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BOOK IV

(Psalms 90–106)

Psalm 90

God’s Eternity and Human Frailty

A Prayer of Moses, the man of God.

1

Lord, you have been our dwelling place

in all generations.

2

Before the mountains were brought forth,

or ever you had formed the earth and the world,

from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

 

3

You turn us back to dust,

and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”

4

For a thousand years in your sight

are like yesterday when it is past,

or like a watch in the night.

 

5

You sweep them away; they are like a dream,

like grass that is renewed in the morning;

6

in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;

in the evening it fades and withers.

 


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1 O Lord! thou hast been our dwelling-place. In separating the seed of Abraham by special privilege from the rest of the human family, the Psalmist magnifies the grace of adoption, by which God had embraced them as his children. The object which he has in view in this exordium is, that God would now renew the grace which he had displayed in old time towards the holy patriarchs, and continue it towards their offspring. Some commentators think that he alludes to the tabernacle, because in it the majesty of God was not less conspicuous than if he had dwelt in the midst of the people; but this seems to me to be altogether out of place. He rather comprehends the whole time in which the Fathers sojourned in the land of Canaan. As the tabernacle had not yet continued for the space of forty years, the long duration here mentioned — our dwelling-place from generation to generation — would not at all be applicable to it. It is not then intended to recount what God showed himself to be towards the Israelites from the time that he delivered them from Egypt; but what their fathers had experienced him to be in all ages, even from the beginning. 565565     “The earth and the world. The latter of those words properly means, the habitable world; that part of the earth which, by its fertility, is capable of supporting inhabitants.” — Walford. Now it is declared that as they had always been pilgrims and wanderers, so God was to them instead of a dwelling-place. No doubt, the condition of all men is unstable upon earth; but we know that Abraham and his posterity were, above all others, sojourners, and as it were exiles. Since, then, they wandered in the land of Canaan till they were brought into Egypt, where they lived only by sufferance from day to day, it was necessary for them to seek for themselves a dwelling-place under the shadow of God, without which they could hardly be accounted inhabitants of the world, since they continued everywhere strangers, and were afterwards led about through many windings and turnings. The grace which the Lord displayed in sustaining them in their wanderings, and shielding them with his hand when they sojourned among savage and cruel nations, and were exposed to injurious treatment at their hands — this grace is extolled by Moses in very striking terms, when he represents God as an abode or dwelling-place to these poor fugitives who were continually wandering from one place to another in quest of lodgings. This grace he magnifies from the length of time during which it had been exercised; for God ceased not to preserve and defend them for the space of more than four hundred years, during which time they dwelt under the wings of his protection.

2 Before the mountains were brought forth. Moses designs to set forth some high and hidden mystery, and yet he seems to speak feebly, and, as it were, in a puerile manner. For who does not know that God existed before the world? This we grant is a truth which all men admit; but we will scarcely find one in a hundred who is thoroughly persuaded that God remains unchangeably the same. God is here contrasted with created beings, who, as all know, are subject to continual changes, so that there is nothing stable under heaven. As, in a particular manner, nothing is fuller of vicissitude than human life, that men may not judge of the nature of God by their own fluctuating condition, he is here placed in a state of settled and undisturbed tranquillity. Thus the everlastingness of which Moses speaks is to be referred not only to the essence of God, but also to his providence, by which he governs the world. Although he subjects the world to many alterations, he remains unmoved; and that not only in regard to himself, but also in regard to the faithful, who find from experience, that instead of being wavering, he is steadfast in his power, truth, righteousness, and goodness, even as he has been from the beginning. This eternal and unchangeable steadfastness of God could not be perceived prior to the creation of the world, since there were as yet no eyes to be witnesses of it. But it may be gathered a posteriori; for while all things are subject to revolution and incessant vicissitude, his nature continues always the same. There may be also here a contrast between him and all the false gods of the heathen, who have, by little and little, crept into the world in such vast numbers, through the error and folly of men. But I have already shown the object which Moses has in view, which is, that we mistake if we measure God by our own understanding; and that we must mount above the earth, yea, even above heaven itself, whenever we think upon him.

3 Thou shalt turn man to destruction. Moses, in the first place, mentions how frail and transitory is the life of man, and bewails its miseries. This he does, not for the purpose of quarrelling with God, but as an argument to induce him the more readily to exercise his mercy, even as he is elsewhere said to pardon mortal men, when he considers of what they are made, and remembers that they are but dust and grass, (Psalm 103:14.) he compares the course of our life to a ring or circle, because God, placing us upon the earth, turns us about within a narrow circuit, and when we have reached the last point, draws us back to himself in a moment. Others give a different interpretation, namely, that God leads men forth to death, and afterwards restores them at the resurrection. But this subtilty is far-fetched, and does not harmonise with the context. We have here laid down a simple definition of our life, that it is, as it were, a short revolution in which we quickly complete our circle, the last point of which is the termination of our earthly course. This account of human life sets in a clearer light the gracious manner in which God deals with his servants, in adopting them to be his peculiar people, that he may at length gather them together into his everlasting inheritance. Nor is it in vain that it is added, by way of contrast, (verse 4,) that a thousand years in God’s sight are as yesterday Although we are convinced from experience that men, when they have completed their circle, are forthwith taken out of the world, yet the knowledge of this frailty fails in making a deep impression upon our hearts, because we do not lift our eyes above the world. Whence proceeds the great stupidity of men, who, bound fast to the present state of existence, proceed in the affairs of life as if they were to live two thousand years, but because they do not elevate their conceptions above visible objects? Each man, when he compares himself with others, flatters himself that he will live to a great age. In short, men are so dull as to think that thirty years, or even a smaller number, are, as it were, an eternity; nor are they impressed with the brevity of their life so long as this world keeps possession of their thoughts. This is the reason why Moses awakens us by elevating our minds to the eternity of God, without the consideration of which we perceive not how speedily our life vanishes away. The imagination that we shall have a long life, resembles a profound sleep in which we are all benumbed, until meditation upon the heavenly life swallow up this foolish fancy respecting the length of our continuance upon earth.

