George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 4

Psalm 90

1. Title

Modern critics treat with scorn the ascription of this psalm to Moses, yet no other guess imparts half as much reality to the words as does the acceptance of Mosaic authorship. Is the reference to “Moses the man of God” in 2 Chronicles 30:16 (during Hezekiah’s solemn passover) a hint that this Moses psalm was added to the psalter by “the men of Hezekiah”?

2. Structure

1, 2.
God’s eternity
Man’s frailty
Why so frail? God’s anger!
Man’s frailty
Prayer for God’s mercy

3. Historical background

Israel faithlessly rejected the faithful counsel of Joshua and Caleb that, under God, the Promised Land could soon be theirs. Because of this, the people were turned back into the wilderness for forty years of wandering — “a year for a day”, to match the forty days spent searching the Land (Num. 14:30-34) — and all those from twenty and upward who came out of Egypt were condemned to die in the wilderness (Num. 26:64).

Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place (maon: cp. Psa. 91:9, s.w.; also s.w. in 26:8; 68:5; 71:3). Compare also Deut. 33:27 (the words of Moses: “The eternal God is thy refuge (maon)”. It is possible that “Turn you, and get you unto the wilderness” (Num. 14:25) applied to the mass of faithless Israelites, but that the faithful remnant remained at Kadesh with the Tabernacle — thus dwelling with the Lord — until they all gathered once again at Kadesh (Num. 20) near the end of the forty years. The psalm was probably written during the second sojourn at Kadesh, for it was then (Num. 20) that Moses and Aaron also came under the same judgment. And by that 39th year the stark effects of God’s curse on the faithless would be evident enough.

In all generations. Men of faith from Adam onwards had had their sanctuaries (Gen. 3:24; 4:7,16; 8:20; 12:7; 13:18; 33:20; etc.) for rendezvous before the Lord; and these faithful ones likewise.
Thou turnest man to destruction, and sayest, Return (i.e., to the ground), ye children of men. The first phrase, using enosh (frail, mortal man), refers to Israel’s banishment back into the wilder- ness. The rest of the verse (with its “sons of Adam”) echoes Gen. 3:19, where Adam was told:

“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground. Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (cp. Gen. 18:27; Psa. 22:15; 104:29; Eccl. 3:20; 12:7).
Five very powerful figures of speech: Even a thousand years is in the sight of God...

(1) as yesterday, when it is past (cp. 2 Pet. 3:8), and
(2) as a watch in the night — a period, by Jewish reckoning, of about four hours.

And man is carried away...

(3) as with a flood;
(4) as a sleep (Psa. 6:5; 13:3; 146:3,4), or a “dream” (RSV); and
(5) like grass, growing up, flourishing, then cut down and withering.

One generation after another is born, lives, and dies — but the Absolute One is unchanged, even by the passing of a millennium. The high and lofty One does not live in time; He inhabits eternity (Isa. 57:15)!

The last of these five figures of speech (vv. 5,6) is developed, to be passed on to succeeding generations (Isa. 40:6-8; Matt. 6:30; James 1:10,11; 1 Pet. 1:24). Hezekiah uses a very similar figure — accentuated by the idea that the grass is growing on the dirt-covered housetops, where it would wither especially quickly (Psa. 129:6,7). These figures of speech serve to emphasize the diversity of ways in which God’s judgment took its toll of the condemned generation in the wilderness, whilst leaving the younger ones unscathed (91:3-7).
Anger... wrath... our iniquities... our secret sins... wrath. Telling phrases, quite appropriate to this setting. It was God’s wrath, and nothing else, that had brought such judgments on the nation (Num. 14:35; Deut. 1:35; 9:19; cp. Rom. 5:12,18).
As a tale that is told. To this day at funerals men recount tales of the life of the one who has died. The word “tale” in Hebrew has connotations of a meditation (AV mg.), a thought, or a wistful sigh (RSV).
Threescore years... fourscore. These figures represent a dramatic contrast with the ages of earlier generations. But even 130 years could be characterized, by one who had lived them, as “few and evil” (Gen. 47:9). At the time when this psalm was written, Caleb was exactly 80 and “as strong this day as in the day when Moses sent me” (Josh. 14:7,11).
So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom. The older generation at this time knew there was a set limit to their lives. By adding forty years to his age on leaving Egypt, each one of them could calculate the certain upper limit of his mortal existence. In the last year or so of the wilderness journey there must have been a frightful mortality rate amongst them.
Let it repent thee concerning thy servants. O satisfy us early (i.e., “in the morning”) with thy mercy. And for those in Israel who themselves repented, doubtless God did also. That is His character (Exod. 34:6,7).
Let... thy glory... the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us. Both phrases describe the “Shekinah Glory”, which had not been with those who had gone back into the wilderness.

