Number your days

Psalm 90

12 July 2009

Woodley Baptist Church

Evening service


How long have you got left? How many more times will your eyes flicker open in the morning as consciousness comes into focus? How many more breaths are going to flood your lungs with life-giving oxygen? How many more beats of your heart will pump that oxygen to your vital organs, until it stops for good?

Do you ever think about these things?

Maybe it's just because I turned forty last month, and, as Lex kindly reminded me, that means that I'm at least half way now. But it does make you think.

And that's what I want us to think through this evening: how will you and I live in view of our deaths? Through Moses, God has given us Psalm 90 to help us: deep wisdom from three and a half thousand years ago.

Now, there are a number of ways we might react to the prospect of thinking about our deaths. One reaction is to do what the vast majority of our society does, and ignore it completely. Most people seem to live in complete denial of this one certain fact in their lives: sooner or later they are going to die.

Another way you might react is to be fearful. And that is a perfectly reasonable reaction. But if you are fearful about your death, then please pay attention this evening. Meditating on this Psalm will teach us how to face death without fear.

But the best reaction to the prospect of our death is to learn to live our lives well. This is what Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman discover in the movie trailer we saw earlier: The Bucket List. And this is what Moses prays for, although his conclusions are a bit different. In verse 12 he prays, So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.ref [ESV], or in the NIV, Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Living life consciously aware of our deaths, numbering our days rightly, will help us to live them well: to gain a heart of wisdom.

So what is God teaching us from this Psalm to help us to live our lives well?

We need to be awed by God's eternity

First, verses 1 and 2: to gain a heart of wisdom we need to be awed by God's eternity. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are Godref.

Just as the vast ocean is the context for the life of a plankton, a microscopic sea creature, so the eternity of God is the context of each of our lives. In him we live and move and have our being.ref

God always has been there; he always will be there. He precedes the universe and he will outlast the universe. He is not bound by time: as verse 4 puts it, a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the nightref. Last week astronomers announced that they have seen the oldest event yet recorded in the universe: a supernova they believe happened over ten thousand, million years ago. Aeons ago this star exploded, and for ten billion years the flash of light has travelled across the universe until it landed in an astronomer's telescope. But to God, this immense period is just a watch in the night. It's as if it happened yesterday.

Before I became a Christian, I firmly believed that all there was to life was what we could see and measure. I had no concept of the eternal. I read books by existentialists and humanists which struggled to find meaning in life without God — and they really did struggle, it must be said. But one of the key things that God taught me was simply that there is more to life than what we can see and measure and analyse. We live in the context of eternity.

Occasionally my colleagues say to me something like, "Ben, when you die, you die and it's over. That's all." To which I reply something like, "No, when you die you're going to face the eternal God. What are you going to do?"

Living our lives without reference to the eternal God is foolish. To gain a heart of wisdom, we need to be awed by God's eternity.

We need to be humbled by life's brevity

The second thing is in verses 3 to 6. To gain a heart of wisdom we need to be humbled by life's brevity.

You turn men back to dust, saying, Return to dust, O sons of men. For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning — though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered.ref

Moses contrasts the eternity of God with the brief span of our ephemeral lives.

The playwright Samuel Beckett vividly put it like this: "They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more" .

In the grand scheme of things our lives are brief and insignificant. No more important than grass that shoots up in the cool morning, but by the end of a sun-scorched Middle Eastern day is parched and withered.

It's humiliating to realise this, but until we do we will never gain a heart of wisdom: we will never be able to live our short lives well.

We think our lives are so important and so significant that we have become desperate to prolong them in any way we can. Two headlines from the BBC news website just last week:

On Wednesday, Tests raise life extension hopes: "A drug discovered in the soil of a South Pacific island may help to fight the ageing process, research suggests." And on Thursday, Proof mounts on restricted diet: "Cutting calories may delay the ageing process and reduce the risk of disease." Because of our self-importance, we are desperate to live for longer and longer.

And, of course, lots of stuff has been written about Michael Jackson that may or may not be true, but in 1986 he reportedly said that "I believe if I treat my body properly I'll live to be at least 150" . What are we to make of that?

How we need humbling! Against the background of eternity, what does it matter whether we live to seventy or eighty, or even 150? About as much as it matters whether a mayfly lives for 30 minutes or 45.

Where does this feeling of self-importance come from? Every day that passes we are reminded of the fragility of life. Soldiers are killed in Afghanistan. Someone dies from swine flu. A teenager is stabbed. A car crashes.

When Hannah, my first daughter, was a baby, her life seemed so tiny and fragile. I used to go into her room at night and just watch her sleeping, and I'd silently urge her just to keep breathing: just keep breathing for the next seventy or eighty years and you'll be OK.

Our lives are so fragile, but how quickly we forget that. How quickly we gain foolish self-importance, actually thinking that we matter as far as the world is concerned.

The wisdom we should learn from these first 6 verses, is that only the things we do that connect with eternity have any significance. Unless we can somehow plug ourselves into the eternal reality, then our lives will never have any meaning. We will never learn to live well.

