“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (Ps. 90:12)
by Tim Saleska
Until last year, whenever I prayed Psalm 90:12, I thought I knew what I was asking for. In my Psalms class, my students and I would discuss the relevance of this verse for our modern culture. We would talk about how important it is to learn how to number our own days, and how to teach others how to number theirs as well. I would say (and I still believe this) that this verse implies that the ability to number our days is a spiritual gift. We don’t naturally know how to do it. God must give the gift. Our discussions were always thoughtful and pleasantly theoretical. But I never faced the nitty gritty question: Just how might God teach us to number our days?
And then last fall my dad died.
Without any warning, in the middle of the night, I got the horrible call from my brother. I was totally unprepared for it. My dad looked healthy until the moment the Lord called him, and so I thought I still had plenty of time to see him and talk to him. But I was sadly mistaken.
Since then, as I continue to come to grips with his loss, I have come face to face with two brutal truths. First, I now realize that I had not learned to number my days … with him! I ignored the passing years and downplayed the time spent apart. I didn’t see it as a problem. Ah, foolish heart.
Second, already at my dad’s funeral, as I was struggling to make sense of everything that was happening around me, I had this random thought: When the Lord sees fit to take my mom — an event that I as the oldest sibling now look forward to with dread — I’m next in line. This truth made me feel vulnerable in a way that I had not before. And with that vulnerability has come a nagging fear. I’m well on the downhill slope of life, which means that the end is closer than the beginning. Where did the years go? Can they really be coming to a close so swiftly? What’s finally going to do me in? How do I spend the time I have left? Where do I place my priorities? How should I think about these things? My goodness. I now know that learning how to number my days involves some very hard lessons.
And I now know that God is a very hard teacher.
But I guess humans need hard lessons because we are so foolish. In his book Working the Angles, Eugene Peterson says that we are unmindful of our limits and that we set goals unrelated to the actual conditions of our humanity. We humans, he says, don’t know that we are human. Instead, we think we are gods and act like gods. As a result, we have lost the sense of our mortality, and we have lost the sensitivity to the results of our actions. How true.
God is teaching me the hard way that “my times are in your hand,” as David says (Ps. 31:15). Your hand, not mine. But still, where is there any hope in this? I’m learning about my frail and transient life. I have more of a sense that death is a ruthless stalker that takes away those I love and one day will take me too. I am coming face to face with my limits more and more. All this is humbling and frightening, to be sure. But what do I do in the midst of the sobering lessons about my life and times that God is teaching me? The reality of my limitations is something I can do nothing about. I can’t exceed the limits that time and circumstance have set for me. That’s the reality.
I can’t. But God can and does. I think this is another truth about God’s grace that I am still learning to appreciate: Jesus’ resurrection was all about God demonstrating His power over the limits of time and circumstance that hold us all. In His resurrection, Jesus exceeded the limits that death puts on all of us. His “times” didn’t end for Him at the cross. God raised Him, and He now sits at the Father’s right hand where He lives and reigns for all eternity. Death. Time. Sin. Grief. Fear. Failure. None of it is a problem for Jesus. And by His grace, God gives even sinful me this promise of my risen Lord. In my Baptism, in His Gospel, He gives me this Word of grace to cling to. When I am at the bottom of my strength. When I am at the lowest of lows. When I am sinking in fear, that’s just where God’s grace meets me. At the end of my rope, Jesus meets me and lifts me up. In His resurrection, I can see that death doesn’t have the final word. My dad is going to rise again, and I am going to see him and speak to him again because God has promised me that I am going to rise too. My God will redeem my time with my dad and my entire family … and not only my time, but yours, too.
What a beautiful solace the Gospel is for aching hearts. What a delightful surprise following on God’s hard lessons to me. In a whole new way, I appreciate the words of another Psalm, words which also remind me that my time will be redeemed:
“Those who sow in tears shall reap with tears of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” (Ps. 126:5–6)
The Rev. Dr. Timothy E. Saleska is professor of exegetical theology and dean of ministerial formation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. His downloadable Bible study on the Psalms (in the God’s Abiding Word study series) is available from Concordia Publishing House. Listen to an Issues, Etc. interview with Dr. Saleska discussing this article here.