Imagine yourself on a large ship in the middle of the ocean. In your possession is a small box containing what’s most precious to you. Perhaps a small fortune of gold lies inside. Perhaps a single photograph of a grandmother who raised you from birth. Perhaps the box contains the crown jewel of your life’s work. Perhaps a former wedding ring.
Whatever your treasure, imagine that by some untimely movement, in one sudden and unthoughtful moment, you knock this box over the ledge. Imagine the dread, the panic, the plummeting of your heart as you watch it tumble overboard. Imagine the split-second calculation that rises to meet your impulse to jump in after it. You hear it hit the surface. You see one last glance of it before it submerges into darkness. Against hope, you hold your arm out toward the raging waves, reaching in vain as it is swallowed with no chance of recovery.
Such a loss could disturb you for the rest of your life.
What if there is another treasure, a greater treasure, that daily, weekly, moment by moment, falls over the ledge and out of sight — often without us realizing it? A treasure not held in a box, its departure we often fail to recognize, much less regret.
Treasure That Slips Away
This scene of a ship, first presented by John Foster (1770–1843), is meant to awaken us to the daily loss of time.
Time, he solemnly reminds us, is no fortune carried in a box, no valuable ring placed on one’s finger, no pearl noticeably misplaced in one’s house. The formless nature of it — unheld, unclasped, unfelt — makes it a most easy thing to waste. If only time, Foster sighs, were a physical treasure held in the hand, its loss of even a few coins would help us be more careful with the rest of it. But it isn’t.
In reflecting on the waste of time in one’s own past life, and in the lives of most other men, one has been tempted to regret that time should be infinitely remote from all relation to the senses; so that ample periods of it can pass away as unseen as a departing spirit, and as silent as death. (On the Improvement of Time, 33)
Time, one of the greatest of all our treasures, falls continually overboard, slipping silently away.
What makes time so easy to waste is that many of us experience a staggering disconnect in that what we know about time is not what we often feel about time. We know it as precious; we feel it as common. Two reasons for this come to mind.
First, time feels ordinary because we assume we possess more of it than we do. In a society that aggressively seeks to distract us from the reality of death, we intuit — despite what we know — that we will live as Methuselah, who beget his first son, Lamech, at 187 years old and lived 782 years after that (Genesis 5:27). For the first half of our lives, many of us conceive old age and death standing lifetimes away. Our mind tells us to estimate a full eighty years or so; our heart tells us 900, give or take.
“Time, one of the greatest of all our treasures, falls continually overboard, slipping silently away.”
We feel time moving at five miles per hour, and we get deceived into thinking that old age is comfortably far away. It is only at midlife when many experience the crisis that what felt like a mere beginning of life was in reality half of the normal lifespan. The numbers suddenly make disturbing sense. They have, at most, the other half left. The unavoidable feelings of mortality make increasingly clear what youth could not conceive.
The second reason time is easy to waste is that we cannot see her dressed in her royal robes. She is the unthinkable opportunity for mortal man to act upon the cosmic stage and influence immortal souls for all eternity. Yet, for all her brilliance, she appears to us in the simple attire of just another Tuesday or Thursday — more meals, more conversations, more work, more brushing of teeth, making of beds, taking of showers. “Normal” days (of which our lives actually consist) can inch past while we wait for the next noteworthy moment. We want photo-worthy weekends and shareable moments on social media; what we mostly get are Wednesday afternoons.
Each day, then, seems more disposable than wisdom would appraise. Ordinary days blur together. Routine makes the wonder of time seem unremarkable. We navigate on autopilot only half aware of our surroundings. It isn’t until years later that many look over the ledge horrified at the mountain of small coins piled at the ocean’s bottom.
When We See Life’s Glory
How rudely we can be awakened from our dream. One phone call from the doctor, one dreadful accident, one untimely death, one dark and lonely valley can show us the golden shimmer of time like few things can. Such glimpses break the spell of days half awake. The secret that war, disease, calamity, and miscarriage tell us: life is short and time a most terrible thing to waste.
During these times, the psalmist’s lyrics meet our ears:
The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away. (Psalm 90:10)
We feel ourselves to be “like a dream,” or like blades of grass born in the morning and dying that night (Psalm 90:5–6). And this shakes us. This awakens us. At least for a time.
What Kings Cannot Buy
King Hezekiah experienced this awakening to time when Isaiah told him to set his house in order — for he was to die from his illness (2 Kings 20:1). In that moment — the same moment as so many who have heard a doctor say “terminal” — the clouds parted and his eyes saw those normal Wednesdays and mundane Mondays in their glory.
Hezekiah learned firsthand how facing mortality transfigures time. Everyday experiences, like walks in the garden, laughter over meals, simple gazes into the night sky or telling of the bedtime stories to his children, were flooded with new light. What he half yawned through for decades, he now yearned for desperately. As the gates of this life began to close to him, he glanced back and saw — perhaps for the first time — what he was leaving. What treasure in his massive storehouses would the King not give for more of those familiar Fridays? After crying to God for mercy, Hezekiah “wept bitterly” (2 Kings 20:3).
When Isaiah was leaving the palace, God stopped him and sent him back to tell Hezekiah that he heard Hezekiah’s prayer and saw his tears and that he would add fifteen more years to his life (2 Kings 20:5–6). Imagine. For those first few days and weeks after God spared his life, Hezekiah surely felt the breeze upon his skin, noticed the breathtaking blue of the sky, appreciated the crooked smile of his son, tasted the profound sweetness of honey. The glory of life, the glory of normal days had dawned on him.
Teach Us About Time
Time is no treasure hidden in a box that we can feel in our pocket. We cannot plunge beneath the waters and retrieve what has passed. Coins unspent, unheeded, now lie beyond retrieval. But if you can, read these words: More coins are left to you.
“Will you receive normal days as spectacular gifts from a good God?”
Some have fifteen years left; others more; others less. Will you live them? Will you receive normal days as spectacular gifts from a good God and spend them in his service? Will you seek Christ like never before, love his church like never before? Will you share Christ with neighbors and seek the temporal and eternal good of your community like never before? Will you realize that time itself is more valuable than most of what we spend our time trying to have?
Considering the brevity of life and the value of time will not, in itself, cause reform. King Hezekiah, after God spared his life, showed a cold regard for the fate of his heirs after him. And we too know just how quickly sobriety can fade. So, God himself must instruct us (and keep instructing us) as to the value of each day and the preciousness of time on earth.
Knowing this, we pray Psalm 90:12, asking God to do what only he can: Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.