This year-change article is by Dr C van Dam.
As the last day on the last page of the calendar announces the end of one year and anticipates the coming of the next one, we are again reminded of the transience of life. The older one becomes, the more one realizes that our days here are indeed, as God’s Word testifies, like a shadow, a mere breath, a small chronological blimp in the face of eternity. As David put it in addressing the Lord: “You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Surely a man goes about as a shadow!” (Ps 39:5-6).
David’s observation applies to all of us, whether we are young or elderly, and the obituary pages in the local newspaper are a daily reminder of that reality. It is especially heart-wrenching when a life is taken away at a time we think to be premature. Those who have reached a ripe old age may come to the point that they long to die so they can go home to the Lord. But those in the prime of life normally have no such desires, and when such a life is suddenly threatened or taken, we ask: why?
“Make me to know my end”
Such a question also haunted David as he composed Psalm 39. He was in deep trouble, perhaps it was a severe illness, and he experienced God’s disciplining him. He felt his life being consumed and threatened (v. 10-11). He knew of his sin (v. 11), but he could not understand why God would put him through this trouble and he fought to keep his tongue under control. But as he did so, his distress only grew worse (vv. 1-2). When he finally spoke, he said “O LORD, make me to know my end and what is the measure of my days. Let me know how fleeting I am!” (v. 4)
What are we to make of these words? Why would someone ask God to know when he would die and how much time he has left on this earth? The point seems to be that if David is going to understand what life is all about, then he has to know and honestly acknowledge that his present life on earth is very short. “Let me know how fleeting I am!” (v. 4) David is not after knowing the exact hour of his death, but he does want the LORD to inject in him a true realism about the brevity of his life. And God grants that to him. He realizes that his life is indeed but a mere breath (v 5). Such a realization is important, for it is only when we realize our mortality and that life here on earth in its present form does not just go on and on, that we can get a mind of wisdom and understanding about our earthly existence. Moses articulated the same desire when he prayed in Psalm 90: “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (v 12).
Such wisdom and the honest acknowledgement of the brevity of life is sorely needed in our time. Being young is often considered the ideal and staying youthful is a common goal. Fortunes are made on cosmetics that supposedly make you look younger or keep wrinkles at bay. Old age is to be avoided as long as possible. Becoming elderly and frail is scorned and the sometimes not-so-subtle message is that if you think your life has had it, there is euthanasia – the foolishness of an unbelieving world that thinks you are dispensable when you are past the imagined prime of life. What really is a human life?
One way to understand is to know what David prayed for. “Make me to know my end and what is the measure of my days.” If we look at life from the perspective of the relative shortness of life and one day our leaving this life, we have a vantage point that takes us out of the humdrum of life and allows us to see our existence on earth from a more detached point of view, in this case, a more biblical point of view. We become ever more aware that our life here on earth is indeed relatively short and will end one day. We therefore also need to think of what happens next when we leave this earthly life.
Only God’s Word can give us the wide angled perspective we need. Then we can truly know the measure and number our days and get wisdom.
The joy of the biblical perspective
Believers going from one year to the next can experience some nostalgia, but also much joy. After all, the future is always bright for those who are children of God. David already knew that in essence. He did not despair; although he had some serious questions about what was happening in his life. Yet he confessed to God: “My hope is in you!” This hope was well grounded, for he knew of the forgiveness of sins and asked to be right with the Lord (Ps 39:7-8).
How much more can our hope as believers be in the living God! We are privileged to live in the last age before Christ’s return. Most of the prophecies have been fulfilled. The Messiah has come, and we know he is on track to come again to make all things new! And on top of all that, as Christians we may have a personal relationship with our Saviour who rules on high as triumphant king of all creation. To have that personal relationship by a true faith is to be “in Christ.” Thus, the apostle Peter can address the believers as those who are “in Christ” (1 Peter 5:14). Christ is our life (Colossians 3:4) as believers and we can affirm with the apostle Paul that we are a new creation in Christ so that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
This union with Christ has enormous and profound implications for our relatively brief existence here in this world. For one thing, we don’t really have to worry about the future in our relatively short life here on earth. God will supply our every need (Philippians 4:19) and we have the sure knowledge that “all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28). We can be certain that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). This comfort also means that more is involved.
Since our life is joined to Christ’s life by the Holy Spirit, the life we have with him cannot be broken or interrupted, not even by death. Therefore, Christ said that “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). One enormous implication of this reality is that the life we live here now in this sin-broken world is the beginning of eternal life. There is no interruption between life here and the life to come. Should God call us as Christians from this present world, our life with and in Christ continues unbroken. Therefore, the apostle Paul could long to depart from this earthly life and “be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). The life of a believer with and in Christ goes on without any break.
Now if the life we now live is in essence the beginning of life the beginning of life eternal, then we may savour some of the foretaste of the joy of that eternal life that is to come in perfection. We therefore confess in our catechism that “I now already feel in my heart the beginning of eternal joy” (Q/A 58) and that “we begin in this life the eternal Sabbath” (Q/A 103). The future starts now! Life in a sinful world may indeed be short, but by God’s grace, believers have already started to live life eternal! The future starts now.
That has implications. Reflecting on this reality makes us ever more determined to live close to the Lord and rejoice in his salvation. As we number our days, seeking a heart of biblical wisdom, we will use every opportunity to live for our Saviour and our God! The time we have is short and we do not know the measure of the days God has allotted us on this earth. But we know that “the world is passing away along with its desire, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17)
Such wisdom and the honest acknowledgement of the brevity of life is sorely needed in our time
With that assurance we can begin the new year with Christian enthusiasm! We have so much to be thankful for! Life may be relatively short and the struggle against sin is a reality, but Christ has redeemed us from all our sins (Ephesians 1:7). We may be marginalized in the public square and in the civic culture, which in several ways exults sin, but God “has seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6). It may not be full reality yet, but our citizenship is ultimately in heaven (Philippians 3:20) and our life here on earth is a life that extends to the glory to come. The future rule of this earth is ours in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 2:12).
We may one day experience the gradual breakdown of our bodily tent, but we know the resurrection of the body will follow and body and soul will be reunited in glory. Death has been defeated! “Therefore, my beloved brothers [and the sisters are included!], be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
With that conviction we can number our days, know their measure, and gain a heart of wisdom so that we can enter and experience the new year with joy in anticipation of the weight of glory to be revealed (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Dr Cornelis Van Dam is professor emeritus of Old Testament at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary. This article also appeared in Clarion, year-end 2018.