“Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom ~Psalm 90:12.
The brevity and flimsiness of life have inspired numerous metaphors in literature: Human existence is compared to a dream, a flying shuttle, a mist, a puff of smoke, a shadow, a gesture in the air, a sentence written in the sand, a spray of flowers that wither and die in the wind. In one famous passage, the Venerable Bede, a seventh century English monk, portrays our life span as a sparrow that flies swiftly through a hall, coming in by one window and out by another. Our days are few, “and we fly away” Moses said (Psalm 90:10). “Time flies,” we say. “No, you fly,” Time says. Indeed, “Life is hasty” (Thomas Hobbes).
Like Moses I’m getting long in the tooth and thinking about the brevity of life these days—a harsh reality that escaped me in my youth. “Will I leave anything behind that prolongs my usefulness?” I ask myself. “Will there be some enduring evidence that I’ve been here?”
I think of an ancient pioneer cemetery in the mountains nearby, with gravestones standing like small, slope–shouldered sentinels guarding human remains. The stones enshrine what’s left on earth of men and women who were born, who grew up, married, reared children, made something of themselves, grew old and died. Most of the stones have no inscriptions to denote that individual's worth—a name and date and little more. I ask myself, “Is this all that will remain of me—a crumbling stone and recumbent dust.
Once we grasp the fact that we’re not long for this world we may begin to wise up. Hopefully, we’ll add up the days of our lives, reckon their number to be few and determine by God’s grace to make them count. In the words of a plaque that hung on a wall of my boyhood home:
Only one life will soon be past;
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
And when I am dying how glad I shall be,
That the lamp of my life has blazed out for Thee.