4. Prophecy

Both the psalms and the historical situation behind it are to be read also as an anticipation of how God’s Purpose has operated and will work itself out with Israel and with the New Israel.

Through most of Israel’s history there has been a faithful remnant and a much bigger faithless majority. The aspirations of the former are to be read in vv. 13-17. The reprobated section of the nation (today nearly 100% of it) is described in its cast-off condition in verses 3-11.

But also, regarding the New Israel:

Verses 1 and 2 hint at a New Creation.
Verse 12 sums up the wholesome attitude of the faithful remnant.
Verse 13 alludes to Num. 10:36 — the Ark of God again in the midst of the camp. The counterpart to this is the return of Christ.
Peter quotes verse 4 about the Second Coming (2 Pet. 3:8).
Verse 16: Thy work = redeemed men and women (Psa. 145:9,10). Thy glory (Num. 14:20,21) = Matt. 16:27; 24:30; 25:31,32; Luke 21:27; Rev. 21:11; etc.

5. Other details

A comparison with Psalm 89:45-51 — about the brevity of human existence — explains why this Prayer of Moses is inserted here.

Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place. “Moses from his babyhood knew no home of his own. His childhood and young manhood were spent in Pharaoh’s Court — and the young Hebrew instructed by faithful Jochebed never recognised it as his home. When the crisis came that a decision had to be made, he refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. The next forty years of his life were in exile in Midian, tending the flock of Jethro and preparing unconsciously for being a shepherd of God’s people. The third forty years were spent in the wilderness, dwelling in tents, moving from place to place, bearing the burden of a murmuring people. The homeless man found his home in God. With him God spake face to face: ‘he warmed both hands at the fire of God’. ‘Moses was faithful in all God’s house’ ” (John Carter, “The Psalms of Moses”, The Christadelphian, Nov. 1940, p. 508).
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God (Job 38:4-8; Psa. 41:13; 106:48; Isa. 41:4; 44:6; 48:12; Rev. 1:8,11).

“For us it is difficult to conceive of a situation where time effectively does not exist. The concept of a Being that has always existed and will always continue to do so without change or decay is almost impossible for finite minds to consider. But such limited understanding does not rule out the possibility.

“To a gnat larva swimming in a pond the world must seem to consist of water, mud, and the stones and water plants of its immediate environment. A substance called air would normally be completely outside its experience, let along trees and animals. Yet after pupating it leaves the water and enters the hitherto unimagined environment where these things are commonplace, indeed are essential for its existence.

“Our experience of things outside our world is similarly limited, and it is unwise of us to pass judgment on what is possible or impossible beyond our restricted sphere of knowledge and observation. God’s revelation of Himself states that there is no time when He did not exist, nor will He cease to exist” (Peter Southgate, Thine is the Kingdom, p. 32).

And the world. The Hebrew tebel is perhaps put for all the rest of the universe besides this earth. Thus, if the mountains were created a mere 6,000 or so years ago, this passage loses most of its dramatic point; they really ought to be much older than that. And so do many conservative Bible scholars believe, without rejecting the literalness of the Genesis record.
Destruction is a double-meaning word: it also may signify “contrition”, in the sense of being beaten down (s.w. Psa. 34:18; Isa. 57:15), or “crushed” (as RV mg.), even into “dust” (as NEB, NIV, RSV). The same word occurs, as a verb, in Psa. 89:10, where Rahab = Egypt; thus implying: ‘If you return to Egypt (Num. 14:4), you will return also to Egypt’s destruction (Exod. 14:24-31).’
A thousand years... as yesterday. It must be noted in passing that there really is nothing about this phrase remotely of the precision required as a foundation for the “seven day / 7,000 year” theory. Firstly, the passage here is plainly figurative throughout. Furthermore, if the first part of the verse “proves” that one day (of 24 hours) = 1,000 literal years, then the addition of the last phrase (“and” — or ‘or’ — “as a watch in the night”) would equally “prove” that either:

(a) 28 hours (i.e., a day plus a “watch”) = 1,000 literal years, OR

(b) 4 hours (i.e., a “watch” only) = 1,000 literal years.

Either such “proof” would totally disarm any “day for a thousand years” “principle”! By the first, one day (of 24 hours) = 24/28 times 1,000 years, or 857.143 years. And by the second, one day (of 24 hours) = 6,000 years.

As to whether the “thousand years” of Revelation need be taken as a precise literal measurement of time, or merely as a round figurative number, see A.D. Norris: Apocalypse for Everyman, pp. 321-323.
In the morning... in the evening. Figuratively speaking, even the oldest of men (Gen. 5:27) do not span so much as one “day” in the life of God (v. 4)!
In the evening it (the grass) is cut down. Literally, “circumcised”, a drastic figure for the absolute cutting off of the faithless generation.
For we are consumed by thine anger. This first-person verb in-cludes Moses and Aaron. The psalm must have been written after Num. 20:12:

“Because ye [Moses and Aaron] believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.”
Thou has set our iniquities before thee. Compare Psa. 139:1-12. Contrast 103:10-15 and Isa. 38:17.

