“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12
The words of Psalm 90 are often associated with the passage of time and the commencement of a new year. They speak of the brevity of life and the need to number our days aright. They remind us that we are pilgrims and aliens in this world, and our eternal home is with and in the presence of the Lord. In the words of a familiar hymn, our lives are but “a little day.” Or, in the language of the Psalmist, our days are but “a few handbreaths” (Ps. 39:5).
Like many other Psalms, this one arises out of the particular circumstances of the Psalmist. The heading of Psalm 90 describes it as “a prayer of Moses, the man of God.” In the twilight of his service as God’s appointed servant, who was commissioned to lead the children out of Egypt and bring them to the promised land, Moses offers a beautifully crafted prayer for wisdom. God’s pilgrim people on their way to the promised land—then and now— desperately need the wisdom expressed in Moses’ prayer. We, too, find ourselves on the way to the promised land that is our inheritance in Christ. As Hebrews 11:13-16 reminds us: “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on the earth. … They were looking for a better country, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.”
Moses begins his prayer with a magnificent confession regarding our covenant God. Our God, who exists “from everlasting to everlasting,” is the “dwelling place” of His people “in all generations” (v. 1). He then immediately moves to draw a sharp contrast between the Lord, who is eternal and unchanging, and all men whom He returns to the dust from whence they came. God towers over and transcends the passage of time. For God, a thousand years is as “a watch in the night,” like the “yesterday” that so quickly flies away. However, all human beings who live under the holy wrath of God are like the grass that springs up in the morning but withers by nightfall (vv. 3-8).
Undoubtedly, the confession and contrast that open Psalm 90 were born out of Moses’ experience as he led the people of Israel during their forty years of wandering in the wilderness prior to their entrance into the promised land. During this period, the children of Israel had no permanent home, no lasting dwelling place of their own. At nightfall, they pitched their tents when the pillar of fire stopped before them. At daybreak, the trumpet would sound, and the people would break camp, following the glory cloud of the Lord’s presence that went before them. Their lives were marked by transience and instability; they were beset by dangers of various kinds. Most significantly, an entire generation died in the wilderness under the covenant Lord’s judgment on account of their unbelief and disobedience. What Moses declares in the opening section of the Psalm resonates with the pilgrim people of God throughout the whole course of redemptive history.
Within the setting of this striking contrast, Moses offers a simple prayer that is the centerpiece of Psalm 90: “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (v. 12). Then, in the closing portion of the Psalm, Moses prays for the Lord’s favor to rest upon His people so that the works of their hands be established. The wisdom that comes with a keen awareness of the brevity of our lives inevitably compels us to pray that our “little day” be fruitful in service to the Lord. Moses reminds us that, even though our lives may be but “a little day,” the Lord is able to make them count for much by His favor.
In his commentary on Moses’ prayer, John Calvin observes that the wisdom for which he prays is as rare among men as contentment: “Children learn their numbers as soon as they begin to prattle. How much profounder our stupidity in not numbering our days. We can measure all sorts of distances and spans outside of ourselves, but not three score and ten in our own case. This is a wisdom rare among men. But what greater proof of madness than failing to consider our own end.”
As we enter another year of work at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, I can think of no prayer more fitting than the one given to us in Psalm 90. Our faculty, staff, students, and all who support our work, would do well to remember to pray for the wisdom that comes from numbering our days. Only those to whom the Lord gives such wisdom will learn to pray as well for the Lord’s favor to rest upon them. And so let us pray: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” (v. 17).
Dr. Cornelis Venema serves as the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary and Professor of Doctrinal Studies.