So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Psalm 90:12 ESV
I really hope death is like sleep.
The Bible often uses sleep as a symbolic way of speaking about death, so I really hope that they more similar than we realize.
Wouldn’t it be nice to know that God caused us to need sleep each day as a way preparing us for death?
Maybe it’s a lesson for how we should live our lives. After a hard day of fruitful working, sleep feels like heaven, but after lazy and unproductive days, going to bed is like pulling teeth.
Maybe if we live our lives well and without regrets, death will be as restful as sleep.
But I feel like I’ve gotten ahead of myself.
Let’s start again.
Today is my 27th birthday.
Supposedly, 27 isn’t one of the BIG ones.
It’s not like 25, when you realize that if you do make it to 75, you’ve already lived one-third of your life. It isn’t like 30, when your fourth decade of life begins. It’s definitely not 50, when you try not to think too hard about your age being half a century.
Each of those birthdays has the stigma for reminding us of our mortality. They remind us of what we strive desperately to ignore: that regardless of what we do, time continues its downward spiral.
But still, on this normal birthday (and for the past couple of weeks), I am pondering my mortality, considering my inevitable death.
It may seem dreary, and in some ways, it is. But I think it’s also both wise and necessary.
I’ve heard that when Roman generals returned to Rome after a successful campaign, parades would be held in their honor. They would ride through the streets of Rome in a chariot, basking in the city’s celebration of their glory.
Sounds great, right?
But in the midst of their triumph, a slave would remain behind the general, whispering, “Memento mori”, which is Latin for remember that you will die. Despite all of his momentary glory, a victorious general will die just like the most dishonored beggar on the street dies.
As the great equalizer, remembering our inevitable death helps to keep us from delusions of grandeur or, as the Bible calls it, pride.
Jonathan Edwards’ resolutions are fairly well-known to many Christians. He wrote 70 of them and read them to himself each week. When reading over them, it becomes clear that Edwards kept his death frequently in mind. Consider a few of them:
Resolution 7 // Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.
Resolution 9 // Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.
Resolution 17 // Resolved, that I will live so as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.
Resolution 19 // Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if I expected it would not be above an hour, before I should hear the last trump.
Edwards sought to live his life in such a way that he would have no regrets on his deathbed, but in order to do this, he needed to think often about his death.
Many of us like the idea of living like we’re dying, but we don’t want to actually think about dying. For all the death that is before us on the news and in video games, films, and television, we tend to shun any real thought about death.
It’s certainly understandable. The Bible tells us that death was not a piece of God’s original design for creation. Genesis 3 shows death entering the world as a result of our sin. God created us to live forever as His image-bearers, but we rebelled because we wanted to be God, not be like Him. We desired to possess the fullness of God’s eternality, and God answered by reminding us that are merely men via death.
Furthermore, when Paul talks about our resurrection with Christ, he states that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor. 15:26)
Death is an enemy of humanity, and Christ will one day defeat it for good.
No wonder we hate death.
No wonder we revolt against it.
No wonder we feel cheated by the deaths of loved ones, even when we know that it comes to all.
No wonder we live our lives in denial of death, even though all of history and every funeral begs us to take a long, hard look into its eyes.
No one wants to face their own mortality, but in Psalm 90, Moses teaches us that wisdom comes from understanding both our finiteness and God’s eternality.
Here’s verses 1-12:
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
You sweep them away as with a flood; 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 we are brought to an end by your anger;
by your wrath we are dismayed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.
For all our days pass away under your wrath;
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
The Psalm repeatedly contrasts God’s infiniteness with our finiteness.
God views a thousand years just like we view yesterday.
He is from everlasting to everlasting; we, on the other hand, typically have around seventy-to-eighty years.
Therefore, Moses prays for God to teach us to count our days that we may have a heart of wisdom. He prays for the strength to face his own death that he might become wise. Wisdom is connected to understanding our mortality.
We know this to be true.
Without a healthy fear of death, people tend to behave foolishly. If a person rides a skateboard off the roof of their house, they likely do so because they have not fully considered the fragility of their existence. And we call that type of behavior foolish.
The realization of our mortality tends to keep us focused on the most important things in life. Living life with our deathbed in mind helps us to stop wasting time on frivolous or sinful things. After all, how many of us joyfully anticipate learning from God just how much time we spent watching television, scrolling through Facebook, or binge-watching Netflix? Few consider those essential activities for living a regret-free life.
On the other hand, what if we truly understood that our days are numbered and that we are not guaranteed tomorrow? Would that not change the way we love our spouse or children? Would it not cause the priorities of today to shift?
The heart of wisdom does not ignore or deny death.
Wise men and women somberly, but boldly, look death in the face, praying for God’s grace to keep them from wasting their limited time here on earth.
The final verses of Psalm 90 remind us that considering death is not a joyless task. In fact, Moses speaks of being satisfied by God and being glad and joyful all our days.
Yes, thinking about our own death is a solemn activity, but solemnity does not negate joy.
Yes, death must be faced with seriousness and gravity, but seriousness and gladness are not mutually exclusive.
This life is a gift, and death reminds us that we do not have it for long.
Only when we regularly number our days, will we find the true hope that leads to eternal life. Only in facing, can we find surpassing joy, even in the midst of sorrow, and continue praying with Moses for God to satisfy us and make our days glad:
Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands!