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Online Text Sermon - The Mortality of Man, Psalm 90 v.12

PreacherRev. Maurice Roberts, Inverness
Sermon TitleThe Mortality of Man
TextPsalm 90 v.12
Sermon ID946

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"So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom" (Psalm 90, 12).

The author of this psalm is Moses, as we noticed from the title - 'A Prayer of Moses the man of God'. We would be safe then to say that this is the oldest psalm in the Book of Psalms, one of the oldest portions indeed of the Bible itself because the first writer of the Bible was Moses. I find it very interesting that that should be the case. No Bible books were written in the days before the Flood when people lived to be almost one thousand years of age. No Bible books were written in the days of Abraham when people were still living to be one hundred and eighty, and so forth. The first Bible books which were written were written when God had made the age of man normal, that is to say he had reduced it to what is now normal - seventy to eighty years of age. This was something new in the history of the world at that time. Before this date people lived to much greater ages, as you know. For instance, just to develop the point very quickly and without being at all lengthy on it, Methuselah lived to be nine hundred and sixty-nine years old; he was the oldest man who ever lived. That's about thirteen or fourteen times older than we would have a life expectation of today. These patriarchs lived to be nearly one thousand years old - that's thirteen generations older than we would live today. God caused the Bible to begin to be written at a time when the age and lifespan was as it is still - seventy or eighty years.

When you look at this psalm as a whole, you see how very, very different is the outlook and the mentality here from that of the modern world, even the modern religious world. This is a sad psalm. It makes no pretence about the realities of life, death, sin and the wrath of God - terrible words there that Moses has. "Who knoweth the power of thine anger?" (v.11). That means to say, nobody has any conception as to what God will do with sinners in hell. We have never dreamed how God will smash them in pieces and break their image down and crush them with eternal damnation. That's what Moses means: we haven't any idea. The nearest we get to it is when we see how our blessed Saviour, our Representative, was damned for us. There is the measure of the wrath of God; there is the yardstick - dare I use it - for measuring the wrath and curse of God, that not even His own beloved Son was spared when He stood as the Substitute for the church, for us.

Let us not run away with the impression that these days are right when they trivialise religion or that these days are right when they go soft on the doctrine of sin and the doctrine of eternal punishment; these are not virtues, these are distortions. Real religion is as it is written in this Book, as Moses gives it us here and all the other writers. We mustn't change the emphases that God has given, no matter how unpalatable they are to modern man who likes to think of fun, smiles, cheer, happiness and backslapping; we mustn't change the message to suit men's tastes.

That said I want to look at the text. I give you my headings so you see where I want to go.

First of all, I want to explain a little as to what it means to "number our days". "Teach us to number our days." That's the first consideration. What does it mean to number our days?

Second, I want to say how God does this, how He teaches us this, because this is something which we don't know until He teaches us. No man knows how to number his days until God teaches him. "So," says Moses, "teach us", oh teach us, "to number our days." The second heading will be to say how God does that.

The third point is: What is the wisdom which this brings to us? "Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom." What is this wisdom which men get? I think that is a logical and a fair opening of the text.





Taking that as the order, let me say what it means to number our days? Part of the answer is, it means to recognise that life is very short. Somebody has calculated - I'm not sure how - that as Moses was leading the children of Israel through the desert during those forty years, at least fifteen thousand people would have needed to be buried. As I say, I don't know how that calculation was arrived at but I found it in an old commentary. It may be roughly right - at least fifteen thousand people. So, over the forty-year period, Moses and the Israelites were faced with this duty, day after day - several times a day - burying their dead. You see how this message was imprinted upon their minds and upon Moses' mind.

You will know that the Bible employs many illustrations to bring home to our hearts the brevity of life. Man's life is, "like the grass which growth up. In the morning it flourisheth, and growth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth" (v.5-6). Another biblical illustration is that of the leaf: "we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away" (Isaiah 64:6). It is so, isn't it? Here we are now in autumn again. It seems but last week when the leaves were beginning to appear again on the trees in the spring, but half a year has gone and the leaves are withering and falling. So is the life of every man and woman, and sometimes also child. Again, the Bible compares our life to a mist, which appears for a little time and then vanishes away and you don't see it (James 4:14). You open the curtains in the morning and there's mist upon the hill. By lunchtime the mist has evaporated and gone. So is the life of man. Or again, "thou hast made my days as an handbreadth" (Psalm 39, 5). Now that's not very much, is it? If you needed to measure the distance from here to Edinburgh in handbreadths it would take a long time to do it. A handbreadth is just a few inches - six, seven, eight, nine, depending upon whether it be a younger person or a grown man. So in the eyes of God is the life of man. And all of this Moses compares and contrasts with the life of God when he says of God's age: "a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past" (v.4); "even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God. Thou turnest man to destruction" (v.2-3). If you and I had eyes to see it and live long enough to know it, the children of Adam are falling into the grave like a vast waterfall. Indeed, speaking of water, what is said in the Old Testament but just that: that our life is "as water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again" (2 Samuel 14,14). We live in a sad world and we cannot pretend otherwise. That is what is meant here by numbering our days: to recognise that fact.

