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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Psalms 90

BOOK IV. Psalms 90-106.

A Prayer of Moses the man of God.

The argument, or arrangement, of the subject matter of this psalm is easily stated. Psalms 90:1-11 are a meditation; Psalms 90:12-17 a prayer arising out of the meditation. The first general division is further subdivided into two strophes: Psalms 90:1-2, a meditation upon the eternity of God, as the refuge and hope of frail man; Psalms 90:3-6, a complaint of human frailty and the vanity of human life; Psalms 90:7-11, a confession of human guilt, which is the cause of all this misery, and of the justness of that divine displeasure which has thus shortened and rendered futile our earthly life and pursuits. The second part is a prayer proper for a wise estimate of the true causes and moral ends of human frailty, Psalms 90:12; for the reversing of the death-sentence, so far as to render human life joyful and satisfying through the certain triumph of mercy over judgment, Psalms 90:13-15; and for the final accomplishment of the covenant plan and purpose through the Church, notwithstanding man’s present perishable and sinful condition, Psalms 90:16-17.That Moses wrote this psalm, according to the inscription of the title, is the general opinion of commentators, Jewish and Christian. The occasion of it is undoubtedly the sentence of God upon the unbelieving people. Numbers 14:0, which see.


Prayer of Moses Emphatically a tephillah, or prayer song, (see titles of Psalms 17, 86,) as distinguished from the tehillah, or praise song, as Psalms 145:0, title. The grave, meditative tone of this psalm is thus denoted. “There is scarcely any written memorial of antiquity which so brilliantly justifies the testimony of tradition concerning its origin, as does this psalm that of its Mosaic authorship.” Delitzsch.

The man of God Moses might have given himself this title, as David did that of “servant of God,” Psalms 36:0, title, or Paul that of “apostle of Jesus Christ,” 2 Corinthians 1:1, See Deuteronomy 33:1. It was, however, more likely added by a later compiler.

Verse 1

1. Thou hast been our dwelling-place This is the proposition sustained throughout the first six verses. The mutable and perishable in man are contrasted with the immutable and absolute in God, in whose eternal years alone the flickering and crushed life of man finds refuge and stability. Especially does the Church find its life and perpetuation in the all-invigorating life of God; and Moses speaks from the heart of the Church.

In all generations Literally, In generation and generation. Four designations of time are given: “In generation and generation,” “before the mountains were brought forth,” “before the world was fashioned,” “from everlasting to everlasting.” Anterior to the date of the world nothing is known but eternity, but God fills both time and eternity. No conceptions of God can be more awful, more sublime.

Verse 2

2. Mountains were brought forth Or, born. A poetic figure in beautiful harmony with the teachings of geological science. The earth and the [terraqueous] world The dry land and the globe, for ארצ , ( erets,) must here be understood of dry land as distinguished from the ocean. The fundamental passage is Genesis 1:10. The description forms an ascending climax as to the age of the oldest things known mountains, dry land, world, or globe. Having reached the date of creation, all beyond is “from eternity to eternity.”

Thou art God Thou alone art God, the Being of absolute power, as the name אל , el, denotes. On the absolute power and eternity of this Being hangs the existence of frail man.

Verse 3

3. Thou turnest man to destruction “Man,” a generic term here for the human race, with the fundamental idea of mortal mortal man.

Destruction Crushing, and by metonomy that which is crushed, that is, dust.

Return That is, return to dust, as Genesis 3:19.

Ye children of men אדם should be taken as a proper name, and the passage read, Return to dust, ye sons of Adam.

Verse 4

4. A thousand years Longer than the life of Adam or Methuselah.

Yesterday when it is past Which we remember but indifferently, and only by the few commonplace events which transpired.

Watch in the night A synonyme of brevity. On the Hebrew watches, see on Psalms 63:6

Verse 5

5. Thou carriest them away as with a flood Our years are poured forth as a [winter] torrent quickly gone and cannot be recalled.

As a sleep When one makes no reckoning of time.

Like grass which groweth up Like grass which shall change; that is, quickly pass from one stage to another.

Verse 6

6. In the morning it flourisheth and groweth up In the morning it blossoms and revives, or freshens with new life. חל Š, ( hhalaph,) translated “groweth up” in the English version, signifies to change, either in the sense of to pass away, perish, or to increase, revive, and the particular sense must be determined by the connexion and the nature of the subject. In Isaiah 40:31; Isaiah 41:1, it takes the latter, also in Job 14:7. In the text it stands opposed to withereth, in the next line. The antithetic parallelism of the verse is very perfect.

Verse 7

7. For we are consumed by thine anger We are wasting away under the effect of thy death-sentence. As applied by Moses to the Israelites, compare Numbers 14:28-35; as applied to the human race, compare Genesis 3:19.

By thy wrath are we troubled We are terrified. Comp. Psalms 104:29. Habakkuk 3:2; Hebrews 10:31

Verse 8

8. Thou hast set our iniquities before thee Thou hast called up our sins for judgment. “God sets transgressions before him, when, because the measure is full and forgiveness inadmissible, he makes them an object of punishment.” Delitzsch.

