Psalm 90 is the first psalm in Book IV of the psalms (Psalms 90-106). The arrangement of the psalms into five books goes back at least to the time when the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek (the Septuagint) approximately 200 B.C.
Book IV looks back to the time of Moses and the Exodus. Psalm 90 speaks of judgment imposed by Yahweh on the people. Presumably, this refers to the experiences of the Israelites during the Exodus, when Yahweh punished them for their unfaithfulness.
However, a number of scholars believe that this psalm is post-exilic (written after the Babylonian Exile) when the Israelites, who had suffered five decades in virtual slavery were going through additional trials as they tried to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple.
Psalm 90 is probably best categorized as a community lament––a psalm expressing the pain of the worshiping community and crying out for relief––forgiveness––restoration.
A Prayer by Moses, the man of God.
This is the only psalm attributed to Moses. However, we must keep in mind that the superscriptions were most likely added subsequently to the writing of the psalm.
PSALM 90:1-2. YOU HAVE BEEN OUR DWELLING PLACE
1 Lord, you have been our dwelling place for all generations.
2 Before the mountains were brought forth,
before you had formed the earth and the world,
even from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.
“Lord” (Hebrew: ‘adonai) ( v. 1a). The Hebrew noun ‘adonai is used only for the Hebrew God. The Jewish people used this word in place of the covenant name Yahweh, which people thought too holy to be pronounced. It means Lord or master.
This name also appears in the last verse of this psalm, so it opens and closes the psalm.
“you have been our dwelling place (Hebrew: ma’on) for all generations” (v. 1b). While ma’on can refer to any dwelling place, in the Hebrew Scriptures it more often refers to God as Israel’s dwelling place. Elsewhere it is used to mean God’s heavenly dwelling place––or Jerusalem as God’s city.
The psalmist notes that the Lord has been Israel’s dwelling place for all generations, thus reminding God that their relationship is longstanding and deserving of special consideration.
“Before the mountains were brought forth, before you had formed the earth and the world” (Hebrew: ‘el) (v. 2ab). The psalmist acknowledges God’s eternal nature. God existed before the mountains rose to tower above the plains and before God formed the earth and the universe.
“even from everlasting to everlasting (Hebrew: ‘olam), you are God” (Hebrew: ‘el) (v. 2c). The word ‘olam means a very long time. Here it suggests God’s eternal nature, from everlasting (past) to everlasting (future)––from beginning to end––from before the beginning to an endless future.
The word ‘el is a generic word for god, and was used by surrounding tribes for their gods as well as by Hebrews for Yahweh. Hebrew Scripture sometimes uses ‘el for other gods (Exodus 34:14), but most often uses it for the God of Israel––often in conjunction with other words, such as El Shaddai, which means “God Almighty”––and Immanuel (Hebrew: immanu el, meaning “with us is God.”
PSALM 90:3-6. A THOUSAND YEARS IN YOUR SIGHT
3 You turn man to destruction, saying,
“Return, you children of men.”
4 For a thousand years in your sight
are just like yesterday when it is past,
like a watch in the night.
5 You sweep them away as they sleep.
In the morning they sprout like new grass.
6 In the morning it sprouts and springs up.
By evening, it is withered and dry.
This begins a lament, expressing sorrow over loss. The lament and an appeal for mercy constitute the rest of the psalm.
“You turn (Hebrew: sub) man to destruction (Hebrew: dakka), saying, ‘Return (Hebrew: sub), you children of men'” (Hebrew: ‘adam) (v.
3). The word sub has a number of meanings: Turn, return, and restore being three of the more prominent ones.
In this verse, the psalmist uses sub twice––the first time to say that Yahweh turns people toward destruction––and the second time to say that Yahweh invites them to return––to experience restoration––to come home to God.
Note the sequence. Yahweh turns people to destruction. When they sin, he punishes them. The punishment, however, is intended, not to destroy them, but to bring them face to face with the consequences of their sins so they will be inclined to return––to experience restoration––to come home to God.
The word dakka means destroyed, and is related to the word daka, which means to crush. Psalm 34:18 says, “Yahweh…saves those who have a crushed (dakka) spirit.” Dakka often takes on the meanings humble or contrite.
