My times are in your hand; rescue me from the hand of my enemies and from my persecutors! Make your face shine on your servant; save me in your steadfast love! Psalm 31.15-16.
An old story tells how, one day, a merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to the marketplace for provisions. The servant came home white and trembling and told his master that in the marketplace he had been jostled by a woman whom he had recognised as Death and who had made a threatening gesture towards him. “Lend me a horse,” he begged the merchant, “so that I can flee from her.” So the merchant lent his servant a horse and the servant immediately leaped upon it and rode as hard and fast as he could towards Samarra which lay about 75 miles away. After the servant had departed, the merchant himself went down to the marketplace and sought out Death. “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant?” he asked, when he had found her. “That was no threatening gesture,” Death replied. “It was a start of surprise. I was astonished to see your servant here in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
The story came to mind as I read again this morning those familiar words from Psalm 31 – “My times are in your hand.” The Hebrew word is ‘et and, used like this in the plural, it refers to the whole of one’s life and its content – all the events, situations and encounters that make it what it is. And David is declaring here, as an article of his faith, that his present situation – living rough in the Judean wilderness as Saul is hunting him to the kill – is one such “time” but that it, like all others, is in God’s hands. Yahweh is in control – however much it might seem otherwise; and he is permitting David to be hounded through the desert like some wild animal. He can save him if he wants to; and he prays that he will – “Rescue me,” he cries. But he recognises that that may not be part of the plan. Maybe the pursuit will end in death. Maybe this time Saul will finally catch up with him. But only God knows. He is in charge.
Death is, of course, the last event in anyone’s life on this earth, and I take both comfort and courage this morning in reminding myself afresh that the moment of my own death is in God’s hands. It may be today or it may not be for many years; I simply don’t know. But what I do know is that the date and the time of it is already in God’s diary. Job 14.5 tells me that my days are literally “numbered”; and once that number is reached, riding to Samarra will not help me.
Why would I want it to? If, as I truly believe, I will at the moment of my departure be caught up in the glad embrace of Love himself and will experience such joy that all earthly joys will suddenly be seen to have been only the merest of hints at what was to come, why would I not welcome death’s arrival? Well, for the obvious reason that entering into all the wonders that are there necessarily involves leaving, however temporarily, all that continues to delight me right here. And there is so much. My beloved wife, Yvonne, from whom I never want to be apart, my dear friends, my home, my garden, birds on the feeders, candlelit dinners at the Yorke Arms, the splendour of the Yorkshire Dales, the wild flowers of Crete, sunsets viewed from the front window … the blessings just go on and on.
But they will end eventually and when they do this verse in Psalm 31 assures me that it will be “time”. It will not happen a moment before or a moment after the moment my Father in heaven has ordained that it shall be ; and he will intervene in my life to whatever extent is necessary for that to be so. Of course, I understand that he has “factored in” those interventions themselves, just as he has factored in all the efforts I make to prolong my life and to keep myself safe and healthy. (In other words, he knows whether or not I will ride to Samarra!) But intervene he does – and perhaps far more than I am ever aware. That phone call, for instance, that delayed me just as I was about to leave the house the other day. I didn’t give it a second thought, but what if …? What might have happened on the road if I had left the house two minutes earlier?
There are interventions I am aware of. The fact that, in 1993, I suffered my first heart attack in my home close to the hospital and not a few hours earlier as I was rushing to catch a plane in Naples Airport carrying two heavy suitcases as well as hand luggage. The fact that, in 1995, just because of a casual remark by a friend I hadn’t seen for years, I ended up at a conference with John Wimber and Mahash Chavda and was instantly delivered from a 60-a-day cigarette addiction that was undoubtedly killing me. The fact that, in 2000, after a second heart attack, a conversation with a heart surgeon took an unexpected turn and resulted in a colleague of his performing some ground-breaking surgery on me that has carried me through to today. I could go on, but those interventions alone assure me that “my times are in his hands”.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are no better hands; not my own, that’s for sure. And I’m content for them to hold all that lies ahead. As the old hymn has it …
Known only to Him
Are the great hidden secrets:
I’ll fear not the darkness when my flame shall dim.
I know not what the future holds,
But I know who holds the future:
It’s a secret known only to Him.
And here is Elvis singing it …