Learning to number our days, personally and culturally

More than 70 years ago, in the summer of 1945, the Second World War came to an end, the occasion marked by celebrations around the globe. Those heady days took place long before most of us can remember or were even born. When we look at old photos, we get a small taste of what it must have been like: tickertape parades, dancing in the streets, young men and women kissing in the crowd.

For us, however, the experience of these events remains indirect, the stuff of history, more like a movie than real life. Over seven decades removed, we can only look back with gratitude to the men and women who fought and served. We know little of the actual suffering they endured or the palpable joy they felt when it was over.

As Christians, our gratitude doesn’t end with that great generation. It looks up to the God who is greater still, in whose hands was the ultimate outcome of the war. But if victory is from the Lord, then so is defeat. What would we think if the war had gone differently, and not in our favour?

When we consider a span of 70 years, it carries an undeniable biblical resonance. Our minds are drawn back to Old Testament history, to an event that was most certainly no cause for celebration, but only for grief and mourning: the Babylonian captivity.

After many warnings to the Kingdom of Judah concerning their idolatry and other sins, God finally brought destruction upon them via the Babylonian Empire of King Nebuchadnezzar. The land of Judah was devastated, Jerusalem razed and burned, most of the populace exiled to Babylon. Yet in the midst of judgment there was also mercy. God promised to restore his people to their land after 70 years and carried out that promise through the Persian King Cyrus.

Then as now, events of seven decades past lie beyond the living memory of most people. During the exile in Babylon and Persia, new generations of Israelites were born who knew nothing of life in Judah. They could only experience second-hand what their parents and grandparents had gone through.

Similarly for most of us alive today, the end of the Second World War is confined to a few pictures and articles, the event itself shrouded in a kind of historical unreality.

Nevertheless, our God is the God of real history. He calls us to remember it and learn from it – in a word, to treat it as real. To do that, there are a few things we want to keep in mind.

God is sovereign over all historical events, both good and bad

This is one of the basic truths of Scripture that cannot be reiterated too often: God is in control of everything in his creation, and that includes the events of history.

Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord proclaims, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’ . . . I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it” (Isaiah 46:9-11).

A little earlier he declares, “I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things” (Isaiah 45:6-7).

These truths reverberate throughout the Bible, but as finite beings we have trouble grasping their implications. We wonder how God’s sovereign rule meshes with our freedom. We acknowledge his hand in favourable events (victory over tyranny in the war, for example) but are perplexed that he allows – even ordains – calamitous events (the rise of tyranny and the outbreak of war in the first place).

In the end, we rest by faith in the power and character of God. We recognize that he’s working out his plans for the world according to his perfect wisdom and goodness. This is true even when we can’t fathom the reasons behind those plans.

History does not revolve around our culture or our generation

More than most societies, we in the modern West are prone to a certain level of historical arrogance. Due to our sociological and technological advances, we’re tempted to regard our present culture as somehow ultimate, the goal to which all others have led and which will not quickly pass away.

It’s humbling, then, to recognize that the Scriptures offer a decidedly different take on the progress of human civilizations.

According to Daniel, “[God] changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings” (Daniel 2:21).

He adds, “The Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men” (Daniel 4:17).

The Apostle Paul echoes the same truth in the New Testament: “[God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26).

In other words, God is the one who has raised up and brought down all the nations throughout history. He has determined when our civilization would begin, how long it will flourish through wars and other trials, and when it will end.

The only certainty is that his church will continue to grow and thrive, although its centre of gravity may shift to the non-western world, as it has already begun to do. Other than that, it’s quite possible that one day, our civilization will be replaced by a culture as alien to us as ours would be to the ancient Hebrews or Babylonians.

History teaches us to steward our time, individually and as a society

Moses wrote about the brevity of life in the book of Psalms: “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).

He then prayed this seemingly incongruous prayer: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

This is an urgent appeal to take stock of our time, not only on a personal level but on a societal one as well. Seventy years may be a literal lifetime, but it’s a mere moment in world history and it goes by in a flash.

However, God in his grace uses the transient nature of time to bring eternity into sharper focus. Through the changing face of history, he demonstrates his faithfulness and draws our attention from that which passes away to that which lasts forever.

Seven decades after the war ended, we look back at the old photographs and see the young people of that day, dancing, laughing, kissing, celebrating in the streets. Most of them are long gone now. We remember them with gratitude, as best we can, for the sacrifices they made to preserve freedom for future generations – for us.

How have we used the freedom that was so dearly won on our behalf? How have we honoured the legacy of those who won it, and the God who authored it? These are questions we do well to ask, as individuals and as a culture.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2017 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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