support from the assumption of a composition during the exile (Köster, Maurer), which has absolutely nothing in the Psalm to indicate it, or in the age of the Maccabees (Rudinger, Hitzig). The poem contains something affecting and solemn, penetrating into the depths of the Divine nature, and in thought and language appears throughout marked by originality and innate power (Ewald), is worthy also of the position and character of Moses (Grotius), and corresponds to the situation of the people before alluded to (Hupfeld). We may therefore regard as entitled to no consideration, the doubt felt as to the Mosaic authorship, on the ground that we do not know what foundation the collector had for his belief. We can readily suppose that this ancient Psalm, this poem of eternity (Herder), was preserved in an older collection of writings (Del.), comp. Jos 10:13; 2 Samuel 1:18. For the supposition that the superscription came from the hand of the author, does not agree with the title of honor: “man of God.” This designation was applied to Moses only by others, (Deuteronomy 33:1; Joshua 14:6); and it does not describe his official position, as “servant of Jehovah” does, but it puts honor upon his personal relation to God as His prophet. It is self-evidently not a musical title, but a descriptive term, which, by the prominence given to this relation, expresses, on the one hand, a near acquaintance with God, and, on the other, the credibility and authority attested thereby.

[Hengstenberg: “The objection that Psalms 90:10, where the length of human life is limited to seventy, or, at most, eighty years, stands opposed to Deuteronomy 34:7, according to which Moses reached the age of one hundred and twenty, is disposed of by the fact that Moses, throughout the Psalm, does not speak in his own name, but in that of the people. It is obvious from Deuteronomy 14:22-23 that among the Israelites at that time the exceptions to the general rule as to the duration of human life, were much fewer than at ordinary times. The assumption that the Psalm could not have been composed by Moses, because it resembles the other Psalms in language and general poetical structure, is an a priori assertion, which may be met by another, that it is antecedently probable that Moses, ‘the fountain from which all the prophets have drawn divine wisdom,’ gave at first the tone no less for Prophecy, Deuteronomy 32:33, than for Psalm poetry.”—J. F. M.]

Psalms 90:1-2. Dwelling-place.—Instead of מָעֹון some codices read מָעֹוז which, however, does not alter the idea of the verse. The former word does not directly furnish the idea of a refuge (Sept.), but that of a dwelling, (Deuteronomy 26:15; Psalms 26:8; Psalms 68:6), sometimes including the accessory idea (Amos 3:4; Nahum 2:12) of a place of refuge, (Psalms 71:2; Psalms 91:9), applied to God after Deuteronomy 33:27. The præterite, הָיִיתָ does not admit of being translated: thou art. It is, therefore, not the future (Hengst.) that is the object of contemplation, but former experiences. The origin of the mountains, which are often adduced as the most expressive symbol of the most enduring of earthly things, (Genesis 49:26; Deuteronomy 33:15; Psalms 72:3; Habakkuk 3:6; Proverbs 8:26), is set forth as a birth, in that less restricted sense, in which (Genesis 2:4) the תּוֹלְדוֹת of the heavens and of the earth are used to designate the unfolding of the process of the creative work. The figure is an exceedingly natural one to describe the emergence of the mountains from the water, as, in another application, to represent the breaking forth of the sea as from the womb of a mother (Job 38:8). If, in the following stich, we point תְּחוֹלַל (Olsh., Böttcher, Hitzig), in order to gain the passive sense (Sept., Chald., Luther, and others), we have the same figure to describe the evolution of the terrestrial globe and inhabited land, without placing God in the background as the Parent and Begetter (Hupf.). For this would have been a mode of representation impossible to the Old Testament consciousness, and can be explained neither by Deuteronomy 32:18, where this form of expression is applied to the relation of God to the establishment of the Israelitish nation, (comp. Jeremiah 2:27), nor by the poetical form of the inquiry (Job 38:28) after the father of the rain and begetter of the dew, not to mention the words employed in Psalms 2:7, which have a Messianic interpretation. For the same reason we must assume that the punctuators, when they gave the active form תְּחוֹלֵל, did not have in view the 2 masc. (Isaaki, Kimchi, Calvin, Geier, Rosenm., De Wette, Del., Hupfeld), but the 3 fem. (Syriac, Stier, and others), with a reference to Genesis 1:11 f. Genesis 1:24. [Alexander follows the active meaning in common with the great majority of critics. Perowne prefers the passive sense, and the corresponding change of reading. The E. V. in the translation: formed, expresses the true idea of the Hebrew, but shrinks unnecessarily from the literal rendering: begotten.—J. F. M.] The אֵל at the end of Psalms 90:2 is not an address (Hengst.), but is the predicate. The object is not to show the eternal existence of God, but to testify to the Divinity of the eternal and almighty Lord. The Sept. has wrongly read אַל, and connected it with what follows.

