Psalm 90:11-13

11. Who knoweth the power of thy anger? and according to thy fear, so is thy wrath. 12. Teach us so1 to number our days, and we shall apply our hearts to wisdom. 13. Return, O Jehovah! how long? Be pacified towards thy servants.


11. Who knoweth, the power of thy anger? Moses again returns to speak of the peculiar afflictions of the Israelites; for he had also on this occasion complained before of the common frailty and miseries of mankind. He justly exclaims that the power of God's wrath is immeasurably great. So long as God withholds his hand, men wantonly leap about like runaway slaves, who are no longer afraid at the sight of their master; nor can their rebellious nature be reduced to obedience in any other way than by his striking them with the fear of his judgment. The meaning then is, that whilst God hides himself, and, so to speak, dissembles his displeasure, men are inflated with pride, and rush upon sin with reckless impetuosity; but when they are compelled to feel how dreadful his wrath is, they forget their loftiness, and are reduced to nothing. What follows, According to thy fear, so is thy wrath, is commonly explained as denoting that the more a man is inspired with reverence towards God, the more severely and sternly is he commonly dealt with; for "judgment begins at the house of God," (1 Peter 4:17.) Whilst he pampers the reprobate with the good things of this life, he wastes his chosen ones with continual troubles; and in short, "whom he loveth he chasteneth," (Hebrews 12:6.) It is then a true and profitable doctrine that he deals more roughly with those who serve him than with the reprobate. But Moses, I think, has here a different meaning, which is, that it is a holy awe of God, and that alone, which makes us truly and deeply feel his anger. We see that the reprobate, although they are severely punished, only chafe upon the bit, or kick against God, or become exasperated, or are stupified, as if they were hardened against all calamities; so far are they from being subdued. And though they are full of trouble, and cry aloud, yet the Divine anger does not so penetrate their hearts as to abate their pride and fierceness. The minds of the godly alone are wounded with the wrath of God; nor do they wait for his thunderbolts, to which the reprobate hold out their hard and iron necks, but they tremble the very moment when God moves only his little finger. This I consider to be the true meaning of the prophet. He had said that the human mind could not sufficiently comprehend the dreadfulness of the Divine wrath. And we see how, although God shakes heaven and earth, many notwithstanding, like the giants of old, treat this with derision, and are actuated by such brutish arrogance, that they despise him when he brandishes his bolts. But as the Psalmist is treating of a doctrine which properly belongs to true believers, he affirms that they have a strongly sensitive feeling of the wrath of God which makes them quietly submit themselves to his authority. Although to the wicked their own conscience is a tormentor which does not suffer them to enjoy repose, yet so far is this secret dread from teaching them to humble themselves, that it excites them to clamor against God with increasing frowardness. In short, the faithful alone are sensible of God's wrath; and being subdued by it, they acknowledge that they are nothing, and with true humility devote themselves wholly to Him. This is wisdom to which the reprobate cannot attain, because they cannot lay aside the pride with which they are inflated. They are not touched with the feeling of God's wrath, because they do not stand in awe of him.

12. Teach us so to number our days. Some translate to the number of our days, which gives the same sense. As Moses perceived that what he had hitherto taught is not comprehended by the understandings of men until God shine upon them by his Spirit, he now sets himself to prayer. It indeed seems at first sight absurd to pray that we may know the number of our years. What? since even the strongest scarcely reach the age of fourscore years, is there any difficulty in reckoning up so small a sum? Children learn numbers as soon as they begin to prattle; and we do not need a teacher in arithmetic to enable us to count the length of a hundred upon our fingers. So much the fouler and more shameful is our stupidity in never comprehending the short term of our life. Even he who is most skillful in arithmetic, and who can precisely and accurately understand and investigate millions of millions, is nevertheless unable to count fourscore years in his own life. It is surely a monstrous thing that men can measure all distances without themselves, that they know how many feet the moon is distant from the center of the earth, what space there is between the different planets; and, in short, that they can measure all the dimensions both of heaven and earth; while yet they cannot number threescore and ten years in their own case. It is therefore evident that Moses had good reason to beseech God for ability to perform what requires a wisdom which is very rare among mankind. The last clause of the verse is also worthy of special notice. By it he teaches us that we then truly apply our hearts to wisdom when we comprehend the shortness of human life. What can be a greater proof of madness than to ramble about without proposing to one's self any end? True believers alone, who know the difference between this transitory state and a blessed eternity, for which they were created, know what ought to be the aim of their life. No man then can regulate his life with a settled mind, but he who, knowing the end of it, that is to say death itself, is led to consider the great purpose of man's existence in this world, that he may aspire after the prize of the heavenly calling.

