Brief Life Is Here Our Portion - Psalm 39:4


A Sermon




"Lord make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days what it is, that I may know how frail I am."-Ps 39:4


According to the judgment of Calvin, and some of the ablest commentators, there is a kind of pettishness in this verse. The context appears to imply that David had grown impatient under the chastening hand of God. Job, under similar circumstances, longed to accomplish as a hireling his day, and sought the repose of the grave, and so the Psalmist inquires how much longer he has to bear the ills and griefs of life, or when the goal shall be reached. But I am sure it is not for any of us to upbraid the Psalmist, for what is his impatience compared with ours? When I read of Elijah casting himself under the juniper tree, saying, "Let me die, I am no better than my fathers! ", should I wonder at the weakness of so great a man, it is only because he is great. No doubt that kind of weakness has seized us all, we have every now and then expressed a longing to depart: not so much, I fear, because of our eagerness to be with Christ, as because we have grown weary with the trials, the services, and the sufferings of this poor wilderness. Well, if we are the subjects of the same infirmity as these godly men of old, we must flee where they fled for strength to grapple with these infirmities and overcome them. We must look to the strong for strength, and pray God to work in us that ripe fruit of patience so rare and yet so precious, for it greatly glorifies God wherever it is brought forth.


David here asks the Lord to be his teacher. Observe the words, "Make me to know"; that is to say, "Instruct me, let me be the scholar, and do thou condescend to my ignorance and weakness, and teach me." What, but did not David know his end? Did he not know the measure of his days. Was his frailty a secret that he could not discover? We may be sure that he knew it in part; knew it peradventure in that superficial manner in which many of us assent to moral and spiritual truths, with little understanding, and no appreciation. But he wanted to know it after a more perfect way; he would apprehend it with that spiritual enlightenment which God alone can communicate. Upon the biscuits at the china factories you have, perhaps, seen an impression produced; the inscription is to be there in future; that is like common knowledge. Have you afterwards seen that piece of china, when it has passed through the oven, has been baked, and comes forth with what you saw there superficially, baked into its very substance? Such should be our prayer, that what we know as upon the surface may be burned into our innermost consciences, may become indelibly a part of our own selves. Lord, not only make me to know, but make me to know by thine own divine art; burn it into me; make me to know mine end and the measure of my days.


Observe the condescension of God, that we are allowed to ask Him to teach us such a lesson as our frailty. And mark the proof of our own ignorance, and our own forgetfulness, that we cannot even learn this lesson without God doth teach us. And must He make us to know? We need that our minds should be renewed, as it were, by a creative or a regenerating process; else we shall fail to discern the very simplest truths. Confessing our ignorance, let us go to God with the prayer of the Psalmist, and He will answer us.


There are, then, three things which the Psalmist wishes to know: his end, the measure of his days, and growing out of these, a just estimate of his own frailty. May the Lord teach us to profit while we meditate upon them!




Do we know this already? If you do, let your pure minds be stirred up by way of remembrance. The certainty of your end-try to know that by grasping the fact, and letting the truth of it affect your souls. Yes, I must die, unless the Lord should come, and I should be caught up together with the saints in the air. I must reach the terminus of this mortal life as other men, on the couch of weakness and the bed of death. I must die. There is no discharge in this war. There is no possibility of your

having an everlasting life here. You don't desire it if you are Christians; neither could you have it if you did desire it; a time will come when you must depart. Think, then, dear brethren-common places will be useful to you. Let it pass over your soul, that for you the funeral bell must toll, for you the grave be digged, for you are the winding-sheet and the cerements of the tomb, for you "earth to earth, and dust to dust, and ashes to ashes," as sure as you are a man. Being born mortal, you must die. The Lord make you to know this! You must die, not another for you; you must gather up your feet into the bed, and, like old Jacob, pass across the stream, the narrow stream of death. You, though now in the prime of life, or in the gaiety of childhood; you who have escaped so many accidents, and are now ripe and mellow in the quietude of old age; the dearest friend and companion cannot be a sponsor for you. When the call shall come, your pitcher must be broken at the fountain, and your wheel at the cistern, and you, in your own proper flesh and blood, must pass away, and your disembodied spirit must stand before God. Forget not, then, the certainty, or the personality of it.