Psalms 90:3-4. Dust.—[E. V.: destruction. The Hebrew רָפא means: crushed particles. “Thou makest man return to dust.”—J. F. M.] That there is an allusion here to Genesis 3:19 is rendered probable by the reference made to sin in Psalms 90:7 ff. Yet it does not follow from this that we must render in the next sentence: turn back! or: pass away again! for the sake of obtaining the same idea. It is not forbidden by the parallelism (Hupfeld) to interpret this clause as referring to the constant changes among men as they come and return at the command of the eternal God, (Luther, Geier, Tholuck, Del.). There is no reference to the resurrection (the old Lutheran theologians), or to the passing of the spirit to God (Stier). The arithmetical treatment of Psalms 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8, has resulted in the assumption that the world will last 6000 years, and that the millenial kingdom will then be established, corresponding to the work of creation and its Sabbath, (see the Rabbinical interpretations in Breithaupt on Isaaki). This is in direct contradiction to the meaning of the passage, which describes in an affecting and striking manner the evanescence of the changing generations of men, when measured by the standard of eternity and by the eye of God. Our seventy or eighty years shrink into a moment (Psalms 30:6). Time was not yet reckoned by hours, but the night was divided into three watches, (Exodus 14:24; Judges 7:19), and the day began with the evening twilight: therefore, “the day of yesterday as it passes by” is most significantly mentioned. The rendering: when it is past (most of the ancients), which is moreover tautological, is grammatically inadmissible. It is improbable that the thousand years are the subject of the verb (Hupfeld).

Psalms 90:5-7. Thou carriest them away as with a flood. It is uncertain whether an allusion to the Divine judgment of the flood is intended (Calvin, Hengst.). At all events it is not a swiftly flowing stream that is meant, but a heavy and devastating tempest of rain (Psalms 77:18). But we must not overlook the use of the præterite, followed by the imperfect in a future sense. The meaning is: let the action mentioned be performed, and they fall into a state of unconsciousness, into a sleep, that is, the sleep of death (Köster, Delitzsch). This sequence of thought shows that it is not the years (Aben Ezra) which are said to be carried away. The words שָׁנִים and שֵׁנָה stand too far apart to afford a play on the words (Rosenm.). The common interpretation understands first the rapid and afterwards the unobserved passage of human life to be described. But it disregards the change of verbal forms, and, with many of its supporters, superadds the idea of sleeping fancies or a dream to the idea of sleep, which is entirely unwarranted. Nor is there any occasion for transposing the words at the beginning of the second stich to the end of the first (Böttcher, Hupfeld), since the idea of waking has no place in the passage. In Psalms 90:6 it is not said that mankind in the beginning of history, or man in his youth, as in the morning of life (Kimchi and others), blooms or fades away like grass. What is said is, that when one generation is swept away during the night, another blooms forth in the morning, which, in its turn again, withers away in the evening (Delitzsch). For the primary idea of חלף is not at all that of passing away or perishing (Sept., Vulgate, Luther, and others), but that of passing over from one place or condition into another, especially when something new presses after and occupies the place of the old. Applied to plants, therefore, it certainly does not mean: to sprout (Chald., Syriac), but: to have new sprouts. Instead of: it fades away (Ewald, Olsh., Hitzig, Hupfeld), we cannot, it is true, accept the passive sense of the similar and proper word: it is cut down (most), but the impersonal construction: some one cuts it down (Delitzsch). The term מְלִילָה, applied to ears of corn cut down or plucked off, and Job 24:24, are especially favorable to this view, besides the consideration that death is not spoken of as a process of nature, but as the Divine punishment of sin. Hitzig gives an explanation which is quite peculiar. He understands the verse to represent figuratively the discharge of the semen (Ezekiel 23:20), then follows the sleep in the womb of the mother, and then the awakening to the morning of life. [In Psalms 90:7 the E. V. would be improved by rendering in the second clause: “terrified away,” instead of “troubled.”—J. F. M.]

