Psalm 90 – “Didactic Address/Petition”

Hebrew-English Text
I. Summary
The psalmist contrasts God’s eternal nature with man’s ephemerality and asks God for a joyous, succesful life.

II. Photo
The psalmist meditates on human life: “The span of our life is seventy years, or, given the strength, eighty years; but the best of them are trouble and sorrow.” (v. 10)

III. Select Verses    
3-4: You return man to dust; You decreed, “Return you mortals!” For in Your sight a thousand years are like yesterday that has past, like a watch of the night.
7: So we are consumed by Your anger, terror-struck by Your fury.
10: The span of our life is seventy years, or, given the strength, eighty years; but the best of them are trouble and sorrow. They pass by speedily, and we are in darkness.
15: Give us joy for as long as You have afflicted us, for the years we have suffered misfortune.

IV. Outline

1a. Superscription
1-12. Didactic Address/Petition
    1b-2. Invocation; Affirmation of confidence; Lesson: God is eternal
    3-6. Lesson: God is eternal, but man dies
    7-11. Lesson: Man lives in fear of God
    12. Petition for knowledge
13-17. Petition for a joyous, successful life

V. Comment
Psalm 90, which is the only Psalm attributed to Moses, is concerned with a theological problem: God lives forever but man lives a short, painful life. The psalm ends with a petition for happiness and success.

Because Psalm 90 begins the fourth book of psalms, it is important to discuss the impact of the Dead Sea Scrolls on our understanding of the fourth and fifth books of the psalter. One scroll in particular, 11QPsalmsA (11Q5 or “The Great Psalms Scroll”), has led James Sanders to suggest that there were once two or more editions of the Book of Psalms, a theory that is now referred to by scholars as the “Qumran Psalms Hypothesis.” This following are the main points of Sanders’s argument:

  • By the time of the composition of the Dead Sea Scrolls (2nd c. BCE to 1st c. CE), the order and content of books I-III of the psalter were relatively stable. This can be seen by a 90+% agreement in the order and content of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bibles in our possession.
  • When it comes to books IV and V, however, there was a great deal of fluidity. This can be seen by a 61% disagreement in the order of the psalms of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the psalms of the Masoretic Text. Furthermore, the Dead Sea Scrolls contain 13 “apocryphal” psalms and omit a number of psalms found in the Masoretic Text.
  • Sanders concludes that there was a historical split in the composition of the Book of Psalms. While psalms 1-89 were accepted by everyone in antiquity as a unit, at least two psalters developed afterwards. One can be found in our Bibles, and a second can be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially in 11Q5, 11Q6, and 4Q87. This “Qumran Psalter” has a completely different order, 13 “apocryphal” psalms, and a number of “omissions” relative to the Masoretic Text.

VI. Works Used

(see “Commentaries” page)
Gerstenberger, Erhard. Psalms Part 2 and Lamentations (Forms of Old Testament Literature; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).
Flint, Peter. W. “Psalms, Book of” in Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls Vol. 2 (New York: Oxford, 2000).
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