It shall be conclusive, "Make me to know mine end." It shall not be a halt, but a finale; not a starting on the road. but a termination of the great journey of life; "mine end," mine end for all things beneath the sun, the end of my sin far as this world is concerned, and the end of my service of Almighty God; the end of all my opportunities of doing good, of my occasions of getting good; mine end, so that whatever after is done under the sun, I shall have no share nor interest in it. The living know that they must die, but the dead know not anything; other saints walk over their graves, nations rise and fall, convulsions shake the most solid empires, all things change; but there, beneath the sod they slumber on; their memory and their love are lost, alike "unknowing and unknown." Certainly we shall come to an end; certainly I myself shall come to that end, and when my death comes, it will for this life and this mortal shall be a veritable end which I cannot pass.


While musing on our end, the accompaniments of our end may well excite passing reflection. In all probability brothers and sisters, though we know not what may come to us, our departure out of this life will be attended with the same langour and prostration we have witnessed in the case of others. We may expect the sick bed, the days of pain, and the sleepless nights which are the premonitions of decease. We may imagine for ourselves what we have so often seen among our kinsfolk and acquaintance, the family gathered in silent watchfulness, and the weeping children summoned to give the parting kiss, while the hot tears fall on the blanched cheeks of the departing. We can picture it all to our minds; it may be well we should, and make a rehearsal of it, too, for it is probable enough that sc it may come. We are not sure that we shall take so deliberate a leave of the world. It may happen to us in the crowded streets; our end may come to us as we go by the way.


That, however, rather strikes us as the course of nature, when there is the taking down of the tent, the folding up of the canvas, the putting away of each pin and pin-hold, and so we shall be removed as a shepherd's tent.

Then will come a leaving of all earthly things: your shutters will be put up by somebody else; your books will be no more kept by you; you will have struck the balance for the last time. Some other hand must go out to earn the children's bread now that the father is gone. Some other woman's tender care must watch over the little ones, now that the mother is no more. And the time must come when the rich man shall bid farewell to his parks and lawns, when he must bid farewell to his mortgages, to his bonds, his deeds, and his estates; and the poor man, who may, perhaps, find it as hard, must bid farewell to the cottage and the hearth, and all that made life dear to him.


There will be a parting time for each of us, and the Lord make us to anticipate it! In connection with this, it probable there will be many regrets to all of us I hope when we come to die it will be no question as to whether we are saved or not. But even to a saved man, there arises this thought, "Oh! that I had glorified God more! Oh! that I had devoted of my substance, and of my time, and of my talents, more to my Master's service! I can no more feed the hungry, or clothe the naked, or teach the ignorant. Oh! that those golden opportunities had been seized more eagerly, and employed more industriously by me; but now my time for service here is over, and I am mourning the scantiness of my life work, and I cannot amend that which is faulty, or supply that which is lacking." Our enc beloved, will be the end of all our Christian labour here below: no going to your Sunday School class any more; no coming again of the preacher to his rostrum; no standing here to admonish or to console. No more will the corner of the street listen to your voice, my brother, in your earnest evangelising; no longer can thy hand be outstretched to distribute the Word which tells of the great Saviour and the good Shepherd - our Lord Jesus Christ. On that bed you will be taking leave of all your Christian service, and if ought has been left undone, there will then be no opportunity to complete it. Depend upon it-and it is wise to look forward to the event-our end will be no child's play. We may often smile and sing about death, and long for evening to approach, that we may rest with God; but it is at the same time a most solemn thing. The best way to deal with it is to die daily, to go down to Jordan's brink and bathe every morning in that death stream, till death shall be as familiar as life, till you shall come to think of it with daily expectation. Yet at times we almost wonder that we are lingering here, for we are expecting to be called away to dwell in the land of the living, where there is no more death, nor sorrow, nor sighing.


Then, again, it will be well for us to be made to know our end in all its results. Although it is called our end, yet surely it is, strictly speaking, a great beginning, a more true beginning, I was about to say, even than our first birth. The moment a man dies, then enters he upon the most solemn part of his existence. Make me, Lord, to know what it will be after this my departure; what will then happen to me. Come, let me reflect. My soul must wing her way without the body up to the throne of God, and there at once receive the preliminary sentence, the forecast of the sentence of the last tremendous day. "Committed for trial," to lie in durance vile without the body till the resurrection trump, or be admitted into glory, such as that glory can be without the body, until the Lord Jesus Christ shall descend from heaven with a shout, and the trump of the archangel, and the voice of God.


