Psalm 90

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 90.  I have two items.

1.  For this first item, I’ll summarize the Psalm.  God has been Israel’s dwelling place—-a place of refuge (Psalm 71:3; 91:9; Deuteronomy 33:27)—-for generations.  Yet, by God’s decree, people die.  God’s wrath at human iniquities and secret sins has something to do with our death and the affliction that we experience during our brief lives.

In v 12, the Psalmist asks God to teach us to number our days, and Marvin Tate helpfully relates that verse to what comes before it in Psalm 90: “The need for human beings is for a mind wise enough to sort out the days, with their events, responsibilities, and opportunities, so that they can cope with the transience and evil of human life (v 10).”  Life is short, and life is hard.  According to Tate, v 12 is the Psalmist asking God to give us the wisdom to deal and to cope with those facts.

Sigmund Mowinckel cautions against seeing this Psalm as a general reflection about God’s eternity and our transience, for he believes that it relates to a specific situation: Israel is afflicted by Gentile powers, and she believes that this is due to God’s wrath.  She wants for God to reverse her predicament, and she appeals to her transience to tell God that life is short, and she would like to spend at least some years in a state of happiness.  The reflections about human transience in Psalm 90, in short, are designed to move God to pity Israel and to act on her behalf.

Indeed, vv 13-17 uphold Mowinckel’s argument, for the Psalmist in those verses pleads with God to reverse Israel’s negative situation.  The Psalmist desires that God’s wrath might come to an end, that God will have compassion on God’s servants, that God will demonstrate love in the morning (which, in the Psalms, is often a time of deliverance), and that God will prosper both God’s servants and also their children.

I think that vv 1-12 may be a general reflection on how God is eternal, life is short and hard, and we need to learn how to cope.  Vv 1-12 are comparable to the Book of Ecclesiastes.  But a later hand may have applied the general reflections in vv 1-12 to a specific situation: Israel’s affliction at the hands of Gentile powers. 

A possible problem with my opinion, though, is that it leaves vv 1-12 without much that is positive or redemptive: vv 1-12 primarily contend that God is wrathful at us during our short lives and we have to deal with that, without offering hope of God’s love, forgiveness, and blessings.  In light of that, perhaps vv 1-12 and vv 13-17 belong together.  Maybe we have one Psalmist who is disturbed by Israel’s predicament at the hands of Gentiles, and this leads the Psalmist to make general statements about life.

2.  Psalm 90 is attributed to Moses.  According to Tate, a reason for this is that there are overlaps in vocabulary between Psalm 90 and Deuteronomy 32-33, which contains Moses’ song and blessing, respectively.  Throughout the history of its interpretation, people have sought to identify a Mosaic setting for the composition of the Psalm.  One approach is to say that Moses said Psalm 90 in light of the events in Exodus 32, in which Moses intercedes before God on behalf of Israel after the Golden Calf incident. In this scenario, Moses in Psalm 90 is asking God to turn away his wrath from idolatrous Israel. 

Another approach is to apply Psalm 90 to God’s punishment of Israel in the wilderness—-God’s declaration that she will wander forty years in the wilderness, and that only her children will enter the Promised Land.  In this scenario, the Psalmist’s declaration in v 10 that people live seventy or eighty years is Moses reflecting on how the wilderness generation will die without entering the Promised Land.  According to this logic, much of the wilderness generation was around the age of 30 when it was cursed—-the time of adulthood—-and it died forty years later, at age 70.  Moreover, according to Mowinckel, the scribe who attributed Psalm 90 to Moses thought that v 16’s prayer for the children related to the children inheriting the Promised Land.

I think that Psalm 90 fits Exodus 32 more than the events surrounding the wilderness generation, for v 16 prays for both the servants and their children, which goes against the idea that v 16 is saying that the wilderness generation will not enter the Promised Land whereas its children would.  Unless Moses was praying that God would reverse God’s decree against the wilderness generation, Psalm 90 does not fit the forty year wandering in the wilderness overly well.

I should also note that, according to Tate, some apply v 15 (the years of Israel’s affliction) to her time of slavery in Egypt.  The idea here may be that Moses is telling God that Israel has suffered enough, and so God should give Israel some happy days.

Another possible application of Psalm 90 is that of Jubilees 23:8-15, which relates themes in Psalm 90 to the decline in longevity due to human sin, as Jubilees refers to stories that appear in the Book of Genesis.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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