AN INTERPRETIVE STUDY ON PSALM 90
The Ninetieth Psalm is a masterpiece, archetypal of all Hebrew hymnic literature, a prism through which the rest of the book of Psalms is refracted. Alexander regards it as the “heart or centre of the whole collection” and a model upon which David formed his hymnology. Phillips places it in highest regard, stating that it “stands in grand isolation as the oldest psalm in history, one of the grandest psalms ever penned . . .”
The approach to this study will be eclectic, considering historical incident (author and background), form-criticism (type and outline), and poetic analysis (parallelism and imagery). A listing of primary principles relating to the psalm will conclude the paper.
Suggesting the possibility of the psalm being written at a time close to the end of the wilderness wanderings, Kirkpatrick notes that its content seems typical for a leader who had observed the dying out of generations of faithless murmurers. This period of national distress, the perishing of the exodus generation and the threatened exclusion of Moses from the promised land, evoked a view of mortality and sinfulness which are characteristic of the psalm.
The nation had experienced forty years of the judgment of God upon their sin. The book of Numbers gives witness to God’s wrath. Over forty thousand died in plagues (16:49; 25:9). Many others died from the bites of fiery serpents (21:6) In the midst of intense suffering and death, it seems appropriate that Israel leader would pen a prayer which contrasts the eternality of God (v. 2) with the brevity of human life (v. 6), focusing upon a plea for the Lord’s favor, a cry for God to remember His covenant with Israel (v. 17).
With this background in mind, references to the wilderness wanderings seem apparent: the preoccupation with death from the outset of the psalm (v. 3, 5-7, 9-10), the flood from a summer cloudburst (v. 5), the desert grasses sprouting anew in the morning only to die by evening (vv. 5-6), the declining of days of the perishing Exodus generation in God’s fury (v. 9), and the suddenness of death (v. 10).
FORM OF THE PSALM
The psalm is of varied form, containing hymnic praise (vv. 1-2) and wisdom literature (v. 12), although its underlying tone is national lament. The psalm reflects the basic structure of the national lament psalms with its distinct inclusion of an introductory address (vv. 1-2), a communal lament, which moves from general (vv. 3-6) to specific (vv. 7-12), and a petition (vv. 13-17). However the confession of trust and vow of praise are absent. The initial invocation of Yahweh’s name is characteristic of lament psalms. The extensive use of the first person plural in the psalm distinguishes it from an individual lament. The focus of the psalm is for God to see the affliction of His people and respond with mercy.
That the poem is typical Hebrew parallelism is evident in the correspondence of one line with another throughout the text. Verse 7 is an example of parallelism:
For we have been consumed by Thine anger, And by Thy wrath we have been dismayed.
This meditative prayer is expository, repetitively advancing a succession of concepts and images on the subject of human transience. The opening hymn of Book IV of the Psalms, the poem conforms “in tone and teaching with the book of Numbers,” which is consistent with the view that the five book arrangement is an echo of the Pentateuch.
OUTLINE OF THE PSALM
The traditional heading, “A Prayer of Moses the man of God,” honors the great prophet of the Old Testament with its ascription. References to occurrences related in Genesis 1-3 and Deuteronomy 32-33 give weight to Moses as the author.
Denouncing the view of Ezra as the writer, Delitzsch concurs with the psalm’s heading of Mosaic authorship, citing internal evidence. He rejects Hitzig’s objection that the reference in verse 1 conflicts to the then recent birth of Israel at the time of the Exodus, noting the nation’s existence during the times of the patriarchs. He considers Hitzig’s linguistic evidence of a late date to be inconclusive. The psalm’s mixed form has caused some to question its unity, date, and authorship.
In support of a Mosaic authorship, Delitzsch comments that the psalm contains “distinct traces of the same origin” as the song of Deuteronomy 32, the blessing of Moses in Deuteronomy 33, Deuteronomic discourses, and Mosaic segments of the Pentateuch.
