“TEACH US TO NUMBER OUR DAYS”
“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”
I regret to inform the readers that some biblical scholars, clergymen, and seminary students do not care much for Psalm 90. Personally, I have found it to be profound in its insights! It is one of the outstanding prayers in the Bible. I have used its message as the text for many funerals, including the funerals of those who have avoided every aspect of God in their lives. I know of no psalm which so clearly balances our understanding about life and death, God and mankind, pessimism and hope. I hold Psalm 90 in the highest regard. It is, after all, the oldest psalm in the entire book of Psalms. The introduction states that its author was Moses, and while introductions to specific Psalms are not inspired, there is more reasons to believe Moses actually wrote it than to deny that he did. Moses was a “man of God” who lead the Israelites out of Egypt, hand-delivered the original Ten Commandments and prayed urgently and fervently that God would not cast off His people. Here are great principles that will help all of us have a good life.
WE HAVE A DWELLING PLACE WITH GOD
The prayer begins: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were bought forth or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (verses 1-2). A “dwelling place” is more than a place to flee to in time of danger. It is truly our “home” where love abounds, needs are met, comfort prevails and character is formed. Eighty years ago the world heard these words when Dorothy (Judy Garland) woke up in Kansas and remembered her wonderful adventures in Oz, but told her family “there‘s no place like home.” The world has never forgotten those words! But long before Judy Garland uttered them, God’s people were sheltered and nourished in God Himself––the God who is from “everlasting to everlasting.” To this very day, those who are far away from their physical families may enter the dwelling place of God “in the heavens” (1st Kings 8:30). All of His servants are welcome there! On the morning of the resurrection, a loud voice will be heard saying: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3). Moses put it like this: “The eternal God is your dwelling place; and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27). We are invited to enter the everlasting dwelling place of God now, and we will dwell there for all eternity in the world to come!
GOD HAS SHOWED HIS ANGER
The book of Psalms contains a large number of references to the wrath of God, but no psalm is more insistent that we appreciate the fact that His anger is very much a part of who God is. Moses experienced it as he led the children of Israel through the wilderness for 40 years. In fact, there are striking similarities between Psalm 90 and the wandering in the wilderness described in Deuteronomy, so much so that that 40 years experience may indeed be the historical background of this psalm. “We are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed…. For all our days pass away under your wrath….Who considers the power of your anger, and the wrath according ot the fear of you?” (verses 7, 9, 11). The anger of God is not a topic to be lightly dismissed. Many preachers never preach on that topic. But God’s wrath is very much a Bible subject (both in the Old Testament and the New Testament) and we owe it to ourselves to learn about it!
SIN IS THE REASON FOR GOD’S ANGER.
The psalmist wrote: “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh. The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty….” (verses 8-10). Moses saw God’s wrath at work. At Kadesh the majority of spies came back with a negative report of the land and the inhabitants God intended for Israel to conquer. Because of their sinful fears and refusal to obey God instructions to enter the land, God brought the punishment of death on Israel (Numbers 14:22-23). It is a sobering thought that death is the result of God’s wrath. If human beings had not sinned God would not have been angry with humans and brought death on the world. It is important, however, that we realize this psalm does not teach that everyone who dies does so because he is a sinful person and personally under the wrath of God. Infants, for example, have no sins, yet innocent infants and youngsters pass away every year. Those old enough to commit sin, to repent of their sins and to be immersed into Christ receive the forgiveness of all their sins (Acts 2:38), yet death comes to those who are forgiven even as it comes to those who live in deliberate sin. It is a universal truth that death is the consequence of God’s wrath provoked by of sin in this world. Death entered the world when Adam sinned at the beginning of creation. God said to Adam: “You are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Death has spread to all men –– even to those incapable of committing sins and those whose sins have been forgiven by the blood of Jesus. It is “appointed to men to die once” (Hebrews 9:27).
LIFE ON EARTH IS FRAGILE.
In five figures of speech Moses speaks of how transitory life on earth really is. It is “as yesterday” when it is passed or “as a watch in the night” (usually 4 hours) (verse 4); it is “like a dream” and “like grass” (verse 5); it is “like a sigh” (verse 9). What a contrast to the nature of God who is “from everlasting to everlasting” (verse 2)! Life-span in the age of Moses was about the same as life-span is today: 70 or 80 years. A few live to be 100 or more, and others die long before they reach their 70’s. Whatever time we have on this planet needs to be centered in what is most important and what prepares us for the world to come. That is, to learn God’s purpose for life and devote ourselves to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). This is what “wisdom” is all about! We need to make every day count!
NUMBERING OUR DAYS
Moses prayed: “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (verse 12). Numbering our days is not a matter of arithmetic. The New Bible Commentary explains: “Human life is set between two points: the wrath of God, which makes life transient, and peace with God which gives it stability and permanency.” We owe it to our Creator to get to know Him better than we do today, and to serve Him more effectively than we did today. To put it another way: numbering our days is to “realize how brief life is on earth, in order that he might use his time in the most meaningful way possible” (John Willis, Insights From the Psalms III). It is a matter of establishing priorities for life. It means resolving to bring glory to God, to do good to those around us, to spread the gospel to the farthest reaches of the earth, and to get ready for the judgment day that is certainly coming! It means to live life in a way that we will be able to hear the Savior say: “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).
ANTICIPATE GOD’S STEADFAST LOVE
Moses looked forward to the Lord doing great things for him, his family and the nation. He prayed: “Satisfy us …with your steadfast love….make us glad…let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us. Yes, establish the work of our hands!” (verses 14-17). Our God does not want to be estranged from us; we need His love and power to bring out the best in our families. “Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well” (Psalm 139:14). Even if life is short and death comes sooner than we would expect, yet the Lord sustains us with fresh favors each day. We have important tasks to accomplish and we need divine help to accomplish them; we need God to “establish the work of our hands”! God’s steadfast love will give us the strength we need. Life will be good and the works of God will be seen in the lives of parents and children. Is there anything more valuable than God’s kingdom power which endures from one generation to another?
DEATH IS NOT THE END
It is a mistake to interpret Psalm 90 as focused entirely on death and dying. On the contrary, Moses says that what we do with our brief lives will enable us at the end of our earthly journey, to “fly away” (verse 10). This is a promise of great hope! Death sets the spirit free to return to God. Solomon spoke of this exit from earthly life: “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). Stephen, the first Christian to be martyred for the Faith prayed as he was being stoned to death: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” (Acts 7:59). And our Lord Jesus, while dying for us, endured the cross because of the “joy that was set before Him” (Hebrews 12:2). He cried out: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Having said that His spirit flew away into the very presence of God.
We “fly away” not like a frightened and jittery sparrow flees from one dangerous branch to another, but like a mighty Bald Eagle rising with grace from his eyrie nest to soar upward toward the skies above to the highest peak where he will be safe from all predators that would harm him. When we come to the final hour of life on earth, may we with hope, love, courage and peace be carried in the arms of angels to the “dwelling of God” who will shelter us with His presence and put His “everlasting arms” around us.
Some glad morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away
To a home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away
I’ll fly away, O glory! I’ll fly away;
When I die, hallelujah, by and by,
I’ll fly away.
––Albert E. Brumley, 1932