Psalms 90


The eternity of God, 1, 2;

the frailty of the state of man, 3-9;

the general limits of human life, 10;

the danger of displeasing God, 11;

the necessity of considering the shortness of life, and of

regaining the favour of the Almighty, 12;

earnest prayer for the restoration of Israel, 13-17.


The title of this Psalm is, A Prayer of Moses the man of God.

The Chaldee has, "A prayer which Moses the prophet of the Lord

prayed when the people of Israel had sinned in the wilderness."

All the Versions ascribe it to Moses; but that it could not be of

Moses the lawgiver is evident from this consideration, that the

age of man was not then seventy or eighty years, which is here

stated to be its almost universal limit, for Joshua lived one

hundred and ten years, and Moses himself one hundred and twenty;

Miriam his sister, one hundred and thirty; Aaron his brother, one

hundred and twenty-three; Caleb, four-score and five years; and

their contemporaries lived in the same proportion.

See Clarke on Ps 90:4.

Therefore the Psalm cannot at all refer to such

ancient times. If the title be at all authentic, it must refer

to some other person of that name; and indeed ish

Elohim, a man of God, a divinely inspired man, agrees to the

times of the prophets, who were thus denominated. The Psalm was

doubtless composed during or after the captivity; and most

probably on their return, when they were engaged in rebuilding the

temple; and this, as Dr. Kennicott conjectures, may be the work of

their hands, which they pray God to bless and prosper.

Verse 1. Lord, thou hast been our dwelling-place] maon;

but instead of this several MSS. have maoz, "place of

defence," or "refuge," which is the reading of the Vulgate,

Septuagint, Arabic, and Anglo-Saxon. Ever since thy covenant with

Abraham thou hast been the Resting-place, Refuge, and Defence of

thy people Israel. Thy mercy has been lengthened out from

generation to generation.

Verse 2. Before the mountains were brought forth] The mountains

and hills appear to have been everlasting; but as they were

brought forth out of the womb of eternity, there was a time when

they were not: but THOU hast been ab aeternitate a parte ante, ad

aeternitatem a parte post; from the eternity that is past, before

time began; to the eternity that is after, when time shall have an

end. This is the highest description of the eternity of God to

which human language can reach.

Verse 3. Thou turnest man to destruction] Literally, Thou shalt

turn dying man, enosh, to the small dust, dacca but

thou wilt say, Return, ye children of Adam. This appears to be a

clear and strong promise of the resurrection of the human body,

after it has long slept, mingled with the dust of the earth.

Verse 4. For a thousand years in thy sight] As if he had said,

Though the resurrection of the body may be a thousand (or any

indefinite number of) years distant; yet, when these are past,

they are but as yesterday, or a single watch of the night. They

pass through the mind in a moment, and appear no longer in their

duration than the time required by the mind to reflect them by

thought. But, short as they appear to the eye of the mind, they

are nothing when compared with the eternity of God! The author

probably has in view also that economy of Divine justice and

providence by which the life of man has been shortened from one

thousand years to threescore years and ten, or fourscore.

Verse 5. Thou carriest them away as with a flood] Life is

compared to a stream, ever gliding away; but sometimes it is as a

mighty torrent, when by reason of plague, famine, or war,

thousands are swept away daily. In particular cases it is a rapid

stream, when the young are suddenly carried off by consumptions,

fevers, &c.; this is the flower that flourisheth in the morning,

and in the evening is cut down and withered. The whole of life

is like a sleep or as a dream. The eternal world is real; all

here is either shadowy or representative. On the whole, life

is represented as a stream; youth, as morning; decline of life, or

old age, as evening; death, as sleep; and the resurrection

as the return of the flowers in spring. All these images appear in

these curious and striking verses, Ps 90:3-6.

Verse 7. We are consumed by thine anger] Death had not entered

into the world, if men had not fallen from God.

By thy wrath are we troubled] Pain, disease, and sickness are so

many proofs of our defection from original rectitude. The anger

and wrath of God are moved against all sinners. Even in protracted

life we consume away, and only seem to live in order to die.

"Our wasting lives grow shorter still,

As days and months increase;

And every beating pulse we tell

Leaves but the number less."

Verse 8. Thou hast set our iniquities before thee] Every one of

our transgressions is set before thee; noted and minuted down in

thy awful register!

Our secret sins] Those committed in darkness and privacy are

easily discovered by thee, being shown by the splendours of thy

face shining upon them. Thus we light a candle, and bring it into

a dark place to discover its contents. O, what can be hidden from

the all-seeing eye of God? Darkness is no darkness to him;

wherever he comes there is a profusion of light-for God is light!

