Psalms 90 Summary - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
This Psalm consists of three divisions.
i. It is to Jehovah alone that Israel can appeal in their distress, though He seems to have forsaken them. He has proved Himself their refuge in each succeeding age: He alone is the Eternal God: the lives of men are at His sovereign disposal (Psa 90:1-6).
ii. The brief and uncertain span of life is being spent by the Psalmist and his contemporaries under the cloud of Jehovah’s wrath for their sins. Few indeed lay the lesson to heart: O that He would teach them wisdom (Psa 90:7-12).
iii. O that He would relent and return to His people, and once more manifesting Himself in His saving Majesty, bless them with renewed prosperity (Psa 90:13-17).
The first two divisions of the Psalm lead up to the prayer for the restoration of God’s favour to Israel, which is its main purpose. The brevity of human life appearing still more brief in comparison with Divine Eternity is pleaded, as in Psa 89:46 ff., as a ground for the speedier exhibition of mercy. Must generation after generation pass away without seeing the proofs of God’s love? But with all its plaintive tone of sadness, the Psalm betrays no trace of murmuring or impatience. It breathes a spirit of perfect submission to the Will of God. The faith which appeals unwaveringly to the God Who is chastening Israel for their sins; the resignation which accepts the transitoriness of human life as God’s decree, while it ventures tacitly to accentuate its sadness by contrasting it with His Eternity; the deep humility of the confession that it is for its sins that Israel is suffering; the earnestness of the prayer for the dawn of a brighter day in the renewal of God’s favour; all combine to stamp the Psalm as the utterance of a poet-seer who had learnt profound lessons of spiritual truth through the discipline of suffering.
Can that poet-seer have been Moses, as the title seems to affirm? The Psalm is worthy of him, and at first sight its contemplation of the transitoriness of human life, its acknowledgement of suffering as the punishment of sin, and its prayer for the restoration of God’s favour, seem appropriate enough to a time towards the close of the Wandering in the wilderness, and a natural utterance for the leader who had watched one generation of Israelites after another dying out for their faithless murmuring. But a closer consideration of the Psalm makes it difficult if not impossible to suppose that it was actually written by Moses. No weight is to be attached to the argument that the average length of life spoken of in Psa 90:10 is not that of the Mosaic age, for the longer lives of Moses and other leaders may have been exceptional; and the absence of distinct reference to the circumstances of the Israelites in the prayer of Psa 90:13-17 might be accounted for by the general character of poetical language. But the author appears to look back upon a long period of national existence ( Psa 90:1); and it is difficult to imagine that the leader of a great nation, at the outset of its national existence, when it was on the point of taking possession of the inheritance promised to it, could possibly have expressed himself in the language of Psa 90:13-17. Its subdued tone is not that of one who is looking forward to a future rich in vast possibilities.
It has been urged in defence of the Mosaic authorship of the Psalm that it presents many points of resemblance in thought and language to the Book of Deuteronomy. The argument would not be conclusive, even if the Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy were undisputed, for the resemblances might be fully accounted for by the Psalmist’s familiarity with that book. But if, as is now generally held, Deuteronomy in its present form is far later than the time of Moses, the Deuteronomic language of the Psalm points to a later date than the Mosaic age.
To what period then may it be assigned? Probably to the time of the Exile. Its position in the Psalter is in favour of this view. It breathes the feelings of that period as they are expressed in Psa 89:46 ff., and it finds a striking parallel in Lam 5:16-21.
How then came it to have the name of Moses prefixed to it? Possibly this was done by the compiler, who noticed the resemblance of the Psalm to Deuteronomy, and thought, as many have thought since, that it suited the situation of the Israelites in the wilderness. Possibly, as even Delitzsch admits is conceivable, it was written by some gifted poet to express what he conceived to be Moses’ feelings. This he might have done in all good faith, without any intention of claiming the authority of Moses for his own composition: and in doing it, he may have, consciously or unconsciously, reflected the circumstances and expressed the feelings of his own times.
Happily the sublimity and pathos of this Psalm are wholly independent of the question of its date and authorship. Its use in the Burial Service gives it an additional solemnity of association; and it will not be forgotten that one of the finest hymns in the English language Dr Watts’s “O God, our help in ages past,” is based upon it.
For the title A Prayer cp. the titles of 17; 86; 102; 142; and the subscription to 72; and see Introd. p. xv. Man of God is a title of honour, applied to Moses (Deu 33:1; Jos 14:6), and to other prophets and messengers of God, to express the close relation of fellowship in which they stood to Him.
Consult other comments:
The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges is a biblical commentary set published in parts by Cambridge University Press from 1882 onwards. Anglican bishop John Perowne was the general editor. The first section published was written by theologian Thomas Kelly Cheyne and covered the Book of Micah.
Perowne exercised limited editorial control over the writers of individual commentaries: his aim was "to leave each contributor to the unfettered exercise of his own judgment".