(Psalm 31:1-5, 14-16)
Knowing the time is critically important in our fast-paced society. Fortunately, we seldom need to ask, “What time is it?” The current time is right there in the corner of our laptops, at the top of our tablets or on the face of our smartwatches, accurate to the second, courtesy of the internet. If we’re in the car, we can find the time glowing at us digitally on the dash somewhere.
But, if we are traveling internationally, time becomes a more common question. We need to know so we don’t miss our train, connecting flight, or time slot at the Van Gogh Museum, all while moving through changing local time zones. We might even learn how to say, “What time is it?” in the language of the country we’re in. In Mexico, it is, “¿Qué hora es?” In Czech, it’s “Kolik je hodin?” In French, “Quelle heure est-il?” In German, “Wie spät ist es?” And so on.
The point is that we generally are well aware of time, and of our need to know what time it is. We need to get to work on time. We need to catch a flight and be on time. We need to arrive early for our daughter’s ballet performance in The Nutcracker. The office won’t wait for us; the plane won’t wait for us; the performance will not be delayed until we arrive.
We use a variety of devices to ensure we’re on time. We have pop-up reminders on our laptops, tablets, and smartphones. We maintain online calendars – probably several of them – to manage appointments, travel plans and school events. We may even buy a book or two to help us manage our time more efficiently. All of this happens because we assume, and to some extent correctly, that our time is ours alone to manage. If we mismanage it, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
What if we rephrased the “what” question to ask: “Whose time is it, anyway?” The psalmist emphatically gives us the answer: “My times are in your hands” (v. 16).
Time does not belong to us; it belongs to God. Well, that’s not such a novel view. If God is the Creator of everything, God is therefore the Creator of time. God, after all, existed before time. That there is such a thing as time is because God made it so.
Rather than saying, “Time does not belong to us” – which is certainly true – perhaps we should say, “Our time does not belong to us.” This makes it personal. Now, it’s not like we’re talking about an abstract idea, a Theory of Everything or string theory. The conversation suddenly is about our 24/7 lives. The next 16 hours of our personal and work time is in the hands of God. Now we must take a different perspective on the time we are trying to manage. It is not, after all, our time, but God’s time. This changes everything: a truth that is both comforting and terrifying – terrifying because it is God; comforting, for the same reason.
The notion that one’s life was in the hands of an eternal God and not in one’s own hands (or those of a pantheon of deities) was rather novel in David’s time 3,000 years ago, and it still is today. The Greeks and Roman understood the lives of human beings to be in the hands of the gods, a multitude of them. David believed his life was in the hands of the One True God, Yahweh, who listened to him, rescued him, delivered him, and redeemed him. Even more striking, his monotheistic conception of God envisioned a deity who was in a personal relationship with him! How else can you explain the psalmist’s emotional outburst in verse 21? “Blessed be the LORD, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me!” The death of even one of God’s “faithful ones” is “precious,” he writes elsewhere (116:15).
The Greeks, on the other hand, believed in Fate (Moira) or the Fates (Moirai), and these gods dictated how long a person lived, their destiny while alive, and how much suffering and misery they would undergo. Homer and Hesiod wrote about Fate, and it wasn’t long before the Fates were thought of as three crones of advanced years who “spun the threads of human destiny.” Clotho spun the thread of human fate, Lachesis belayed it out and Atropos cut the rope, thus determining the precise point of one’s death.
David, however, believed in God, and understood this God to be his Creator and One who advocated for him and rescued him and who, all things being equal, did not want to see him suffer. David, then, was willing – sometimes reluctantly, as we are, too – to surrender his life to the providential care and protection of God.
But there was a problem.
When you’re staring into the face of your mortality, as David was, you realize that you’re living on borrowed time. Since tomorrow is never guaranteed, we are always living on borrowed time. Yet, we feel this in our bones more intensely when we’re in crisis. As much as we believe in God, this uncertainty is a problem, and thus, we’re tempted to take over the management of our lives ourselves. Please God, leave me alone; I’d rather do it myself.
David writes, “My times are in your hands.” It is a revealing confession. David knows that his future is uncertain. The time he has left on earth is borrowed time. We are the borrowers, God is the lender and, according to the prophet Micah, we’re expected to make payments in the currency of mercy, justice and love (Micah 6:8).
