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Bible Commentaries

Benson's Commentary of the Old and New Testaments

Psalms 90

A.M. 2514. B.C. 1490.

Here begins the fourth book of Psalms, according to the division of the Hebrews; “differing from the rest,” says Bishop Patrick, “in this, that as those of the first book are most of them ascribed to David, and those of the second, in great part, to the sons of Korah, and those of the third to Asaph; so there are few of these (in this fourth book) whose author is certainly known; and, therefore, they were all put together in one and the same collection. The first of them, indeed, having been made by Moses, the Hebrews have entertained a conceit, which St. Jerome and St. Hilary follow, that he was the author of the next ten immediately ensuing: but there is no reason for that opinion, as will appear in due place.” As to this Psalm or prayer of Moses, as it is called, now before us, the bishop, with the Chaldee paraphrase, and many other interpreters, considers it as “a mediation of his, when the people offended God so highly in the wilderness that he shortened their lives to seventy, or, at the most, eighty years, and suffered them not to arrive at the age of their ancestors, or of Moses, Caleb, and Joshua, whose lives he prolonged to one hundred and twenty years.” There can be little doubt, indeed, but he composed it on occasion of that terrible, but righteous sentence which God passed on that murmuring generation of Israelites, namely, that their carcasses should fall in the wilderness. See Numbers 14:0 . The Psalm, however, is of general use, and is made, by the Church of England, a part of her funeral service. It contains an address to the eternal and unchangeable God, the Saviour and Preserver of his people, Psalms 90:1 , Psalms 90:2 . A most affecting description of man’s mortal and transitory state on earth since the fall, Psalms 90:3-10 . A complaint, that few meditate in such a manner upon death as to prepare themselves for it, Psalms 90:11 . A prayer for grace so to do, Psalms 90:12 . And for the mercies of redemption, Psalms 90:13-17 .

Verse 1

Psalms 90:1. Lord, thou hast been our dwelling-place, &c. Although we and our fathers, for some generations, have had no fixed habitation, but have been strangers in a land that was not ours, and afflicted four hundred years; (see Genesis 15:13;) and although we now are, and have been for some time, and must still continue, in a vast, howling wilderness, dwelling in tents, and wandering from place to place; yet thou, Lord, hast been instead of a dwelling-place to us, by thy watchful and gracious providence over us in all places and exigencies. This is said by way of preface to the Psalm, to intimate that the following miseries, which came upon them, were not to be imputed to God, but to themselves.

Verse 2

Psalms 90:2 . Before the mountains The most fixed and stable parts of the earth; were brought forth That is, arose out of the waters; or ever thou hadst formed the earth, &c. That is, from eternity, which is frequently described in this manner; even from everlasting thou art God Thou hadst thy power and thy perfections from all eternity. And this eternity of God is here mentioned for two reasons: 1st, That men, by the contemplation thereof, might be brought to a deeper sense of their own frailty, which is the foundation of humility and of all true piety; and to a greater reverence for, and admiration of, the Divine Majesty. And, 2d, For the comfort of God’s people, who, notwithstanding all their present miseries, have a sure and everlasting refuge and portion in him.

Verse 3

Psalms 90:3. Thou turnest man to destruction But as for man, his case is far otherwise; his time is short; and though he was made by thee happy and immortal, yet for his sin thou didst make him mortal and miserable. And sayest Or, didst say, that is, pronounce that sad sentence, Return, ye children of men, namely, to the dust, out of which ye were taken.

Verse 4

Psalms 90:4. For a thousand years If we should now live so long, (as some of our progenitors nearly did,) 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, are but as yesterday, when it is past Which is emphatically added, because time seems long when it is to come, but when it is passed, and men look back upon it, it seems very short and contemptible. And as a watch in the night Which lasted but three or four hours.

Verses 5-6

Psalms 90:5-6. Thou carriest them away Namely, mankind, of whom he spake Psalms 90:3. As with a flood Unexpectedly, violently, and irresistibly. They are 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 never considerable, and seldom pernicious. Even such an idle and insignificant thing is human life, considered in itself, and without respect to a future state. They are like grass which groweth up Which sprouteth out of the earth, and becometh more apparent, green, and flourishing. In the evening it is cut down, and withereth Here the whole space of man’s life is compared to one day, and his prosperity to a part of that day, and ended in the close of it. Thus, in these verses, “the shortness of life, and the suddenness of our departure hence, are illustrated by three similitudes: 1st, That of a flood or torrent pouring unexpectedly and impetuously from the mountains, and sweeping all before it in an instant. 2d, That of sleep, from which when a man awakes, he thinks the time passed in it to have been nothing. 3d, That of the grass grown up in the morning, and cut down and withered in the evening. In the morning of youth, fair and beautiful, man groweth up and flourisheth; in the evening of age (and how often before that evening!) he is cut down by the stroke of death; all his juices, to the circulation of which he stood indebted for life, health, and strength, are dried up; he withereth, and turneth again to his earth.” Horne.

Verses 7-9

Psalms 90:7-9. We are consumed by thine anger Caused by our sinful state and lives. Thou dost not suffer us to live so long as we might do by the course of nature. And by thy wrath are we troubled The generations of men are troubled and consumed by divers diseases, and sundry kinds of death, through the displeasure of God, occasioned by their sins. The provocations and chastisements of Israel are here alluded to. But their case in the wilderness is the case of mankind in the world, and the same thing is true in them and in us. Thou hast set our iniquities before thee Thou observest them as a righteous judge, and art calling us to an account for them. Our secret sins, &c. Which, though hidden from the eyes of men, thou hast set before thine eyes, and brought to light by thy judgments. For all our days are passed away in thy wrath That is, under the tokens of thy displeasure. We spend our years as a tale that is told Which may a little affect us for the present, but is quickly ended, and gone out of mind. Hebrew, כמי הגה , chemo hege, as a sound, as the expression is rendered Job 32:2; or as a word, which is but air and breath, and vanishes into nothing as soon as spoken. Or, as the word more properly signifies, a meditation or thought, which is of a nature still more fleeting and transient.

