So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.
The shortness of the life of man, were it not that there is another, never-ending life to succeed, would be enough quite to discourage and dishearten us. And it is a wonder that those who either don’t believe a future state, or live after such a manner that they wish there was none, can find any rest or quiet in such unbelief. For however great our worldly prosperity is, while we enjoy it, yet if we’re sure of enjoying it no longer than while we live in this world, and then expected to be turned to nothing, and so perfectly forever to be deprived of these and all other enjoyments, to take an eternal leave both of our prosperity and our beings; ’twould, one would think, be enough to damp and discourage the hearts in the midst of the greatest prosperity.
Therefore, these considerations were very disheartening to the wiser and more considerate heathen, who had no revelation of any future life after the death of the body. This was also matter of difficulty and stumbling to holy men under the old testament, when life and immortality were not so clearly brought to light [as] it was afterwards by Jesus Christ, and they had not such a plain revelation of the happiness of heaven as they have now. This made David to cry out of the vanity of man, Ps. 39:5–6,
“Behold thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best estate is altogether vanity. Surely every man walketh in a vain show: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them”; and again in the 11th verse, “surely every man is vanity.”
This made Job say, Job 7:6,
“My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle”; and again, Job 9:25–26, “Now my days are swifter than a post: they flee away they see no good. They are passed away as the swift ships: as the eagle hasteth to the prey.”
See also what the Wise Man says upon it, Eccles. 3:18–19,
“I said in my heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, that they may [see] that they themselves are beasts. For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no Preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.”
So Moses in this Psalm speaks much in the same manner in the 5th and 6th verses:
“Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as sheep: in the morning they are like grass that groweth up. In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down and withereth.” And again in the 9th and 10th verses: “For all our days are passed away in the wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told. The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”
The occasion of this prayer of Moses might be the many troubles that the children of Israel met with in Egypt, while in their bondage, or else in the wilderness, where they wandered forty years, and were all wasted away, and never saw the land of promise. From the very first, they had been in an unsettled state and condition. Abraham and Isaac and Jacob had no settled habitation; they called their life a pilgrimage; and then the children of Jacob went down into Egypt, and there they had no habitation of their own, but were strangers and bondmen in a land that was not theirs. Therefore Moses says,
“Thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations” [Ps. 90:1]; i.e.,] “We have had no dwelling place of our own from the first rise of our nation, but thou hast taken such care of us, that thou hast been as a dwelling place to us. Though we pass through so many changes, yet thou remainest the same forever.” As in the 2nd verse: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting thou art God.”
Then he goes on to complain of their frailty and the shortness of their lives, and of many afflictions that they were filled with, to the verse of our text; and in that, after reflecting thus upon the frailty and vanity of human life, he prays that God would make them so sensible of it, that they may make a wise improvement of it.
1. The principal thing here requested by Moses, is wisdom.
2. The manner of attaining it: by applying our hearts to it. For wisdom must be gotten in a way of diligent search; we can never expect to be wise while we are slothful. Prov. 2:2–5,
“So that thou incline thine ear unto wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding; yea, if thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding; if thou seekest her as silver and searchest for her as for hid treasures; then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God.”
3. The means by which he prays, that they may be excited thus to apply their hearts to wisdom, by being taught how to number their days: that is, by giving them a right sense of the shortness and uncertainty, frailty and vanity of life.
That our time here so short is and uncertain, that we had great need wisely to improve it.
It is a matter of great importance that men should be made sensible of their frailty. In handling this Doctrine, we shall,
I. Represent the shortness; and
II. The uncertainty of the present life; and
III. What need there therefore is, that we should wisely improve. His frame of his body is such, [that] it can last but a little while at long[est].
I. Our life here is very short.
The more any person has an extensive sense and understanding of things, the more sensible he will be of the shortness of man’s life. The more he considers his own nature and the nature of other things—the work that he was made for, the business he has to do, and that eternity which is coming—the greater conviction and more sensible impression is he like to have of the shortness and vanity of the present life. Such considerations are enough to make one cry out with the Psalmist, Ps. 39:5,
“Mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best estate is altogether vanity.”
First. The time of man’s life is but a little while.
The life of man is very short, if we consider what man is. God has given man a nature superior to all the rest of the creatures here below. He has given him understanding and reason, which makes one man, as in dignity of nature, to outweigh all irrational creatures on earth put together. But yet there are a great many other things of longer continuance than man: some of the brute creatures are said to be an hundred years; there are many trees that will live down several generations of men, one after another.
However superior man’s nature is to the nature of other things here below, yet in this he has no preeminence. He dies as they do. Ps. 49:12,
“Man being in honor abideth not: he is like the beasts that perish.”
That is, though man is in honor, [and] be of a more honorable and excellent nature than other creatures, yet in this he is like the beasts, that he quickly dies as they do. Solomon also takes notice of man’s being like the beasts, in that respect. Eccles 3:18[–19],
“I said in my heart concerning the state of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, that they may see that they themselves are beasts. For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth the beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they all have one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.”
This is a good argument for the immortality of the soul. The shortness of man’s life confirms that this is not all his whole continuance. It seems very rational that, seeing God has created man in his own image and so much above the rest of creatures, that he would not make him of so short a duration, shorter than some of the inferior creatures, as he would be, if there were an end of man when he died.
Second. Man’s life is very short, if we consider what it once was.
Man has been a frail, mortal, dying creature ever since the fall, but yet we see by the account we have in sacred history how much longer the life of man once was than it is now: above thirteen times as long. A man is a very old man nowadays, at the age when man formerly used to be in the bloom of youth; but yet, then, man was but a fading flower.
