So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”
Today is the last day of the year, the end of 2015. On this occasion, I find that Psalm 90 expresses much that is in my heart. Perhaps it will speak to yours as well.
The context of Psalm 90 is not a happy one. It was written in a time when the people of God are “consumed by [God’s] anger” and “overwhelmed” by God’s wrath (90:7) because of their “iniquities” (90:8). Nevertheless, beneath the bad news of God’s judgment lies a bedrock of confidence in God’s everlasting goodness. Rejoicing and prosperity will come again (90:14, 17).
Psalm 90 reframes the way we think about time and its passing. The psalm begins with good news: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” Moreover, God exists outside of time, “before the mountains were brought forth” (90:2). Indeed, the psalmist exults, “from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (90:2). Because God is timeless, God views the expanse of time differently than we see it: “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past” (90:4).
Framed by God’s eternal existence, our time on earth is short: “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away” (90:10). The shortness of our life, especially if we live in difficult times, could be discouraging. But, in Psalm 90, it can lead to wisdom: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” (90:12). The phrase, “count our days” means “know that our days are numbered.” Knowledge of the shortness of our life can help us become wise.
How? To begin, the brevity of our life contrasts with the eternity of God’s life. When we count our days, we are reminded of our smallness compared with God’s greatness. This recognition leads us, on the one hand, to want to use well the time given to us. On the other hand, it also reminds us of our utter dependence on God. Thus, the final verse of Psalm 90 reads, “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands — O prosper the work of our hands!” (90:17). When God’s favor rests on us, when God prospers us, then our work will be fruitful.
What a fascinating — and relevant — conclusion to this psalm! The psalmist’s reflections on God’s timelessness, the relative shortness of our lives, and our dependence on God’s grace lead to a prayer that God “prosper” our work. In this request, we hear an echo of the creation story in Genesis 1, in which God worked to create us in his image, so that we might work in this world as God’s agents and co-laborers. Though our time on earth is limited, our work still matters. What we do as workers will prosper as God’s grace is active in our lives.
Thus, as the year changes from 2015 to 2016, and as we remember the shortness of our lives, we do not despair. Rather, when we count our days, we renew our trust in our timeless God and we ask for his favor so that we might make a difference through our work in the brief time allotted to us.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
How does the passing of the years affect you? How do you feel? What do you think?
Has your work made a difference in the last year? If so, in what way?
How is your work a result of God’s favor in your life?
How would you like God to prosper your work in 2016?
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. . . . For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. . . . The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. . . . So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. Turn, O LORD! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands — O prosper the work of our hands! Amen.