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Deeper Commentary

Psa 90:1

Book IV
A Prayer by Moses, the man of God-
I suggest this is inserted at this point in the Psalter because it is being used in the context of the exiles. Although Psalm 89 is in book 3 of the Psalms and Psalm 90 begins book 4, there are connections between the two Psalms; not least Ps. 89:47,48 = Ps. 90:3-10. This prayer of Moses is an appeal for God to rethink His condemnation of Israel to not entering the promised land, and to the 40 year period of exile from it before they could enter it. This of course meant that the generation which had left Egypt would die without entering the land. And Moses seeks to change God's mind about this, just as he had changed God's mind about His intention to destroy Israel completely; and just as Moses sought to have his own rejection from entering the land abrogated. This was exactly relevant to the exiles, who wanted the 70 years exile to be shortened, and for their generation to reenter the land and see the restoration of the Kingdom of God there. As noted on Ps. 89:47,48, they did not want to die before seeing this happen. But as Moses' intercession for these things was not answered as he wished, so the exiles were to largely die in exile. Psalm 91 however is connected to Psalm 90, and speaks of how the salvation of Israel was to be through Joshua - Jesus. This was the answer to Moses' struggle and for that of the exiles.

Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations-
The allusion may be to Moses' words that God was the safe dwelling place of Israel (Dt. 33:27). Joshua is commended for making Yahweh his dwelling place (Ps. 91:9). But He was not the point of refuge for Israel in all their generations, in that they had chosen other gods.

There is a repeated Biblical theme that the believer's relationship with the Father too is essentially mutual. For example, we dwell in God (Ps. 90:1), and He dwells in us (1 Cor. 3:16). Thus "he that dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him" (1 Jn. 4:15,16). We respond to God's call of us by calling upon Him (1 Cor. 1:2).

Psa 90:2

Before the mountains were brought forth, before You had formed the land and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God-
We are reading here the "prayer" of Moses (:1). But these opening verses make it clear that prayer is meditation before God, and not simply requests. "Brought forth... formed [Heb. 'give birth to']" suggests that the world was formed out of God. The idea of literal creatio ex nihilo isn't Biblical. This world is made out of God and is therefore not separate from Him. Man is not alone; we aren't cut adrift from our creator. God is so closely with us. He isn't far from every one of us. The fact God is in Heaven and we on earth doesn't mean He is far from us. In human terms, spatiality means apartness; but not for God, who fills Heaven and earth. His being in space and time breaks in to our experience of space and time. Note too that God is perfect / complete in and of Himself; He didn't "need" us. But He created us and then speaks as if He does in some sense "need" us. The point is, creation was an act of grace. All complaints at the seeming injustice and suffering of creation miss this point. Note too that "brought forth" implies God as a mother / female. His nature is such that He is able to identify with both male and female.

Psa 90:3

You turn man to destruction saying, Return, you children of men-
Ps. 90:3 implies that each person dies as a result of a conscious, specific command from God; not just because of natural processes. The specific reference is to God's command that Israel were to die in the wilderness. Moses is begging God to change this judgment; hence LXX "Turn not man back to his low place, whereas thou saidst, Return, ye sons of men".

And yet the allusion is also to the curse in Eden; it is as if God speaks Gen. 3:19 to each person who dies. In this sense the Bible is a living word; the Red Sea and other salvations of God are as it were performed in an ongoing sense to us each one today. Likewise Abel "is yet spoken of" (Heb. 11:4 AVmg.).The passage in the scrolls that said "I am the God of Abraham" was "spoken unto you by God", Jesus told first century Israel (Mt. 22:31). And so Moses really provides his own answer. He is desperate for the 40 year condemnation period to be changed so that he and his generation could enter Canaan. But in fact they were all going to return to the dust anyway, in accordance with Gen. 3:19. And the conclusion really is that our focus ought to be upon a resurrection from the dead, rather than seeking some kind of kingdom now.

Psa 90:4

For a thousand years in Your sight are just like yesterday when it is past, like a watch in the night-
Was Moses right to imply that God forgets about His creatures, just as we sleep through the night watch unaware of its passing? Ps. 90 is Moses' prayer asking for God's judgment against Israel and himself in the wilderness to be changed. He had reasoned with God and changed His earlier decision to destroy Israel and make of Moses a great nation. But this prayer of Moses went unanswered- "speak no more unto Me of this matter" (Dt. 3:26).

