Teach Us To Number Our Days (Death)
There’s nothing more real than death. Thankfully the Bible gives us real answers to real questions from a real God as we live real lives. In Psalm 90, Moses makes three things abundantly clear: that humans are mortal compared to the eternal God; that towards sinful humans God is angry; and for insecure humans, God offers security.
Teach Us To Number Our Days (Death)Psalm 90:1-17
June 9, 2019
Australia, according to the famous writer Bill Bryson, has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of our creatures—the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish—are the most lethal of their type in the world.
This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, or where seashells will not just sting you but sometimes go for you. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback.
He concludes with this: “I would rather have bowel surgery in the woods with a stick than return to this establishment!”
Australia may have more things that’ll kill you than anywhere else in the world, but death is a global phenomenon! Death doesn’t discriminate. It’s not racist. It’s not sexist. It doesn’t even care how old you are. Death doesn’t play favourites. Everyone gets the same treatment all the time.
Part of my own journey in coming to accept Jesus was because of death. Back in 1997, a guy in my year at school died while playing footy on the weekend. That was the wake-up call I needed.
That may be you today. Maybe you’re here today, you’ve been invited by someone, and you’re looking for real answers about life and death.
Can I say that, number 1, we are so glad you’re here with us. Number 2, each and every Sunday, Christians gather to talk about death—either the death of Jesus or the reality of our own death. Today, Psalm 90 perhaps puts death a little bit more in our face, but that’s just what we do. And number 3, I hope if nothing else, you’ll see that the Bible holds answers to some very real-life issues. We do not live in a pretend world. Instead, we believe that God offers us real answers and has provided a way for us to be able to stare death in the face.
Now if ever there was an expert on death, Moses who wrote Psalm 90, would be right up there! He saw stacks of people drop dead all around him, whether it was his own people in slavery, or the Egyptians as they got wiped out by plague after plague, or an entire generation of his own people who were wiped out in the desert.
Can you imagine forty years of funerals, burying his own family and friends. That’s a lot of grieving!
Moses answer to the question, “Why do humans die?” is this: Death is something we deserve! Death is God’s way of keeping us humans accountable for the way we’ve treated him. That’s a tough pill to swallow but Moses will also end this Psalm turning to God, showing us how we can face death wisely.
Psalm 90 is full of contrasts that drive home the big idea that God is God and we are not. Here are the three contrasts we’ll be walking through: first, compared to frail humans, God is eternal; second, towards sinful humans, God is angry; and third, for insecure humans, God offers security.
1. COMPARED TO FRAIL HUMANS, GOD IS ETERNAL
Before confronting us with our own mortality, Moses gives us a look at God’s eternity, verse 1:
Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. (NIV)
Moses, a guy who’d tasted homelessness for 40 years, saying, “You God have been my home all along!” I don’t know what it feels like when you walk through your front door into your home. For me I think, “This is my safe place, my secure place. This is where I rest, take refuge, and replenish. That is what Moses is getting at here. For Moses, God is not distant. He’s not limited to a building, like a temple. No, God is personal. He’s real. God shelters and comforts. He protects and preserves.
And God’s track record is that he’s this sort of God throughout all generations. Whereas we humans are limited to one generation—baby boomers, millennials, second generation Aussies like me—God transcends all generations. Verse 2 tells us that even before God gave birth to this world, he’s been there all along. He is from everlasting to everlasting.
In verses 3 and 4, Moses will now switch gears, as he thumps home how we humans, compared to the eternal God of this universe., have a limited shelf life. He says that God turns people back to dust. Not only are we made from dust, but we will return to dust. But God is described in verse 4:
A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. (NIV)
These verses aren’t so much about the brevity of time but the brevity of life. Every day of our lives, from womb to tomb, even if they added up to a hundred years, or even a thousand, from God’s perspective they’re just like a single day. We are here today, gone tomorrow.
Have you ever noticed how us humans do almost anything to squeeze an extra two or three years out of life: a secret superfood diet here, an anti-ageing cream there. We get botox treatments or pop vitamins and supplements. But in verse 5, Moses gives us pictures. He says first, picture a flood. We’ve all seen the news footage of helplessness in the face of an overwhelming force that just wipes out everything in its path. God is the one who sweeps people away Then second there’s sleep. For me (and Teresa tells me this), once my head hits the pillow. I’m out. And that’s what Moses says our lives are like. One minute you’re awake, but the next moment you’re asleep. You wake up, and it feels like the night has gone just like that. And third, there’s grass. In the grand scheme of things, our lives are like blades of grass, one-day old grass in fact, alive in the morning, but gone by sunset.
