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.
NOTES ON PSALM XC
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 Psalms 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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, Psalms 90:3-6.
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."
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!
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!
Threescore years and ten
See the note on the title of this Psalm. See Clarke on Psalms 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.
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.
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 eternally.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A FEW INSTANCES OF MODERN LONGEVITY
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, 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!
ANALYSIS OF THE NINETIETH PSALM
There are four parts in this Psalm:-
I. An ingenuous acknowledgment of God's protection of the people, Psalms 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, Psalms 90:2-7.
III. The causes: man's rebellion and God's anger for it, Psalms 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, Psalms 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," Deuteronomy 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, 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 them.
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 dream.-Pindar.
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 it.
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 meat.
2. Early let it be done, quickly, before our sorrows grow too high, and overwhelm us.
3. With thy mercy; not with wealth, delights,
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, Isaiah 28:21, 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 children."
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 glory.
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.