Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Notwithstanding the unanimous rejection of the Mosaic title of this psalm by the ancient and mediaeval Christian commentators, it has found supporters among modern critics. It is urged that the transitoriness of human life was a theme peculiarly suited to the leader of a race doomed to wander in the wilderness till the sinful generation had died out, and that the general train of thought and feeling is worthy of Moses standing on the threshold of hopes he was not to be allowed to realise. It is a slender thread to support what, if we must regard it as more than a rabbinical conjecture, was probably the vaguest of traditions. (See General Introduction on the titles.) The subject of the brevity and vanity of life has occupied reflective minds in all periods and countries. Only a Hebrew could have handled it as it is handled here; but the contrast drawn between human frailty and Divine immutability is more suited to a later age of Israel than an early one. The very first verse seems to take a far more extended retrospect than was possible to Moses, while the pathetic cry, “How long?” in Psalm 90:13, suggests, as we have seen in the case of other psalms, even the Maccabæan age (but see title).
In one view it would be a misfortune to be able to fix on the precise moment when this poem was composed, and the voice that first spoke it. For it is what it has been well called “the funeral hymn of the world,” and it belongs not to one race or age, but to the sorrows and the hopes of all the successive generations, who at the open grave have derived, or shall derive, consolation and faith from its Divine words. There is no definite verse structure. The rhythm is subordinated to the feeling.
The Mosaic authorship is a question depending in a great measure on the view held as to the date of the later part of Deuteronomy, to which there are resemblances in many points of style and some points of detail. Those who bring the composition of that work down to the eighth century before Christ will unhesitatingly refer this psalm to a date as late, if not later. (For more, see Introduction.)
A Prayer of Moses the man of God. Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.(1) Dwelling place.—LXX. and Vulg., “refuse,” possibly reading maôz (as in Psalm 37:39) instead of maôn. So some MSS. But Deuteronomy 33:17 has the feminine of this latter word, and the idea of a continued abode strikes the key-note of the psalm. The short duration of each succeeding generation of men on the earth is contrasted with the eternity of God and the permanence given to Israel as a race by the covenant that united them with the Eternal. But we may give extension to the thought. Human history runs on from generation to generation (so the Hebrew; comp. Deuteronomy 32:7); one goes, another comes; but in relation to the unchanging God, who rules over all human history, even the transient creatures of an hour may come to feel secure and at home.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.(2) Before the mountains.—Render either,
“Before the mountains were born,
Or ever the earth and world were brought forth,”
in synonymous parallelism, or, better, in progressive,
“Before the mountains were born,
Or ever the earth and world brought forth”—
i.e., before vegetation or life appeared. (Comp. Job 15:7.) “Mountains” are a frequent symbol of antiquity, as well as of enduring strength. (See Genesis 49:26; Proverbs 8:25.) The expression, “earth and the world,” may be taken as meaning the earth, as distinguished from either heaven or the sea, and the habitable globe (LXX., οἰκουμένη). (Comp. Proverbs 8:31.)
From everlasting to everlasting—i.e., from an indefinite past to an indefinite future (literally, from hidden time to hidden).
Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.(3) Thou turnest . . .—Probably we must render, Thou turnest man to dust; and sayest, Turn, sons of Adam—i.e., one generation dies and another succeeds (see Psalm 104:29-30), the continuance of the race being regarded as distinctly due to Divine power as the Creation, to which there is probably allusion.
The LXX. suggest as the true reading, “Turn not man to dust, but say rather,” &c.
For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.(4) A thousand years.—This verse, which, when Peter II. was written (see New Testament Commentary), had already begun to receive an arithmetical treatment, and to be made the basis for Millennarian computations, merely contrasts the unchangeableness and eternity of the Divine existence and purpose with the vicissitudes incident to the brief life of man. To One who is from the infinite past to the infinite future, and Whose purpose runs through the ages, a thousand years are no more than a yesterday to man:
“And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death;”
or even as a part of the night passed in sleep:
“A thousand years, with Thee they are no more
Than yesterday, which, ere it is, is spent.
Or, as a watch by night, that course doth keep,
And goes and comes, unwares to them that sleep.”
The exact rendering of the words translated in the Authorised Version, “when it passeth,” is doubtful. The LXX. have, “which has passed;” and the Syriac supports this rendering. For the “night watches,” see Note, Psalm 63:6.
Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.(5, 6) The following is suggested as the most satisfactory rendering of these verses: Time (literally, a year; but the root-idea is the repetition or change of the seasons) carries them away with its flood; they are in the morning like grass sprouting; in the morning it flourishes and sprouts, in the evening it is cut down and withered.