2. TOWARDS SINFUL HUMANS, GOD IS ANGRY
Death may be God’s doing but it’s our fault. Take a look at verses 7 and 8:
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. (NIV)
Our iniquities, our secret sins, are our acts of human rebellion. They are all met by God’s anger and indignation. Life’s cut short not because the chemo didn’t work, the road was slippery, or you didn’t have enough faith! Rather, the number one cause of death amongst humans is sin. While we might try and bury our heads in the sand when it comes to the topic of death, the Bible says that sin buries us, our entire bodies, heads and all!
If you haven’t read much of the Bible before, sin shows up early in the story—like 3 chapters in! In Genesis 2:16-17, God gives Adam and Eve this instruction:
And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (NIV)
Imagine God has prepared a buffet for Adam and Eve, and on this buffet is the most amazing food. Your favourites are all there: seafood, prawns, lobsters, crab, steamed fish, sushi, cheese platters, wood-fired pizzas, a carvery of roast beef, roast pork, gourmet salads, soups, curries, casseroles, noodles, the works—and we haven’t even got to dessert yet! You name it, it’s there.
God’s created this buffet. It’s called creation. It’s all yours to enjoy. But God says that the best way to enjoy this buffet is to steer clear of one dish over there. It’s so off limits that you’ll get the death penalty if you eat it.
So what do Adam and Eve do? Rather than getting stuck into the sticky date pudding, the pavlova, and the gelato that’s on-tap, they go to the very thing God says is off limits. They go and load up their plates with fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and in doing so, they not only break God’s law, but they trample on his heart. They effectively say to God, “I know better. I don’t need you, God. I’m the one calling the shots, not you! I want to live my way, not your way.”
That’s was sin is! Sin, in the words of Don Carson, is the de-godding of God. And when you see sin as not just the breaking of rules, but the trampling on a heart, then God’s got every right to be angry hasn’t he?
God won’t let us keep trampling on his heart and keep rebelling. He’s angry as we turn our backs on him, stick up our noses, and give him the finger.
Now imagine if you were God. What do you think is the right and proper thing to do in this scenario? Adam and Eve crossed a line. Do you let them get away with it?
For God to be fair and just, he has to follow through. You school teachers, or lawyers, this is your job. Some of you are parents. You do this on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis! God’s no different. And so sure enough, God keeps his word.
We all love that God is a God who keeps his word when it benefits us. We love words like, “Nothing will separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord”. But there’s a sharp edge to it as well. We’ve also got to take God at his word, even when it hurts us. When God says, “you will certainly die”, he means it! The wages of sin really is death.
Ray Kurzweil is a longevity guru, inventor and futurist. He reckons humans will become immortal by the middle of this century. He also takes 250 supplements a day in a bid to extend his life. Well, Ray, I’ve got news for you. I’m backing the God of the Bible on this one. Humans will never be immortal. Listen to how Romans 5:12 puts it:
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man [that’s Adam] and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned (NIV)
There’s a simple cause and effect relationship when it comes to sin and death: all have sinned and therefore all will die.
You might be here today and the thing that has stopped you from coming to God is that you don’t think that you’re good enough for God to accept you. That’s right! Join the rest of us. None of us are. You’ll never be good enough. Like being stuck in quicksand, you and I are stuck in sin.
Notice with fresh flowers from the florist, that they are cut. They are cut off from the soil, and the water and nutrients cannot feed them, sustain them, or help them grow. The flowers might be fragrant, colourful, and beautiful at present, but the reality is that they are decaying and dying, heading for the compost. We are like cut flowers. Sure, some of us last a lot longer, and yes, we might appear nice, pretty, and all together on the outside. But because of our sin, we are cut off, not from the ground but instead from God. The reality is that you and I face the same destiny as the flowers: we are headed for compost and worm food. Time is not on our side.
But Moses goes a step further. God’s anger isn’t just felt in death, but it’s also felt in every single day leading up to it, verse 9:
All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. (NIV)
The way we began our life is the same way we’ll end it. Just as we’re born to the sound of moans from our mums, so too we’ll die to the sounds of groans, as we gasp for air. During the week someone from our 4pm congregation passed on this quote from a book she’s reading which sums it up so well: “This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but with a whimper” Life moves from sigh to sigh, and all because of our sin and God’s anger.
Verse 10 says that we may live till 70, maybe even 80, but along the way we can be guaranteed that there’ll be speedbumps. It won’t be smooth sailing. Troubles and sorrows will come our way. Parents will do it tough. Marriages will be strained. The black dog of depression will rear its ugly head. I’m sure if I asked you, you could all share your own story of troubles and sorrows. Suffering is a matter of not if, but when.
Friends, I know it’s been heavy going so far. Some of these things cut a little close to the bone. At the same time, I don’t want to make any apologies for it, for we are dealing with real lives. We’ve all been around death. We’ve all asked the ‘why’ question before. That’s why we need to hear the God of Psalm 90 who says that we are mortal because God is angry. And God is angry because we are sinful.
