Psalms Lecture 11: Psalm 90

THE FOLLOWING ARE NOTES FOR LECTURES GIVEN AT NEW COLLEGE, BIRMINGHAM. I AM NOT AN EXPERT AND BOOKS WILL BE CREDITED TO SHOW WHERE MY INFORMATION IS COMING FROM. IF YOU HAVE QUESTIONS, COMMENT ON THIS POST AND I WILL TRY MY BEST TO ANSWER.

~*~

A prayer of Moses the man of God.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You turn people back to dust,
saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—
they are like the new grass of the morning:
In the morning it springs up new,
but by evening it is dry and withered.

We are consumed by your anger
and terrified by your indignation.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.
All our days pass away under your wrath;
we finish our years with a moan.
10 Our days may come to seventy years,
or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
11 If only we knew the power of your anger!
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due.
12 Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

13 Relent, Lord! How long will it be?
Have compassion on your servants.
14 Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
that we may sing for joy 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 trouble.
16 May your deeds be shown to your servants,
your splendor to their children.

17 May the favor[a] of the Lord our God rest on us;
establish the work of our hands for us—
yes, establish the work of our hands.

A quick note about the Books that make up the Book of Psalms. Although we have worked through a number of psalms very quickly, knowing a little about how the books are put together. They are obviously not chronological, because otherwise a psalm by Moses would’ve come way before David. Instead there are themese that run through each book which in your own study you may have noticed. Book 1 (1-41) tends to be personal, Books 2 & 3 tend to be national, and Books 4 & 5 are more liturgical. This means that as we go through the last few psalms in this term, you may well notice that most of them are public worship. Most of the psalms in Book 4 are anonymous, but this one is attributed to Moses, and there are two more credited to David.

Psalm 90 starts Book IV of the Psalms and clearly one particular genre: Lament, specifically corporate lament of a people, a group, with Moses as their leader speaking on their behalf. It splits into 4 sections:

Part A: 1-2 God the Eternal
Part B: 3-6 Man the ephemeral
Part C: 7-12 Man under wrath
Part D: 13-17 God of grace

Just by breaking this up you can see that this psalm is how many people see prayers, testimonies, and the gospel message as a whole, again showing us the one God of the Bible rather than the Old and the New. Here if I was to paraphrase, we have:
God you are great.
Man has sinned.
We deserve the punishment for sin.
We have received the grace given by God.

But lets slow down and go through this.

Part A: God the Eternal

“Lord” here is not the translation of Yahweh, it is a title which emphasises God’s sovreignty automatically. In relation to the rest of the psalm, which feels very sad and desolate, God’s sovereignty is the answer to these points. Our brief life is answered by God’s eternity. The nearest passage to this psalm is Isaiah 40 which uses the same ideas as a comfort – God being in eternal control over what often seems like tiny fragile pieces of time. This psalm was often used in a funeral liturgy for a similar reason.
When we see the phrase “dwelling place” this also has more connections. Just like God is eternal in comparison to our mortality, God being our dwelling place is in stark contrast to the rootlessness of humanity. This is particularly relevant to Moses, who writing this psalm, has wandered with the Hebrew people around a desert, with God as their only provision and refuge.
There’s also some interesting imagery behind “brought forth” or “birth” in verse 2 because it creates an image of a womb, of God’s majesty over creation, which contrasts again with us in that creation.

Part B: 3-6 Man the ephemeral

The “dust” image is one that is pretty common for funerals and this almost certainly alludes to the curse of Adam “you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. This is the reason for man’s transcience

The time imagery is scattered all through the psalm, but a number of Jews and Christians have tried to map out the ages as a “week” of thousand year days because of this verse. However, this overlooks the secondary idea of “a watch in the night”. There are a number of comparisons in the Bible looking at amounts using these metaphors, for example, the nations being “a drop from a bucket” or “dust on the scales”. These images are meant to put our lives into context, to humble human pride by reminding us both of God’s greatness and the fragility of human life.

The addition of “sweep” just adds to the insecurity of it all emphasising the dust, the tiny nature of us and the ease in which God can effect our lives and cause our deaths.

There could also be an allusion to the manna provided by God each morning in the desert. Their lives literally depended upon God, and if they died they died in the desert surrounded by dust.

Part C: 7-12 Man under wrath

We have been reminded of the consequences of the fall, next comes the knowledge of death as our sentence for sinning against God. This is a universal shadow, a reminder of human solidarity in sin and how God takes it seriously. We have no defence against it because God’s wrath is brought on by His justice, we have no excuse.

“Consumed” here means to leave nothing left, and “overwhelmed/terrified” in some translations is the word used for an army facing disaster. Our secret sins might even be hidden from ourselves, but God sees everything and we cannot deny it.

But our view of judgement, which so often comes with fire and gnashing of teeth, here ends with an anti-climax. “Moan” here could be translated more like whisper or sigh. Death here isn’t explosions and roars, it is almost a pitying sad sigh. This makes sense when other images of sinful people are chaff, dust, the useless, empty pieces. None of this makes a sound, it’s just blown away, the waste product.

We don’t known God’s anger, His pain at our sin until He shows it to us. It is said that “the poet observes that part of the nature of sin is that men hardly ever realize the ultimate relationship between mortality and sin, because they live for the moment…”. Moses includes himself is those that need this lesson, but he has also learnt it well as he writes about the facts of death so clearly here.

Part D: 13-17 God of grace

13 Relent, Lord! How long will it be?
Have compassion on your servants.
14 Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
that we may sing for joy 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 trouble.
16 May your deeds be shown to your servants,
your splendor to their children.

17 May the favor[a] of the Lord our God rest on us;
establish the work of our hands for us—
yes, establish the work of our hands.

Echoing God’s call to us to “turn back”, Moses here asks the same of God “turn back/relent” for mercy on man, to have compassion. In the story of Moses, Moses does this a number of times – Israel messes up and Moses begs God to forgive them, which He does, only for them to screw up again. Moses knows God cares and knows of God’s provision and so He asks for mercy that God might continue providing and showing love to His chosen people, those He saved from Egypt. Moses knows that men deserve the wrath God shows them, they have sinned, but in the covenant relationship they can try again and their days can be joyful. Although here Moses only asks for a balance of good and bad days, 2 Corinthians 4 goes further and asks for “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison”.

Verses 16 & 17 contrast by comparing the perishable facts of mans life with the abiding and eternal glory of what God does. This is about the heritage of the people, and the work given to the people enduring past their own lives through Gods blessing. This is the ultimate assurance that the people have been promises, that their children will bear the fruit and the best days are yet to come. This is the grace promised and given lovingly by God.

This is the story of the Israelites in the desert, and of humanity, we have sinned, deserve Gods wrath, but as ever He loves us, provided for us, and showed us grace, and we rest in that assurance.

  • Kidner, Derek. Psalms 73-150: A Commentary on Book III, IV and V of the Psalms (Inter-Varsity Press, England, 1973).
  • Spurgeon, C. H. The Treasury of David, Volume II, Psalm LVIII to CX (Hendrickson Publishers, Massachusetts).
  • Society of Biblical Literature. The Harper Collins Study Bible (New Revised Standard Version).
  • Walton, John H. Chronolgical and Background Charts of the Old Testament (Zondervan, Michigan, 1978).
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