Verse 9. We spend our years as a tale] The Vulgate has: Anni

nostri sicut aranea meditabuntur; "Our years pass away like those

of the spider." Our plans and operations are like the spider's

web; life is as frail, and the thread of it as brittle, as

one of those that constitute the well-wrought and curious, but

fragile, habitation of that insect. All the Versions have the

word spider; but it neither appears in the Hebrew, nor in any of

its MSS. which have been collated.

My old Psalter has a curious paraphrase here: "Als the iran

(spider) makes vayne webe for to take flese (flies) with gile, swa

our yeres ere ockupide in ydel and swikel castes about erthly

thynges; and passes with outen frute of gude werks, and waste in

ydel thynkyns." This is too true a picture of most lives.

But the Hebrew is different from all the Versions. "We consume

our years ( kemo hegeh) like a groan." We live a dying,

whining, complaining life, and at last a groan is its termination!

How amazingly expressive!

Verse 10. Threescore years and ten] See the note on the title of

this Psalm. See Clarke on Ps 90:1.

This Psalm could not have been written by

Moses, because the term of human life was much more extended

when he flourished than eighty years at the most. Even in David's

time many lived one hundred years, and the author of

Ecclesiasticus, who lived after the captivity, fixed this term

at one hundred years at the most (Eccles 18:9;) but this was

merely a general average, for even in our country we have many who

exceed a hundred years.

Yet is their strength labour and sorrow] This refers to the

infirmities of old age, which, to those well advanced in life,

produce labour and sorrow.

It is soon cut of] It-the body, is soon cut off.

And we fly away.] The immortal spirit wings its way into the

eternal world.

Verse 11. Who knoweth the power of thine anger?] The afflictions

of this life are not to be compared to the miseries which await

them who live and die without being reconciled to God, and saved

from their sins.

Verse 12. So teach us to number our days] Let us deeply consider

our own frailty, and the shortness and uncertainty of life, that

we may live for eternity, acquaint ourselves with thee, and be at

peace; that we may die in thy favour and live and reign with thee


Verse 13. Return, O Lord, how long?] Wilt thou continue angry

with us for ever?

Let it repent thee] hinnachem, be comforted, rejoice over

them to do them good. Be glorified rather in our salvation than in

our destruction.

Verse 14. O satisfy us early] Let us have thy mercy soon,

(literally, in the morning.) Let it now shine upon us, and it

shall seem as the morning of our days, and we shall exult in thee

all the days of our life.

Verse 15. Make us glad according to the days] Let thy people

have as many years of prosperity as they have had of adversity. We

have now suffered seventy years of a most distressful captivity.

Verse 16. Let thy work appear unto thy servants] That thou art

working for us we know; but O, let thy work appear! Let us now

see, in our deliverance, that thy thoughts towards us were mercy

and love.

And thy glory] Thy pure worship be established among our

children for ever.

Verse 17. And let the beauty of the Lord] Let us have thy

presence, blessing, and approbation, as our fathers had.

Establish thou the work of our hands] This is supposed, we have

already seen, to relate to their rebuilding the temple, which the

surrounding heathens and Samaritans wished to hinder. We have

begun, do not let them demolish our work; let the top-stone be

brought on with shouting, Grace, grace unto it.

Yea, the work of our hands] This repetition is wanting in three

of Kennicott's MSS., in the Targum, in the Septuagint, and in

the AEthiopic. If the repetition be genuine, it may be considered

as marking great earnestness; and this earnestness was to get the

temple of God rebuilt, and his pure worship restored. The pious

Jews had this more at heart than their own restoration; it was

their highest grief that the temple was destroyed and God's

ordinances suspended; that his enemies insulted them, and

blasphemed the worthy name by which they were called. Every truly

pious man feels more for God's glory than his own temporal

felicity, and rejoices more in the prosperity of God's work than

in the increase of his own worldly goods.


In the year 1790 I knew a woman in the city of Bristol, Mrs.

Somerhill, then in the 106th year of her age. She read the

smallest print without spectacles, and never had used any helps to

decayed sight. When she could not go any longer to a place of

worship, through the weakness of her limbs, she was accustomed to

read over the whole service of the Church for each day of the year

as it occurred, with all the Lessons, Psalms, &c. She had been

from its commencement a member of the Methodist Society; heard Mr.

John Wesley the first sermon he preached when he visited Bristol

in 1739; and was so struck with his clear manner of preaching the

doctrine of justification through faith, that, for the benefit of

hearing one more sermon from this apostolic man, she followed him

on foot to Portsmouth, a journey of one hundred and twenty-five

miles! On my last visit to her in the above year, I was admitted

by a very old decrepit woman, then a widow of seventy-five years

of age, and the youngest daughter of Mrs. Somerhill. I found the

aged woman's faculties strong and vigorous, and her eyesight

unimpaired, though she was then confined to her bed, and was hard

of hearing. She died rejoicing in God, the following year.