My very dear friends, we live in a world where people do not recognise that fact. They know it to be a truth. Scientists, researchers, scholars, mathematicians, they know that to be a truth. They don't expect to live more than about 80 years at best - 82 maybe, 90 if they are very fortunate, as they say, but not much more than that at the very, very most. Yet, what use do they make of that knowledge? I'm not quoting Calvin exactly, but Calvin has an interesting comment, in his commentary on the Psalms I believe. He says you have great scholars and they spend all their life calculating the distance from the earth to the sun, and from this planet to that planet, and calculating how many miles from the circumference of the earth to the centre of the earth, and from here to the moon, but they don't think of the shortness of their own life! That brings it home rather vividly. Great and good Calvin, there he is; how powerfully he makes the point. We have people in laboratories measuring things by millilitres and milligrams - they are skilful in their mathematics and their science and that's good of course, but they are forgetting their own life is so short! Do we remember what Thomas Chalmers said, the great Disruption leader, when he was converted? He was a mathematician and a scientist, you know, and when he was converted somebody said to him: "What about the mathematics now?" He was busy preparing sermons all the time and he saw something far more important; it was the expulsive power of a new affection, the desire to save souls. "Oh," he said, "my friend, in my unconverted days I forgot two things: the magnitude of eternity and the shortness of life - these are the two great mathematical factors which I now see to be important." Oh my beloved friends, let us recall that our life is short - "threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore" (v.10) - and yet that extra bit often brings infirmity of body, weakness of mind, loss of memory - not always, thank God, especially not in these days when we have so many medications to help us - but at best our life is but short.

So, that's what's meant by 'numbering our days'. I would say to myself, as I say to you, oh may we number our days and not forget, in the midst of the hurry and bustle of life, to keep this ever before us: our life is short at best. I was very fond of Innes McRae, the minister who was in Tain for those years and retired to Inverness. He was an excellent minister and an excellent friend, a very spiritually-minded man - a very clear thinker too. He came to retire to Inverness a few years ago, as many of you remember and his life went down like that. It was amazing to see how quickly, from being a fit and active man, he went down with this disease. Oh friends, let us number our days.


Second, what we have to consider is: How does God teach us this lesson? It is a lesson that people do not of themselves ever learn. How many people are thinking about the length of their days? No, they're not. They are thinking about everything else - everything and nothing, and vanity. They could tell you the names of all the sportsmen from Manchester to London and back to Edinburgh. They could tell you the scores of all the matches round the country - 2nd, 3rd, 4th division; however many divisions there are, they know the score! They can tell you how many horses there are on this race and what the betting is on that race; but they don't think of their own short life. They are not numbering their days! Let us be clear about this: if you and I are numbering our days, it's not thanks to any wisdom of ours, for we never do it. We never do it, I say, until God graciously teaches us and how he teaches us is in this way.

a) By the Word of God

First and foremost, He teaches us by His holy Word. Oh, blessed Bible, blessed book, which tells us these things, painful as the lessons are. The Bible explains to us why it is that man dies. Why do we die at all? When we walk in the woods we see trees that have been there for generations - huge towering trees, several hundred years old. Sometimes the people of a former generation, long since gone, carved their initials on the trees. The trees are there and that's very humbling. The Bible alone is the place we go to discover a reason for this. It is that God reckons the first sin of the first man to be the sin of all His children: the imputation of Adam's first sin. That's why our life is short and why we must die. God tells us and teaches us that in His holy Word.

b) By the experiences of grace in our own lives

God teaches us this also by experiences. Only at our conviction and conversion do we take to heart the fact of the shortness of life. The Bible itself that informs us of these things doesn't convince us of the seriousness of the subject until we ourselves are converted. We must experience the saving grace of God: conviction of sin and conversion, which is the work of God; all of that is necessary in order that we might learn this grave lesson. But the experiences of grace and having fellowship with the Lord's people, also teach us the same thing. We learn in the church lessons that we don't learn out of the church. We learn that there are older Christians who have gone before us and we miss them when they go, and we miss their example. Elders whom we loved, when they go they leave a gulf and a gap, which instructs us and teaches us this very lesson - the shortness of life and the magnitude of eternity. God has ordained it to be exactly like that.

