by Mike Powers, taken from The Francis Asbury Society’s Covenant Series
“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
My first recollection of this verse was on December 31, 1969, around 11:15 p.m. in the sanctuary of Harris Memorial United Methodist Church in Stanford, Kentucky. I was a senior in high school, and our pastor had invited Dr. Robert Coleman, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, to preach a Watch Night Service on New Year’s Eve. Psalm 90:12 was the text Dr. Coleman chose for his message. I really do not remember what he said, but I do remember how he emphasized that we all needed to remember this verse and do what it says.
As I write these words, I have lived 17,806 days since New Year’s Eve, 1969. Before listening to that New Year’s Eve message, I had lived 6,818 days. Thus, if my math is correct, I have lived a grand total of 24,624 days. The psalmist, of course, is not suggesting that we literally count the number of days we live. His emphasis is on keeping things in perspective: making every day count rather than counting the number of our days.
Psalm 90 is attributed to Moses, making it one of the oldest psalms in the Bible. Moses’ prayer is not focused on past conditions, immediate challenges, or future concerns. There is no sense of anxiety, stress, or fear in his words. Rather his prayer simply states matters of fact, truths that he wants us to remember because they enable us to put life in proper perspective. Timothy and Julie Tennent (authors of A Meditative Journey through the Psalms) suggest that Psalm 90 is like taking a pause in our journey to hit the reset button to put things back into the right perspective.
Moses first hit “reset” by focusing on the eternality of God.
Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole earth, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.” A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like 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 faded and withers. (Psalm 90:1-6)
The Cathedral of Milan has three doorways, each spanned by a magnificent arch. Inscribed over the arch on one side is, “All that pleases is but for a moment.” Carved underneath is a beautiful wreath of roses. Inscribed over the arch on the opposite side is, “All that troubles is but for a moment.” Carved beneath it is a cross. The inscription on the third arch, the one over the central doorway, is, “That only is important which is eternal.” Two arches are about mere moments in time, occasions of pleasure and occasions of pain. The central arch is what gives the proper perspective: eternity.
Psalm 90 reminds us that God is eternal, and we are mortal. He is the Creator, and we are but dust. God is our dwelling place, and we are homesick. We number our days rightly when we remember that we are not God and when we orient our lives to his eternal reality.
If anyone ever had a right to complain to God, it was Job. This good man suffered agonizing loss, experienced heart-wrenching grief, and was terribly mistreated and persistently criticized by his friends. Who could blame Job for losing perspective? If ever there was anyone who needed to press the reset button, it was Job. Listen to how God helped him to do just that after Job openly, honestly, and bitterly poured out his heart:
Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you will answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know? Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” (Job 38:1-7)
For four more chapters God continues his speech, helping Job to put everything back into perspective. From everlasting to everlasting I am God and you are not! And Job’s response?
Then Job answered the Lord and said, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore, I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and make it known to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6)
“Now I see you as you are,” Job said, “not as I had come to think you are. And I see myself as I truly am, not as who I thought I was. I see that clearly now, and therefore I repent. I will hit the reset button. You are eternal, and I am mortal.” And Job was ready to move on.
How interesting it is that the psalmist suddenly shifts from a focus on the eternality of God to God’s wrath:
We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. Our days may be 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. If only we knew the power of your anger! Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due your name. (Psalm 90:7-11)
When was the last time you heard a sermon on the wrath of God? Psalm 90 is a reminder that because of our sin, human existence is characterized by futility, emptiness, brokenness, and death. That, too, needs to be kept in the right perspective.
When I became a Christian, I learned what it meant to confess my sinfulness, trust God for forgiveness, and invite Jesus into my heart. I knew the joy of that experience, and I had a passion to be a witness to others, urging them to discover what I had discovered. But as I grew in my faith, I realized that sin was not just something I did in my head (my thoughts) or with my hands (my actions). My heart was the real problem. Here, deep in my heart, lay the seeds of every sin I had ever committed or was capable of committing. And there was nothing I could do about it. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
It was in a class on basic Christian beliefs at Asbury College that I first came face to face with the reality and depth of my problem. I learned that God is transcendent, the “wholly Other.” In his presence, men such as Jacob, Moses, and Isaiah were terrified. Indeed, I, too, discovered that God is “awe-full,” and therein I realized that God was my problem.
I chanced upon a book written by Richard Taylor (Life in the Spirit) where a single sentence jumped off the page and became a game-changer for me. “The minimum measure of grace acceptable would be an intense desire for the maximum measure of grace available.” If you are like me, you will need to read that several times before its truth begins to penetrate your mind. I knew something was missing, but I did not know what.
Then, one day in college chapel, I heard Dr. Dennis Kinlaw explain that the One who convicts us of sin is the very One who points to its remedy. The One I so greatly feared because he knew all about me is also the One who was desperately seeking me. The “wholly Other” desires to be the holy Presence in my life. My Judge is also my Savior, my Sanctifier. Dr. Kinlaw helped me to see that God can do for me what I am incapable of doing for myself. Paul prayed for the Thessalonian believers:
May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus. Faithful is the one who calls you, who also will do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)
Jesus came into our world of space and time and assumed our full humanity, taking our flesh and blood, living our life, bearing our sin, and dying our death so we might be free to be fully human and wholly devoted to God. The One who calls us to live such holy lives is faithful and willing and able to do for us, in us, through us what we can never do ourselves. 1 Thessalonians became my life verse after that chapel service, and I have hit that reset button many, many times over the past 16,631 days. Faithful is the one who calls you, and he will do it— every day and forever.
What about you? Life is hard, and one can lose perspective. Do you need to be reminded that God is God, and you are not? Do you need to pause and reconsider how desperately you need him, and how desperately he is pursuing you? Do you need to remember that he is ready and willing and able to come to you wherever you are? Do you need to hit that reset button and find him faithful to satisfy the deepest longings of your heart? That is who He is. That is what He does.
Mike Powers has served as a pastor and district superintendent in the UMC, and as an adjunct professor at Asbury Theological Seminary. He retired from ministry in 2017.