Lord, teach us to count our days

Psalm 90 is identified as “A Prayer of Moses, the man of God,” making Psalm 90 the oldest psalm in Scripture, written by the oldest author in Scripture. Though the psalm was written by Moses when he was over a hundred years of age, the psalm confronts us with the reality of our short span of life on earth: “You turn us back to dust, and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’ For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers…. For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh. 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” (verses 3-6 & 9-10).

Moses tells us that if we lived for a thousand years, it would still feel like our life sped away as fast as a watch in the night—a four hour span of time. If we live 70 or 80 years, or even if we make it to 100 years, our span of time on earth is but a fraction of a watch in the night. Our years “are soon gone, and we fly away.”

The premise of this psalm is that we are mortal, that our time on earth is limited. 

At one time it was common for churches to have a graveyard beside the church building—not just for convenience but as a reminder to worshipers every Sunday morning that we are here for but a short time before moving on to the next life. It would do us well, to walk through our church’s Memorial Garden from time to time to remind ourselves of our mortality.

The story is told of an ancient king who summoned his army generals to his death bed and asked them to fulfil his final three wishes:

  1. The best doctors should carry his coffin.
  2. The wealth he had accumulated should be scattered along the way on the procession to the cemetery.
  3. His hands should be let loose so that they could hang outside the coffin for all to see.

Surprised by these unusual requests, one of his generals asked for an explanation. The king replied,

  1. I want the best doctors to carry my coffin to demonstrated that in the face of death, even the best doctors in the world have no power to prevent death.
  2. I want the road to be covered with my treasure so that everybody sees that material wealth acquired on earth will stay on earth.
  3. I want my hands to swing in the wind so that people understand that we come into this world emptyhanded and we leave this world emptyhanded after the most precious treasure of all is exhausted. That treasure is Time.

It is this treasure of Time that Moses had in mind as he composed this psalm, so in verse 12 Moses prays, “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”

How do we “count our days” well? How do we make best use of this treasure of Time in the short span of our life on earth?

Billy Graham once remarked, “We take excellent care of our bodies, which we have for only a lifetime; yet we let shrivel our souls, which we will have for eternity.” Invest time in nourishing and building up your soul.

Father Alfred Delp advised, “If through one person’s life there is a little more love and kindness, a little more light and truth in the world, then he/she will not have lived in vain.” Invest time in adding love and kindness and light and truth to the world around you.

And keep in mind that we have life beyond this world to look forward to. After receiving a diagnosis of terminal cancer, James Gordon Gilkey shares, “I walked out to my home five miles from the center of the city. There I looked at the river and the mountain that I loved, and then—as the twilight deepened—at the stars glimmering in the sky. I said to them, ‘I may not see you many times more. But, river, I shall be alive when you have ceased your running to the sea. Mountain, I shall be alive when you have sunk down into the plain. Stars, I shall be alive when you have fallen to the sea.’”

Lord, “teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”

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