Psalm 90

Submitted by admin on Mon, 2006-04-17 11:06.

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This psalm is a prayer, which concludes with an appeal for divine favor. It is attributed to Moses, a “man of God.” The designation “man of God” identifies Moses as being in a relationship with him as his servant or prophet.

To his people, YHWH has been like a dwelling, a place of shelter, refuge, or protection. His being such is not limited to one particular period in history. It continues to be the case from one generation to another.

From the eternal past (prior to the existence of the mountains, the earth, and the habitable or cultivatable regions) to the endless ages to come, he is God.

But man is mortal. Having told the first man that he would return to the dust (Gen. 3:19), YHWH returns every man to the lifeless elements of the ground. So, in the case of all “sons of men,” all humans, he says, “Return.”

To the eternal God, time is not what it is to humans. A thousand years are as a day to him, a day that has passed. It is as yesterday was to humans, which, in the conscious memory, seems much shorter than a new day, especially when it appears to drag. A watch of the night is even shorter. Among the ancient Hebrews, there were three four-hour night watches.

Human life passes quickly, as if swept away by onrushing waters. In this context, “sleep” may signify the “sleep of death.” A number of translations, do thus render the psalmist’s words: “You sweep men away in the sleep of death.” (NIV) “You cut them off; they are asleep in death.” (REB) Since, however, the Hebrew only says “sleep,” the reference could be to actual sleep or a dream. This meaning is reflected in renderings such as the following: “You bring our lives to an end just like a dream.” (CEV) “They disappear like sleep at dawn.” (NAB) “You sweep them away; they are like a dream.” (NRSV) “You carry us away like a flood; we last no longer than a dream.” (TEV)

Humans are like grass in the morning, grass that has just sprouted or been refreshed by the nightly dew. Then, if it is cut down during the day, or if the young shoots are subjected to the sun’s intense heat, the grass, by the time evening falls, will be dry and withered. Like such grass, humans may for a time flourish and then quickly be cut down in death.

The reference to being consumed by God’s anger probably means dying as a consequence of divine wrath against sin. In the case of the Israelites in the wilderness, his judgments did lead to their death. Expressions of divine wrath did terrify them.

YHWH was not blind to the sins of his people. The psalmist recognized that these sins were right in front of the Most High. Even wrongs committed in secret and concealed from human sight were exposed by the light of his countenance.

Evidently because of recognizing the sinful condition of humans and God’s wrath directed against sin, the psalmist said “all our days pass away under your wrath” (NRSV). Our years end like a sigh, like a mere breath passing the lips. (See the Notes section.)

The span of our life is about seventy years. If possessing more than average strength or vigor, we may live to be eighty. Still, the short life is filled with exhausting labor and trouble. Then, it ends quickly, and we vanish as if having taken flight.

Having referred to God’s anger in connection with the brevity of human life, the psalmist raises the question, “Who considers the power of your anger?” (NRSV) Yes, who really gives thought to or appreciates the extent of God’s wrath against sin? The psalmist’s next words may be understood to mean that the reverential fear or awe owing to God should be commensurate with his anger. “Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.” (NRSV) “Your wrath matches the fear it inspires.” (NAB) “Your wrath matches the fear of You.” (Tanakh [JPS, 1985 edition])

Because life is so very brief, the psalmist prays that God might teach him and his people to number their days, evidently to evaluate them properly so as to make the best use of them. That the numbering of days has this objective is revealed by the words, “that we may gain wisdom of heart” (NAB), that in our heart, in our deep inner self, we will be motivated to act wisely during our short life.

The petition, “return, O YHWH,” likely is to be understood as a plea for him to relent in his anger and to bestow his favor and blessing on his people. The question, “How long?” has been rendered more explicitly, “How long must we wait?” (NJB) The thought apparently is how much longer it would be until God’s anger would cease and his favor would again be granted. This is confirmed by the subsequent appeal for his servants to be shown pity or mercy.

In the morning, apparently meaning at the start of each day, may God’s servants experience his compassionate care (Hebrew, chésed). Being thus satisfied or filled with his “constant love” (TEV), they would be able to jubilate and rejoice all their days or throughout their life. The psalmist petitions God to grant them days of rejoicing to offset the days during which he afflicted them, the years during which they had experienced suffering.

The psalmist’s plea is that God’s work or activity become manifest. In view of the context and the parallel with “glory” or “splendor,” the “work” evidently denotes God’s deliverance of his people in a manner that demonstrates his glory or awe-inspiring power. This wondrous splendor is then also to be manifest to their sons, their offspring.

The psalm concludes with the petition that God’s favor, pleasantness, or “sweetness” (NJB) continue to be upon his people and the works of their hands or all their activity. In praying for these works to be established, the psalmist apparently means that such works will not be in vain but prove to be successful.


Regarding the divine name, see Psalm 1.

The Septuagint (89:9 [90:8(9)]) does not say “our years” come to an end “like a sigh.” It reads, “our years have meditated like a spider.” This may mean that the years have been like fleeting thoughts comparable to a spider’s spinning. Brenton’s interpretive rendering is, “our years have spun out their tale like a spider.”

For the significance of chésed and the corresponding Septuagint rendering éleos, see Psalm 5.