13. Return, O Jehovah! how long? After having spoken in the language of complaint, Moses adds a prayer, That God, who had not ceased for a long time severely to punish his people, would at length be inclined to deal gently with them. Although God daily gave them in many ways some taste of his love, yet their banishment from the land of promise was a very grievous affliction; for it admonished them that they were unworthy of that blessed inheritance which he had appointed for his children. They could not fail often to remember that dreadful oath which he had thundered out against them,

"Surely they shall not see the land which I sware unto their fathers, neither shall any of them that provoked me see it: But as for you, your carcases, they shall fall in this wilderness,"
(Numbers 14:23, 32.)2

Moses, no doubt, combines that sore bondage which they had suffered in Egypt with their wanderings in the wilderness; and therefore he justly bewails their protracted languishing in the words how long? As God is said to turn his back upon us, or to depart to a distance from us, when he withdraws the tokens of his favor, so by his return we are to understand the manifestation of his grace. The word Mxn, nacham, which we have translated be pacified, signifies to repent, and may therefore not improperly be explained thus: Let it repent thee concerning thy servants. According to the not unfrequent and well known phraseology of Scripture, God is said to repent, when putting away men's sorrow, and affording new ground of gladness, he appears as it were to be changed. Those, however, seem to come nearer the mind of the Psalmist who translate, Comfort thyself over thy servants; for God, in cherishing us tenderly, takes no less pleasure in us than does a father in his own children. Now that is nothing else than to be pacified or propitious, as we have translated it, to make the meaning the more obvious.

1 Moses, as we learn from the passage to which Calvin refers, "was an hundred and twenty years old when he died, his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated." He was eighty years old when God made him captain of the chosen people; and Aaron was eighty-three years old before he was made High Priest, Exodus 7:7. These, and a few other similar cases, have led many to conclude that the age of eighty was not considered at that time the age of decrepitude; and consequently that this psalm, which limits the average length of human life to seventy or eighty years, must be of a later date than the time of Moses. But this is no valid argument against his being its penman. According to Calvin, seventy or eighty years was at that time, in general, the utmost limits of human life; and the longevity of Moses and some others who exceeded that limit was an exception to the general rule. If this should be called in question, it might be observed that this psalm treats of the afflictions and brevity of life, not in reference to all men absolutely, but with respect to the Israelites in particular, who, on account of their murmuring at the report of the spies who had been sent to spy out the land of Canaan, and other sins, provoked God to swear in his wrath that the carcases of all that were numbered of them according to their whole number, from twenty years old and upwards, with the exception of Caleb and Joshua, should fall in the wilderness during the forty years of their wandering in it, (Numbers 14:27-29.) Few of them, therefore, could have exceeded or even reached the age of fourscore years. It has been thought by some that at that time human life all over the world was reduced to the measure here specified, as its average standard. "The decree which abbreviated the life of man as a general rule to seventy or eighty years," observes Dr J. M. Good, "was given as a chastisement upon the whole race of Israelites in the wilderness. It does not appear that the term of life was lengthened afterwards. Samuel died about seventy years old, David under seventy-one, and Solomon under sixty; and the history of the world shows that the abbreviation of life in other countries was nearly in the same proportion."

2 "There is an ambiguity in Nk, as it denotes either so or rightly. Hence the interpretation is twofold; either 'so make us to know that we may cause a heart of wisdom to come,' i.e., so instruct us that we may acquire a wise heart. Or, 'teach us to number our days rightly,' etc. LXX. give it another and distorted interpretation." -- Bythner.


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