The Agora
Bible Commentary

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Psalm 90

Psa 90:1

BOOK 4 has 17 psalms, poss intended to be sung over 8-day Feast of Tabernacles, ie 9 evenings and 8 mornings. (See Psa 92:1,2: "in the morning... at night". Also see Psa 96:2: "day after day".)

SUPERSCRIPTION: "A PRAYER OF MOSES THE MAN OF GOD". 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 40 years of wandering -- "a year for a day", to match the 40 days spent searching the Land (Num 14:30-34) -- and all those from 20 and upward who came out of Egypt were condemned to die in the wilderness (Num 26:64).

LORD, YOU HAVE BEEN OUR DWELLING PLACE: "Maon": cp Psa 91:9, sw; also sw in Psa 26:8; 68:5; 71:3. Cp also Deu 33:27 (the words of Moses: "The eternal God is thy refuge (maon)". It is poss that "Turn back... and set out toward the desert" (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 prob 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.

"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' " (JC, "The Psalms of Moses", Xd 77:508).

THROUGHOUT 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.

Psa 90:2

"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 alone 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 32).

"God remains. He will never disappoint us, never disillusion us, never mock us with dissolving shadow where all our hopeful joy thought there was substance and reality. He will never be unkind, or selfish, or unfeeling, or impatient, or harsh, or uninterested. He will never misunderstand us, or trample on our affections, or falsely accuse us, or suspect us when our motives are pure and true. He is always with us -- any place, any moment -- with limitless help, limitless comfort, limitless patience and understanding, limitless, eternal love. When all others fail us, or turn from us, or leave us, still God remains -- all-satisfying, all-sufficient -- His preciousness increasingly magnified by every sorrow, every loss, every bitter disappointment. God is real, dependable, eternal. All else, all human things, are fantasy" (GVG).

WORLD: The Heb "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.

Psa 90:3

The first phrase, using "enosh" (frail, mortal man), ref to Israel's banishment back into the wilderness. The rest of the v (with its "sons of Adam") echoes Gen 3:19, where Adam was told: "By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return" (cp Gen 18:27; Psa 22:15; 104:29; Ecc 3:20; 12:7).

DUST (1st): "Destruction" (AV) is a double-meaning word: it also may sig "contrition", in the sense of being beaten down (sw Psa 34:18; Isa 57:15), or "crushed" (as RV mg), even into "dust" (as NEB, NIV, RSV). The sw 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 (Exo 14:24-31).'

Psa 90:4

Vv 4-6: Five very powerful figures of speech: Even 1,000 years is in the sight of God....
  1. as yesterday, when it is past (cp 2Pe 3:8), and
  2. as a watch in the night -- a period, by Jewish reckoning, of about four hours.

And man is carried away....
  1. as with a flood;
  2. as a sleep (Psa 6:5; 13:3; 146:3,4), or a "dream" (RSV); and
  3. 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; Mat 6:30; Jam 1:10,11; 1Pe 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 esp 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 (Psa 91:3-7).

V 4: There really is nothing about this phrase remotely of the precision required as a foundation for the "7 day / 7,000 year" theory. Firstly, the passage here is plainly figurative throughout. Furthermore, if the first part of the v "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 (ie a day plus a "watch") = 1,000 literal years, or (b) 4 hours (ie 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 Rev need be taken as a precise lit measurement of time, or merely as a round figurative number, see NRev 321-323.

Psa 90:5

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)!

Psa 90:7

Vv 7-9: 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; Deu 1:35; 9:19; cp Rom 5:12,18).

WE ARE CONSUMED BY YOUR ANGER: This first-person verb includes Moses and Aaron. The psalm must have been written after Num 20:12: "Because you [Moses and Aaron] did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them."

Psa 90:8

YOU HAVE SET OUR INIQUITIES BEFORE YOU: Cp Psa 139:1-12. Ct Psa 103:10-15 and Isa 38:17.


Psa 90:9

WITH A MOAN: "As a tale that is told" (AV). To this day at funerals men recount tales of the life of the one who has died. The word "tale" in Heb has connotations of a meditation (AV mg), a thought, or a wistful sigh (RSV).

Psa 90:10

These figures represent a dramatic ct 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" (Jos 14:7,11).

THE LENGTH OF OUR DAYS IS SEVENTY YEARS: This was remarkable then because of the greater age in earlier generations.

YET THEIR SPAN IS BUT TROUBLE AND SORROW: "Span" = rahab (= Egypt in Psa 87:4; 89:10), where Israelite life truly had been... labor and sorrow.

FOR THEY QUICKLY PASS, AND WE FLY AWAY: Translation based on belief in the immortality of the soul. The Heb word has two related, but distinct, meanings. Here it assuredly means: 'faint away', or 'wear away with toil' (sw Jdg 14:21; 1Sa 14:28,31; 2Sa 21:15), which harmonizes with the whole of the psalm.

Psa 90:12

TEACH US TO NUMBER OUR DAYS ARIGHT: The older generation at this time knew there was a set limit to their lives. By adding 40 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.

GAIN: Describes, among other things, the "bringing" home of a harvest. Thus the "harvest" of careful and patient observation is divine wisdom!

A HEART OF WISDOM: "Christ's brethren and sisters have no time for games or for unnecessary activities not related to eternity. They are provided with a full schedule of activity by the master, which leaves no room for the foolishness and amusements of the world. They are called to total application to study and work and preparation for eternity. It is a tragedy that so few realize this. So many appear to think that they can coast into eternity, like the pampered passengers on a luxury cruise. Let us all grow up and put away these frivolities, and awake to the magnitude of our opportunities and responsibilities" (GVG).

"We all sorely complain of the shortness of time, and yet have much more than we know what to do with. Our lives are either spent in doing nothing at all, or in doing nothing to the purpose, or in doing nothing that we ought to do. We are always complaining that our days are few, and acting as though there would be no end of them" (Seneca, Roman statesman).

"Waste of time is the most extravagant of all expense" (Theophrastus, c 372-287 BC).

"Most time is wasted, not in hours, but in minutes. A bucket with a small hole in the bottom gets just as empty as a bucket that is deliberately kicked over" (Paul Meyer).

"You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late" (Ralph Waldo Emerson).

Psa 90:13

RELENT: "Return: (AV). Sw in Exo 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 -- 40 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.

Psa 90:15

FOR AS MANY YEARS AS WE HAVE SEEN TROUBLE: 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.

Psa 90:16

Vv 16,17: "Splendor" and "favor" ("beauty") describe the Shekinah Glory, which had not been with those who remained in the wilderness.

YOUR DEEDS: Men and women new-born (Psa 145:9,10; 95:9).


Psa 90:17

ESTABLISH THE WORK OF OUR HANDS: See Deu 28:12; 30:9. Also, this may esp ref to the making of the Tabernacle (Psa 91:1), and -- in a NT context -- to the making of the new House of God (1Co 15:10,58).

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