When life didn’t go according to plan

So here you are. You’re getting older, and what’s happened to your life? Precious little, that’s what.

Isn’t it a thing, sittin’ in a chair,
Wonderin’ where the hell life went?
Where’s all the people you won and lost,
Where’s all the money you spent?
If I had it all to overdo again …

That little ditty, with solo voice and guitar, flitted through my dreaming mind one morning years ago (evidently I’d listened to too much Mason Williams the night before). I woke up before it finished, drat it all, and ever after wondered what would have come after that last line.

Robert Browning once wrote, “Grow old along with me! / The best is yet to be, / The last of life, for which the first was made.” Maurice Chevalier observed, “Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.” The Apostle Paul would have disagreed with both (Phil. 1:23). But a current phrase still captures the prevailing attitude: “You’re born, you suffer, you die.”

We Yanks and Brits, our cultures still permeated with the King James Version, often refer to the typical human life-span as “threescore and ten” (and yet in bold optimism refer to forty-seven as “middle-aged”). Rarely do we realize we’re quoting Psalm 90, which, if the psalm title (not considered canonical, but still thought to be as reliable as any other extrabiblical tradition) is correct, was set down by Moses — and is therefore among the oldest items in the average English speaker’s literary data bank.

“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 ninety, verse ten, KJV. Seventy years of hardship, then you die, and that’s all she wrote. Pffft, you’re gone. End of story.

But here’s a puzzlement: that verse doesn’t fit Moses’ life-span at all. He lived one hundred twenty years, the last forty of which were spent in the Exodus. During all that time he was considerably older than threescore and ten. So why in the world would he be thinking about that number?

Assumptions, assumptions. Let’s back up to before the Exodus. What’s Moses doing then?

Answer: He’s in Midian, doing shepherd duty. He’d been a member of the king’s household in the most technologically advanced country in the world, Egypt. He grew up beside, or at least downstairs from, the royal family. Cosmopolitan, privileged, the son of Pharaoh’s daughter — life was good.

And in one moment of idiocy he threw it all away.

When he had grown to maturity, he decided he was going to take action on behalf of his suffering people. Somebody had to return the Israelites to their rightful stature in the society that once had honored Joseph as its Number Two, and he was just the guy who could do it. So off he went to combat injustice and lift up the oppressed, and one day he found both: an Egyptian was beating up a Hebrew. Moses flexed his righteous muscles and … killed the Egyptian.

That tore it. From Moses the cosmopolitan royal householder to Moses the fugitive, faster than a Lamborghini could do zero to seventy. Royal connections meant squat: he’s one of them, and he murdered one of us! He ran for his life, eventually to settle in Midian, marrying one of the local girls.

Now it’s decades later, and this would-be mighty avenger of the Hebrews is out in the wilderness herding a flock of incoherently bleating animals. Mid-life has come and gone; he’s over the hill and on the downward slope.

“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.” Translation: “You live seventy years, life’s a bet-tav-chet, and then you die. And even if I manage to make it to eighty, I’ll still be out here with these @$*&#% SHEEP!!!

Yeah. We know the feeling.

But here’s the punchline: the story isn’t over. Moses does make it to eighty — and it’s only then that God grabs hold of him via the burning bush and tells him that now he is in fact going to be the deliverer of the Hebrews. Moses knows better, of course: been there, done that, got the arrest warrant. But God has plans, the biggest bust-out in history is about to hit Egypt, and the next four decades are going to make the first eight look like mere prologue.

Maybe you just haven’t hit your eighty yet.

And maybe Browning was right.

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