One of the experiences of grace that God gives to His people is, when He converts them to Himself, He begins to turn their minds round from the vanities and follies of this world, to consider life from the standpoint of truth. There's no better illustration of this that I can think of than the life of John Bunyan. John Bunyan, when he was a young man, was fond of foolish games. One day, you may remember, he was in his native village in England walking past some old women who were sitting on seats outside their houses - or little cottages - and he overheard them talking. They were talking about things the like of which he'd never heard in his life. They were talking about being born again and about knowing God. He listened in. He'd never heard, as I say, a conversation like this ever in his life and he realised that there were things he'd never dreamed about - conversion, knowing God. He came under conviction of sin. The effect of that was that when he was turned to Christ himself, look how he used his life - 'Pilgrim's Progress', 'The Holy War', 'Grace Abounding' - and you could go on. Sixty books he wrote in sixty years of his life. Sixty years - sixty books. Now that's an instance, you see, of how God had taught this dear man the value of his precious time. Oh, "Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom" (text). That's perfectly illustrated in the case of that beloved tinker, as we call him, John Bunyan. He had next to no education, certainly nothing but the very basics, but a born genius who wrote some of the greatest books that ever a man has written in the history of the world. How did it happen? He was taught of God - the experiences of grace! The Bible is the best university of all, and those who know everything except the Bible will in the end know nothing - certainly nothing which is of ultimate transcendental importance. What they know is all right as far as it goes, but the experiences of grace are the method whereby God teaches us the shortness of life.

c) By the experience of others

God teaches us also by the mistakes of others; why did Christ tell us the parable of the rich fool but for this reason? Do you recall the parable? The rich man whose barns were too small to contain all his grain? He broke them down and built bigger barns and crammed all the grain inside, and then he said to his soul, "Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry" (Luke 12, 19). God said to him that very night, "Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be?" (Luke 12, 20). Christ tells us that, obviously, to make us realise the shortness of our life, and to use the bit of it we've got left in a wiser way than that unhappy man did. So, the mistakes of others!

My dear friends, sadly, all around us people are living the life of the rich fool - not all of them rich - but, building with straw and muckrake. To use Bunyan's phrase - 'raking a little bit of dust into a pile: a little bit of money, a little bit of property, a little bit of this and that'. Nothing is going to last or take them to a happy world above. Oh, the sadness of this world. Oh, the sadness of this generation.

d) By bereavement

God also teaches us this lesson by removing our loved ones from us. When God takes our loved ones from us - Christian loved ones, family loved ones - it's as though He is, as it were, striking off part of our own body - a hand or a foot. It makes us see the shortness of this present world, the vanity of all things under the sun. We see things in a different light. Let us have grace to number our days. Let us have grace to look at life realistically. Let us have grace, my friends, to apply our hearts unto wisdom, which is my third and final point.


The wisdom is to see the preciousness of time. What's the most valuable thing you and I have? Is it the gold watch that came down to us from Uncle So-and-So? No, no! The most precious thing we have is time! Did you ever hear of the name of a missionary in the early twentieth century - his name was Bordon of Yale? (Yale is in America - he was an American) - a very, very, very rich young man. When he was converted, through Reuben Torrey, what this man did was this: he gave away his fortune, which was a million dollars. By modern standards that would probably be more like a hundred million dollars. He gave it all away to missionary work and he devoted himself to preparing for the foreign mission field to go to China. On the way he went to Egypt in order to learn Arabic and he contracted a serious illness and died a very young man. I remember that this is something he once said, this is how he valued his life: he said, "Each day consists of 24 golden hours; each hour consists of sixty diamond-studded minutes." That was how he thought of time and he wasted none of it. He was always either reading the Bible or studying about it or meditating on it or praying to God - the whole of his short life. That's the secret of all these men.

Take Robert Murray McCheyne than whom there isn't a better example - our beloved Scottish McCheyne from St. Peter's, Dundee. That wonderful man of God died at the age of twenty-nine. His life was like several generations and yet he was only twenty-nine. He influenced the whole nation. The whole world has been influenced for good by McCheyne. How did it happen? The answer is in Psalm 61, 6: Like "many generations" be the years that he shall live. If a man uses his time well, to the glory of God, his influence is beyond all telling. That was true of McCheyne. You could add Henry Martyn who went to the Middle East as a missionary.

