The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away (Psalm 89/90:10, KJV).
Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one (2 Corinthians 11:24, KJV).
I hope that you will forgive me for this, but I am not a big devotee of the King James Version of the Bible. I respect the beauty of its language, and I acknowledge that it was a great accomplishment in its time. However, I simply find its language to be too archaic and difficult for frequent use. For the first several years after I became a Christian, I read almost exclusively from the New International Version (NIV), until it was brought to my attention that it sometimes takes excessive liberty in translating the Greek text of the New Testament. I still think that the NIV is worth reading, especially if you are trying to quickly read through a book and gain the overall message of the book. For closer, verse by verse study, I recommend the New King James Version (NKJV) or the New American Standard Bible (NASB), which are the two most literal modern English translations.
Still, there are certain verses in which I still love the KJV above all other versions. I like the way some phrases sound, such as the temple curtain being “rent in twain” (Matthew 27:51) and “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16). I am also a sucker for words like “threescore” and “fourscore.” I don’t know why.
The second verse that I quoted above is another such verse. “Forty save one” seems so much more poetic that just saying “thirty-nine.” The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy provided for a punishment of 40 lashes for serious crimes (see 25:3). The Jewish leaders of the first century generally only allowed a maximum of 39 as a demonstration of their mercy.
I am blessed to have never received 39 lashes (or even one, thanks be to God!) with a whip, but the number 39 takes on a different significance for me on this day: it is now the number of years that the merciful God has allowed me to live on this Earth.
Long ago, in one of my college English classes, we were discussing a poem (which one, I cannot remember) that had the inevitability of death as its theme. I remember the professor saying, “We all know intellectually that one day we will die, but when you get to be about thirty-five, you start actually feeling it in your body.” Recent experience has shown me that the professor was correct. For some reason, all my pairs of pants have mysteriously started to shrink around the waist. Ditto with my shirt collars. I no longer seem to have as much energy as I used to. When I lift weights, I get pinched nerves in my shoulders and achy joints. Could these be initial signs of more to come?
Now I know that many of you who are reading this are … well, let’s just say “somewhat older than 39.” You are thinking “Don’t complain, Fr. James, you are still a young man.” Indeed, some people at work call me “young man” or even “kiddo.” Other people, particularly my former students and my own children, think I am older than dirt. So where does the truth lie?
Perhaps the first verse that I quoted above holds the key to answering this question. The Psalmist wrote that “the days of our lives are threescore and ten; and if by reason of strength they are fourscore.” Indeed, according to the CDC, the average life expectancy in the U.S. is currently 77.9 years. If we round that to 78, then my life is exactly one-half over. In other words, I probably only have about 39 years to go, give or take a few (and it might be much fewer). One thing is certain: my remaining years will go quickly; after all, the first 39 sure did!
This morning, I mentioned this data to my oldest daughter Audrey, who is 15, and she replied, “Wow, Dad. That’s really depressing!” Perhaps. However, I prefer to use the knowledge of my limited remaining time on earth as an incentive to make the most of it. Later in the same Psalm that I quoted above, the Psalmist asks God to “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (v. 12). St. Paul expressed the importance of doing just this when he told the Ephesians to “see then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (vv. 15-16).
These and other verses of Scripture tell us that we need to make all of our remaining time on earth count. We need to waste less time doing things that do not contribute to our growth in godliness. We need to spend less time on ourselves and more time on others. Less time tearing others down and more time building them up. Less time stuffing our own faces and more time feeding and clothing the hungry. Less time “shooting the breeze” and more time talking to God (and listening to him). Less time watching TV and movies and more time reading the Scriptures and the Fathers. Less time telling others the latest celebrity gossip (or even the latest news) and more time telling them about the way to eternal life.
May God grant us the wisdom and the self-discipline to do these things.