PSALM 90: A Plea for Restoration of God’s Favor to Israel
Sorrowed by the brevity of human life because of God’s wrath upon sinful Israel, Moses pleads with the eternal God for the restoration of His favor and the renewal of national prosperity.
THE USE OF PARALLELISM
Rhythm of thought in this Hebrew poem is manifest in parallelism of ideas throughout the text. Synthetic parallelism, that which develops or enriches a thought, occurs most frequently (vv. 3-4, 9-10, 12-17). Verse fourteen illustrates this type of parallelism:
O satisfy us in the morning with Thy lovingkindness, That we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.
The second verse is climatic synthetic, using a tiered structure is used. The verse builds (synthetic), then adds new information in the final line (climatic).
Before the mountains were born, Or Thou didst give birth to the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God.
An emblematic parallelism, which employs an image to convey the poetic meaning, is used in the verse five:
Thou hast swept them away like a flood, they fall asleep; In the morning they are like grass which sprouts anew.
The only other occurrence is in the opening verse of the poem:
LORD, Thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.
When truth is placed oppositionally, in a contrasting manner, antithetical parallelism is indicated, as in verse 6:
In the morning it flourishes, and sprouts anew; Toward evening it fades, and withers away.
Chiastic or inverted parallelism contraposes or alternates words or phrases in consecutive lines, as in verses 8 and 11. Verse 7, another example of this type of parallelism, alternates the words anger and wrath:
For we have been consumed by Thine anger, And by Thy wrath we have been dismayed.
In addition to the use of rhymnic parallelism, repetitive thought is expressed throughout the psalm by means of redundant or contrasting topics, words, or phrases. The creative acts are presented progressively (v. 2) in contrast to a reversal of the creation of man (v. 3), as he returns to the dust from which he was made.
A temporal theme is manifest in the psalm by the repeated use of the words days and years (vv. 4, 9, 10, 12, and 15). The theme is introduced in the first verse with Moses’ reference to generations. Time is also evident in the contrast between morning and evening (v. 6) and with the introduction of the word, everlasting, as it becomes the backdrop for the brevity-of-life schema in the poem. These themes will become more obvious in the section on figures of speech.
FIGURES OF SPEECH
The psalm is alive with figures of speech. The use of similes to picture the frailty of man and a metaphor to describe Israel’s relationship to God enrich the psalm, causing the reader to imagine the events which are portrayed. The use of an anthropomorphism in describing the creative acts of God enhance the metaphor of verse 1 by depicting Him as a parent. Moses uses the idiom watch in the night because it was a time frame well known to the guards of the Israelite army, yet a time when the rest of Israel slept.
The psalm begins with the use of the metaphor, LORD, Thou hast been our dwelling place as an illustration of the relationship between the Lord and Israel. The feeling evoked from this figure of speech is one of closeness and security. This intimate relationship becomes the basis for Moses’ prayer.
Moses uses several similes in picturing the brevity of life. He compares a millennium to yesterday (v. 4), the shortness of life to grass, and the end of life to a sigh. The corresponding feeling of response to these similes is one of mortality and smallness in light of God’s eternality and creative power. The use of the image of a flood (v. 5) to refer to the cutting off Israel in death evokes fear in the reader.
A merism, morning and evening, is used in verse 6 to denote a day. This tends to increase the pace of the immediate passage, calling even more attention to the brevity of life. The metaphor of light is used in verse 8 as an enhancement God’s omnipresence on the revelation of attitudes or sins of the heart. The impact on the reader is one of guilt.
Bullinger notes that the word days linked with years in the verse five is a pleonasm. There is a redundance which tends to amplify the meaning and stress the length of time spent in sorrow. In the same verse, the word strengths, or excellences is a heterosis of number, causing a increase in the magnitude of the word. In the context, attention is drawn to requirements involved in the lengthening of one’s life as it is placed in contrast to the suddenness of death.
