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New Horizons

Teach Us to Number Our Days

Stephen D. Doe

"Over the hill"—that is American shorthand for getting older, complete with black balloons. If you want to see what this nation thinks of aging, take a look at birthday cards. In America, those cards most often build their humor on the regret and fear we feel about growing older.

The Christian is not to fear growing older, but is to learn to number his days: "Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom" (Ps. 90:12).

What does it mean to number your days? Do you simply check them off on your calendar? That would be quite a reminder that aging is unstoppable, inevitable, and certain. But that would produce regret as people think of the days slipping past. How do we cope with the things we did or didn't do, the things we did or didn't say, the friendships we let lapse, or the jobs we never took?

Christians may find themselves acting no differently than non-Christians when it comes to growing older. Christians make grim jokes, although we are instructed by the Word of God to think differently.

Moses' Experience

Psalm 90 is a great comfort to the believer. It is generally attributed to Moses, and is the only psalm said to come from his pen. It was almost certainly written during the forty years of wilderness wandering.

Moses knew something about growing older. He didn't appear in Pharaoh's court to lead the people of God until he was eighty years old! For forty more years, he was the leader of the nation of Israel until he died at the age of 120. Deuteronomy 34:7 says that when Moses died, "his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone." He was just as strong when he died as he was forty years earlier when Israel left Egypt.

During those forty years in the wilderness, Moses saw the rebellious and disobedient sons of Israel consumed by the Lord's anger on many occasions. He saw an entire generation die in the wilderness because of their unbelief. How clear to him was the fact that man is like the grass, which today flourishes and tomorrow is thrown into the fire. He saw thousands of his fellow Israelites become dust in the wilderness. Then, after God had given him eighty years plus another forty, Moses himself died. His body was captive to death just like the rest of the children of men.

Moses saw days filled with trouble and sorrow. He knew personally the power of God's anger, yet again and again he called out to God not only to show his anger, but also to show his mercy (Ps. 90:13-17). Underlying Psalm 90 is hope in the grace of God. Sinners can't enter the land of promise. The children of Israel couldn't, and neither can we. The land of Canaan was a signpost pointing to the heavenly reality, the ultimate promised land. No one can enter because he is good or perfectly obedient. No one is. We enter the heavenly territory by grace, through God's unmerited favor. God saves his people, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to his mercy displayed to the world in the cross of Jesus Christ and believed on by the redeemed (Titus 3:4-7).

Moses turns to that grace in the closing verses of Psalm 90. In the midst of the judgment which he has seen poured out on Israel time and time again in the wilderness, he still hopes in the covenant love and mercy of God, the compassion that the Lord has on his servants. He is looking forward to the final morning, the morning that never turns into night, when the Lord finally satisfies those who trust him with his unfailing love and makes his people glad for all eternity.

Facing Reality

In verse 12, Moses prays that the Lord would make his people to know their days by numbering them. What does that mean? We number our days when we realize what life is truly like.

The foolish and unbelieving person thinks that life will go on forever. There is always plenty of time for the man who doesn't know God. He will repent someday. Someday he will believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. He has plenty of time. He is young, strong, and healthy; evil days will not come. So he doesn't number or consider his days or what life is about.

There are others who do not number or count their days because they are paralyzed by fear. They look at the future and expect the worst. Their money will go, their health will go, and they'll die of cancer like their mother or of a heart attack like their father. They may be young or old, but the future is only filled with disaster for them, for they never learn to count the days of their lives and see their lives for what they are.

If we learn to number our days, we see that our lives are over soon— in about seventy years, or a few more if we are strong. Yet that is not all there is to our lives. If our hope is in the Lord Jesus Christ, we always look to the compassion of God. We hope in God's unfailing love. Then we come to have a heart of wisdom, when we see our lives for what they are—brief, but, by faith, lived under the mercy of God.

Looking to the Future

How do Christians age well? The first thing we need to learn is that we live all of our lives under God's hand, for he is our Creator. We do not live to ourselves or die to ourselves. We didn't create ourselves, and we owe our lives to the One who did (Acts 17:25). We are born in time and are subject to time, but God is eternal and we must entrust our lives to him. God is the One who turns men back to dust, who sweeps them away in the sleep of death, who consumes men in his anger over sin.

But if that is the only thing we learn, how earnestly we should want to fight off death! If all that is out there is a holy God ready to judge our sins, we would run from death and deny and defy death for all we are worth. There is, however, the promise of the gospel for believers. While the outer man is wasting away, the inner man is being renewed day by day. Therefore we do not give up (2 Cor. 4:16). The Christian is called upon not to live in fear of death, but to remember God's mercy toward his people.

Secondly, we need to remember that we do not have forever here in the body. Death, unless the Lord Jesus Christ returns, will seize every one of us. There will be a moment when our hearts will stop beating and our bodies will turn cold and we will be physically dead. All of us are like the grass of the morning, which springs up new and by evening is dry and withered. We should not be surprised if our bodies constantly remind us as we grow older that we are like grass. We number our days by remembering that we are mortal.

Finally, we should rejoice in those days we number. The Christian is being remade in the image of Jesus Christ day by day. The days we number are days when we receive and know the grace of God through the Lord Jesus Christ. The older we get, the more we should be able to speak of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. The days we mark off in our lives should be increasingly filled with thanksgiving and praise for salvation in Jesus Christ, not "organ recitals" of how we are falling apart. It is no wonder that young people are often fearful of growing older, when those of us who are further along in years do not seem to have counted the mercy of God as being that great. When we see older Christians, we see the grace of God displayed. God has preserved them, enabled them to persevere, and showed them his kindness again and again.

We grow old and we grow wise as we remember how brief our lives are. We do not live in the body forever, and yet our lives are lived, if we are Christians, under the mercy and grace of God. Our faithful God will show us that grace in the Lord Jesus Christ. Since our lives are brief, we depend on the God who doesn't grow old or weary, but is faithful to his children: "Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you" (Isa. 46:4).

Christians are never "over the hill." Growing older is, instead, the opportunity for God to display his grace in and to us. Let us age well because we know God.

Mr. Doe is the pastor of Covenant OPC in Barre, Vt. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 1997.

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