Teach Us to Number Our Days: Who are the “everyone” of 2Peter 3:9?

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One of the great joys of preaching is getting to immerse yourself in some tricky portions of the Bible that require a little grappling with. Usually it’s a text that the greats of the past have long tussled with (who hasn’t known the thrill of attempting to make sense of those imprisoned spirits in 1Peter 3:19 or pondered over the buoyancy of an axehead in 2Kings 6:5-7?).

At church we’re currently working our way through 2Peter, a great letter towards the end of the New Testament and one of the so-called Catholic epistles with a wider audience. Yesterday we opened up chapter 3 and looked at the first half. Peter deals with the denial by false teachers of the second coming. Long before Schweitzer spoke of Jesus being crushed by the wheel of history (i.e. unable to take control of it himself) there were those who were spreading the same lies. There is no novelty in heresy.The false teachers argue that the wheel of history just keeps spinning and nothing will change it,

2Pet. 3:4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.”

Peter warns us they are deliberately suppressing the truth that they know that God is more than capable of putting his hand on the wheel and has, in fact, done just that in the past and will do so again (2Peter 3:5-7).

But it still does not explain why it’s taken so long. Surely God could have got his act together by now? Well, Peter explains, the question itself comes out of having the wrong perspective:

2Pet. 3:8    But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.

God has a different view of time. He’s not so much “outside time”, it’s just that he’s not in the rush that we are. We are so often like little children in the back of the car, wondering are we there yet? The adults sitting in the front have it all in view on google maps but the kids on the booster seats just can’t fathom beyond the next 3 minutes, or even less if they suddenly remember how full their bladder really was when the car was parked only 5 minutes before.

In setting this before us Peter is simply drawing on what Moses said centuries before in the Psalms…

Psalm 90:4 A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.

As we read those words, only a few thousand years later, it has been the equivalent of only a few nights’ watch for the Lord. We just need a little perspective.

And so to our focus verse…

2Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

I don’t think many of us need persuading that God is patient and merciful, indeed long-suffering with us; slow to anger (Exod. 34:6) but the question here in v9 is who exactly are the “anyone” and “everyone” referred to here? For the Calvinist this is a so-called “problem text” speaking of God’s desire that the whole world should be saved. Surely this rubs up against the notion of a particular elect that God has chosen from the world? In the reading of commentaries over the past week a combination of two approaches has become apparent; to note the difference between God’s decretive and permissive wills (i.e. that he desires that all be saved but has only decreed that a particular number will be) and to also argue that the “you” of v9 is referring to those receiving Peter’s letter (and, by extension, the wider elect of God who then receive the letter). I want to spend the rest of this piece arguing that the latter is the correct way to read Peter here and, indeed, to do so makes the distinction in wills something not relevant in this particular text. But I also want to appeal to an argument I’ve not read in any of the commentaries so far.

First, the argument from 2Peter itself.

Peter presents the false teachers as those who have previously known the gospel and yet have now walked away from it (e.g. 2Peter 2:1, 21 etc.). In contrast he calls upon believers to walk the opposite path. To “make every effort to confirm your calling and election” (2Peter 1:5-11). It is not enough to know the gospel and to be known by God in Jesus, we must strive to continue to escape sin (2Peter 1:4). When Peter speaks of God waiting patiently for some to not “perish” (2Peter 3:9) it is a desire that they escape the same fate that the false teachers blindly deny will happen to them (2Peter 3:6 – the “destruction” of the flood is the same “perishing” word as v9).

Put another way, there is no real exegetical reason to switch identification from the “you” at the beginning of v9 and the subsequent “everyone”. A tighter identification of the “everyone” as the “you” is entirely consistent with the general argument of the letter.

But it’s not this alone that convinces me of the tighter reading. So, second, the argument that Peter himself makes from Psalm 90.

I have long operated under the exegetical maxim that when a New Testament author cites the Old Testament he does so not simply to find a nice hook to put his hat on but actually wishes to import the wider theological context of his quote and make it part of the argument. I think this helps shine even more light on what Peter is doing here. Consider Psalm 90 and what Moses is saying…

A prayer of Moses the man of God.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.

Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.” A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death— they are like the new grass of the morning: In the morning it springs up new, but by evening it is dry and withered.

So the first implication of God’s different perspective on history is that we are like chopped grass, gone so quickly. And there here’s the second…

We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. If only we knew the power of your anger! Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due.

Note here that the themes raised by Moses are exactly the same as those being handled by Peter in chapter 3. God’s eternal patient view of history, our fleetingness by comparison, and the judgement of God against our sin that we fail to recognise. “If only we knew the power of your anger” he writes. The false teachers could do with hearing that one. Well what is the response?

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Relent, Lord! How long will it be? Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble. May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children. May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us— yes, establish the work of our hands.

The response is to wisely ask God for mercy and to ask him to work in us.  “Teach us to number our days” gets trotted out as wisdom for life in a number of places but it’s base meaning is “help us understand that we are like chopped grass when our short sinful lives come up against your eternal nature and anger against sin”. As Moses speaks these words (perhaps at the same time as Deuteronomy – see the similarity between Psalm 90:1 and Deut. 33:27) to the people of God he calls them to renew their reliance upon the God who has saved them, who has proved his reliability. Yet this renewal requires a healthy awareness of his wrath against sin and so they should welcome his “affliction” which disciplines them. Above all they should continue to rest in his “favour” and ask him to continue to work through them; “establish the work of our hands”. It reads a lot like:

2Pet. 1:10    Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

And just as Peter’s instruction there is rooted in the assurance that God has provided (and will continue to provide) everything needed for a godly life (2Peter 1:3-4) so Moses’ call to the people of God is on the same basis.

May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us— yes, establish the work of our hands.

In case I’ve not made it clear yet, my point is this: importing the clear sense of Psalm 90 only serves to reinforce the argument that we have already seen that Peter makes. Moreover, it helps establish the answer to our question, who are the everyone referred to in 3:9? There is no need for us to look beyond the boundaries of the church that Peter is writing to. It is the clear sense of both 2Peter and Psalm 90 which he draws upon.

This is truly a Catholic epistle; it’s for the whole church. As Peter warns us of the false teachers he also calls upon us to not fall into their trap. God has no desire to see his elect perish. Rather he calls us all to repentance, to set our lives in order (2Peter 3:11) as we consider our own fleeting lives, the certainty of the second coming and God’s judgement of sin and, above all, the power of God which makes our repentance effective and hopeful (2Peter 1:3)

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  1. david

    2 Peter is a fantastic resource for pastoral ministry! A small edit – capitalise: “google maps”.

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