The idea that Yahweh crushes people might sound cruel or vindictive, but it is usually used as the first stage of Yahweh’s redemptive activity. A proud person is unlikely to listen to an appeal to repent, but a person who has been crushed or humbled is more likely to be open to such a call.
As I think about the word crushed, it occurs to me that we often crush things to make them more absorbent or malleable. That’s the sense that we have here.
“For a thousand years in your sight are just like yesterday when it is past (Hebrew: ‘abar), like a watch (Hebrew: ‘asmurah) in the night” (v. 4). The word ‘abar (past) has a number of meanings. The ones that apply here are past or passed.
The word ‘asmurah (watch or night watch) refers to the period of time that a man would be standing guard––typically four hours but sometimes longer. Guard duty was important, because it provided protection against enemies and thieves. In some cases, the guard’s faithfulness (or lack thereof) would determine whether people would live or die.
A night watch could seem nearly endless. If you doubt that, try standing four hours looking into the darkness, knowing that any small movement in the distance could signal impending disaster.
But an uneventful night watch, once past, would be quickly forgotten––would fade into the dim recesses of memory and disappear from sight.
For God, a thousand years would have that same ephemeral nature––would pass by and fade from view as completely as would a four-hour night watch.
“You sweep them away as they sleep.
In the morning they sprout like new grass” (v. 5). What is it that Yahweh sweeps away? What is it that sprouts anew in the morning? It must be the thousand years mentioned in verse 4. Just as a guard’s mind doesn’t linger on his four-hour watch once it has gone, Yahweh doesn’t linger over a millennium once it has passed by.
“In the morning it sprouts and springs up.
By evening, it is withered and dry” (v. 6). A restatement of verse 5. This is vivid language––especially for readers whose livelihood depended on their crops. They had seen plants fail to thrive––spring up quickly and die almost as quickly. That was a sobering reality.
Jesus uses that imagery in the parable of the sower (or soils) (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23). He speaks of seed sown on the pathway that is snatched away by the evil one––and seed sown on rocky ground that sprouts quickly but finding no root dies just as quickly––and seed sown among thorns that sprouts but fails to survive competition from weeds. For a farmer, these could spell disaster. But Jesus concluded that parable on a positive note with seed sown on fertile ground that would bear a bountiful harvest.
PSALM 90:7-10. WE ARE CONSUMED IN YOUR ANGER
7 For we are consumed in your anger.
We are troubled in your wrath.
8 You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.
9 For all our days have passed away in your wrath.
We bring our years to an end as a sigh.
10 The days of our years are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty years;
yet their pride is but labor and sorrow,
for it passes quickly, and we fly away.
“For we are consumed (Hebrew: kalah) in your anger (Hebrew: ‘ap). We are troubled (Hebrew: bahal) in your wrath” (Hebrew: hema 2534)
(v. 7). The word kalah (consumed) can be used positively (completed, finished) or negatively (consumed). It is used in the negative sense here.
The word ‘ap (anger) means nose, nostril, or anger. That seems peculiar. What do noses have to do with anger? Two common phrases come to mind that provide a clue. The first is “flared nostrils,” which can be a sign of intense anger––the kind of anger that could lead to violence. The second is “his nose is out of joint,” which means that he is disturbed or angry or holding a grudge.
The word bahal (troubled) means dismayed, troubled, or terrified. In this verse, terrified might better convey the meaning. When faced with God’s wrath, people are likely to be terrified that God will soon strike them dead––will be to them a consuming fire.
“You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence” (v. 8). This is Israel’s problem. Yahweh has compiled a record of their iniquities and secret sins. The great light of Yahweh’s aura has highlighted their sins in stark detail. The holy Yahweh sees their unholiness, and is sure to find them unworthy––because they are, in fact, unworthy––as are we all.
They aren’t sure what to expect, but are terrified at the prospect of a just God acting justly toward them. They understand that justice will spell their demise.
“For all our days have passed away in your wrath. We bring our years to an end as a sigh” (Hebrew hegeh) (v. 9). The psalmist’s takes a melancholy, sad view of life. The days slip away as he and his people live under God’s wrath––under his judgment.
The word hegeh (sigh) can be translated in several ways, all of which have to do with sounds that emanate from deep within the body. The meanings most appropriate to this verse are moans or sighs, sounds that signal resignation to an unpleasant reality––in this case, God’s wrath and their resulting separation from God.