Agnes Shuner is another instance. She lived at Camberwell in

Surrey; her husband, Richard Shuner, died in 1407, whom she

survived ninety-two years. She died in 1499, aged one hundred and

nineteen years.

The Countess of Desmond in Ireland. On the ruin of the house of

Desmond, she was obliged at the age of one hundred and forty to

travel from Bristol to London, to solicit relief from the court,

being then reduced to poverty. She renewed her teeth two or three

times, and died in 1612, aged one hundred and forty-five years.

Thomas Parr, of Winnington, in Shropshire, far outlived the term

as set down in the Psalm. At the age of eighty-eight he married

his first wife, by whom he had two children. At the age of one

hundred and two he fell in love with Catharine Milton, by whom he

had an illegitimate child, and for which he did penance in the

Church! At the age of one hundred and twenty, he married a widow

woman; and when he was one hundred and thirty could perform any

operation of husbandry. He died at the age of one hundred and

fifty-two, A.D. 1635. He had seen ten kings and queens of England.

Thomas Damme, of Leighton, near Minshul in Cheshire, lived one

hundred and fifty-four years, and died A.D. 1648.

Henry Jenkins, of Ellerton upon Swale, in Yorkshire, was sent,

when a boy of about twelve years of age, with a cart load of

arrows to Northallerton, to be employed in the battle of Flodden

Field, which was fought September 9, 1513. He was a fisherman; and

often swam in the rivers when he was more than one hundred years

of age! He died A.D. 1670, being then one hundred and sixty-nine

years of age!

I shall add one foreigner, Peter Toston, a peasant of Temiswar,

in Hungary. The remarkable longevity of this man exceeds the age

of Isaac five years; of Abraham, ten; falls short of Terah's,

Abraham's father, twenty; and exceeds that of Nahor, Abraham's

grandfather, thirty-seven years. He died A.D. 1724, at the

extraordinary age of one hundred and eighty-five!


There are four parts in this Psalm:-

I. An ingenuous acknowledgment of God's protection of the

people, Ps 90:1, 2.

II. A lively narration of the mortality of man, the fragility

and brevity of his life, together with the misery of it,

Ps 90:2-7.

III. The causes: man's rebellion and God's anger for it,

Ps 90:7-12.

IV. A petition, which is double: 1. That God would instruct man

to know his fragility. 2. That he would return, and restore him to

his favour, Ps 90:12-17.

I. In the beginning the psalmist freely acknowledges what God

had always been unto his people. What he is in himself, and his

own nature.

1. To his people he had always been a refuge, as it were, a

dwelling-place: though they had been pilgrims and sojourners in a

strange land for many years, yet he had been, nay dwelt, among

them; and no doubt he alludes to the tabernacle of God that was

pitched among them as an evidence of his presence and protection:

"Lord, thou hast been our dwelling-place (a secure place to rest

in) in all generations," De 33:1-6.

2. But in himself he was from everlasting: other creatures had a

beginning, and their creation and ornaments from him. He, the

Eternal Being, "Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever

thou hadst formed the earth, and the world, even from everlasting

to everlasting thou art God." Not like man, then, whose

mutability, fragility, mortality, brevity, he next describes.

II. "Thou turnest man to destruction." Though framed according

to thy own image, yet he is but an earthen vessel; to that pass

thou bringest him, till he be broken to pieces, broken as a

potter's vessel. To him thou sayest, "Return, ye children of men,

(of Adam,) return; for dust thou art, and to dust shalt thou

return." The mortality of man may not be then attributed to

diseases, chance, fortune, &c., but to God's decree, pronounced on

man upon his disobedience. First, then, let the sons of Adam

remember that they are mortal; next, that their life is but very

short. Suppose a man should live the longest life, and somewhat

longer than the oldest patriarch, a thousand years; yet, let it be

compared with eternity, it is as nothing: "A thousand years in thy

sight are but as yesterday, when it is past;" but as a day which

is short, as a day which is past and forgotten; which the prophet

farther illustrates by elegant similitudes.

1. "And as a watch in the night." A time of three hours'

continuance, which is but the eighth part of a natural day, and so

far less than he said before. The flower of our youth, our

constant age, and our old age, may well be the three hours of this

watch; and wise they are that observe their stations in either of


2. "Thou carriest them away as with a flood." As a sudden

inundation of waters our life passeth; we swell and fall. Or, As

all waters come from the sea, and return thither; so from the

earth we came, and thither return. Or, We are as water spilt on

the earth, which cannot be gathered up again.

3. "They are as a sleep," or rather a dream; all our happiness a

dream of felicity. In our dreams many pleasant, many fearful

things are presented; we pass half our time in sleep; drowsily, it

is certain, for our life is σκιαςοναρ, the shadow of a


4. Or we are like grass: "In the morning they are like grass

that groweth up: in the morning it flourisheth and groweth up, in

the evening it is cut down and withereth." The herb hath its

morning and evening, and its mid-day, and so hath our life;

naturally it fades, or violently it is cut off.

