Our time on earth is brief and uncertain. James describes it as a “mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (Jas. 4:14). Life is fragile. We never know when it might change dramatically, or end.
The events recorded in the book of Numbers tell the story of two generations in Israel—the first, a great disappointment, and the second, a great hope. The setting is the wilderness between Sinai and the land of Canaan, otherwise known as the “Promised Land,” a land flowing with milk and honey. When the first generation set out from Sinai after Moses received the law, they had great promise. God had delivered them from Egyptian bondage so they could inherit a new land of their own. But they did not trust in God’s power to deliver them, so he doomed them to die in the wilderness. Even Moses was told he would not enter the Promised Land. Instead of conquering and settling into new homes, they spent the final decades of their lives wandering in the wilderness without a roof over their heads, preparing their children to receive the land they had forfeited through disbelief.
Their children, as it turned out, learned from their parents’ mistakes. Led by Joshua, who alongside Caleb believed God’s promises, they successfully conquered the Promised Land and settled there.
The book of Numbers derives its name from the censuses it contains. But we can also take its title as a theme for the subject matter it contains, for the wilderness wanderings was a period in history when Israel’s days were “numbered.” They learned the hard way that it’s not how long you live but what you do with time that really matters.
As he prepared the second generation for conquest, Moses prayed, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12). If we study the disbelief, sin, repentance, and new hope recorded in the book of Numbers, we will learn how to do the hard work of accepting our mortality, which will result in the wisdom needed to lead successful lives. May God bless us in these discussions.