Making Our Days Count
© 2011, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Fourth Sunday in Lent, April 3, 2011
So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.
I sometimes think that there is no more difficult job in the world than that of translators. Verse 12 of this psalm provides a small case in point. Listen to the ways it is variously translated;
King James Version:
So teach us to number our days,
that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
Revised Standard Version:
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
New English Bible:
Teach us to order our days rightly,
that we may enter the gate of wisdom.
Good News Bible:
Teach us how short our life is,
so that we may become wise.
New International Version:
Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Contemporary English Version:
Teach us to use wisely all the time we have.
New Revised Standard Version:
So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.
At least, for the most part, all the translators seem to agree that teaching us something about our days relates to wisdom. Is it that to be wise involves an appropriate sense of the meaning of time? I think that is the sense of the psalm, especially given the early focus on the command to mortals to turn back to dust. For God, a thousand years is like the passing of a summer night, since God does not turn back to dust, but for us, each summer, winter, autumn or spring night is one less night we will pass, one less day to be swept away until all our days are spent. The psalmist is reflecting on something we all contemplate, the eternity of God and the transience of human life.
We all can remember childhoods in which we lived with the impression that if our days were numbered, the number was so large as to be of little concern to us. At age 8 or 10, a life of 70 or 80 years seemed to stretch to a virtually endless number. But, the psalmist and all his translators are insistent about this point: our days are numbered, and they disappear insistently, one after another. A life of 75 years, the span both of my parents reached, runs to 27,393 days, including the extra days in the leap years. By the time I reached age 61 on my last birthday, I had used up 22,280 days. If my goal were 75 years, I am past the 4/5 point. It’s little worse than that, actually. Since my birthday last July, the sun has risen and set an additional 266 times, as of today I have been on the earth for 22,546 days, give or take.
Those who would like to be high-tech about this business of numbering our days can check out the Death Clock at www.deathclock.com, billed as “the Internet’s friendly reminder that life is slipping away.” By typing in a few personal details like birth date, gender, and whether or not you are a smoker, the computer will generate a prediction of your date of death. It turns out the computer declares mine to be April 23, 2022. We’ll see about that. At least I’d be around to observe my brother’s birthday on April 19th that year. But wait, he’s older than I am, and he used to smoke, so... My plan, of course, is to stay as healthy as possible and beat the “Death Clock” prediction. Still, life remains a terminal condition for us all whether we beat predictions or not.
So this is getting serious! Time’s a-wasting! “Life is short...” I have often said, seeking God’s blessing at the conclusion of worship. Any sunny day not spent doing something enjoyable, like playing a round of golf, or reading on the back deck, really begins to cause sober reflection! I join the psalmist in his prayer that I might be taught to number my days so as to make my heart wiser than it currently is about the ways of God.
William Willimon, preaching to graduating seniors prior to their commencement at Duke University, once said, “Time and its passage. That’s a subject much on your mothers’ minds whether or not it is on yours. These good women who bore you, birthed you, and now bore you, know full-well what this weekend means. Life is rushing on. Only yesterday they were pushing you out the door toward Kindergarten. Now they are pushing you out the door to life. At least, when they pushed you out that first time you had the good sense to cry.”*
Before the psalmist asks God to teach us to measure/count/number our days in verse 12, he reflects that all our days march along before God’s view and then conclude, as “our years come to an end like a sigh.” For all the worry and thrashing about that we do in our days here, in the end, there is but a sigh. Acknowledging that we cannot hope to live in this life forever, at the end of the psalm there is that wistful prayer, “prosper for us the work of our hands – O prosper the work of our hands!” If we will die, as we must, perhaps our work, perhaps some impact we have had on the world will outlive us and cause us to be remembered...
I recall watching the movie titled Troy a couple of years back. I didn’t think it was all that good, despite its all-star cast. It took itself way too seriously, I think, and it was far too long. So this isn’t a recommendation to run out and rent it, it was, in my mind, kind of a time waster. It was one of those epic films that comes out of Hollywood from time to time, which in recent years feature computer-generated hosts of soldiers spread in overwhelming numbers on every vista. Brad Pitt played Achilles, who blabs on and on throughout the movie to anyone who will listen about the certainty that he will be immortalized as a great warrior. I have to confess, I had all but forgotten about the great warrior status of Achilles. I acknowledge I should have paid better attention in courses in ancient history and literature, but I mainly recalled instead that a pesky tendon behind my heel that often needs stretching was named after him. As we may recollect from whatever we may have learned of Greek mythology, he suffered a wound between his ankle and foot that led to his demise, resulting in the proverbial use of “Achilles heel” as a nickname for some little personal weakness that does a person in. I suppose if this was his version of attaining immortality, then he is welcome to it. For my part, I find myself reflecting on the fact that I spent over 2 1/2 of the approximately 96,000 precious hours that potentially remain of my life watching that mediocre film. I think it underscores the psalmist’s wisdom that our days “are soon gone, and we fly away,” and his prayer that God might prosper the work of our hands that, if we are to be remembered at all, it might be for some good thing we managed to do, something better, perhaps, than dying in battle from a wound in the ankle, or watching a movie about such a death.
One of the earliest writers of hymns as we know them today was Isaac Watts, and one of his best known hymns is “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past,” 5 verses of which appear in our hymnal. It is a meditation on Psalm 90, and is often requested for funeral and memorial services. It is not as well known that most of Watts’ hymns went on for many more verses than we have in our hymnals. I am aware of nine verses for that hymn, there may well be more, from a time when time spent worshiping was not so carefully measured. Some of those verses remind us of the wisdom of measuring our days as we seek the wisdom of God:
Thy Word commands our flesh to dust,
“Return, ye sons of men:”
All nations rose from earth at first,
and turn to earth again.
A thousand ages in Thy sight
are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.
Time, like an every-rolling stream,
bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.
Why read this in Lent? Why read it at all? Isn’t all this depressing stuff about the inevitability of our mortality the reason we like to avoid sad books like Tuesdays with Morrie and Proverbs and especially Ecclesiastes? It’s Sunday, the Lord’s day, why do we have to think about all this? Well, two reasons, really, the first is because the preacher’s task, among others, is to speak the truth as plainly as we can. And this is something undeniably true about all of us, no matter how we may wish to avoid it. We all die, sooner or later, but unavoidably. But we are also supposed to help our congregations find God’s meaning in what is true. We bring this subject up because this is also true about the world: Because of something astounding that happened in the life of one man, who lived – as we live – died – as we all must die – yet who was God. Jesus – who, it seems to me, made his days count more than any other person who ever lived – also died, as we must die, but was not gone, did not “fly away forgotten as a dream.” Though his years walking among us as a man came to an end as ours must, they did not come to an end like a sigh, but rather, as the guards at his tomb said, like an earthquake, after which his disciples saw that he lives everywhere and calls us to life in him.
It is said that John Calvin’s lifelong motto was “Seize the day before the face of God.” The image often associated with Calvin, founder of the Reformation movement to which Presbyterians trace their roots, depicts hands holding a heart up toward God, with Latin words that say “I offer my heart to you, Lord, promptly and sincerely.” We could say that this is a good illustration of the heart of wisdom that the psalmist seeks. A heart held up to God now, while we can, a vulnerable, aging, human heart, which God accepts within the folds of God’s own loving, immortal and eternal heart in Jesus Christ, the first, the last, and the ever-living one.
Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
* William Willimon, “The Time of Our Lives,” preached at the Duke University Chapel, May, 1999.