Our secret sins in the light of thy countenance. Consider Exod. 32:9 and 34:30.
The days of our years are threescore years and ten. This was remarkable then because of the greater age in earlier generations.

Yet is their strength — The word is really rahab (= Egypt in Psa. 87:4; 89:10), where Israelite life truly had been... labour and sorrow. RSV: “Yet their span (pride: mg.) is but toil and trouble.”

For it is soon cut off, and we fly away. This is a translation begotten of belief in the immortality of the soul. The Hebrew word has two related, but distinct, meanings. Here it assuredly means: ‘faint away’, or ‘wear away with toil’ (s.w. Judg. 14:21; 1 Sam. 14:28,31; 2 Sam. 21:15). It is evident to any unbiased student that this meaning — and not the other — harmonizes with the whole of the psalm.
So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom. The word “apply” describes, among other things, the “bringing” home of a harvest. Thus the “harvest” of careful and patient observation is divine wisdom!

“O that they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end!” (Deut. 32:29).

“This measuring of our days — this endeavoring to withstand the deceptive impressions of sense, and to penetrate through all the appearances and the feelings of life, to the naked fact that we are all the time on the brink of existence, and may at any moment disappear from the land of the living and the realm of being as completely as the collapsing bubble on the water — is certainly calculated to lead us to ‘apply our hearts unto wisdom’.

“In the whole of Scripture — in Genesis as in the Prophets, in the Psalms as in the Apocalypse — we are in contact with the authorized expression of the mind of God in some phase or other. Consequently, as we listen or read, whatever part it be, we are ‘applying our hearts’ to that Wisdom which purifies the present, gives stability and comfort to the remainder of our mortal days (few or many), and enriches us for the future with an inexhaustible inheritance of well-being and joy.”
Return, O Lord. The s.w. occurs in Exod. 32:12 and Num. 10:35,36.

How long? That is, ‘How long will Thy judgments last when they do come?’ Amazingly, Moses pleads for an answer in spite of having already been told precisely how long — forty years (Num. 14:27,33)! This he does, in hopes of shortening the judgments, or removing them altogether.

In another instance, Daniel knew “how long” (Dan. 9:2), but still prayed as though all depended on his prayer.

Let it repent thee:

“For the Lord shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants, when he seeth that their power is gone, and there is none shut up, or left” (Deut. 32:36).
Early = “in the morning”. What morning? The morning “when I awake, with thy likeness” (Psa. 17:15). The morning “when the upright shall have dominion over” the wicked (49:14).
Make us glad, i.e., in the Land promised.

According to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us . That is, as they had been afflicted one whole year for each day of failure (Num. 14:33), so might they now hope for a year’s blessing for each day of trial. Effectively, then, this is a prayer for immortality in a Land of milk and honey.
Thy work = men and women new-born (Psa. 145:9,10; 95:9).

(Let) thy glory (appear once again) unto their children, as in Lev. 9:23,24:

“And Moses and Aaron went into the tabernacle of the congregation, and came out, and blessed the people: and the glory of the Lord appeared unto all the people. And there came a fire out from before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces.”
The beauty of the Lord is, according to the LXX, “bright shining”. Compare the brightness of the Lord that appeared to Saul of Tarsus (Acts 26:13).

Establish thou the work of our hands:

“And the Lord shall make thee plenteous in goods, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy ground, in the land which the Lord sware unto thy fathers to give thee” (Deut. 28:12).

“And the Lord thy God will make thee plenteous in every work of thine hand, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy land, for good: for the Lord will again rejoice over thee for good, as he rejoiced over thy fathers” (30:9).

Also, this may especially refer to the making of the Tabernacle (Psa. 91:1), and — in a New Testament context — to the making of the new House of God (1 Cor. 15:10,58).

6. Postscripts

O God our help in ages past,
        Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
        And our eternal home.

Beneath the shadow of Thy Throne
        Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is Thine arm alone,
        And our defence is sure.

Before the hills in order stood,
        Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting Thou art God,
        To endless years the same.

A thousand ages in Thy sight
        Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
        Before the rising dawn.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
        Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
        Dies at the opening day.

O God, our help in ages past,
        Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while troubles last,
        And our eternal home.

                                                Isaac Watts

“So teach us to number our days,
that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”

In my hands a day,
A crystal day,
Dewy with dawn
Clear as a mountain lake.
In my hands a day!
A day to live with loveliness,
A day to speak with kindliness,
A day to give with joyfullness,
A precious day.
When night overtakes me
And reaches, crying,
“Give it! ’Tis mine!”
Serenely I’ll yield it
Lovelier at twilight
Than at dawn:
A finished day.

                Martha Weiss
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