“So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” The above verse is found in Psalm 90:12, and is part of a prayer of Moses. The ninetieth Psalm is a contemplation of the frailty of man in contrast to the everlasting power of God.
It seems strange from many points of view that Moses would ask God to teach him to “number” his days. The same holds true for us, especially as young people. Why would we want to be taught to know that we are going to die? We are living now. We can begin to worry about death when we are older. What does it profit us to know and to meditate upon the shortness of our earthly life during our youth?
Yet this is Moses’ and our prayer. It is a petition which only the child of God can make by faith. Only the believer continually desires to be made aware of the true nature of his earthly life. This is in contrast to the unbeliever who does not desire to know his end and does everything in his power to push these thoughts from his mind. It is foolishness to the ungodly to entertain such humbling thoughts of one’s mortality.
The believer, however, numbers his days. What is it to number our days? Centrally, it is to know our true spiritual condition. The Catechism speaks this way in the very first Lord’s Day. In order that we “live and die happily” it is first necessary to know “how great my sins and miseries are.” This is where we must start. We must know that of ourselves we are dead in sins. We must know that we are under the curse. We must know the wrath of God against us because of our sins. Read verse 11 of Psalm 90. This is what Moses was meditating upon before he prayed to God.
When we know our true spiritual condition we will also know our physical condition. Our bodies are the bodies of death. David prayed an almost identical prayer to Moses’ in Psalm 39:4,5 where we read, “Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am. Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity.” We must know the frailty of earthly life. As we read in Genesis 3:19, we must know “for dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.” We are not like the wicked who dig their roots deep into this earth in the hope that their earthly life will continue forever (Psalm 37:35).
Because we do have an evil nature which prevents us from numbering our days, it is only by God’s teaching us that we do know our end. In fact, apart from God’s work in us, we could not and would not know our earthly end. John Calvin is careful to point this out in his explanation of Psalm 90:12. He tells of how the worldly man is adept at counting the precise distance from the center of the earth to the moon. He measures the distance between the planets. He knows very precisely many of the angles and measurements of God’s creation. Yet, he fails to reckon with the span of his own life. This is true because he is not taught by God to know his end. The worldly man may say, “life is short,” but it is no more than a hollow observation because it produces no activity of faith as it does in the believer. Rather, the worldly man is only hardened in his rebellion and sin when he thinks about the shortness of his earthly life.
When we pray to God to teach us to number our days, we do so in the awareness that it is only by His work that we do number our days. God uses a number of means to teach us. First, He teaches us by events in our life which He sovereignly brings to pass. He may take from us a loved one in death. A grandparent, parent, relative, or classmate is taken and we are reminded of the brevity of life. We may hear a grandparent say to us that even though they may be very old, when they look back on their life, it passed by very quickly. Secondly, God teaches us by the many afflictions that come upon us and upon others we know. Cancer, heart disease, and a thousand other diseases all serve to remind us of the frailty of the body. In a moment, a person who was the picture of health, can be reduced to lying helpless upon a bed. Thirdly, and most importantly, God teaches by His Word and Spirit. There are many references in the Psalms alone which bring to our remembrance the reality of our condition. We sing of this reality when we sing from our Psalter. We can see that this numbering is an activity of faith, a gift of God.
The numbering of our days, however, is of no use to us unless it goes along with the application of our hearts unto wisdom. We can know our end, but that knowledge of itself is worthless and even depressing, unless it produces within us a longing for wisdom. By faith, we seek wisdom. What is this wisdom? Centrally, it is Christ. Christ is wisdom as we read in Proverbs 8, and “whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the Lord” (vs. 35). When, by faith, we seek Christ, we have life. Knowing our deadly spiritual condition, we desire life in Christ. According to the new man we do have this life within us. Further, as we read in Psalm 111:10, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments.” When we are applying our hearts after wisdom, we desire to do God’s will. In the fear of the Lord, in submission to His will, we have wisdom.
The believer who applies his heart unto wisdom lives very differently in this life from those around him. His walk is antithetically opposed to the walk of the world. The ungodly man drowns himself in the pursuit of the goods this life. Psalm 49:11-13 records for us how the worldly man lives on earth:
Their inward thought is, that their houses shall continue fo ever, and their dwelling places to all generations; they call their lands after their own names. Nevertheless man being in honour abideth not: he is like the beasts that perish. This their way is their folly: yet their posterity approve their sayings.
The man of this world devotes all of his energies to securing for himself a name among his fellow men, he accumulates as many of this world’s goods as he can, and he tries to obtain for himself a hold on this life which he foolishly hopes cannot be broken. And when he dies, his posterity foolishly follow his lead.
In contrast, the man that finds wisdom is content with his possession. To him “it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold” (Proverbs 3:13,14). Fame and recognition, they die when we die. A nice car, closets full of clothes, elaborate vacations, gold rings, we cannot take them to heaven. In fact, we find that when we have in our possession wisdom, all of the goods of this world are harder to come by. Submission to God’s will means the denial of our own will. This may mean that our place in this life, even as young people, may not be very outstanding by all the measures of this world. Our place will be quite lowly.
The spiritual reward which we enjoy in the numbering of our days and applying our hearts unto wisdom is great. We have all of the riches of salvation. A portion of Article 7, of the First Head of the Canons summarizes for us these riches which the elect have:
This elect number, though by nature neither better nor more deserving than others, but with them involved in one common misery, God hath decreed to give to Christ, to be saved by him, and effectually to call and draw them to his communion by his Word and Spirit, to bestow upon them true faith, justification and sanctification; and having powerfully preserved them in the fellowship of his Son, finally, to glorify them for the demonstration of his mercy, and for the praise of his glorious grace.
We must think of these blessings when we number our days on this earth. We must have these blessings before our eyes when we are tempted to go the way of those around us who are given over to the pursuit of that which passes away.
John Calvin ends his explanation of Psalm 90:12 with a couple of sentences which provide a good conclusion to our consideration of numbering our days. He writes:
True believers alone, who know the difference between this transitory state and a blessed eternity, for which they were created, know what ought to be the aim of their life. No man then can regulate his life with a settled mind, but he who, knowing the end of it, that is to say death itself, is led to consider the great purpose of man’s existence in this world, that he may aspire after the prize of the heavenly calling.