Psalms 90:9-12. A whisper. [E. V.: a tale that is told.] The word הֶנֶה does not denote idle chattering (Luther), or thought, in allusion to its rapidity, (Clericus, Rosenm., De Wette, Hupfeld), or breath, as vanishing quickly (Chald.), or speech, in its rapidity (Jerome, Hitzig), but a low, subdued sound, whether murmuring, Job 37:2, or groaning, Ezekiel 2:10 (Hengst., Del.). The poetical plural שָׁנוֹת’ in Psalms 90:10, occurs also in Deuteronomy 32:7. It is doubtful whether גְכוּרֹת applies to a full measure of strength or of years. The first interpretation suits better the meaning of the words elsewhere, the latter its Talmudical application. [In Psalms 90:11 the second member should be rendered: and thy wrath according to thy fear, that is, in the measure which the true fear of God would imply.—J. F. M.] In Psalms 90:12כֵּן refers to “understand,” not to “number,” (compare 1 Samuel 23:17). It is not a theoretical but a practical knowledge, to obtain which the help of God is implored. “That we may bring in a heart of wisdom”—that is, that we may bear it away as a prize, and bring it in, like the harvest into the granary, 2 Samuel 9:10; Haggai 1:6 (Hupfeld, Del.). Other explanations are the following: bring wisdom into the heart (Kimchi, and others); bring a wise heart as an offering to God (Geier, Knapp, Stier, Ewald, Olshausen, Hitzig).

Psalms 90:13-17. Return, that is, from anger, as in Exodus 32:12. The word elsewhere usually means: turn back. The inquiry which follows suits either rendering. Psalms 90:13 b. recalls Deuteronomy 32:36. The Psalmist’s prayer that he may be satisfied with mercy in the morning, denotes not what would be enjoyed soon, but the breaking of a new day of mercy as contrasted with the former night of affliction. The plural form יְמוֹת (Psalms 90:15) is found only besides in Deuteronomy 32:7, together with שְׁנוֹת, which occurs elsewhere also.—The humbling of Israel was the design of the journey through the desert (Deuteronomy 8:2 f.). The term פֹעַל (Psalms 90:16), applied to Jehovah’s administration of mercy for the salvation of His people, is found also in Deuteronomy 32:4; and the expression: “work of the hands,” frequently in Deuteronomy, as descriptive of human achievements generally. There is no reference implied to implements of husbandry (Hitzig), much less to the appliances of manufacture. The sup plication is offered that the work of God’s people, who confess themselves to be the servants of the Lord, may be established, with the expectation that what is described in Psalms 90:16 a will be displayed before them. [There is no more beautiful and expressive word than נֹעַם, in Psalms 90:17 a, signifying primarily what is sweet, pleasant, or delightful; and all language fails to express the wealth of meaning it bears, when chosen by Moses, “the man of God,” and the friend of God, to picture forth those attributes which in Him were the source of delight. It is not merely “beauty” in its widest sense, or “glory,” or “goodness,” but a union of them all.—J. F. M.]


1. The Eternal is not merely distinguished from the world of the Becoming by His Divine nature; He also declares and vindicates His Divinity in its glory, independent, as it is, of the whole world. His people, therefore, not only know Him as the Lord reigning over the whole world from eternity to eternity, in unchangeable exaltation; they pray to Him also as the Lord their God. This they do both because He has testified of Himself, and because they have acknowledged His glory. By virtue of this relation to God, they are not contented with the perpetual recollection of all that God has ever been and displayed to them. They find in Him also their lodging place and secure retreat, which never changes with the flight of time or any mutation of events, but is presented as unchangeably the same to all generations of men, as they follow one another in close succession. Believers have therefore in God no temporary, mutable, or transient place of refuge, as the wild beasts have their coverts and places of security, or the wanderer his tent. God offers Himself to His people as their dwelling-place for ever and ever.