Two other figures of speech mentioned by Bullinger occur in the next verse. A metonymy of cause is used in the exchange of the verb know for the effect rightly considers. This added effect, along with the use of an erotesis or interrogating figure of speech (asking a question without waiting for the answer) place this verse at the focal point in the poem. The reader is thereby challenged to understand the wrath of God over sin and the necessity for fearing the Lord.
PRINCIPLES AND APPLICATIONS
The use of a metaphor in the opening verse of the poem sets the tone for the entire work. By referring to God as the dwelling place of Israel, Moses at once establishes a joint relationship of protection and trust. It is because of this relationship that Moses asks God to intervene in the life of the nation. Likewise, our walk with God must be built upon our relationship with Him. Is He our dwelling place? Do we rest in the security of His care and protection?
The alternative seems to be one of loneliness and insecurity. As Moses continues in the psalm, he speaks of the character of the One in whom Israel for generations has placed its trust. He is the eternal God, powerful, yet caring, like a father. He is worthy of our trust. He is able to provide security and protection. As believers who recognize the glory and majesty of our God, how can we not respond to Him. His dwelling place is the desired place of relationship. He is our protection as we place our trust in Him.
As Moses presents the imagery of grass to picture life’s brevity as a consequence of God’s wrath upon sin, the impact on the reader is one of fear and guilt. But another concept is present here as well. Because the consequences of sin are magnified in this poem, our desire is then to reject the sin which provoked God’s wrath. Israel experienced sorrow and dismay. Their lives were cut short. God disciplined them for their sin. What has been the consequence of sin in our own life? When we come into the light of God’s presence, we recognize both His holiness and our sinfulness. Our response must be one of repentance and obedience.
As Moses intercedes for the nation Israel, he sorrows over the nation’s sin, yet without bitterness. He is cognizant of the wrath of God for sin and the need for fearing God. He prays for an understanding of God’s anger so the he might fear Him. He also asks God for the proper perspective in evaluating His own life in light of the anger of the eternal God which shortened the life of sinful Israel. Only then would he be able to present to God a heart of wisdom. His desire is to be in the place of God’s favor, singing praises to the Lord. Moses serves as a model for believers today as a challenge to fear God and evaluate our own lives in light of His anger over sin. Only then will we learn to hate sin as God hates it. Only then can we present to Him a heart of wisdom, cleansed from sin, and rejoicing in God’s favor.
[Click on the above link to view an outline of Psalm 90]
Joseph A. Alexander, The Psalms. (Edinburg: 1873; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977), 378.
John Phillips, Exploring the Psalms, vol. 3 (Neptune, New York: Loizeauy Brothers, 1986), 146.
A. F. Kirkpatrick, gen ed., The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges. The Book of Psalms. (Cambridge: University Press, 1906), 547
Alexander, The Psalms, 378.
Donald M. Williams, Psalms 73-150, The Communicator’s Commentary, vol. 14, gen. ed., Lloyd Olgolvie (Dallas: Word Books, 1989), 159.
Bruce K. Waltke, “Notes on the Book of Psalms” (Unpublished class notes in 104 Hebrew, Dallas Theological Seminary, n.d.), 26.
Leland Ryken, Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), 218.
Phillips, Exploring the Psalms, 146.
Leopold Sabouri The Psalms: Their Origin and Meaning (New York: Alba House, 1974), 312.
Franz Delitzsch A Biblical Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 2 (Erlangen, 1867; reprint, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1959), 49.
George A. Buttrick, gen ed. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), 487.
Delitzsch, A Biblical Commentary on the Psalms, 49.
David E. Malick, “Making Sense of the Psalms” (unpublishedclass notes in 309 Ruth, Psalms, and Selected Epistles, Dallas Theological Seminary, Summer 1992), 2.
Malick, “Making Sense of the Psalms,” 2.
E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1898; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), 413.