“The days of our years are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty years” (v. 10ab). In this case, seventy and eighty years are intended to show the brevity of life––but those represent an optimistic estimate for people living before the advent of modern medicine. I once did a study of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and found that many died in their fifties.
But the psalmist is saying that, even if the person has the good fortune to live to seventy or eighty years, those years pass by quickly––and then are gone forever.
“yet their pride (Hebrew: rohab) is but labor (Hebrew: ‘amal) and sorrow” (v. 10c). The word rohab means strength or vigor or vitality. The word ‘amal means trouble, labor, toil, or hardships.
The psalmist is saying that what we celebrate as strength or vitality is really only trouble and toil. In the best of our days, we must still earn our bread by the sweat of our brow and endure the many hardships and sorrows associated with human life.
“for it passes quickly, and we fly away” (v. 10d). What is it that passes by quickly? It is our rohab––our strength, vigor, or vitality.
As I write this, I am 78 years old, and am experiencing waning vitality. Today a friend of similar age asked my help to load a garden cart into his pickup. It seemed like such a small thing that he was apologetic about needing help. I commented that the things that seemed easy thirty years ago no longer seem easy. He heartily concurred.
My friend has cancer, and will almost certainly fly away in the next year or so. I will almost certainly do so within the next decade. Old age is fine as long as you are healthy, but often entails falling apart inch by inch. I hope that won’t be my fate.
Lest that sound morose, I should mention that I have had a good life, and still have one in spite of age and health issues. I was blessed by a wonderful mother and am now blessed with an equally wonderful wife. We have two children who have turned out well. I served as an Army chaplain for 26 years, and enjoyed the attendant travel and experiences. I have been publishing SermonWriter for two decades, and feel good about helping preachers with sermons––and a wider audience with Biblical literacy––but the psalmist is right. Those years did pass by quickly, and I am now anticipating flying away.
PSALM 90:11-12. WHO KNOWS THE POWER OF YOUR ANGER
11 Who knows the power of your anger,
your wrath according to the fear that is due to you?
12 So teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
“Who knows the power of your anger, your wrath according to the fear (Hebrew: yir’ah) that is due to you?” (v. 11).
Finite humans are ill-prepared to understand the infinite God––to fathom his anger and wrath. The noun yir’ah is related to the verb yare’ (to fear, respect, or reverence) and the adjective yare’ (fearful or afraid). While it might seem inappropriate that we should fear a loving God, it makes sense to fear inspiring his wrath.
But yir’ah means more than fear. It also means respect or reverence. It is also wholly appropriate to respect God––to reverence him––to bow before him and give him praise––to honor his name. Those things aren’t optional, but are instead God’s due––what we owe him.
“So teach us to number our days, (Hebrew: yom) that we may gain a heart (Hebrew: lebab) of wisdom” (v. 12). When plural, as it is here, the word yom (days) can mean “span of life.” The psalmist is asking God to help the people come to a reckoning of their days––their lives––to come to grips with the brevity of life.
The word lebab (heart) refers to a person’s inner being. The psalmist (and the worshipping community) is asking God for the kind of wisdom that wells up from deep within a Godly soul.
PSALM 90:13-17. RELENT! HAVE COMPASSION! SATISFY US!
13 Relent, Yahweh!
Have compassion on your servants!
14 Satisfy us in the morning with your loving kindness,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
for as many years as we have seen evil.
16 Let your work appear to your servants;
your glory to their children.
17 Let the favor of the Lord our God be on us;
establish the work of our hands for us;
yes, establish the work of our hands.
“Relent (Hebrew: sub), Yahweh!” (v. 13a). The word sub is used frequently in the Hebrew scriptures, and means turn or return or restore. The psalmist is asking Yahweh to turn away from his anger, which has caused him to punish the people for their sins.
“How long?” (v. 13b). The psalmist cries out in pain––pain that has gone on until it has become unbearable. Rather than a plea for information about the amount of time left to suffer, it is the cry of a broken heart that has already suffered too long.
“Have compassion on your servants!” (v. 13c). Having stated that their suffering has gone on too long, the psalmist makes a plea for compassion––for pity––for mercy––for grace.