2. The experience which the Church has had of this blessing serves as an efficient counterpoise to the depressing evidences of the fact that her own members have to suffer from the shortness and miseries of human life, and that they feel these troubles so much the more keenly, as they recognize their cause to be the wrath of God on account of human sin, whose manifestations in their own lives they have always to bewail, and whose guilt they can as little hide as they can the severity of God’s anger. For the light by which we learn of God, the world, and ourselves is one and the same. “Although Moses, in the discharge of his office, slays by exhibiting sin in connection with its punishment, yet in naming this Psalm a prayer, he tells us that there is an antidote to death. And in this he excels in two particulars all profane writers. He dwells upon the extent and power of death, and yet, along with its terrors, makes the hope of consolation to be felt, so that those who are terrified and humbled are not utterly brought to despair.” (Luther).
3. When the perception of this relation is no mere theoretical knowledge, and is more than a compulsory acknowledgment produced by the pressure of need, when it is a deliberate moral conviction answering to the fear of God (Deuteronomy 29:9; Job 28:8), then it affords not merely the only correct standard for estimating all these things, but teaches us also to pray for the saving use of it in the midst of the dangers, sorrows, and temptations which encompass men here. It raises also the humbled soul from complaining over the vanity of the world, the distresses of life, and the blindness of mankind, to an earnest and trusting search after the favor of God, and thus places it upon the true path of safety, by which it shall escape all the misery of the present life. “As Moses elsewhere keeps within the teachings of the Law, so does he here. For he preaches death, sin, and condemnation, in order to terrify the presumptuous, who are secure in their sins, and set before them their guilt and iniquity, without falsely coloring anything or concealing anything. He endeavors especially to teach men to fear God, so that when they are in dread of God’s anger and of death, they may humble themselves before Him, and become fit recipients of His mercy.” (Luther.)

4. In order to be awakened to true penitence, we must keep ever before our minds the truth that, even in sins that are discovered and lamented, there is, on account of the ruin of our nature, something which is still hidden and concealed, which, however, is not excused or counted undeserving of punishment, because it escapes our own observation and that of other men. There are many who give themselves up to this delusion to their ruin. They fail to understand the relation of sin and death, and therefore, also, fail to understand the teachings of events in the world. And since they begin to have less dread of the wrath of God, the knowledge of God, generally, becomes obscure to them. It becomes difficult for them to bring themselves under the range of His purposes of salvation, and they seek less earnestly for His mercy. “Moses, therefore, well calls sin a concealed thing, whose extent no mind can comprehend. For like God’s wrath, like death, sin also is incomprehensible and infinite.” (Luther).
5. But when, to the acknowledgment that sin extends much further than it can be recognized, there is united this other, that God’s countenance casts light even upon what is hidden from our natural sight, then the fear, anguish, gloom, and care thence arising, can be overcome only by renewed experience of the Divine mercy. In the exhibitions of that mercy the glory as well as the goodness of the Lord are displayed to His people. And prayer for both must go hand in hand. “Although horses, cows and other animals die as well as man, yet their death does not manifest the wrath of God, but only transient pain. But in man’s death there is anguish and wrath, for he was created to be conformed to the image of God.” (Luther.)


The prayers of the Church must ascend to God, if the help of the Eternal is to descend to it.—The shorter life is, the more pressing is the obligation to spend it as for eternity.—The dominion of death over the world, (1), how it manifests itself, (2), whence it arises, (3), how it is overcome.—The blindness of mankind in their judgments with reference to God, the world, and their own worth.—Seeking refuge in God under the pressure of His just anger, why it is difficult and bow it is facilitated.—The fear of God, a good antidote to the fear of death, the cares of life, and the pangs of conscience.—Moses a guide to Christ, by preaching the punitive justice of God upon all the world, and the appearing of His glory over His people.—Though we cannot scan the world with the eye of God, yet, if we fear Him, we can learn to understand it by His light.—Wouldst thou in thy brief life obtain abiding joy? Turn in time to the eternal God, and yield thyself to the mercy which He ever proves Himself ready to bestow.—The life of all of us upon earth is fleeting, but it need not be unprofitable.—Death is the wages of sin, but the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.—Let him who would not sink with the dissolving world, nor be borne away with fleeting time, nor be destroyed with sinners, hasten to take up his abode with God, as long as the goodness or the Lord continues to prepare the way.—It must be considered a great mercy, that the Eternal reveals Himself in time, as the Lord whom we serve, as the Judge whom we fear, as the God in whom we are to trust.—The attacks of sin are more frequent, the roots of sin more deeply concealed, the consequences of sin more dreadful, than many know or admit, but God’s grace is mightier than sin, and God’s love greater than our hearts: therefore the world is rightly judged, and the righteous saved.—How we in the midst of death, may, in God, lay hold on life.