Our secret sins Sins of the heart, as distinct from overt acts; or, sins committed under cover from human eyes, as Numbers 5:12-13; or, sins of ignorance. Leviticus 4:22-35; Psalms 19:12.

In the light of thy countenance In the luminary of thy face. The word rendered “light,” in the common version, is luminary, that which causes light a luminous body. The difference between diffused light and a luminous body is given Genesis 1:3; Genesis 1:14. “Countenance,” in the text, is simply in opposition with luminary. The figure represents God’s “countenance” as a burning sun, into which no human eye can steadily look, and our secret sins are detected by it.

Verse 9

9. Our days are passed away in thy wrath They are “passed away” under the dispensation of thy judicial death-sentence.

As a tale that is told As a mourning. The sense of mourning, as if life were one prolonged death march, or moaning, is more in harmony with the first member of the verse and with the general scope, and is not an unfrequent use of the word. See Ezekiel 2:10; Isaiah 16:7; Isaiah 38:14; Isaiah 59:11. The idea is, that of a low murmur, or muffled sound of sorrow, which dies from the ear as soon as uttered.

Verse 10

10. Threescore years and ten This is not given as the average of human life, nor the absolute maximum, but as the general average maximum. The average of human life may be reckoned between thirty and forty years.

Yet is their strength Their pride, or that in which they boast.

Labour and sorrow The words are nearly synonymous; the sense is, wearisome labour and emptiness restless toiling and nothing accomplished.

Verse 11

11. Who knoweth Who considers. The word implies a knowledge which leads to the avoidance of the cause of divine anger.

The power of thine anger The effective force and terror of thy judgments.

According to thy fear According to the fear due to thee; or, according to the terror which thou hast at times inspired in men. See Psalms 55:5; Psalms 66:3; Psalms 66:5; Ezekiel 1:18; John 1:10; John 1:16. Compare Hebrews 12:21.

So is thy wrath So is the reality of thy judgments. “His terrors are not vain and empty; on the contrary, he will execute his threats on impenitent sinners, according as he has declared.” Phillips.

Verse 12

12. So teach us This looks to the end of all divine judgment.

Lamentations 3:39-40. God’s displeasure is manifested to awaken a salutary fear of him, which shall turn men from sin, and lead to the practice of wisdom. So long as men treat sin as a trifle they will treat God with irreverence and themselves with abuse. Revelation 15:4

Verse 13

13. Return, O Lord These terrible judgments are viewed as the result of the divine withdrawal. God is supposed to withdraw when he punishes, and to return when he renews his mercy. The previous verse is a prayer that they might return to God; this that he would return to them.

How long That is, how long wilt thou afflict us?

Let it repent thee Have compassion. The word denotes a change of treatment, which, with men, would imply a change of feeling, or repentance, but as applied to God it is anthropopathic.

Verse 14

14. Early Literally, In the morning; but the word here takes the unusual sense of early, soon, as in Psalms 46:5; Psalms 49:14; Psalms 101:8

Verse 15

15. According to the days… the years The period of their sufferings seemed like endless years, and becomes the measurement of the gladness for which the psalmist prays. Let our consolations cause us to forget the length and severity of our sufferings. The symbolical day for a year is here hinted at in the parallelism. Compare Numbers 14:34

Verse 16

16. Let thy work appear unto thy servants By causing them to see the reasons of thy judgments, which seem to contradict the purpose and plan of salvation as promised to Abraham, and also by witnessing thy returning mercy. “The work of Jehovah is his realized salvation.” Delitzsch.

And thy glory Thy works, whether of judgment or mercy, which, when understood, are the glory of thy character. “Glory,” here, is parallel to “work” in the previous member.

Unto their children The coming generation, who are to inherit Canaan after their fathers shall have died in the wilderness. See Numbers 14:29; Numbers 14:31. The children should become acquainted with the glorious acts of God toward his covenant people; and they did, during the last days of Moses and the lives of Joshua and the Elders. But alas! for want of childhood culture the following generation “knew not the Lord,” and served Baalim. Judges 2:7-12

Verse 17

17. Beauty Understand the word in the sense of grace, favour. Compare Psalms 27:4; Zechariah 11:7; Zechariah 11:10.

Establish Accomplish, confirm.

Work of our hands The Church co-works with God, (Philippians 2:12-13,) and her works become established because they are in harmony with the purposes and works of God. Comp. Deuteronomy 14:29; Deuteronomy 24:19; Deuteronomy 28:12; Deuteronomy 30:9. The prayer is for the success and permanent prosperity of the people, both as a nation and a Church, in contrast with their profitless wilderness life, with its reverses, its retrograde marches, and its aimless wanderings.

Upon us Three times the preposition “upon” occurs twice in the invocation “upon us,” and once “upon their children.”

“Because the promoting comes from above.” Hengstenberg.

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Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Psalms 90". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.