Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 90

Verses 1-17

THE sad and stately music of this great psalm befits the dirge of a world. How artificial and poor, beside its restrained emotion and majestic simplicity, do even the most deeply felt strains of other poets on the same themes sound! It preaches man’s mortality in immortal words. In its awestruck yet trustful gaze on God’s eternal being, in its lofty sadness, in its archaic directness, in its grand images so clearly cut and so briefly expressed, in its emphatic recognition of sin as the occasion of death, and in its clinging to the eternal God who can fill fleeting days with ringing gladness, the psalm utters once for all the deepest thoughts of devout men. Like the God whom it hymns it has been "for generation after generation" an asylum.

The question of its authorship has a literary interest, but little more. The arguments against the Mosaic authorship, apart from those derived from the as yet unsettled questions in regard to the Pentateuch, are weak. The favourite one, adduced by Cheyne after Hupfeld and others, is that the duration of human life was greater, according to the history, in Moses’ time than seventy years; but the prolonged lives of certain conspicuous persons in that period do not warrant a conclusion as to the average length of life; and the generation that fell in the wilderness can clearly not have lived beyond the psalmist’s limit. The characteristic Mosaic tone in regarding death as the wages of sin, the massive simplicity and the entire absence of dependence on other parts of the Psalter which separate this psalm from almost all the others of the fourth part, are strongly favourable to the correctness of the superscription. Further, the section Psalms 90:7-12 is distinctly historical, and is best understood as referring not to mankind in general, but to Israel; and no period is so likely to have suggested such a strain of thought as that when the penalty of sin was laid upon the people, and they were condemned to find graves in the wilderness. But however the question of authorship may be settled, the psalm is "not of an age, but for all time."

It falls into three parts, of which the two former contain six verses each, while the last has but five. In the first section (Psalms 90:1-6), the transitoriness of men is set over against the eternity of God; in the second, (Psalms 90:7-12) that transitoriness is traced to its reason, namely sin; and in the third (Psalms 90:13-17), prayer that God would visit His servants is built upon both His eternity and their fleeting days. The short Psalms 90:1 blends both the thoughts which are expanded in the following verses, while in it the singer breathes awed contemplation of the eternal God as the dwelling place or asylum of generations that follow each other, swift and unremembered, as the waves that break on some lonely shore. God is invoked as "Lord," the sovereign ruler, the name which connotes His elevation and authority. But, though lofty, He is not inaccessible. As some ancestral home shelters generation after generation of a family, and in its solid strength stands unmoved, while one after another of its somewhile tenants is borne forth to his grave, and the descendants sit in the halls where centuries before their ancestors sat.

God is the home of all who find any real home amidst the fluctuating nothings of this shadowy world. The contrast of His eternity and our transiency is not bitter, though it may hush us into wisdom, if we begin with the trust that He is the abiding abode of short-lived man. For this use of dwelling place compare Deuteronomy 33:27.

What God has been to successive generations results from what He is in Himself before all generations. So Psalms 90:2 soars to the contemplation of His absolute eternity, stretching boundless on either side of "this bank and shoal of time"-"From everlasting to everlasting Thou art God"; and in that name is proclaimed His self-derived strength, which, being eternal, is neither derived from nor diminished by time, that first gives to and then withdraws from, all creatures their feeble power. The remarkable expressions for the coming forth of the material world from the abyss of Deity regard creation as a birth. The Hebrew text reads in Psalms 90:2 b as above, "Thou gavest birth to"; but a very small change in a single vowel gives the possibly preferable reading which preserves the parallelism of a passive verb in both clauses, "Or the earth and the world were brought forth."

The poet turns now to the other member of his antithesis. Over against God’s eternal Being is set the succession of man’s generations, which has been already referred to in Psalms 90:1. This thought of successiveness is lost unless Psalms 90:3 b is understood as the creative fiat which replaces by a new generation those who have been turned back to dust. Death and life, decay and ever-springing growth, are in continual alternation. The leaves, which are men, drop; the buds swell and open. The ever-knitted web is being ever run down and woven together again. It is a dreary sight, unless one can say with our psalm, "Thou turnest Thou sayest, Return." Then one understands that it is not aimless or futile. If a living Person is behind the transiencies of human life, these are still pathetic and awe kindling, but not bewildering. In Psalms 90:3 a there is clear allusion to Genesis 3:19. The word rendered "dust" may be an adjective taken as neuter -that which is crushed, i.e. dust; or, as others suppose, a substantive -crushing; but is probably best understood in the former sense. The psalm significantly uses the word for man which connotes frailty, and in b the expression "sons of man" which suggests birth.