We don’t do pretend here at MBM, and we certainly don’t do pretend when it comes to death and pain. For me, death has been ‘in my face’ a little more than usual this week. Not only have I been thinking and writing about death, but I’ve been feeling it too. This week I’ve been to two separate cemeteries, last Saturday was the anniversary of Teresa’s younger brother committing suicide, and then yesterday it would have been my daughter’s first birthday. She only made it to 77 days. All of us in the Lee house are feeling it in different ways. There’s been tears shed, questions asked, and lots of hurt and sadness. I’ve hugged Teresa and the kids just that little bit longer and tighter. I’ve tried to embrace the days of sorrow and mourning and not run away from it.
Now if you were to ask me what got me through the last year and what I have learnt from this journey, I don’t reckon I could do much better than what Moses says as he wraps up this Psalm.
3. FOR INSECURE HUMANS, GOD OFFERS SECURITY
Moses tells insecure humans who are afraid of death that there’s a God who offers security, verse 12:
Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (NIV)
Moses wants us to number our days precisely because they are numbered. Moses says, “Do the maths, pull out your calculator!” And so I did! I worked out that I’ve been alive for 14,304 days. That’s nearly 343,296 hours, which is 20 million 597 thousand 760 minutes. I love the minutes! They fool me into believing that my life is long. But I know it’s not and so do you. The next month, hour, day, or minute is not guaranteed to anyone of us.
When people ask me what God taught me from our journey with Evie, this was the lesson: tomorrow is not guaranteed. She was diagnosed with Edward’s Syndrome. Statistically, only 50% of these babies make it out of the womb alive, and of those 50%, only 10% make it to their first birthday. And so not knowing how long we’d have Evie for, we set about numbering our days. We paused to read a Psalm for each and every day that Evie was alive. When it came to feeding, I often did the early morning shifts. I always thought of it as our daddy-daughter date.
I tried to capture each day with a photo. Numbering our days as a family meant that we literally couldn’t plan ahead. We had to learn to live ‘in the moment’. For me as a planner, an organiser, that was hard. But there was something nice about just being in the moment. I tried to appreciate each hug I shared. The kids taught me what was important as I saw things through their eyes. Whenever they woke up, or came home, or came to the hospital, they’d literally run to see Evie. They’d get right up close to see their sister.
Verse 12 is the key verse of this Psalm. Get this right, and we face death right. To number our days is not just a maths lesson, but a lesson in life. It is wise to know that it’s God who determines how many days we’ll live, not us. It is wise to have him as our dwelling place in the face of death.
Next, Moses asks God to relent, in Verse 13. God, have compassion, have mercy! Moses is essentially begging God for forgiveness. Yes God, you’ve seen my secret sins. You’ve see all my sins. Please don’t give me or your people Israel what we deserve!
Instead, God, would you, verse 15, satisfy us in the way only you can satisfy us! Drive away the darkness of night. When I wake up in the morning, let me wake up to a love that never fails and that’s full of compassion.
Then in verse 15, Moses says “God make us glad for as many bad days there’s been.” And boy, Moses had his fair share of dark days: slavery in Egypt; laying bricks; forty years of wandering through the desert with hardly any food. God, balance the scales, replace those dark days with glad days! Give us joy!
Then in verse 16, Moses cries out, “God, may your deeds be shown.” Verse 17, “May your favour rest upon us. Yes God, even though you’ve got every right to be angry.
Please don’t withdraw! Don’t hide. Show us you’re there!”
As Moses has been praying, it’s pretty clear that he’s not been afraid to come before the God of this universe and to pray big prayers. But here’s the question: “Has God answered Moses’ bold prayer yet”?
Do you think God heard Moses pray for a new experience of his love, a deep love, a prayer for a heart full of wisdom, that one day, forgiveness would come? Do you, God, hear the prayer for grace?
Friends, know that what Moses prayed for, God has answered fully in Jesus. We know how much God heard that prayer and answered it, for we live this side of Jesus’ death and resurrection. For Jesus is the one who enables us to taste God’s forgiveness. Jesus is the source of what 1 Peter describes as an inexpressible and glorious joy. Yes, we number our days on earth. But thanks to Jesus we also eagerly await unending days of eternal life.
And lastly, we can stare death in the face because Jesus walked out of the grave. As it says in 1 Corinthians 15.:55-57, ‘“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’
What a good God we have! Think about it: the God who we’ve offended through our sin is the same God who steps in, gets his hands dirty, gets rid of the sting of sin, which is death, and instead offers us victory over death won by Jesus! Now that is victory! Death is not the end! There is hope beyond the grave!
