December 30, 2016 • Life for Leaders
Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
For several years, I have used Psalm 90 as inspiration for end of the year reflections. Once again in 2016, I’d like us to turn to Psalm 90 as we are about to wrap up a year and start a new one.
The context of Psalm 90 is not a happy one. It was written in a time when the people of God are “consumed by [God’s] anger” and “terrified” by God’s wrath (90:7) because of their “iniquities” (90:8). Nevertheless, beneath the bad news of God’s judgment lies a bedrock of confidence in God’s everlasting goodness. Rejoicing and prosperity will come again because of God’s “unfailing love” and “favor” (90:14, 17).
Psalm 90 reframes the way we think about time and it’s passing. The psalm begins with good news: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” Moreover, God exists outside of time, “before the mountains were born” (90:2). Indeed, the psalmist exults, “from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (90:2). Because God is timeless, God views the expanse of time differently than we see it: “A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by” (90:4).
In contrast to God’s eternal existence, our time on earth is short: “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away” (90:10). The shortness of our life, especially if we live in difficult times, could be discouraging. But, in Psalm 90, it can lead to wisdom: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (90:12). The phrase, “number our days” means “know that our days are numbered.” Knowledge of the shortness of our life can help us become wise.
How? To begin, the brevity of our life contrasts with the eternity of God’s life. When we count our days, we are reminded of our smallness compared with God’s greatness. This recognition leads us, on the one hand, to want to use well the time given to us. On the other hand, it also reminds us of our utter dependence on God. Thus, the final verse of Psalm 90 reads, “May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us — yes, establish the work of our hands” (90:17). When God’s favor rests on us, when God prospers us, then our work will be fruitful.
What a fascinating — and relevant — conclusion to this psalm! The psalmist’s reflections on God’s timelessness, the relative shortness of our lives, and our dependence on God’s grace lead to a prayer that God “prosper” our work. In this request, we hear an echo of the creation story in Genesis 1, in which God worked to create us in his image, so that we might work in this world as God’s agents and co-laborers. Though our time on earth is limited, our work still matters. What we do as workers will prosper as God’s grace is active in our lives.
Thus, as the year changes from 2016 to 2017, and as we remember the shortness of our lives, we do not despair. Rather, when we number our days, we renew our trust in our timeless God and we ask for his favor so that we might make a difference through our work in the brief time allotted to us.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
How does the passing of the years affect you? How do you feel? What do you think?
Has your work made a difference in the last year? If so, in what way?
How is your work a result of God’s favor in your life?
How would you like God to prosper your work in 2017?
Lord, you have been our dwelling place
throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Relent, LORD! How long will it be?
Have compassion on your servants.
Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.
May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us;
establish the work of our hands for us—
yes, establish the work of our hands.
Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online Bible commentary.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.