The psalmist rises still higher in Psalms 90:4. It is much to say that God’s Being is endless, but it is more to say that He is raised above Time, and that none of the terms in which men describe duration have any meaning for Him. A thousand years, which to a man seem so long, are to Him dwindled to nothing, in comparison with the eternity of His being. As Peter has said, the converse must also be true, and "one day be with the Lord as a thousand years." He can crowd a fulness of action into narrow limits. Moments can do the work of centuries. The longest and shortest measures of time are absolutely equivalent, for both are entirely inapplicable, to His timeless Being. But what has this great thought to do here, and how is the "For" justified? It may be that the psalmist is supporting the representation of Psalms 90:2, God’s eternity, rather than that of Psalms 90:3, man’s transiency; but, seeing that this verse is followed by one which strikes the same note as Psalms 90:3, it is more probable that here, too, the dominant thought is the brevity of human life. It never seems so short, as when measured against God’s timeless existence. So, the underlying thought of Psalms 90:3, namely, the brevity of man’s time, which is there illustrated by the picture of the endless flux of generations, is here confirmed by the thought that all measures of time dwindle to equal insignificance with Him.

The psalmist next takes his stand on the border moment between today and yesterday. How short looks the day that is gliding away into the past! "A watch in the night" is still shorter to our consciousness, for it passes over us unnoted.

The passing of mortal life has hitherto been contemplated in immediate connection with God’s permanence, and the psalmist’s tone has been a wonderful blending of melancholy and trust. But in Psalms 90:5 the sadder side of his contemplations becomes predominant. Frail man, frail because sinful, is his theme. The figures which set forth man’s mortality are grand in their unelaborated brevity. They are like some of Michaelangelo’s solemn statues. "Thou floodest them away"-bold metaphor, suggesting the rush of a mighty stream, bearing on its tawny bosom crops, household goods, and corpses, and hurrying with its spoils to the sea. "They become a sleep." Some would take this to mean falling into the sleep of death; others would regard life as compared to a sleep-"for before we are rightly conscious of being alive, we cease to live" (Luther, quoted by Cheyne); while others find the point of comparison in the disappearance, without leaving a trace behind, of the noisy generations, sunk at once into silence, and "occupying no more space on the scroll of Time than a night’s sleep" (so Kay). It is tempting to attach "in the morning" to "a sleep," but the recurrence of the expression in Psalms 90:7 points to the retention of the present division of clauses, according to which the springing grass greets the eye at dawn, as if created by a night’s rain. The word rendered "springs afresh" is taken in two opposite meanings, being by some rendered passes away, and by others as above. Both meanings come from the same radical notion of change, but the latter is evidently the more natural and picturesque here, as preserving, untroubled by any intrusion of an opposite thought, the cheerful picture of the pastures rejoicing, in the morning sunshine, and so making more impressive the sudden, sad change wrought by evening, when all the fresh green blades and bright flowers lie turned already into brown hay by the mower’s scythe and the fierce sunbeams.

"So passeth, in the passing of an hour,

Of mortal life, the leaf, the bud, the flower."

The central portion of the psalm (Psalms 90:7-12) narrows the circle of the poet’s vision to Israel, and brings out the connection between death and sin. The transition from truths of universal application is marked by the use of we and us, while the past tenses indicate that the psalm is recounting history. That transitoriness assumes a still more tragic aspect, when regarded as the result of the collision of God’s "wrath" with frail man. How can such stubble but be wasted into ashes by such fire? And yet this is the same psalmist who has just discerned that the unchanging Lord is the dwelling place of all generations. The change from the previous thought of the eternal God as the dwelling place of frail men is very marked in this section, in which the destructive anger of God is in view. But the singer felt no contradiction between the two thoughts, and there is none. We do not understand the full blessedness of believing that God is our asylum, till we understand that He is our asylum from all that is destructive in Himself; nor do we know the significance of the universal experience of decay and death, till we learn that it is not the result of our finite being, but of sin.

That one note sounds on in solemn persistence through these verses, therein echoing the characteristic Mosaic lesson, and corresponding with the history of the people in the desert. In Psalms 90:7 the cause of their wasting away is declared to be God’s wrath, which has scattered them as in panic. {Psalms 48:5} The occasion of that lightning flash of anger is confessed in Psalms 90:8 to be the sins which, however hidden, stand revealed before God. The expression, for "the light of Thy face" is slightly different from the usual one, a word being employed which means a luminary, and is used in Genesis 1:1-31 for the heavenly bodies The ordinary phrase is always used as expressing favour and blessing; but there is an illumination, as from an all-revealing light, which flashes into all dark corners of human experience, and "there is nothing hid from the heat thereof." Sin smitten by that light must die. Therefore, in Psalms 90:9, the consequence of its falling on Israel’s transgressions is set forth. Their days vanish as mists before the sun, or as darkness glides out of the sky in the morning. Their noisy years are but as a murmur, scarce breaking the deep silence, and forgotten as soon as faintly heard. The psalmist sums up his sad contemplations in Psalms 90:10, in which life is regarded as not only rigidly circumscribed within a poor seventy or, at most, eighty years, but as being, by reason of its transitoriness, unsatisfying and burdensome. The "pride" which is but trouble and vanity is that which John calls "the pride of life," the objects which, apart from God, men desire to win, and glory in possessing. The self-gratulation would be less ridiculous or tragic, if the things which evoke it lasted longer, or we lasted longer to possess them. But seeing that. they swiftly pass and we fly too, surely it is but "trouble" to fight for what is "vanity" when won, and what melts away so surely and soon.

