Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Despite being found two-thirds of the way through the book of Psalms, the ninetieth is actually the oldest psalm in the bible, written by Moses. It contains some of the major understanding of God’s nature: his sovereignty, his wrath, and his love. This psalm is a prayer, and has the following structure: It opens contrasting the greatness and limitlessness of God versus the frailty and finitude of mankind, then a confession of sin, and finally an appeal for divine favor. When I saw this structure, the first thing that popped into my mind was a passage in the New Testament that has a somewhat similar pattern: The Lord’s Prayer. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that there are similarities in the way that Moses and Jesus thought and taught.
Two lessons can be drawn from this one verse: one, we should have genuinely wise hearts, and two, the way to have that is to learn that we are finite.
You do know the difference between knowledge and wisdom, right? Knowledge is data, facts, information. According to Webster’s Dictionary, ‘wisdom’ differs from ‘knowledge’ in that it can convey the sense of insight or discernment. Jesus said,
“Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
In other words, wisdom is the proper application of knowledge. For example, we all know that smoking is directly linked to lung cancer etc., but if you don’t apply that knowledge to your life and quit smoking, how wise is that? Your knowledge of the dangers of smoking remains simply information that hasn’t made any impact on your life.
A wise heart (“heart” here referring to one’s inner self; mind; will, desire, intention) doesn’t shrink from the realization that we – all of us – are small and weak and utterly dependent upon God’s grace and woefully undeserving of that grace. A wise heart doesn’t pretend to be great, but rejoices in God’s greatness. A wise heart will quickly and eagerly submit to God’s authority and ask for his aid.
Moses seemed to be of the opinion, though, that the way to get a wise heart is to embrace the very obvious fact that life is short. Compared to the long march of history and the God who existed before time and space, the oldest human lifespan is pretty insignificant. Not just individuals die; societies and entire civilizations die; ideas, fads, and fashions die. During WWII C.S. Lewis was asked by a nervous woman how he dealt with the anxiety of the nightly blitzkrieg of London by German bombers. He replied, “Madam, we all are living under a death sentence.”
It might seem to be a depressing idea, especially living in a culture that worships youth and novelty, but it’s not. I believe Moses and Lewis would want this concept to be an encouragement. If you know for certain who you are and where you’re going, you can focus on what is before you with confidence. You’re less likely to be distracted by things that are temporary or irrelevant. Proper perspective does that.
Young people tweet YOLO, as in, there’s only one shot at life, so make the most of it before it’s over. A decade or so ago a certain brand of beer used the marketing slogan, ‘you only go around once’ so enjoy yourself. Having fun is all that matters.
But Moses rejects this idea. Instead, he teaches that our lives are grounded in God who created us, and we are obligated to God. He holds us accountable for our actions, and places parameters around us. We work with the gifts he gives us within the limitations he places about us. And if we know that, and know that we’re in good standing with him, then our lives have meaning and purpose and value.
Moses writes in Psalm 90 not merely about God’s anger, but also about his great love. The occasion for God’s anger is our sin but it arises out of his love. If he didn’t love us he wouldn’t become angry at our sin. You might think that doesn’t make sense, but reflect on this a moment: We sometimes get angry because of wounded pride or fear, but God is perfect; those things don’t motivate him one way or another. And Moses tells us that God’s love is steadfast – just as eternal and unchanging as God himself.
The hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” was based upon this psalm, composed by Isaac Watts almost 200 years ago. You might not realize the song has nine stanzas and if you’ve never read them, you should. The second to the last stanza says,
“Time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all of us away / We fly, forgotten, as easily as a dream disappears at the dawning of a day.”
This world will forget you. Except for the tiny fraction of men and women for whom we make statues and whose names are recorded in history books, we will all be forgotten, eventually, even by our loved ones and closest companions. But God will never forget us. He alone is eternal, unshakeable, unchanging, and he really does care about us. Since that is the case, doesn’t it make sense that we should live for him? Not for fame, not for others, not even for ourselves, but live for him.
According to Ray Steadman, one of the foremost pastors and bible teachers of the 20th Century, Psalm 90 corresponds to the book of Numbers, the story of Israel’s failures and wilderness wanderings. Let me offer you a word of encouragement, then, on Moses’ behalf. If you, too, like the Israelites, have experienced great failure or feel like you are in a wilderness situation, then remember: there is hope. God is great. He will help. And the time will come when the failure is forgotten and the wilderness is behind you, because those things are temporary, too. As the Apostle Peter put it,
“Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.”
image credit: ‘Hourglass,’ Windows Wallpaper (free download)