You could add many others - William Carey who certainly did not die young but his influence in India was profound. When he went to India he and his colleagues translated the New Testament into over thirty languages. Can you believe it? The whole sub-continent of India received the Bible in their own languages - over thirty of them - by this one man and his few colleagues. A smart Englishman once tried to humble William Carey by saying this to him: "Carey, when you were back home in England they say you were just a shoemaker, nothing more." That was meant to be a snub. Carey looked back at him: "No," he said, "I wasn't even a shoemaker; I was just a little cobbler," he said. This little cobbler used to say, "All I do is I just keep on doing the bit that I can do; I keep plodding on, that's all I can do. I can plod," he said. See what he did plodding! He gave all these New Testaments to the Indian sub-continent and was an inspiration to all the generations that would come after. This is what's meant by the 'wisdom' in my text - "applying our hearts to wisdom". The wisdom is to use what time we have for the glory of God; be it much or little, let it be used to the glory of God. That's what's being meant here.

Look at the life of Calvin. Calvin died in his fifties. He didn't reach sixty; he was about fifty-six years of age. When you go to a theological library, the books he wrote would go from one end of my arm to the other, like that - over sixty books. Spurgeon the same; his sermons were coming out for maybe twenty years or so after he died. Every year, a volume of Spurgeon's sermons came out for about fifteen or twenty years after his death; that shows the fruitfulness of the man. It shows how he wasted nothing.

What is the evidence that you and I are growing in this wisdom? What is the proof of it that you and I are really taking seriously the wisdom that is talked about in this text? Well, one sign whereby we can test ourselves is this: if you and I are living an ordered life - that's the test, that's one test - an ordered life. Those who take time seriously, their life seriously and they intend to live for the glory of God, they live an ordered life. I wonder if you've ever asked yourself why the chimes on our big clocks chime every quarter of an hour. Who invented that chime every quarter of an hour? Maybe you never thought of it. Like the Westminster chimes - you know those beautiful chimes you get in big clocks - they chime every quarter. I'm told it was the Puritans who invented that and it wasn't an accident. The Puritans were so concerned with the way they were using time and not wasting a moment of it that they devised a method for the clock to chime every quarter so they'd be reminded that time is going on - waste none of it! They didn't waste much of it. They would rise early: on their knees, then their Bibles, their families, their children catechised, and so on. It was the same at night, Sabbath and weekday. They were never out of the house of God - morning or evening - when health and strength permitted or absent from the prayer meeting; always in their place of duty. I say this because this is one way that shows us we're growing in this wisdom that is spoken of here. "So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom" (text).

Did you ever think of it this way? There's a sense in which the Christian's life is better on earth than it will be in heaven - just one way, only one way. What is it, you say? Well, it's this: in heaven your reward will be fixed; you can't increase it - you will be given a reward according as your life has been as a Christian in this world; the more you glorify God in this world, the greater your reward in heaven. But, you see, there's a sense in which we're better off in this world than in heaven, in this sense only: that we can still do more for God whilst we're here; we can increase our heavenly reward. Jesus said, "lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven" (Matthew 6, 20). Why? How can you do that? By glorifying Him here on earth! That's how it works: there's a sense to it.

In France, at the time of the Reformation, there was a man called Olivetan - his name means 'olive oil'. It was a nickname; it wasn't his real name. Why did they call this man Olive Oil? It seems a funny thing to call a man, doesn't it? Because he was always putting olive oil into his little lamp; he was always studying the Word of God. He helped to translate the Bible into French - Olivetan, Olive Oil - always, always working. We can't do what some of these great men have done, that's true, but let us do what our time, strength and health will permit. Do something for God! Have a well ordered life! So live our days that when we come to the end of them we can look back and say, "I did a little, it wasn't much but I did what I could." Remember what was said about dear Mary when she anointed the Lord with oil? Well, perhaps it wasn't a world-shaking event, but what she did was a beautiful gesture. She has anointed me "against the day of my burying" (John 12, 7). "Let her alone," He said to the disciples who criticised her; "She hath done what she could" (Mark 14, 8). My dear friends, that's a wonderful sweet commendation from Christ. My dearest wish is that that should be true of every one of you, and of all the Lord's people: they have done what they could. "Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom" (text). God help us so to do.

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