The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you? So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. Return, O LORD! How long? Have pity on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Psalm 90.10-14.
Teach us to number our days! If that is simply a prayer that God will teach us how to calculate how old we are, it is almost unnecessary. The calculation is simple … and there are plenty of programs on the net that will do it for us. I checked with www.timeanddate.com just now and found that today I am precisely 24,570 days old! But, of course, that is not what “numbering our days” means. Indeed, unless this happens to be the last day of my life, the number of my days will end up being more than 24,570, but this side of death I am never going to know precisely how much more.
No … Moses’ prayer in this psalm is (to turn his metaphor around a little) that we should learn how to make each day count. He sees how very short the human life span is when viewed against the backdrop of eternity — “A thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past,” he tells God (Psalm 90.4). And he sees how the relatively few days that we are permitted to live on this earth are blighted by sin and by “wrath” — that is to say, by the trouble and grief that are consequential upon the sin in our own lives and the lives of others and by the fallen-ness not just of humankind but of the whole of creation.
Moses (it seems to me) is looking back here to the curse that fell on Adam and of all of Adam-kind back in the beginning: “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3.17). He sees that sin and death and the brevity of life are all inter-connected — for was it not the case that, until the fall, Adam had been free to “reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Genesis 3.22)? What a tragedy!
But despite the gloom and doom that seems to be overwhelming Moses as he contemplates the shortness and difficulty of life, he sees the hand of grace reaching to him through the darkness and he grasps it. He sees that, despite the sin and despite all the troubles a day might bring, there, shining on us every morning is God’s unchanging, unwavering, steadfast love. And he sees that, every morning, if we respond to that love and open ourselves up to it and receive it, it will satisfy us and fill our day with joy and gladness. If I will do that this morning, today will be a “numbered day.” If I will do that this morning, I will be a step further towards acquiring “a heart of wisdom.”
Please make today a “numbered day” for me, O Lord — a day that will count in my life because it is filled with your steadfast love and lived in the light of that love. Help me to rejoice and be glad in it. For your name’s sake, Amen.