Which will it be with me? Ask this, dear hearers, and ask thy God to make thee to know which it shall be-thy spirit rejoicing in the presence of Christ thy Saviour, far from the world of grief and sin, with God eternally shut in; 0 shall it be thy spirit mocking amongst kindred, miserables in the pit that hath no bottom, where the iron key is turned, and through the door of which there can be no escape? Which shall it be with thee? When thou thinkest of thine end, remember one of these must be thy portion, heaven or hell. Then comes the day of judgment and of the resurrection. The clarion, clear and shrill, shall be such as waketh man, not for battle, nor sleepers for the fray; it shall wake the long buried from their silent graves, and they shall rise from sea and land an exceeding great multitude; then shall the great white throne be set, and the books be opened. This is the end God will have you to know. Oh! seek to know it. When that book is opened, and Christ shall read with eyes of fire, and with a voice of thunder, what shall the Lord award you? Will he turn to the page and say, "Blotted out with my blood are all the transgressions that were once recorded here, and, therefore, there is nothing now to read, except that which is the award of my chosen. I was hungry, and thou gayest me meat; I was thirsty, and thou gayest me drink; sick and imprisoned, and thou ministeredst unto me; come ye blessed"; or will it be to see the page turned over, and to hear the voice declare, "I was an hungered, and ye gave me no meat; thirsty, and ye gave me no drink"? Will it be a record all of sin, and not of virtue, with the accompanying sentence, "Depart ye cursed into everlasting fire" Matt 25:41? "Lord, make me to know mine end" Ps 39:4, and let not mine end be to be banished for ever with the wicked; gather not my life with sinners, nor my soul with bloody men; cast me not away from thy presence; banish me not from thy mercy; shut me not up in the lowest pit; condemn me not to eternal destruction from the presence of the Lord. "Make me know mine end," and let this be the end, to be with Christ where he is, to behold his glory, the glory which thou gavest him from before the foundation of the world.


It seems to me that, when David prayed that he might be made to know his end, he well knew these were the accompaniments; but the way in which he wished to be made to know them was that he might be made to believe in them firmly, so as to realise them vividly, look upon them, not as fictions, myths, and traditions, but as realities; that he might be made to know them, so as to meditate upon them, to have his mind exercised constantly about them; that he might be made to know them so as to be prepared for them, and to set his house in order, because he must

die, and not live, preparing to meet his God; and, above all, that he might know his end, by having a full assurance being saved in Christ Jesus, so that his end should be everlasting peace. "Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright, for the end of that man is peace" Ps 37:37. Oh! that we might, while mentioning such men, become such men ourselves, and know that our end shall be peace through Jesus Christ! Now, in the second part of the prayer, David says:




It is a very humbling thing to recollect that our days have a measure. In the Latin there is a proverb, "As poor men count their sheep," and it is only because we are so poor in life, that we are able to measure our days. God's men count their sheep," and it is only because we are so poor in life, that we are able to measure our days. God's days are not to be counted. "Thy generations, who can tell, or count the number of thy years? from everlasting to everlasting thou art God." "The measure of our days." Ask in prayer that you may be made to know this. I will just give some outlines, like a drawing master's sketch on the blackboard. How insignificant the measure of my days; what a very little time I have to live after all. If seventy years be my term, of what small account they are! Perhaps you have stood sometimes by a sand cliff, as I did the other day, looking at alternate layers of shells, one above another; I should think at least one hundred feet thick of shells of a modern sort, succeeded by thin layers of sand.