As men are thus blinded, Moses sets before their view God as their judge. O Lord! as if he had said, if men would duly reflect upon that eternity from which thou beholdest these inconstant circlings of the world, they would not make so great account of the present life. But as, instead of seriously considering what is true duration, they rather wilfully turn away their eyes from heaven, this explains why they are so stupid, and look upon one day as if it were a hundred years. Moses’ apostrophe to God is emphatic, implying that his patience being exhausted at seeing us so thoughtless, he addresses himself to God; and that it was labor to no purpose for him to speak to the deaf, who would not be taught that they were mortal, no, not even by the proofs of this, which experience was constantly presenting before them. This text is quoted by the Apostle Peter in a sense somewhat different, (2 Peter 3:8,) while at the same time he does not pervert it, for he aptly and judiciously applies the testimony of Moses in illustration of the subject of which he is there treating. The design of Moses is to elevate the minds of men to heaven by withdrawing them from their own gross conceptions. And what is the object of Peter? As many, because Christ does not hasten his coming according to their desire, cast off the hope of the resurrection through the weariness of long delay, he corrects this preposterous impatience by a very suitable remedy. He perceives men’s faith in the Divine promises fainting and failing, from their thinking that Christ delays his coming too long. Whence does this proceed, but because they grovel upon the earth? Peter therefore appropriately applies these words of Moses to cure this vice. As the indulgence in pleasures to which unbelievers yield themselves is to be traced to this, that having their hearts too much set upon the world, they do not taste the pleasures of a celestial eternity; so impatience proceeds from the same source. Hence we learn the true use of this doctrine. To what is it owing that we have so great anxiety about our life, that nothing suffices us, and that we are continually molesting ourselves, but because we foolishly imagine that we shall nestle in this world for ever? Again, to what are we to ascribe that extreme fretfulness and impatience, which make our hearts fail in waiting for the coming of Christ, but to their grovelling upon the earth? Let us learn then not to judge according to the understanding of the flesh, but to depend upon the judgment of God; and let us elevate our minds by faith, even to his heavenly throne, from which he declares that this earthly life is nothing. Nor does Moses simply contrast a thousand years with one day, but he contrasts them with yesterday, which is already gone; for whatever is still before our eyes has a hold upon our minds, but we are less affected with the recollection of what is past. In regard to the word watch, the ancients, as is well known, were accustomed to divide the night into four watches, consisting of three hours each. 566566     “‘Our home’ — or ‘our dwelling-place.’ This image seems to have a particular reference to the unsettled condition of the Israelites before their establishment in the Land of Promise. ‘Strangers and pilgrims as we have hitherto been, in every succeeding generation, from the days of Abraham; first sojourners in Canaan; then bondsmen in Egypt; now wanderers in this dreary waste; we nevertheless find the comforts of a home and settlement in thy miraculous protection.’” — Horsley To express still more forcibly how inconsiderable that which appears to us a long period is in God’s eyes, this similitude is added, That a thousand years in his sight differ nothing from three hours of the night, in which men scarcely know whether they are awake or asleep.

5 Thou carriest them away as with a flood. Moses confirms what he had previously said, That men, so long as they are sojourners in this world, perform, as it were, a revolution which lasts only for a moment. I do not limit the expression to carry away as with a flood to calamities of a more grievous kind, but consider that death is simply compared in general to a flood; for when we have staid a little while in the world, we forthwith fall into the grave and are covered with earth. Thus death, which is common to all, is with propriety called an inundation. While we are breathing the breath of life, the Lord overflows us by death, just as those who perish in a shipwreck are engulfed in the ocean; so that death may be fitly called an invisible deluge. And Moses affirms, that it is then evidently seen that men who flatter themselves that they are possessed of wonderful vigor in their earthly course, are only as a sleep. The comparison of grass which is added, amounts to this, That men come forth in the morning as grass springs up, that they become green, or pass away within a short time, when being cut down, they wither and decay. The verbs in the 6th verse being in the singular number, it is better to connect them with the word grass. But they may also be appropriately referred to each man; and as it makes little difference as to the sense of the text, whether we make grass or each man the nominative to the verbs, I am not disposed to expend much labor upon the matter. This doctrine requires to be continually meditated upon; for although we all confess that nothing is more transitory than our life, yet each of us is soon carried away, as it were, by a frantic impulse to picture to his own imagination an earthly immortality. Whoever bears in mind that he is mortal, restrains himself, that instead of having his attention and affections engrossed beyond measure with earthly objects, he may advance with haste to his mark. When we set no limit to our cares, we require to be urged forward by continual goadings, that we may not dream of a thousand lives instead of one, which is but as a shadow that quickly vanishes away.




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