However, this Psalm is an example of how intimate a man can become with God. Moses pleads that man only lives 70 years, maybe 80- so, cut us some slack, God, and reverse our judgment (Ps. 90:10). He waxes very poetic and eloquent about our humanity. But fails to persuade God. And he also rather oddly seems to ignore the fact that he was blessed with 120 years of life with his youthful vigour unabated. He describes our return to dust as being a result of God's wrath and anger (Ps. 90:3,7)- suggesting some resentment at God's judgment of man in Gen. 3, just as Moses resented how God had judged him and Israel. He argues that they had already suffered quite enough evil in Egypt (Ps. 90:15) and asks if God can't give that generation just a little joy in life.

Ps. 90:4 could be seen as Moses arguing 'You've got eternity; we only have a delicate, fragile, grief-filled 70 years. So please, relent on your idea of filling all our human lives with grief by not letting us into the promised land'. Ps. 90:8 sounds like Moses objected to God scrutinizing our "secret sins", and Ps. 90:11 speaks as if God's anger and wrath were just too much. He clearly had a problem accepting the justice of God's punishment against sin, as did the exiles; hence this prayer wasn't answered. But it's the intimacy with God, that a man feels he can speak like this to God, which is the exhortation.

Psa 90:5

You sweep them away as they sleep; in the morning they sprout like new grass-
LXX "Years shall be vanity to them: let the morning pass away as grass". Moses is complaining that the 40 years of wandering would just be wasted years of vanity. But that is indeed what condemnation will be like, and Moses and the exiles (in different contexts) all come over as railing against consequence of sin, rather than focusing upon repentance and the final fulfilment of God's purpose. The language here is that used of the destruction of the Egyptians at the Red Sea (Ps. 77:17 is the only other occurrence of "You sweep them away"), where "in the morning" the Egyptians were dead (Ex. 14:24,27) and had to be replaced by a new generation ["new grass"]. Moses is complaining that the condemned generation were being treated like the Egyptians slain at the Red Sea. But that was indeed appropriate; for in their hearts they had returned to Egypt, and Ezekiel records that they had taken the idols of Egypt with them through the Red Sea. But again, the consequence of sin is focused upon, rather than admission of sin.  

Psa 90:6

In the morning it sprouts and springs up; by evening, it is withered and dry-
Indeed this is the case. Moses seems to be arguing that the condemned generation would have a tragically vain life experience, as if they were grass which grew up in the morning and then was dead by evening. But this therefore leads the condemned sinner [which is all of us] to a desire for forgiveness and resurrection to eternity. But that connection isn't made here as the prophets intended it to be made.

But all this is interpreted in James 1:11 so positively. If we are indeed so fleeting and weak, then don't worry about getting rich. Don't trust in man nor in wealth. Because man is so weak. Likewise in Ps. 90:12- numbering our days, realizing their brevity, will help us get a heart of wisdom.

Psa 90:7

For we are consumed in Your anger, we are troubled in Your wrath-
God had earlier wanted to "consume" Israel, but the intercession of Moses had stopped this (Num. 16:21,45 s.w.), as did that of Phinehas (Num. 25:11 s.w.). The threat of being "consumed" by God's anger was part of the covenant Israel had made with Him (s.w. Dt. 28:21). They were suffering the agreed consequence of sin, and yet Moses presents this as being unreasonably harsh (:6). And so Moses' request was not answered, at least not as he then desired. For God did indeed "consume" Israel with vanity, a vanity they themselves had chosen (s.w. Ps. 78:33). But this was only after vowing to "consume" them both in Egypt and in the wilderness, and then He had relented out of pure pity and grace for them (Ez. 20:13,14,21,22). He had relented multiple times before; but Moses was not allowed this time to cash in on that. And this was true of the exiles, whom God also "consumed" for their sins (s.w. Jer. 5:3; 9:16; 14:12 and very often). o

Psa 90:8

You have set our iniquities before You, our secret sins in the light of Your face-
Moses perceived that Israel [and his?] rejection from the land wasn't just due to one incident, but because of their secret sins being viewed by God. Moses himself had been often in the light of God's countenance. David in his penitential Psalms concerning Bathsheba and Uriah likewise at times perceives that there were many other sins involved than "just" adultery and murder.

This is not Moses reproaching God; rather is it him soberly recognizing why they were barred from the land. Notice "our iniquities... our sins". Moses was completely at one with condemned Israel, he knew exactly how they felt- just as the Lord Jesus with us. It is a fundamental, if neglected, doctrine that the Lord Jesus was our representative. This really ought to be a source of comfort to us, as we sense the involvement of the Son of God in our lives, one who can truly empathize (rather than just sympathize) with our spiritual struggle. This is so clearly taught by the typology of Moses as a type of Christ. Although he spoke to God as a friend, with an open-faced relationship, he still took upon himself the sin of Israel, he felt as condemned as they felt (Ex. 34:9 cp. Ex. 33:11); when he pleaded for God's sentence on him to be lifted, he pleaded for the same sentence on Israel to be lifted too (Ps. 90:8).