Now, this must undoubtedly have been formed by the gradual deposit of some ancient sea, but how long must it have taken to have composed a rock of one hundred feet thick of white shells and sand? Well, but that is only a comparatively small layer of this earth. We go a little deeper, and we find sandstones and limestones, which must have taken, if the laws of nature have been at all in other times as they are now, not thousands, but even millions of years to form, by the gradual deposit of the ocean. You go deeper still, and at last you come to rocks made by fire, and the geologist is most reasonably led to the conclusion that this world, as it now stands, must have existed several millions of years, because it has taken so long a time to collect these various deposits. I know as I stood poking my stick into this sand and shells, I felt as if I had shrivelled into a little ant, and less even than a tiny animalcule which had scarcely come into this world when it was driven away, and there were these rocks looking at me, and saying, Where wert thou when we were formed? When the waving ocean was washing up these shells, where wert thou? But now take your mind away from this world, and recollect that some beings dear to us are older than this world; for when this world was made, the morning stars sang and shouted for joy. Oh! ye angels-what infants we must seem in comparison with your age! Where wert thou when Gabriel first flew upon his errand, swift as lightning? Where wert thou when sin made Lucifer, sun of the morning, descend swift beneath the wrath of God into the shades of darkness which are reserved for him for ever? What is your life when once compared with the period of life which cherubim and seraphim have seen? Oh! but what are cherubim and seraphim compared with God. When, in this great world, sun, moon, and stars had not begun, God was as great and glorious as He is now; and when the whole of this creation shall be rolled up like a worn out scroll, He will be the same-no older in a myriad myriad years than He is now; for with Him there is no time:

"He fills his own eternal Now,

And sees our ages pass."


All things are present to Him; we are carried away as with a flood; but He sits serene, neither age nor time change Him. "Lord, make me to know the measure of my days"; help me to fall down in my utter insignificance before thy throne, adoring thine eternal majesty:


"Great God, how infinite art thou,

What worthless worms are we;

Let the whole race of creatures bow,

And pay their praise to thee."


While seeking to know the measure of our days, let the great importance that attaches to them stand out, distinctly before us, for on this link our everlasting destiny is hung. It is this life which, so far as we are concerned, decides the next. In this life a believer, then a life of glory, and happiness, and immortality; in this life an unbeliever, then in the next life, in the world to come, everlasting punishment from the hand of God. This thought makes even this little life swell to wondrously great proportions. Here is a man next door to a worm, and yet next door to God; born but yesterday, and yet his existence will go on perpetually with God, for man shall not die. So momentous, and yet so insignificant; so magnificent, and yet so minute is the measure of my days.


"Lord, make me to know the measure of my days" -the certainty of that measure. God has appointed that you shall not die before the time; you shall certainly not live beyond it. That thread shall be cut off in its due season.


"Plagues and death around me fly,

Till he wills, I cannot die."


While I admonish you to remember the certainty, let me urge you to reflect upon the uncertainty of it, as far as you are concerned. You may live other twenty, thirty, or forty years, or you may not live as many seconds; you may be spared for the next fifty years, and still taking part in, life's battle, or it may be that ere the clock has ticked again, you may be like a warrior taking his rest. Certain to God, but uncertain to you. It is well, in thinking of our days, to recollect they will be quite long enough for us if God helps us to use them well. Life is very short, but a great deal may be done. Our Lord Jesus Christ, in three years, saved the world. Some of his followers in three years have been the means of saving many and many a soul. It was a short life that Luther had to do his great work in. If I remember rightly, he was hard upon fifty before he began to preach the truth at all, a hopeful sign for some of you who have wasted your young days; so there have been men of sixty that have yet achieved a life's work before they had slept and gone their way.


After all, time is long or short as you like to make it so. One man lives a hundred years and dies a worldling, and yet another man, through God's grace, puts forth as much energy in two or three years as it he were a thunderbolt launched from the hands of God, and he leaves his name amongst imperishable memorials. Your life will be long enough to achieve great things, if God will help you to recollect, in measuring your days that they will be quite short enough for the enterprise you have in hand. You will only have finished the picture when the master palsies the arm and makes you drop the pencil, and you will only have completed the day's work when the shadow shall have fallen, and you shall go home to your rest. Work with all your might, but don't work despondingly; there is time enough for your soul to glorify God. Do thy piece of the great work, though it be but a hair's breadth you are suffered to perform, and though it be as nothing in the presence of Him whose mighty deeds are shown through all generations.


