“Teach us to number our days carefully so that we may develop wisdom in our hearts” (Psalm 90:12).
Numbering our days means having a sense of our own mortality. It means recognizing, humbly, that we have a limited and set amount of time on the earth. It means not thinking so highly of ourselves that we live with a false sense of immortality. And, according to the psalmist, this is a very good thing. So good, in fact, that he prayed that God would help him actually do it. That fact leads to a few observations about numbering our days that I hope will be helpful.
1. Numbering our days is not natural to us.
Notice that this is indeed a prayer. Like all requests we offer in prayer, this is born out of need and an acknowledgment of something we cannot do for ourselves. In this case, the thing we cannot do for ourselves is know how to number our days carefully. We naturally assume that there will always be tomorrow – that there will always be another chance for this or that. We become procrastinators in our arrogance, assuming that the limited number of days we have on this earth will never come to an end. Because we drift toward this kind of arrogance in which we are the charters of our own destiny, we need God’s help to have a true gauge of our own mortality.
This is the point James made in James 4, a chapter diagnosing the disease of pride, when he reminded us all that we should be careful about assuming on the time-table of our lives. Even in things like planning trips, meetings, and anything else, we would do well to remember that “you don’t even know what tomorrow will bring—what your life will be! For you are like smoke that appears for a little while, then vanishes” (James 4:14).
2. Numbering our days is not morbid.
For some, this is a hard prayer to pray. That’s because for some, thinking on the nature and inevitability of death is a morbid concept. But for the Christian, thinking realistically about death is not only not morbid, it’s actually a good and motivating thing. It helps us to remember who we are in the grand scheme of the universe and ultimately moves us to greater humility before God who has no beginning and will have no end. Though the context of the psalm does indeed include reflection on the nature of sin around the psalmist and in the world, he’s not begging God for an end to his life. Instead, he’s asking for the right perspective on all such things, be they good or bad, to live in light of the limited amount of time we all have.
Paul had a similar reflection when considering the troubles of this life in light of eternity, which is immensely encouraging for the Christian. Namely, he says that “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
3. Numbering our days is not about months and years.
The psalmist wasn’t praying for God to bestow on him the date and time of his death, which only God truly knows. Instead, he’s after a mindset that marks the way we live. He was far more concerned about a lifestyle and perspective than days and weeks and months. For all those who have willingly submitted themselves to the rule, reign, and authority of God Almighty, such a perspective is valuable for it reminds us of His greatness and our own smallness.
In another Psalm, we read of the praise to God such a perspective leads to: “As for man, his days are like grass—he blooms like a flower of the field; when the wind passes over it, it vanishes, and its place is no longer known. But from eternity to eternity the Lord’s faithful love is toward those who fear Him, and His righteousness toward the grandchildren of those who keep His covenant, who remember to observe His precepts. The Lord has established His throne in heaven, and His kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:15-19).
What’s more, when we have the mindset of numbered days it is motivating to us to make the most of what time we have been granted. But that motivation leads us to the last observation, which is where we most often go wrong when it comes to numbering our days.
4. Numbering our days is not about a bucket list.
This is where this philosophy of numbering our days has been hijacked. It’s been taken prisoner and impersonated by the ways of the world. When we think about numbering our days, then, we think this is a prayer for God to help us squeeze every ounce of marrow out of life. For us to make our bucket list and then check off the items. To go skydivin’, Rocky Mountain climbin’, and then eventually to have some sort of interaction with a bull named Fu Manchu.
I’m not sure that’s what the Psalmist had in mind with this prayer. And if it’s not, then the end of numbering our days is not a request for us to eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die, but something else entirely. It’s important to notice that this verse has not only a request, but also the end of that request. We are asking God to teach us to number our days so that we may develop wisdom in our hearts.
What is wisdom? It’s not the stuff of bungee jumping and finding that old flame from high school on Facebook. It’s not made of buying the sports car you can’t afford or cashing out your college savings fund for your kids so you can go on a safari. Wisdom is about recognizing the reality of the situation before you and then making decisions that bring honor and glory to the God who put you there to begin with. In even simpler terms, wisdom is doing the best you can, by God’s grace, with the resources and circumstances at your disposal for the sake of God’s kingdom.
Yes, Lord. Even in this. Teach us to number our days, so that we might be like Jesus, who knew for years that His time had not yet come. But then when He knew His days were complete, He gave up His spirit knowing that in all things, “It is finished.” May it be so with all His followers – we the people who live with the perspective of our numbered days and are determined not to squander them in foolishness but instead to live wisely, making the most of every opportunity God presents before us (Eph. 5:15).