So here in Psalm 90 Moses pleads for his rejection and that of his people to be reversed. He says that the reason for their rejection was God setting their "secret sins" in the light of His countenance. He felt his rejection was due to his secret sins- not the one painfully public failure. The Hebrew for "secret" means 'that behind the veil'; it is from the same root as the Hebrew for 'young girl', i.e. a veiled one. He felt the sins he had committed behind the veil he wore before Israel had been exposed in the light of the Angel's face. Remember that Moses always appeared to Israel with a veil (Ex. 34:33-35; 2 Cor. 3:16-18 RV), only removing it when he spoke face to face with the Angel, radiating the light of God's glory to him. It seems Moses is alluding to this in Ps. 90:8; he felt that he had many secret sins of the heart, hidden to Israel, but completely open to the Angel when he met with him. Likewise Israel were rejected because of the sins of their heart rather than their grosser failures (Acts 7:39; and see the reason for their condemnation given in many other passages).

Psa 90:9

For all our days have passed away in Your wrath, we bring our years to an end as a sigh-
"Bring... to an end" is s.w. "consumed" in :7; see note there. It seems Moses is making this prayer towards the start of the forty years wandering and exile from the land. Otherwise there would be little point in begging for the judgment to be reversed. So he may be speaking imagining how things would be at the end of the period; their days would have been wasted in vanity, coming to an end with a sigh of regret. But he fails to see the possibility of being resurrected to eternity in a future, restored Kingdom situation.

"As a sigh" is AV "As a tale that is told", perhaps a reference to the tradition of giving a summary of the deceased's life at their funeral? Is. 53:8 laments that this wasn't done at the death of Messiah. The idea perhaps is that as it takes a mere 20 minutes to summarize a person's life, so in the context of infinity, that is indeed how brief it is.

Psa 90:10

The days of our years are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty years-
Lifespans were still relatively long at Moses' time; his father Amram apparently lived to over 130 years, and Moses to 120. The mention of 70 years may have been the result of an edit by the exiles, lamenting that the 70 years of exile from the land would be pointless living; just as Moses had complained about the 40 years of exile from the land at his time.

LXX "As for the days of our years, in them are seventy years; and if men should be in strength, eighty years: and the greater part of them would be labour and trouble; for weakness overtakes us, and we shall be chastened". The idea is that there is just no point in life if they could not enter the land. Normally, we would prefer to die at 80 rather than 70. But in the context of the argument here, if they weren't going to enter the land, then living another ten years in exile was vanity and worthless.

Yet their pride is but labour and sorrow, for it passes quickly, and we pass away-
"Labour and sorrow" is the phrase translated "iniquity and perverseness" (Num. 23:21), which initially God saw in the wilderness generation, but did not count against them. But they chose to live in it, and so they were made to live like that for 40 years. The same phrase is used of how the exiles chose to live in "mischief and iniquity" (Is. 59:4), and so their glory flew away (s.w. "pass away") as a bird (s.w. Hos. 9:11).

Psa 90:11

Who knows the power of Your anger, Your wrath according to the fear that is due to You?-
David could be saying that God's anger was incomprehensible, out of proportion to the sin committed, too much wrath for Israel not showing Him enough fear. And of course he would have been wrong in this. Or it could be that he is musing that according to our perceptions of God we will be judged. God's mercy is upon us according as we trust in Him. And His wrath according as we fear it, Moses appears to be saying. The way the servant was judged out of his own mouth, with the Lord being the kind of "hard man" he thought He was (Mt. 25:24), is surely the principle of Ps. 90:11 AV: "Even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath" (in practice).


Psa 90:12

So teach us to number our days so that we may gain a heart of wisdom-
The condemned generation knew that within 40 years they would be dead. And so they could number their days. But the time to be wise had passed; they had chosen not to be, hence the lament: "O that they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end!" (Dt. 32:29).

LXX presents this as a another plea for God to become active in the salvation of His people immediately, rather than after the 40 years wandering: "And who knows how to number his days because of the fear of thy wrath? So manifest thy right hand". This would suggest that numbering days was pointless because they were under God's wrath. They were indeed, but instead of pestering God to change their condemnation, the focus instead might have been upon confession of sin and hope in the resurrection of the body to the restored Kingdom at the last day.

Psa 90:13

Relent, Yahweh! How long? Have compassion on Your servants!-
This is the "How long?" asked by the exiles so often in the Psalms. They wanted immediate restoration, just as Moses wanted the 40 year period to be cut short. This 'prayer of Moses' (title) is lamenting how Israel were being destroyed by the Angel as they wandered in the forty year period of punishment. It may even be that the Angel left Israel in a sense (hence "Return O Lord") although still leading them. Thus there are different degrees of the Angelic presence- as at the restoration the Angel did in a limited sense return to the temple, having left them when the cherubim departed from Zion (as Ezekiel records).

