A little boy approached me with brightness in his eyes, excitement in his voice and proudly announced, My birthday is next month. I will be five years old!” I smiled as he told me of his much-anticipated birthday. He was counting the days.
That’s the kind of enthusiastic anticipation many Jewish people feel about the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, which begins at sundown on May 25. “Shavuot” is the Hebrew word for “weeks.”
Shavuot is the only festival named for a countdown. The counting begins at the feast of First Fruits, which is observed in conjunction with Passover. From there we count seven weeks, which brings us to Shavuot, per Deuteronomy 16:9. The Greek name for the festival is Pentecost, meaning 50 days (Leviticus 23:16). So you can count days or you can count weeks, but either way, the count down is “what counts.” In Bible times this countdown served to mark Israel’s first spring harvest (the barley harvest) and it anticipated the arrival of the second spring harvest (the wheat harvest).
The children of Israel began the First Fruits celebration by making an offering to God. That offering was a sheaf of barley called the omer. As a result, the fifty-day period between the two holidays is called Sefirat ha-Omer, the counting of the omer. Each day is counted and marked with a special blessing in anticipation of the end of the barley harvest. The countdown concludes with the celebration of Shavuot and the offering of the first fruits of the wheat harvest.
Why did God make such a big deal about counting these days? It wasn’t to teach Israel what crops to harvest when; they could figure that out on their own. But the Lord wanted His people to anticipate the harvest, to give thanks and praise to Him for His provision, as well as to look forward to the harvest yet to come.
The rabbis point out that in the Torah, God commanded a husband and wife to count the days of purification after her menstrual period until the day they could come together again. Just as the counting of days increased the anticipation of their reunion, so Israel’s counting of days should build her expectation of worship and union with God.
God has set a rhythm of life in motion through His creative power. We human beings will never be able to dance to that rhythm unless we follow God’s lead. Most people lumber through life’s seasons with two left feet, spiritually speaking. Instead of counting our days as God wants us to, we end up simply marking time. Instead of anticipating His purpose and blessing, we strive in vain to create our own. As a result, most people are left feeling hopeless, bored and/or exhausted from the lack of purpose and blessing, and their frantic efforts to fill that void.
Moses prayed, “So teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) God wants us to live our lives with a sense of holy expectation, of sanctified purpose and hopefulness, counting the days in anticipation of the all the good things He wants to bring into our lives.
There is a harvest ahead for those who seek God, who seek to do His will and not their own. Counting the omer was supposed to build anticipation, not so much for the harvest as for the Lord of the harvest. We focus too easily on the gift and not the giver. A heart of wisdom from the Lord helps us to long for the right things, to anticipate His goodness and grace, not merely the things that satisfy our temporal desires. Even those of us who know the Lord sometimes find it difficult to live our lives anticipating what He wants, rather than on our own desires.
What are you most looking forward to right now? What future do you believe God wants your heart to anticipate? Life holds forth many joys, but in the long run this life is too brief and too painful to truly satisfy our souls. God has set the longing for eternity in all of our hearts, though we are not often aware of it (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Ultimately, a heart of wisdom helps us to number our days on earth in anticipation of eternity, when time will be no more.
Our hearts should cry out, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus” with the same bright-eyed enthusiasm of a child eager for a landmark birthday. Those of us who know Jesus are among the first fruits of a harvest of souls that God wants to gather in. That harvest yet to come includes people we live with and work with—people we see every day. As we count down, anticipating the future God has in store for us, a heart of wisdom will teach us to long for that harvest that God wants to bring. A heart of wisdom will lead us to look continually for ways that God might use us to gather in the greater harvest for His greater glory.
We are in the midst of that harvest right now in Jews for Jesus, though it is still very gradual. We know that God intends to glorify Himself through us and many others who labor in the harvest fields. It is easy to lose sight of this when we forget to count down. But every day of our lives brings us one step closer to the final harvest of souls and I don’t want to miss one sheaf of grain along the way, do you? Let’s number our days. Let’s work for the Lord of the Harvest. Let’s look forward to the promise of all that God has in store for us. “And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.” (Galatians 6:9)