He adds emphasis to his plea by reminding Yahweh that these people are his servants. That, of course, exaggerates their relationship to Yahweh. If they had been serving Yahweh faithfully, they would not have suffered as they are now suffering.
But there is nevertheless a close bond––a covenantal bond––between Yahweh and these people. At their best, they are Yahweh’s servants. At their best, they do what Yahweh wants them to do. The psalmist is pleading with Yahweh to treat them as if they are at their best now.
“Satisfy (Hebrew: saba) us in the morning with your loving kindness,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (v. 14). The verb saba means to satisfy or to fill. It suggests filling to the brim, so that the person being filled needs nothing more. It is sometimes used negatively to mean sated––gorged––as in Proverbs 1:31, where sinners are saba (gorged) “with their own schemes.”
What is the psalmist asking when he says, “Satisfy us in the morning”? While he could have in mind receiving God’s blessing at the beginning of the day, the next phrase, “that we may rejoice and be glad all our days,” suggests that this is a prayer that God will fill them with his loving kindness in their youth so they can enjoy that blessing throughout their lives.
The psalmist doesn’t pray for God to make them wealthy or successful in battle. Instead, he wisely asks God to fill them with God’s loving kindness, a more enduring kind of blessing.
“Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen evil” (v. 15). There were various times when Israel felt especially afflicted: Slavery in Egypt––the wilderness wanderings––the Babylonian Exile. Since this psalm is one of those associated with Moses (see the Introduction above), the psalmist surely has in mind Israel’s time in Egypt or in the wilderness thereafter.
The psalmist is asking something great. Israel spent 430 years in Egypt (Exodus 12:40-41)––400 of those years in slavery (Genesis 15:13). Israel spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness. The psalmist is asking God to match those sorrowful days with an equal number of joyful days.
“Let your work (Hebrew: po’al) appear to your servants; your glory to their children” (v. 16). The noun po’al means a deed or act or work or accomplishment. This verse constitutes a prayer that God will make a visible display of their redemption.
“Let the favor (Hebrew: no’am) of the Lord our God (Hebrew: ‘adonai nu ‘elohim) be on us” (v. 17a). The noun no’am means pleasantness or beauty or approval or delight. In this case, it probably means approval or delight.
If God responded to Israel’s sin by removing his approval, he can just as easily restore it. That is Israel’s prayer here.
The removing and restoring of approval is one of the constants of life––not only in our relationship to God, but also in our relationship to husband or wife, parent or child, friends, neighbors, fellow believers. Paul tells us that we are all sinners (Romans 3:23), and the truth is that most of us offend God or others on a fairly regular basis. Apart from forgiveness and restoration, we would be hopelessly lost.
For the meaning of ‘adonai, see the comments on verse 1a above. As noted above, the psalmist uses this name for God in the first and last verses of this psalm.
The noun elohim means a god or gods (Note the small g). When used in in the plural to refer to Yahweh, it means that Yahweh sums up all that is godly.
“establish (Hebrew: kun) the work (Hebrew: ma’aseh) of our hands for us; yes, establish the work of our hands” (v. 17bc). In verse 16 (above), the psalmist prayed that God would make his work (po’al) visible to the worshiping community. Now he uses a more common word, ma’aseh, to pray that God will establish (kun) the work of the people’s hands.
The verb kun (establish) means to set up or make firm or establish or prepare. It is used for restoring an object to an upright position, so it has a sense of elevation. It is used for establishing a royal dynasty, which also has a sense of elevation. In this verse, the prayer is that God will lift up the work of the worshiping community’s hands––that he will bless that work so that it will prosper.
This contrasts dramatically with Israel’s current circumstances, as related in verses 3-12. Those verses portray Israel as “consumed in (God’s) anger” (v. 7) and revealed before God to be sinners (v. 8). They had portrayed their lives as passing quickly and flying away (v. 10).
So they are asking God to redeem them––to restore their lives––to make it possible for them to live meaningfully, purposefully, and faithfully. That is a prayer that all of us should pray on some regular basis, even if we are living what the world would consider to be successful lives. The gulf is great that separates worldly renown and meaningful, purposeful, and faithful lives.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150, Vol. 14b (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 90-150, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2016)
Tate, Marvin E., Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 51-100 (Dallas: Word Books, 1990)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
Copyright 2018, Richard Niell Donovan