Luther: The higher grass grows, the nearer is it to the scythe and fork.—Starke: Prayer is the true armor against sin and death; for it is directed to God, and He is not a God of the dead, but of the living.—My time and hour may come when God wills. I prescribe not to Him measure or end.—Every evening should be to us a reminder of our end, our bed an emblem of our coffin, and sleep a prelude to the quiet rest until the resurrection.—Men convey to the tomb one dead body after another, and yet will not be persuaded to destroy the sting of death by faith in Christ, and free themselves from the wrath of God.—True joy is drawn from the enjoyment of God’s favor, and is therefore holy and pure. But all that joy is impure which men receive from earthly things outside of the state of grace.-He whom suffering and affliction have brought to repentance, receives a right to seek again from God consolation and joy.

Selnecker: Exalt not thyself, and be not proud in thy honors, for all men are in the hand of Him who has made them.—Menzel: Use of the teaching of God’s omnipotence and infinite might, (1), as serving to promote the true knowledge of God, (2), as contributing to the unfailing consolation of His people, (3), as a warning to the wicked.—Arndt: No man dies by chance, but according to God’s counsel, order, and providence.-Frisch: The more sins increase, the more life declines; hence comes our frailty.—God’s mercy is better than life itself.—Roos: Wherein does that wisdom consist, which is to be drawn from the numbering or reckoning up of the days which we have lived, and which, presumably, still remain? Is it not in this lesson, that by repentance and faith we should aspire after eternal life?—Stier: Moses as the man of God recognizes in the wrath of God the cause of the death of man; he looks forth with longing into the morning of mercy after the long night; and implores strengthening for himself and all the servants of the Lord, to persevere and continue the work of their hands.—Richter (Hausbibel): The knowledge of sin is the only key that solves the mystery of death.—Umbreit: Men have ever before their eyes the fear of death, but God, the sins of men.—Guenther: We fly away; whither?—Taube: In the punishment we can discern the extent of the sin, and yet to the sinner sin is immeasurable.—From a true conviction with regard to death, flows the true worldly wisdom.—Deichert: It is only when we are firmly established in God’s favor, that a new year can be a happy one to us. For then (1) the thought of the swift flight of our days may indeed move us, but cannot make us yield; (2) the thought of our great guilt may indeed depress us, but cannot make us despair; (3) the thought of the troubles and trials of life may indeed dispose us to deep solemnity, but it cannot rob us of the comforting reflection, that the Lord with His help will stand by our side.—L. Harms: Nothing preaches so powerfully on sin, as death does.—Thy God is the Almighty, and that Almighty God is Love.

[Matt. Henry: Man, in his prime, doth but flourish as the grass, which is weak and low and tender and exposed, and which, when the winter of old age comes, will perish of itself; but he may be worn down by disease or disaster, as the grass is, in the midst of summer. All flesh is grass.—To be religious is to be wise.—We are so unworthy of Divine assistance, and yet so insufficient to bring anything to pass without it, that we have need to be earnest for it, and so repeat the request: Yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.—Bp Horne: The time of our pilgrimage upon earth is a time of sorrow; these are the days “wherein God hath afflicted us,” but He will hereafter “make us glad according to them.” In proportion to our sufferings, if we rightly bear those sufferings, will be our reward. Then shall our joy be increased and receive an additional relish from our former sorrow; then shall we bless the days and the years which exercised our faith and perfected our patience; and then shall we bless God, who chastised us for a season, that He might bless us forever.—Barnes: How kind and merciful is the arrangement by which man is ordinarily removed from the world before the time of “trouble and sorrow” comes!—Perowne: God’s work is first to appear, His majesty is to be revealed: then man’s work, which is God’s work carried out by human instruments, may look for His blessing.—J. F. M.].

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Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Psalms 90". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". 1857-84.