III. After he had spoken of and explained our mortality, the

brevity, the misery of our life, he next descends to examine the

causes of it which are two. 1. God's anger; and that which brought

it upon us, our own iniquities.

1. God's anger: "We consume away by thine anger; and by thy

wrath are we troubled." The cause, then, of death and disease is

not the decay of the radical moisture, or defect of natural heat;

but that which brought these defects upon us, God's wrath because

of sin.

2. Our own sin: For this anger of God was not raised without a

just cause; he is a just Judge, and proceeds not to punishment,

but upon due examination and trial; and to that end he takes an

account, not only of our open sins, but even of our secret faults,

such as are not known to ourselves, or such as we labour to

conceal from others.

1. "Thou hast set our iniquities before thee."

2. "And our secret sins in the light of thy countenance." No

hypocrisy, no contempt, can escape thine eye: all to thee is

revealed, and clear as the light.

3. And then he repeats the effect, together with the cause:

"Therefore all our days (viz., the forty years in the wilderness

and the seventy in captivity) are passed away in thy wrath." 2.

"We spend our days as a tale that is told;" et fabula fies, the

tale ended, it vanisheth, and is thought of no more.

4. And as for our age, it is of no great length: "The days of

our years are threescore years and ten." To that time some men may

be said to live, because the faculties of their souls are

tolerably vigorous, and their bodies proportionately able to

execute the offices of life.

But allow that it so happen, which happens not to many, "that by

reason of strength," some excellent natural constitution, "a man

arrive to fourscore years," yet our life is encumbered with these

three inconveniences, labour, sorrow, and brevity.

1. It is laborious, even labour itself. One is desirous to be

rich, another wise; this man potent, another prudent, or at least

to seem so; and this will not be without labour: "All is

affliction of spirit."

2. Sorrow; for our life is only the shadow of real life.

3. Short; for it is soon cut off, and we flee away: Avolat

umbra. 1. God's anger for sin is not laid to heart; and of this

the prophet in the next verse sadly complains: "Who knows the

power of thy anger?" Thine anger is great for sin; the power of it

fearful and terrible. Thou canst and wilt cast sinners into

hell-fire; but who regards it? Thy threats to men seem to be old

wives' fables. 2. "Even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath;"

but be it that this stupidity possess men, yet this is certain,

that thy wrath is great; and it shall be executed according to thy

fear, in such proportion as men have stood in fear of thee. They

that have in a reverential fear stood in awe of thee shall escape

it; they that have contemned and slighted thy wrath shall feel it

to the uttermost.

IV. Upon all the former considerations the psalmist converts his

words to a prayer, in which he implores God's mercy, that he would

turn, 1. The stupidity of men into wisdom. 2. Our calamity into

felicity. 3. His wrath into compassion. And, 4. Our sorrow into

joy. For the first he begins thus:-

1. "So teach us to number our days," to cast up the labour, the

sorrow, the brevity, the fugacity; thy anger, our sin, that caused


2. "That we may apply our hearts unto wisdom;" be no more stupid

and secure, but wise; wise, to avoid thy anger, wise to set a true

estimate on this life, and wise in time to provide for another.

3. "So teach us;" for God must teach it, or it will not be

learned: this wisdom comes from above.

Secondly, he deprecates God's anger: "Return, O Lord, how long?

and let it repent thee concerning thy servants."

Thirdly, he begs restoration to God's favour; and what will

follow upon it, peace of conscience.

1. "O satisfy us with thy mercy." We hunger for it as men do for


2. Early let it be done, quickly, before our sorrows grow too

high, and overwhelm us.

3. With thy mercy; not with wealth, delights, &c.

4. And with a perpetual joy of heart: "That we may be glad and

rejoice all our days."

5. And let our joy bear proportion to our sorrows: "Make us glad

according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the

years wherein we have seen evil."

6. This is the work he calls God's work; for as to punish is his

strange work, Isa 28:21, so to have pity and mercy is his own

proper work; and this he desires that it should be made manifest:

"Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their


Fourthly, he begs for success in all their work and labours.

1. "Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us," for no

action of ours is beautiful, except the beauty of God be stamped

upon it; done by his direction, his rule, his word, and to his


2. And therefore he prays, and repeats this prayer: "Establish

thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands

establish thou it." There must be opus, our work; for God blesseth

not the idle. 2. And opus manuum, a laborious work. 3. God's

direction, his word the rule. 4. A good end in it, for that is his

beauty upon it. 5. So it will be established, confirmed, ratified.

6. And, lastly, know that there is no blessing to be expected

without prayer; and therefore he prays, "Let the beauty of the

Lord our God be upon us." See the notes on this Psalm.

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