Numbering Our Days
Death is an ugly, harsh reality that we try hard to hide and ignore. We do not want to think about it or live our life in light of it. The current pandemic, however, has made it difficult to disregard, as the death toll continues to rise day after day. We would be wise, therefore, to take the time to consider what it has to say about us and what we should do about it. Moses helps us to do that in Psalm 90.
Life Is Short
Death reminds us that life on earth is short. Our life is like a dream that comes to an abrupt end, or like the grass in an arid climate that springs up in the morning and is gone by nightfall (vv. 5-6). In verse 10, Moses says that our life span is about seventy years or if by reason of strength, eighty. This is not a precise scientific averages, but simply a general statement. People don’t ordinarily live much longer. Certainly, modern medicine has helped in this regard, but even if we live to a hundred, the years of our lives are but a brief moment in time. As Moses says, they are soon gone, and we fly away (v. 10).
Life is short. Yet, that reality doesn’t really sink in for many of us. I remember being asked by one of my children how long a car trip would be. I said something like an hour. But my son didn’t have a clue how long an hour was: “Daddy, how long is an hour?” What do you say to that? How do you explain one hour to a child? I couldn’t say, “60 minutes,” so I said, “Well, it is about two Scooby-Doos!” That seemed to work; you could see a look of understanding spread across his face. He got it.
If we are going to learn the lesson that life is short, we need to “get it.” We need to understand that our time will fly by. And that time will be shorter for some than for others. Death can come at any moment and at any stage of life. Paul Kalanithi was finishing his internship and about to embark on a brilliant career as a brain surgeon. He could have had any job he wanted, but he was stricken with cancer and died. Life is fleeting; we are here today, gone tomorrow.
God Ends Our Life
Why is life so short? It is short because God ends it. God sweeps us away as with a flood (vs. 5) and he returns us to dust, saying “Return, O children of man (v. 3)!” God made us from the dust, and he returns us to the dust.
There are many ways a person may die: Illness, accident, heart attack, natural causes, etc. God, however, is sovereign over them. Death is not some mechanical, impersonal event; it is deeply personal, because God is intimately involved. As Johnny Cash sang: “You can run on for a long time…Sooner or later God’ll cut you down.” This is true for all of us. It doesn’t matter if you are Mother Theresa or Adolf Hitler. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, wise or foolish, important or unimportant. After a very brief span of time, God will snuff your life out. He will sweep you away as with a flood.
Since God gave us life, why would he end it so quickly? The answer is because we deserve it. Death is the punishment for who we are and what we have done. Moses says, “For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh” (vv. 7–9).
Death is not natural or “just the way things are.” It is the result of our rebellion against our Creator. We die because we have sinned against God and have done evil in his sight. Sometimes God may take a person’s life for a particular, personal sin (see e.g. Acts 5:1-11), but often that is not the case. Nevertheless, we all die because of our sin in general.
J.A. Alexander says that when God slays a man, God puts his sins before him, looks directly at them, not just some of them, but all of them, even the ones no one else knows about. Francis Schaeffer was often asked what he would do “if [he] met a really modern man on a train and [he] had just an hour to talk to him about the gospel?” Schaeffer replied that he would spend forty-five to fifty minutes seeking to persuade him of his dilemma: True moral guilt in the presence of God. Death is exhibit A of our true moral guilt before God. It has been rightly said that death is “guilt made visible” and “the sacrament of sin.”
Our death, or what we might call our bodily death, is not the full extent of the punishment for our sin. Hebrews 9:27 says that it is appointed for us to die once, and after that comes judgment. If we die in our sins, then we will be condemned for them and endure eternal punishment. We will experience death in the fullest sense as we will be separated from God forever (2 Thess. 1:9). That is how evil sin is. Even if we downplay the evil of sin, but its brutal wages reveal its true nature.
Numbering Our Days
To make a horrible situation even worse, we tend to suppress the truth about ourselves and the reason we die. We hide it, ignore it, and drown ourselves in entertainment so that we don’t have to face death and what it says about us. Or we convince ourselves that death is just part of the natural circle of life, or that there is no heaven and hell. We believe anything but the truth of God’s word.
Hence, Moses says in v. 11: “Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you?” God is speaking to us through all the misery and death in this world, but the message doesn’t sink in. The signs of God’s displeasure are all around us and in us as our bodies get older and begin to break down. We refuse to make the connection between death and our guilt. We don’t see death as God’s punishment and as a prelude to a greater punishment.
When you see the power of raging flood waters, and how it sweeps away everything in its path, you ought to stand in awe and fear of the power of the water. Likewise, when we see human beings made in the image of God waste away due to illness or old age, or when we see them cut down in their youth, we need to stand in awe and fear of the Lord God. Indeed, when we see COVID-19 run rampant across the globe, killing thousands upon thousands, we ought to tremble before the Lord, because death is not bad luck, or just the way things are—God is sweeping us away as with a flood.
This is why we need God to teach us to number our days (v. 12). We need to understand that life is short and why it is short, because only as we take these things to heart will we be able to live wisely (v. 12).
How then should we live? If all we knew was that we will soon die and enter into judgment, then it might be better to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that all is well. But that is not the whole story: God, who is full of grace and mercy, has come to us in our miserable condition and promised salvation.
Our fear of God due to death and judgment, therefore, should lead us to seek refuge in God. That is what Moses did. He prayed to God—the one who will end his life—and pleaded with him to return and have mercy on him (v. 13). He asked God to take away all affliction and suffering and replace it with love, joy and days of gladness (vv. 14-15). In short, he asked God for a full and complete salvation.
The Psalmist did the same thing in Psalm 130. He confessed that if God should mark iniquities, no one could stand. But he also confessed, that with God there is forgiveness that he may be feared. Thus, he waited for God to save him from his sins and told others to do the same because “with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities” (vv. 7-8)
The New Testament teaches us that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation and thus the answer to these prayers. For “to him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Jesus is the one who has “appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26). Everyone who trusts in Jesus “does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). Or as he says in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Jesus is not only a way to be saved from sin and death; he is the only way, because “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Jesus is our only hope. We need to follow him in order to be rescued from our sin, death and the coming judgment. Numbering our days, ought to lead us first and foremost to take refuge in Jesus before our brief life comes to an end. Today is the day of salvation.
Death, especially when it occurs en masse due to a pandemic or natural disaster, is a vivid reminder that life is short. It is short because God ends it as punishment for our sins. Death is guilt made visible. However, God in his great love has sent his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, so that we do not have to die in our sins. We will die, either from COVID-19 or something else, but we do not have to die in our sins and face eternal punishment, because there is forgiveness in Jesus. He will replace sorrow, suffering, and death with eternal joy, peace, and life.
Turn to Jesus and follow him all the days of your life, and you will live forever in the presence and favor of God, the Maker of heaven and earth.
D. Patrick Ramsey (@DPatrickRamsey) is pastor of Nashua Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Edinburg, Pennsylvania. He is a co-author (with Joel Beeke) of An Analysis of Herman Witsius's The Economy of the Covenants and author of A Portrait of Christ.
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