Yet Moses clearly believed that this period of decreed punishment could be shortened ("satisfy us early with Thy mercy") by the Angel repenting. Previously his prayers had succeeded in making the Angel repent of the evil that He had planned to do to Israel, and Moses evidently hoped the Angel would again repent. 

"Relent" is s.w. Ex. 32:12 "Turn from Your fierce wrath". Ps. 90:11 has just spoken of God's fierce wrath. Moses' hope was always that God would "repent" if He perceived the depth of Israel's suffering (Dt. 32:36 "The Lord will repent Himself for His servants when He sees that their power is gone"]. "Return" may also be a request for God's presence to return again to the tabernacle rather than being outside it. All this was exactly what the exiles were asking; and yet they failed to focus upon the fact they had sinned, failed to give much emphasis to repentance, and seem more concerned about the immediate removal of the consequence of sins, rather than looking ahead to the last day.

Psa 90:14

Satisfy us in the morning with Your grace, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days-
AV has "satisfy us early", i.e. 'reduce the time period of judgment upon us, and let us enter the land'. Or [Heb.], Moses may be asking for an answer "in the morning", immediately, right after his night of prayer.

Psa 90:15

Make us glad for as many days as You have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen evil-
The thoughts of Moses here were reflected in the exiles; but they all failed to perceive that they had been judged less than their sins deserved (Ezra 9:13). Whereas the reasoning here seems to be that God needs to as it were put right what He did in judging His people. The "afflicted" years would refer to the entire sojourn in Egypt (s.w. Gen. 15:13; Ex. 1:12). But this "affliction" was intended to bring them to repentance (1 Kings 8:35; Ps. 119:67,71). The affliction could therefore be ended by repentance; but instead of that, there is simply a demand that God simply overturn the consequence of sin.

Psa 90:16

Let Your work appear to Your servants-
But God's work had appeared to them all, but they had chosen to disbelieve it (s.w. Ps. 95:9); and the phrase is used of how the exiles had done likewise and were therefore in exile (Is. 5:12).

Your glory to their children-
Moses desired that God’s glory would “appear… upon / unto” the children of God’s servants. He wanted all God’s children to have the same experience of glory appearing to them as he had had. And according to 2 Cor. 3:18, this desire is fulfilled every time a man turns to the Lord Jesus, and like Moses, with unveiled face, beholds that same glory. In the immediate context, he wanted the visible glory of God to appear not just to him in his separate tabernacle, but to all God's people. For as explained on :17, the Angel of glory no longer was going in their midst (Ex. 33:3).

Psa 90:17

Let the grace of the Lord our God be upon us-
LXX "And let the brightness of the Lord our God be upon us". This would be a request for the Angel of glory to return amongst the Israelites. God had clearly stated "I will not go up in the midst of you" (Ex. 33:3); but Moses asked all the same for God [in the form of the Angel of glory?] to go among them" (Ex. 34:9). And he is doing the same here. For the exiles, it would have meant a desire for the shekinah glory, perhaps literally associated with the same Angel, to return to Zion. Ezekiel had in vision seen it departing.

Establish the work of our hands for us; yes, establish the work of our hands-
In Dt. 16:15 is used of Israel in the land, obedient and blessed. Moses wishes that the condemned generation could enter the land and experience the blessings promised.

Moses spoke of how all Israel should pray that God would establish the work of their hands (Ps. 90:17)- but this was in fact his special request for the blessing of Levi, the priestly tribe (Dt. 33:11). Ps. 135:19,20 parallels all Israel with the priestly family: “Bless the Lord, O house of Israel: bless the Lord, O house of Aaron: bless the Lord, O house of Levi: ye that fear the Lord, bless the Lord... praise ye the Lord”. All Israel were to aspire to the spirit of priesthood. Indeed, the Psalms often parallel the house of Aaron (i.e. the priesthood) with the whole nation (Ps. 115:9,10,12; 118:2,3).  As it was God’s intention that Israel were to be a nation of priests to the rest of the world, so the new Israel likewise are to all discharge the priestly functions of teaching their brethren (Ex. 19:6 cp. 1 Pet. 2:5; Rev. 1:6; 5:9,10). Under the new covenant, we should all teach and admonish one another (Col. 3:16). Indeed, God told Israel [unrecorded in the historical records]: “Ye are gods [elohim] and all of you are sons of the Most High” (Ps. 82:6 RV). Further, Ps. 96:9 makes the paradigm breaking statement that even the Gentiles could come before Yahweh of Israel in holy, priestly array- they too could aspire to the spirit of priesthood (Ps. 96:9 RVmg.).