Plainly, then, things being so, man’s wisdom is to seek to know two things-the power of God’s anger, and the measure of his own days. But alas for human levity and bondage to sense, how few look beyond the external, or lay to heart the solemn truth that God’s wrath is inevitably operative against sin, and bow few have any such just conception of it as to lead to reverential awe, proportioned to the Divine character which should evoke it! Ignorance and inoperative knowledge divide mankind between them, and but a small remnant have let the truth plough deep into their inmost being and plant there holy fear of God. Therefore, the psalmist prays for himself and his people, as knowing the temptations to inconsiderate disregard and to inadequate feeling of God’s opposition to sin, that His power would take untaught hearts in hand and teach them this-to count their days. Then we shall bring home, as from a ripened harvest field, the. best fruit which life can yield, "a heart of wisdom," which, having learned the power of God’s anger, and the humber of our days, turns itself to the eternal dwelling place, and no more is sad, when it sees life ebbing away, or the generations moving in unbroken succession into the darkness.

The third part (Psalms 90:13-17) gathers all the previous meditations into a prayer, which is peculiarly appropriate to Israel in the wilderness, but has deep meaning for all God’s servants. We note the invocation of God by the covenant name "Jehovah," as contrasted with the "Lord," of Psalms 90:1. The psalmist, draws nearer to God, and feels the closer bond of which that name is the pledge. His prayer is the more urgent, by reason of the brevity of life. So short is his time that he cannot afford to let God delay in coming to him and to his fellows. "How long?" comes pathetically from lips which have been declaring that their time of speech is so short. This is not impatience, but wistful yearning, which, even while it yearns, leaves God to settle His own time, and, while it submits, still longs. Night has wrapped Israel, but the psalmist’s faith "awakes the morning," and he prays that its beams may soon dawn and Israel be satisfied with the longed for lovingkindness; {compare Psalms 30:5} for life at its longest is but brief, and he would fain have what remains of it be lit with sunshine from God’s face. The only thing that will secure life-long gladness is a heart satisfied with the experience of God’s love. That will make morning in mirk midnight; that will take all the sorrow out of the transiency of life. The days which are filled with God are long enough to satisfy us; and they who have Him for their own will be "full of days," whatever the number of these may be.

The psalmist believes that God’s justice has in store for His servants joys and blessings proportioned to the duration of their trials. He is not thinking of any future beyond the grave; but his prayer is a prophecy, which is often fulfilled even in this life and always hereafter. Sorrows rightly borne here are factors determining the glory that shall follow. There is a proportion between the years of affliction and the millenniums of glory. But the final prayer, based upon all these thoughts of God’s eternity and man’s transitoriness, is not for blessedness, but for vision and Divine favour on work done for Him. The deepest longing of the devout heart should be for the manifestation to itself and others of God’s work. The psalmist is not only asking that God would put forth His acts in interposition for himself and his fellow servants, but also that the full glory of these far-reaching deeds may be disclosed to their understandings as well as experienced in their lives. And since he knows that "through the ages an increasing purpose runs," he prays that coming generations may see even more glorious displays of Divine power than his contemporaries have done. How the sadness of the thought of fleeting generations succeeded by new ones vanishes when we think of them all as, in turn, spectators and possessors of God’s "work"! But in that great work we are not to be mere spectators. Fleeting as our days are, they are ennobled by our being permitted to be God’s tools; and if "the work of our hands" is the reflex or carrying on of His working we can confidently ask that, though we the workers have to pass, it may be "established." "In our embers may be" something that doth live," and that life will not all die which has done the will of God, but it and its doer will "endure forever." Only there must be the descent upon us of "the graciousness" of God before there can flow from us "deeds which breed not shame," but outlast the perishable earth and follow their doers into the eternal dwelling place. The psalmist’s closing prayer reaches further than he knew. Lives on which the favour of God has come down like a dove, and in which His will has been done, are not flooded away, nor do they die into silence like a whisper, but carry in themselves the seeds of immortality, and are akin to the eternity of God.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 90". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".