Numbering our days: a reflection on Psalm 90

Beyond a temporal understanding

Number our daysI have been reading through the Psalms. Recently I came to Psalm 90 where it says, “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to you a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) This is a verse that has often been quoted, usually in the sense of expressing urgency to get busy in doing work for the Kingdom of God. In this understanding, the emphasis is on the fleeting nature of time and how we have, on average, some 70 years to accomplish things for God before life comes to an end.

If this is the correct understanding of this verse, wisdom would dictate that we discover our calling and work hard at accomplishing the most in the time we have allotted. Ephesians 5:15-16 would seem to support this understanding when Paul writes:

Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil.

I have even heard it said that we should keep a running countdown of the days until our 70th birthday so that we can be aware of how much time we have left to work for the Kingdom. While the countdown is not a bad idea, I think that it does not capture the whole point of the prayer in the context of the Psalm. Awareness of the brevity of our days has benefit, but the focus should not be on what we plan on accomplishing but upon what God wants to accomplish through us.

Obedience is the key

Moving a few verses back in the Psalm, it can be seen that the context of the prayer is God’s judgment against Israel for their rebellion. In verse 8 it says, “You have placed our iniquities before You, our secret sins in the light of Your presence.” In other words we are to live with the understanding that we are under the scrutiny of God and as a result, we must have an understanding of our finite nature and respond to God properly. It is not our temporal awareness that is in question, but our ability to obey.

In reading the rest of the Psalm I have a sense that some of the anger at the nation of Israel was due to presumption on their part. They presumed upon God’s tolerance and as a result they reaped God’s anger. Can we not do the same? We can be busy doing all sorts of things and convince ourselves that we are doing it for God. Jesus often rebuked the Pharisees for this type of hypocrisy. The question is not whether we are busy, the question is are we being responsive to God?

On the basis of this, I see Psalm 90:12 as a request to help us understand our finiteness rather than an encouragement to pack in as much in our 70 years as possible. The lesson we learn from Matthew 7:21-23 is that activity is not the cause for reward, relationship with Jesus Christ is. This prayer is not a call to busyness or activity, it is a call to submission to God.

It is God’s plan

I do not for a minute buy into the argument that there is something that God needs me to do and I am the only one to do it. Yes, God allows me to participate in the accomplishment of his will but my rebellion or incompetence cannot derail his plan. I do not have to race the clock to get something accomplished for God. This is freeing if I allow it to be.

What I do need to do is bring my finite understanding to God and seek him for what I should be about today. Do we really believe Jesus when he said take not thought for tomorrow? I don’t need to plan out what I need to accomplish for God, I need to do what he has asked me to do today. God will take care of the years moving forward if I simply submit each day to him.