So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a heart of wisdom
It is natural that with the waning of the old year and the rushing in of the new, that most of us turn to some reflection, taking stock, and new resolves to do better. In fact, it is written into the order creation for us to do so. In the creation story of Genesis, we learn that God set the moon and the sun in the sky to serve us “for signs and for seasons for days and year” (Genesis 1:14). We are to look up at the sky and see a cosmic clock and calendar reminding us each day and year that time is passing. “Sunrise, sunset, sunrise sunset, /Swiftly fly the years” sang Goldie and Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.
Some sage has said that the moment we are born God turns the hourglass upside down and our time starts running out. Today’s Scripture text reminds us that time is running out and asks God to help us make our days count by counting our days: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom”. The psalmist here is Moses, who in writing the oldest psalm in the Psalter, deals with the brevity of our lives against the background of God’s eternity. And in the psalm Moses makes the connection between wisdom and counting our days.
Moses and the ancient Hebrews were devoted to the pursuit of wisdom. There is a whole section in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, called “Wisdom Literature”, and is made up of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. The Hebrew word for “wisdom” is hokmah, the root meaning being “to have a skill”. The word hokmah is used for such varied skills as the skill of making elaborate vestments for the priests (Exodus 28:3); the skill of working with gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood in constructing the tabernacle (Exodus 31:1-4); the skill of embroidering fine linen and yarn (Exodus 35:26, 35); the skill of designing and constructing a beautiful building (Exodus 36:1-2); and the skill of navigating a ship on the high seas (Ezekiel 27:8).
In today’s text, Moses applies hokmah to living life with skill. It denotes the ability to take whatever life gives us and from it to craft something beautiful and lasting. And Moses connects living skillfully to counting our days. I don’t know if Moses meant for us to consult actuarial tables in doing this, but he did mean for us to embrace what it means to be humans who have but a finite number of days. To live wisely is to embrace life’s brevity and transience and seize the day!
Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote a book about why bad things happen to good people, wrote another book in which he presented his “Instant Coffee Theory of Life”. I have found his words helpful in thinking about our days and years:
When you open a jar of instant coffee, you dole it out in generous, heaping spoonfuls, because after all you have a whole jar full of it and you see that you are using only a little at a time. By the time you get down toward the bottom of the jar, you realize that you don’t have all that much left, and your portions are more carefully measured. You reach after every last grain in the corner of the jar. I think we tend to treat time that way. (from Why All You’ve Every Wanted Isn’t Enough)
In today’s Scripture, we learn to pray not to treat time so casually. Time is the stuff of life. We must pray that we really do know that. We have but limited time to do what we have intended to do. Today is the day! Lord teach us that!
When I worked with hospice patients I was working with people, who unlike most of us, actually knew and understood that their time was limited. And it was from these hospice patients that I learned what all of us need to say before we die.
Often there would be patients who could not come to peace and acceptance until they had said these things. Then it came to me that if hospice patients need to say these things before they die, then these are things we need to say throughout all of life before we die. The five things we need to say are:
- “Forgive me.”
- “I forgive you.”
- “I love you.”
- “Thank you.”
Today is a day that we can begin living skillfully and wisely. We can take whatever it is that life has dealt us, and we can live with beauty. We can start with those around us, making sure that all that needs to get said, gets said.
Today is the day, live it! Seize it!
photo by Giuliagas