"Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life . . ." (Genesis 47:9).
The Patriarch Jacob was 130 years old when he spoke those words to Pharaoh as the two were introduced to each other through his son Joseph upon the arrival of the family from famine-stricken Canaan.
I have always been struck by that self-characterization. "Few" is relative, I suppose. Compared to Methuselah's 969 orbits around the sun (Genesis 5:27), Jacob was a pup when he passed away at age 147. But I think there is more to it than that.
My husband didn't say much in the weeks that he was dying, which lent a kind of solemnity to each handpicked word. One day all he said to me was "Life's not much." He did not explain, and I did not feel inclined to ask for an explanation. Nor did I feel the need to correct his theology, nor to call him ungrateful. I think he was resonating to the same minor chord that Jacob was, this peculiar lucidity of those who see the measure of their lifespan at a glance and realize how paltry was its ambitions, how finite were the number of its loves and hates.
He was in that rarified state of mind that Moses inhabited the day he wrote Psalm 90. It is a bittersweet state. Bitter because there is a wistfulness about the aspect of the vaunted greatness of man compressed to "a watch in the night," or "yesterday when it is past" (verse 4). Sweetness because those who take it to heart "gain a heart of wisdom" from it (verse 12).
We had a mini-earthquake on this coast the other day. Just a trembling of the water in a drinking glass on my mother's end table. But it was enough to suggest the shaking of the foundations that is to come:
"Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens" (Hebrews 12:26).
Peter draws the motive:
"Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people are you to be in lives of holiness and godliness . . . ?" (2 Peter 3:11)