Shall I need to say anything more about measuring our days, except that it may be a painful recollection for us to remember that, if they are not longer days, it is the prevalence of sin that made it necessary to shorten them. We might have lived to the age of Methuselah, but the Antediluvian fathers so filled the earth with violence that God sent a flood and swept them all away. It is a great mercy that men don't live too long. Where were progress, if the old men of two hundred years ago were here to obstruct it! Where the chance for reform, if the vested interests of avarice were permitted to accumulate without any check? Now, however, the old blood is constantly superseded by fresh blood, and the stream of life is kept purer by the passing away of the old conservative element, which, when here, was exceedingly good in its season, but must give place to the influx of a spring tide more adapted to the growth of the times.


Thank God, the great infidels don't live for ever; who would have wished to have a Voltaire for ever stalking about this world? What a mercy that his was but a short life! What would you think if you had a Tom Pain blustering against Almighty God five hundred years at a stretch? A mercy it is that even good men don't live here for ever, because their temptations would so accumulate in the recollection of years of service, that self-righteousness would become inveterate, hero worship an established idolatry, and dogmatism a nuisance without abatement. Grant you, experience might come in to modify some of the evils, for so the grace of God can do anything-but there would be at least a natural tendency to perpetuate corruptions. We don't measure, I am afraid, our own years in some respect, as we are wont to do those of others. Some have to thank themselves that their lives are short; sins of their youth lie in their bones, and as we remember our days, we may provoke very painful recollections as to pas sin, be checked as to all future folly, and desire henceforth to walk in holiness and fear in the service of God until all days be ended. To number our days seems to me to mean, "not let them run away and be wasted." Hours ought to be counted; we sleep too much, some of us; we spend too much time at the table; too much in idle talk. Lord, tell us to measure out our days, count them as they fly, and even the odd five minutes, those little pieces of time which we think we may idle away-much may be accomplished with them if we really set our minds as in the sight eternity to employ the scraps, for God. "Lord, teach me to know the measure of my days." But my time has failed, and, therefore I must have but one or two words about the third point. David prays that he might know his fraility:




I must come to that end soon. I am coming to it now. Lord, make me to know that I am so frail that I may die at any time, early morning, noon, night, midnight, cockcrow. I may die in any place; if I am in the house of sin, I may die there; if I am in the place of worship, I may die there. I may die in the street: I may die while undressing tonight. I may die in my sleep; die before I get to my work tomorrow morning. I may die in any occupation. But God grant I may never die a blasphemer. I may die with the cup of communion at my lips; I may die preaching; I may die singing. In all, grant I may die as I wish to die, doing thy service for the love of Christ by the power of thy spirit. Perhaps, as I stand here and readily speak, the arrow is on its way; soon may the hand be stretched, and dumb the mouth that lisps this faltering strain. Oh! may it never intrude upon an ill-spent hour, but find me wrapt in meditation, and hymning my great Creator, or serving my fellow-man with love to God, or in some way so labouring that it shall not come to me as a thief in the night, but shall find me watching, ready for his advent, and this is what David meant.


"Make me to know my end"; it may come at any time, but let me be always ready for it. Make me to know the measure of my days with the same object. My days are measured; these days may be few; they may be very few; I may have come to the last one. The pilgrimage of life is a very solemn one. It reminds me of a caravan proceeding forward in a track; some know it, some of the travellers have forgotten it; but on the road which they are pursuing, there is a deep gulf or chasm, and some in the front part of the caravan have fallen into the gulf already; others are proceeding; in some cases they can hear the shrieks and cries of those who have fallen into the chasm on ahead. But here, in the darkness, in the rear of the caravan, there may be many others indulging in such sparks of fire as they have kindled; they are sounding the tabret, and the cymbal, and making merry still; though everyone of them is going onwards towards the same precipice over which their comrades, who led the way, have already fallen. There they go, onward, onward, onward, in the darkness, till they come to that fatal step which will plunge them into the world unknown. God has led thee to this tabernacle well in health, and strong, but thy next step may be into eternity. Beware, then, that thou lay hold on the hand which was once crucified, lest, when thou slip, there be none to hold thee up, and, when thou fall, there be none to rescue thee, and thou fall through the black and cheerless darkness for ever and ever, lost, lost, lost, beyond hope of rescue. God forbid this for His mercy's sake. Amen.