Like that plankton I mentioned earlier: removed from it's context, the sea, it has a brief and pointless existence. Our lives, taken out of their eternal context, are equally brief and pointless.

Be awed by God's eternity. Be humbled by life's brevity.

We need to be appalled by God's wrath

And third, we need to be appalled by God's wrath, verses 7 to 11.

Our greatest problem is that we have fallen out of contact with the eternal. It wasn't supposed to be like this. God created mankind to know him: to be part of the eternal. But soon after creation we fell out of relationship with God through our own rebellion. From that point on life became finite and futile.

Verse 7, 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. The length of our days is seventy years — or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.ref

The brevity and futility of our lives is a direct consequence of God's judgement on our rebellion against him. Instead of living in his favour, we now live under his wrath. It's a great suffocating weight that eventually crushes the life from us. Instead of lives that are fruitful and joyful, we find that their short span is but trouble and sorrow.

If we want any significance in our lives — if we want our lives to be worth living, if we want to reconnect with the eternal — then this barrier of wrath between us and God needs to be dealt with.

This is the heart of the matter. Moses' great question in verse 11 is the question that will help us gain a heart of wisdom to live our lives well. A clearer translation puts it, Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you?ref [x2]

In this part of the world, at least, we live lightweight lives because we have forgotten to do this. How often do we consider the consequences of God's wrath and anger? How often do we recognise that it is this that is the root of all pain and futility in our lives? Who considers the power of God's anger, and his wrath according to the fear of him?

Are you appalled by God's wrath?

We need to cry out for God's favour

Now we come to the prayer of verse 12, Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.ref

This, then, is what God is teaching us; this is what we need to learn if we are to begin to live our lives well. First, that there is an eternal reality: from everlasting to everlasting, God is God. Second, that our lives are brief and insignificant: they are nowhere near as important as we tend to think they are. Third, the reason that our lives have lost contact with the eternal is because they are lived under God's wrath.

How do these things help us? How should our hearts react to these truths? Well, if we truly understand these things, then we will do what Moses does and cry out for reconciliation. We need to cry out for God's favour, verse 13 to 17.

Since our great problem is that God's wrath at our rebellion disconnects us from the eternal, the only solution is for God to reconnect us with him.

This is Moses' prayer. He prays that God would relent and have compassion. He prays for God's love to provide an answer to his wrath. He prays for gladness in place of sorrow. He prays for their works to be established rather than swept away. Moses rightly longs for significance in life, and he knows that it can come only through restored relationship with God.

But God's anger against us as rebellious people who have turned our backs on him needs to be dealt with. Like a debt that we owe, it won't go away simply by ignoring the red demands in the post. Our iniquities and our secret sins cannot simply be overlooked.

Moses himself came to God on the basis of the covenant he had. God had invited Moses and the Israelites into relationship with him. As part of that relationship he had provided a system of sacrifices that could temporarily avert the worst of God's wrath. Their debt was serviced by the blood of animals, but never fully repaid.

In a short while, we will celebrate the new covenant that God has invited us in to. Under this covenant it was a man, the Son of God, who provided a perfect and complete sacrifice to avert God's wrath. He paid the debt. We were bought at a priceref.

Because Jesus has borne God's wrath, we no longer need to live our lives under it. Now we have the possibility of reconnecting with the eternal God. We can now live lives with meaning, with eternal significance: God will establish the work of our hands.


O Lord, Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.ref

What are you going to do in response to this Psalm?

You may not want to think about your death at all. Perhaps you have no desire to number your days. In which case, your life will be wasted. You will never learn to live well; you will never learn a heart of wisdom. We are fools if we live in denial of the one certain and unavoidable event in our lives. And better to start thinking about it when we are young and still believe that we are immortal, although it's never too late while you are still breathing.

Or perhaps you are fearful of your death. This is a right reaction to living under the wrath of God. Verse 7, We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignationref. You are right to be terrified if you are not in good standing with God.

But we no longer have to live under God's wrath! If we so choose, we can live under his favour. If we make Jesus our Lord, and trust our lives to him, then death loses its sting; it simply becomes the doorway to life.

If you have already taken that step: if you are already confident in your relationship with God because you have put your trust in the death of his Son, then numbering your days will have a different effect. It will teach you to live our lives wisely. It will teach you to spend yourself on things that matter in eternity. Not to devote yourself to jobs and television and sport and entertainment and triviality, but to find all our gladness and satisfaction in God himself.

Practically speaking, now, what do you want people to say about you after you've gone?

What do you want your family to say about you? "He was such a wise and loving father that he showed us a glimpse of God" , or "he watched a lot of television" ?

What do you want your colleagues to say about you? "She made a lot of money" , or "she honoured God in everything she did" ?

What do you want your friends to say about you? "He was a great laugh: it's really sad" , or "I owe him my life for bringing me to Jesus" ?

Have you planned your funeral yet? You should! I have a file where I've been collecting great Bible readings and hymns and poems. I want to live life now so that when you come to see me off, those words will not jar uncomfortably, but you will nod and say, yes: that's exactly how he lived his life. It wasn't a wasted life; he always lived it to the glory of God.