Verse 10

Psalms 90:10. The days of our years Of the generality of mankind, in that and all following ages, some few persons excepted, are threescore years and ten Which time the ancient heathen writers also fixed as the usual space of men’s lives. And if by reason of strength That is, more than ordinary strength of constitution, which is the common cause of longer life; they be In some individuals; fourscore years At which age few indeed arrive; yet is their strength Their strongest and most vigorous old age; labour and sorrow Filled with troubles and griefs from the infirmities of age, the approach of death, and the contingencies of human life. For it is soon cut off Our strength doth not then decline by slow degrees, as it doth in our flourishing age, but decays apace; we do not then go, nor run toward death, as we do from our very birth, but we fly swiftly toward it, or, fly away like a bird, as the word נעפה , nagnupha, here used, signifies. “If the time here specified by Moses be thought too short a term for the general standard of human life in those early ages, yet it suits well with the particular case of the Israelites in the wilderness, whose lives were shortened by an express decree, so that a great number of them could not possibly reach the age of seventy; and those who did, probably soon felt a swift decay.” Dodd.

Verse 11

Psalms 90:11. Who 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 sins? Few or none sufficiently apprehend it, or steadfastly believe it, or duly consider it, or are rightly affected with it: all which particulars are comprehended under this word knoweth. Even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath That is, as some interpret the words, “In proportion to the fear and reverence which are due to thee as the great Lord and Sovereign of the world, so may the transgressors of thy law expect their punishment.” Or, according to the fear and dread which sinful men have, or ought to have, of thee, a just and holy God, so is thy wrath. It bears full proportion to it, nay, indeed, far exceeds it. These fears of thee are not groundless apprehensions, the effects of ignorance and folly, or of superstition, as heathen and infidels have sometimes said, but are just, and built on solid grounds, and justified by the terrible effects of thy wrath upon ungodly men. Nor can it be ever said of thy wrath, as it is often said of death, that the fear of it is worse than the thing itself. Houbigant renders the words thus: Who knoweth, or considereth, the power of thine anger; and thy wrath, in proportion as thou art terrible? That is, in other words, “Notwithstanding all the manifestations of thine indignation against sin, which introduced death and every other calamity among men, who is there that knoweth, who that duly considereth and layeth to heart, the almighty power of that indignation?” Something seems evidently intimated here beyond the punishments of sin in this world; for these are what men feel and experience. But who knows the dreadful punishments of a future world? Well, therefore, is this reflection followed by a devout prayer in the next verse. For the knowledge and consideration here intended are the gift of God.

Verse 12

Psalms 90:12. So teach us By thy Spirit and grace, as thou hast already taught us by thy word; to number our days To consider the shortness and miseries of this life, and the certainty and nearness 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; meaning, undoubtedly, that wisdom which alone is such in the sense of the Holy Scriptures; namely, the fearing God and keeping his commandments, or true, genuine godliness and righteousness; that so, by making a right use of this short, uncertain space of time allotted us here, we may prepare for another state, a state of happiness hereafter. For Moses could not intend hereby to give the Israelites any hopes that, by applying their hearts unto wisdom, they might procure a revocation of that peremptory sentence of death passed upon all that generation; nor to suggest that other men might, by so doing, prevent their death; both which he very well knew to be impossible; but he intended to persuade the Israelites and others to prepare themselves for death, and for their great account after death, and, as they could not continue long in this life, and must expect much misery while they did continue in it, to make sure of the happiness of another. It appears, then, that the Israelites in the wilderness, when cut off from all hopes of an earthly Canaan, and the promises of this life, were not left destitute of better hopes, or without the knowledge of a Redeemer and life to come; and that when it is said, Deuteronomy 8:2; Deuteronomy 8:16, God led them through this great and terrible wilderness, to humble them, and to prove them, that he might do them good in their latter end; the meaning is, “that he might do them good in their future state, according to the most natural sense of the word אחריתם , acharitham, there used, and Deuteronomy 32:29.”

Verses 13-17

Psalms 90:13-17. Return, O Lord To us in mercy. How long? Understand, wilt thou be angry? Or, will it be ere thou return to us? Let it repent thee, &c. Of thy severe proceedings against us. O satisfy us early with thy mercy That is, speedily, or seasonably, before we be utterly consumed. Make us glad, &c. Our afflictions have been sharp and long, let not our prosperity be small and short. Let thy work appear to thy servants Declare to all the world, that thou hast not quite forsaken us thy servants, but wilt still work wonders for us; and thy glory unto their children Do more glorious and magnificent things for our children. Let that great and glorious work of giving thy people a complete deliverance, which thou didst long since design and promise, be at last accomplished and manifested in the sight of the world. And let the beauty of the Lord be upon us His favourable countenance, gracious influence, and glorious presence. And establish the work of our hands upon us Or, in us. Do not only work for us, but in us; enlighten our minds, and renew our hearts by thy Holy Spirit, that we may turn, and constantly cleave to thee, and not revolt and draw back from thee, as we have frequently done, to our own shame and undoing.

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Bibliographical Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on Psalms 90". Benson's Commentary. 1857.