Threescore Years and Ten
Psalm 90 (KJV)
Last year was the 150th anniversary of a well-known speech which begins, "Fourscore and seven years ago. . ." Except in quotes or at certain formal occasions, we rarely use "score" as a number. Two hundred years ago it was one of the common terms of numerical quantity: pair = 2, dozen = 12, gross = 144 (12 dozen), decade = 10, and score = 20.
In Psalm 90:10, Moses said, "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." This, he says, is the normal life span of most people, 70 to 80 years. Stating ages by scores of years is not in the original Hebrew, but comes from the Elizabethan English of the Authorized Version. Nevertheless, there is a certain logic in expressing age this way.
A score of years (20) is about the time it takes for a person to reach full adulthood. In the Old Testament, 20 or 21 was the threshold for the privileges and responsibilities of an adult. Someone younger than 20 is regarded as a youth (infant, then child, then adolescent). After two decades, we are expected to act "grown up," to provide for ourselves then others.
The next score of years is young adulthood. There is a biblical basis for this, too. Anyone under age 40 was considered young, for instance Joshua at the time of the Exodus. One may be grown up at 20, but maturity awaits further growth.
Even today, the period from twoscore to threescore years is considered "middle age." We should be more mentally and emotionally mature than we were before 40, applying this maturity in our lives. Most of us begin this time at the peak of our physical strength.
By the time we reach threescore years, our strength has begun to fade, more slowly for some, more quickly for others. Now we are considered elders, senior citizens. During the next decade most people retire from full-time employment (whether working for others or operating their own businesses). Avocations become vocations. Our roles shift more to that of mentors and role models. Many of us are grandparents and great grandparents. Silver and snow replace the ebony, chocolate, tan, and gold.
According to Moses, this fourth score of life is the last for most of us. Even today, with modern healthcare, nutritional supplements, exercise facilities, etc., most people die between threescore and fourscore years, most of these after age 70. Some of us live longer than this, past 80, even into our 90s. A few even live past 100.
This psalm begins with a description of God’s eternal presence: "Even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God." By contrast, our lives are short. Compared to God’s timeless existence, our lives are no more than an overnight experience—if even that (verses 5-6). In light of this stark reality, Moses prays to God, "So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom" (verse 12), and closes the psalm by asking the Lord to make our work fruitful and lasting (verse 17).
Just a personal note: Psalm 90 has a special significance for me now. This month I reach my "threescore years and ten."