Today we’ve seen the contrast between us and God right throughout this Psalm. God is eternal; we are not. Because of our sin; God is angry. And yet, for insecure humans who face certain death, God is the one who offers security and safety.
So it’s only fitting that we end with the story of two contrasting people who have faced death.
The first is Amber Scorah. Last weekend, Amber wrote this opinion piece in the New York Times. It was called, “Surviving the Death of my son after the death of my faith.” She wrote this:
“Several years after leaving my religion [Amber grew up as a Jehovah Witness], I felt sure I had encountered all the situations I might possibly need to get used to in my new life. What I had not prepared myself for was death, grief without faith, which is to say death without hope.”
If there is no God, no Creator, and we are merely accidents, then every part of our life is an accident, and there is nothing after our death. It is simply a matter of atoms and molecules that were once together that then fall apart. The universe doesn’t care. The sting of death was and continues to be very real for Amber. She not only had lost her dad at 18, but she had lost a 4 month old son. And yet, with raw honesty, if you look at the world the same way as Amber does, what you end up with is this:
“I know my mourning for my son will not end in seven years. I will mourn him forever. Or rather, not forever — until I die. This is the one comfort that unbelief gives you, that this life will end and the pain you carry along with it.”
Now compare Amber’s take on death, with our next person. His name is Michael Sledge. He’s a 33-year old British actor who battled cancer as a 15-year old. He has had heart failure, and a few weeks ago, he was sent home on palliative care after the doctors had run out of treatment options for a new illness. Michael said this in his Facebook post:
“If you’re wondering why I’m not sounding freaked out by the whole situation. Well, initially I was, but, as always in a time of crisis (should have been way before I’m ashamed to say) I turned to God and my Christian faith. Been reading the Bible daily, listening to Christian songs and sermons and its changed my entire mindset to nothing but peace and gratitude. Guys, regardless of a few medical issues, I have been blessed with the best life and the best friends and aside from not following God more diligently earlier in life I don’t have any regrets. If you don’t know Jesus already, my only hope is that you get to know him before you get to my state. He’ll totally rock your world in the best way!”
There are two different people with two different approaches to death. Friends, if you are here today and you haven’t yet taken the hand of Jesus (Or maybe if you’ve wandered away from faith like both these people have), then can I urge you to follow Michael’s advice? Don’t live a life of regret. It is much better to prepare for death now before it’s too late, for tomorrow is guaranteed to none of us. Take whatever that next step is for you. It could be to read the Bible with someone, or to ask that question of someone. Perhaps it’s to come clean, confess your sin, and accept Jesus as your boss. Quite literally this is a matter of life and death: eternal life and eternal death.
Friends at the end of the day it boils down to this: we can either have a full tomb and empty hope, or, thanks to Jesus, we can have an empty tomb and a living hope. That’s the choice before all of us today. If you’re here today and you’ve got a living hope because Jesus has made you alive, then the word for you today is this: invest in eternity. God has saved us from having numbered days to now having countless days. And so I don’t know about you, .but I want to make the most of them! I’m someone who loves ticking things off my to-do list. I’m big on productivity and getting things done. Well, Psalm 90 has reframed that for me, because it’s not about getting my things done but it’s about getting the things done that God wants me to get done! I want to begin each day with asking, “Lord, how can I make a difference for you today?” I want to finish each day being able to say, “Lord, thanks for using me today to make an impact.”
We’ve all heard of bucket lists haven’t we? These are things we want to do before we “kick the bucket”, before we die. Well I’m about to pray a prayer that I stumbled upon during the week that encourages us to make gospel bucket-lists.
Let’s pray it together
This Scripture reminds us we’re more like delicate morning glories than aging bonsai trees. You’ve created us for your pleasure, redeemed us by the gospel, and numbered our precious days. As our sovereign Father, how would you have us live between today and our last breath?
Indeed, in light of the gospel and your delights, what should we spend more time and less time doing? What do we need to make a bigger deal about, and a lesser deal of? When do we forgo busyness for fishing, acquiring for friendship, and making money for living on mission? By your Word, Spirit, and providence, lead us, Father. Show us how to live, work, and play to your glory.
With whom should we spend more face-to-face and heart-to-heart time? What relationships have we wrongly allowed to claim, name, and drain us—mentally and emotionally? Who’s really be held hostage by the chains and pains of our unforgiveness? Free us. Life’s not about getting even but giving grace.
Father, we praise you that we’re not going to merit anything by doing a better job with any of these things. None of these questions has a scorecard, thermometer, or jury attached to it. It’s Jesus’ performance and record in which we boast and rest.
But your grace frees us to ask the right questions and live a freer, more eternity-influenced life. So make our gospel-bucket-list for us, Father. So very Amen, we pray, in Jesus’ matchless and magnificent name.