The psalmist confesses that he is having a devil of a time, that time is running out, that the sands of time are shifting and that therefore, he can’t simply bide his time, hoping it is only a matter of time when time will heal all his wounds. Rather, he begins by looking up for help from his divine Patron, Yahweh, a practice he would continue throughout his life. “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?” So begins Psalm 121. David answers his own question: “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”
In our text, Psalm 31, David makes it clear that he’s in need of intervention. In verses 1-5, he uses expressions like deliver me, rescue me, save me, guide me, and take me out of the net that is hidden for me. Yes, this is a man who knows he’s on the razor’s edge, living on borrowed time. For the psalmist, as for many of us, it’s crunch time, and when we totally understand this, we want to know who is keeping track of our mortality. “My times are in your hands.” Or, in words that have been attributed to civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy, the Dutch protector of Jews Corrie ten Boom, and the ancient poet Homer, “I may not know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.” I don’t know about any of those folks, and maybe he got the inspiration from one of them, but I do know that in 1952 the gospel song writer Stuart Hamblen penned the lyric, “I know not what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.”
Adversity helped David understand that he was not in charge of time, but merely a borrower of it. And whatever time may hold, in the fullness or time or the nick of time, God will come to David’s rescue – and to ours.
The writer of this desperate plea for deliverance was not always so time-conscious, nor was he always so willing to concede that his “times are in your hand.” Like many of us, we still think we’re in charge. Consider the Yiddish expression, “Want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.” Life had gone pretty well for David, when you think about it. He was in the right place at the right time when the old prophet Samuel anointed him the second king of Israel. After all, David was still a boy tending sheep and singing sheep songs to lambs.
When Israel was mocked and threatened by the Philistines in the valley of Elah, David, still a teenager, wasted no time in dispatching the giant Goliath who, were he alive today, would surely be under contract with the Kansas City Chief as a defensive tackle. For David, it was a heady victory, and he could not help but enjoy the national hoopla, and especially that merry little jingle about the king slaying thousands, but David killing 10,000! He was becoming a legend in his own time.
Of course, the king at this point has not been deposed, and although King Saul liked the kid, David could push his buttons. So, for a considerable time, David was on the run, buying time until that day when he could be the acknowledged ruler over the entire kingdom.
When we still can’t bring ourselves to say to God, “My times are in your hands,” we often try to buy time against the day when we run out of time and concede the inevitable. Saint Augustine knew his destiny lay with God and the church, but there was a time in his life when he wasn’t ready to commit. Struggling with some moral issues, he once said, “Da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo!” (Give me chastity and continence [that is, moderation], but not just yet!)
When Jesus was in the early stages of finding disciples, one would-be follower wanted to buy some time: “‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead’” (Matthew 8:21-22). When we need more time to prepare to do the right thing, or we’re looking for ways to postpone a commitment, we’re trying to buy time. Usually, God will not have it.
Do you have a feeling that God is calling you to be of service in some way? The call may be in reference to something great with many responsibilities. It could also be as small as the voice that tells you to quit a bad habit; or to work on saying nice things, not destructive things; responding positively; or resisting the temptation to pass on an untrustworthy tidbit of gossip. But we want more time. We tell God, “You’re catching me at a bad time.” And God says – as did your mother, who was holding a broom or a vacuum cleaner – “There’s no time like the present.”
We are not ready to be mature Christians, surrender everything and go all in. Not ready to say, “My times are in your hands.”
At some point, God gets through to David that it’s high time he acknowledges that Yahweh is Lord. David knew that God was right. God is God, and David is David. It’s a humbling moment, and perhaps we’ve already had this moment.
David, however, was only brought to his knees in abject humility because the arm of adversity had pushed him there. Tough times should help us turn to the author of time and help us beseech this divinity with cries for a reset, adjustment, or salvation. Time’s a-wastin’. Adversity is a huge reminder that our time is not our own. And things often don’t go well when we think it is.
Is it high time for us to have – as David does in this psalm – an inner conversation with God, with the One who has our time in his hands? When David wrote this psalm, he was ready. His opening words are, “In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust” (KJV). He knew, as did the ancient Job, that despite his suffering, “In his hand [God’s] is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being” (Job 12:10). This is why David could finally say, “Riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all” (1 Chronicles 29:12). It was about time.
In acknowledging that his life and times were in the hands of God, David seems to have arrived at a conclusion that was ahead of his time. Perhaps, he wished he had come to this conclusion more quickly, but it was quick enough. Maybe even more than quick enough – he was ahead of most of his contemporaries. There is one God, and David put his trust in his God, and it was this trust that gave him peace.
Isn’t this where we want to be? Ahead of time. Early and eager. Living life to the fullest.
But in the hands of God. Amen.