This is obtained by taking the verb as third feminine instead of second masculine, and slightly changing the vowels of the noun rendered in Authorised Version sleep. The confusion of the metaphor is thus avoided, and immediately on the mention of the stream of time is suggested the image of the vegetation springing into life at the first touch of rain, and dying in a day—an image so natural to an Oriental. The verb, carries away with its floods is found only here and in Psalm 77:17 (“the clouds poured out water”), but the cognate noun is frequent for a heavy rainfall (Isaiah 4:6, &c.), such as in the East in a few moments causes a flood. This interpretation is partly supported by the LXX. and Vulg.: “Their years shall be nothingness;” and many commentators have felt that the image of the “stream of time” was required here. For the rendering cut down, comp. Job 24:24. Some prefer “fades.” The general force of the figure is the same whether we think of the generations dropping away like withered grass or cut down and dried like hay.
For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.(7) We.—The change to the first person plural shows that the poet was not merely moralising on the brevity of human life, but uttering a dirge over the departed glory of Israel. Instead of proving superior to vicissitude the covenant race had shared it.
Troubled.—Comp. Psalm 48:6. Better here, frightened away.
Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.(8) Our secret sins.—Or, to keep the singular of the original, our secret (character).
The expression, “light of God’s countenance,” usually means “favour.” But here the word rendered light is not the usual one employed in that expression, but rather means a body of light: “the sun (or eye) of Thy countenance.” Comp.:
“Then Seeva opened on the accursed one
His eye of anger.”
SOUTHEY: Curse of Kehama,
For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.(9) Are passed away.—Better, are declining.
A tale.—Rather, a murmur. (See Note, Psalm 1:2.) Probably, from the parallelism with wrath, a moan of sadness. So in Ezekiel 2:10, “a sound of woe.” Since the cognate verb often means “meditate,” some render here thought. Theognis says,
“Gallant youth speeds by like a thought.”
The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.(10) Yet is their strength . . .—The LXX. (and so Vulg.) appear to have had a slightly different reading, which gives much better sense: “Yet their additional years are but labour and sorrow.” The old man has no reason to congratulate himself on passing the ordinary limit, of life.
For it is soon cut off.—This seems hardly to give, as it professes to do, a reason for the fact that the prolongation of life beyond its ordinary limit brings trouble and sorrow, and we are compelled to see if the words can convey a different meaning. Literally the clause is, for (or thus) passeth haste, and we fly away (like a bird), which may be rendered, thus there comes a haste that we may fly away; i.e., even though we may have prayed for an extension of life, it brings with it such weariness that we long at last to escape—a fact sufficiently true to experience.
“Yet are these feet, whose strengthless stay is numb,
Unable to support this lump of clay,
Swift winged with desire to get a grave.”
Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.(11) Who knoweth . . .—Better,
Who regardeth Thine anger
And—in a measure due to reverence—Thy wrath?
Who (no doubt with thought of Israel’s enemies) has that just terror of Thy wrath which a truly reverential regard would produce? It is only the persons who have that fearful and bowed apprehension of His Majesty, and that sacred dread of all offence to Him, which is called the “fear of God.” And this is not inconsistent with a child-like trust and love, and a peaceful security (“Of whom, then, shall I be afraid?”). On the other hand, those who scoff against religion often become the victims of wild and base terror.
So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.(12) Number our days.—This verse as it stands literally gives to allot, or in allotting (see Isaiah 65:12), our days, so teach, and we will cause to come the heart wisdom. The last clause, if intelligible at all, must mean “that we may offer a wise heart,” and the natural way to understand the verse is to make God, not man, as in the Authorised Version, the reckoner of the days. “In allotting our days thus make us know (i.e., make us know the power of Thine anger), in order that we may present a wise heart.”
The verse must evidently be taken in close connection. with the preceding, or the point of the petition is lost, and though the ordinary rendering, “Teach us to number our days,” has given birth to a number of sayings which might be quoted in illustration, it is neither in itself very intelligible, nor, except by one instance in later Hebrew, can it be supported as a rendering of the original.
Return, O LORD, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants.(13) Return.—Better, turn, either from anger (Exodus 32:12), or merely as in Psalm 6:4, “turn to thy servant.”
Plainly we have here the experience of some particular epoch, and a prayer for Israel. From his meditation on the shortness of human existence the poet does not pass to a prayer for a prolonged life for himself, like Hezekiah, but for some intervention in relief of the suffering community of which he forms. part.
How long?—See Note, Psalm 74:9.
Let it repent thee.—Better, have pity on. (See Deuteronomy 32:36.)
O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.(14) Early—i.e., in the morning of new hope and courage after the night of affliction is spent. (See Psalm 46:5.)
Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.(15) A prayer that prosperity may follow, proportionate to the mercy that has been endured.
And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.(17) Beauty.—Or, pleasantness. The Hebrew word, like the Greek χάρις, and our “grace,” seems to combine the ideas of “beauty” and “favour.”