God threatened Adam, that in the day he eats of the forbidden fruit, he should surely die; that is (interpreting of it with respect to temporal death), his body should immediately have the principles of corruption and death begotten in it, and should be under such decays that death should that day be begun in it, and should in a short time after be perfected in the dissolution of soul and body. But yet, he lived above nine hundred years after. Without doubt, in those times, if they had been told that in future times the age of man was to be but threescore years and ten, they would have accounted [that] a very short life.
Jacob lived near twice so long as the age of men now is. Yet, he tells Pharaoh that the days of the years of his pilgrimage had been but few, Gen. 47:9. ’Tis probable that Job lived three times so long as the present age of man. We read, that after the end of his troubles, he lived an hundred and forty years. Yet, hear what he says, Job 9:25–26,
“Now my days are swifter than a post: they flee away, they see no good. They are passed away as the swift ships: as the eagle hasteth to the prey.”
And what, then, is our life of seventy years, or if we live till fourscore? We may well say as Moses in this Psalm, at the 10th verse,
“it’s soon cut off, and we fly away.”
But there is but one out of many that arrives to seventy. What then is our life?
“It is but as a vapor, that continues for a little while, and then vanishes away,” Jas. 4:14.
Third. Man’s life is very short, considering the work we have to do.
The work we have to do is a work of the greatest concern imaginable, a work of the greatest necessity; our everlasting welfare depends upon it. ’Tis a work also attended with a great deal of difficulty. Such is the opposition of our hearts to it, so many are the clogs and hindrances from a sinful nature and from the world and the devil, that it’s a difficult thing to get through with it. There is need not only of diligence, but also of violence, to perform it.
And as the work we have to do here, is a work of greatest concern and of great difficulty, so we have much of it to do. We have got to mortify every one of our lusts, to war against them and get the victory over them; and it’s no little thing to do that, for our lusts are very many, and they are very powerful and inveterate in their enmity against it. [’Tis an] exceeding difficult thing thoroughly to mortify our lusts. Our lusts are like some sorts of serpents. It’s a difficult thing to kill ’em; they’ll live after many blows.
“He that subdues his own corruptions does a greater piece of work, than he that takes a city,” Prov. 16:32.
We have also many other enemies to war against. We have to overcome the world with all its snares and enticements, and to get the victory over the devil and his angels.
Men, while they continue in sin, make a great deal of work for themselves. They make work for repentance. All that they do, while they go on in sin, they have got to undo again before they die. They have been going down the hill ever since they were born, and they have got to go quite back again up the hill. They have been going downstream hitherto; they must go quite back against wind and tide.
’Tis no small piece of work to prepare for death and an appearance before the tribunal of God, to give an account to that strict and all-seeing Judge.
If it be said that these things are indeed difficult in themselves, yet with God’s assistance they may be made easy: to this I answer, that God has not given us any encouragement that we shall have his assistance in any other way, than in a way of diligence and striving and doing our utmost.
Fourth. Our present life is very short, if we consider how long the future life is.
In comparison of that, ’tis but as a moment, as a mere point, as nothing. After we have lived a million times over as long as the present, that life will be but beginning, and no nearer to an end. Our present life is in order to prepare for that life. These few days are what a whole eternity depends upon, as it is well or ill improved.
This life will appear to us as a very little thing, when we come into the eternal world. It will appear as a transient moment, as nothing. We shall see the truth then of those expressions of Scripture, where our life is resembled to the grass; to a flower of the field; to a shadow; to a vapor; to a watch of the night; a tale that is told, and other such comparisons. Thus our life, at longest, is but very short.
II. Our present life is very uncertain. His frame and state is such that it is daily liable to dissolution, so as to render it very uncertain.
We have supposed hitherto that the life of man is continued till persons grow old, when we represented the shortness of it. But how sudden does it continue so long? How few be there that reach to seventy? Death mows down all ages, indifferently. Many die that are middle-aged persons, and a great many die in youth, and many die in childhood. Some just come into the world, open their eyes and see the light, and close their eyes again, and go into the land of darkness, go straight from the womb to the tomb. The arrows of death fly thick everywhere and fly unseen, and men keep dropping continually, from the beginning to the end of the race, and there be but few that hold out to the end, before they fall by some of these arrows. Those that do, can say that thousands have fallen by their side, and ten thousand at their right hand, and yet they have escaped. And there [are] but few that arrive to old age, but what can say that the arrows of death several times came very near them, and they but very narrowly escaped.
The experience of all the world, in all ages, abundantly teaches that there is no security against death, that men very often fall when they think they are most safe. Particularly,
First. Being of a healthy constitution, is no security from the stroke of death.
This experience teaches: how often have we seen such go down to the gates of death? How often does death loosen, rend the vitals of the strongest, stoutest men? Job 21:23–25,
“One dieth in his full strength, being wholly at ease and quiet. His breasts are full of milk, and his bones are moistened with marrow. And another dieth in the bitterness of his soul, and never eateth with pleasure.”
Sometimes, weakly persons hold out to old age, and healthy men’s natures are dissolved, and their strong bodies are rotted in the grave; and sometimes, those die that never eat with pleasure. Death seems to be very indifferent to either strong or weak.
Second. Being young is no security.
This also universal experience teaches. There can’t be need of anything to convince the reason that it is so; men only need to be put in mind of it, and to be affected by the consideration of it. Job 36:14,
“They die in youth and their life is among the unclean”; and 15:31–33, “Let not him that is deceived trust in vanity: for vanity shall be his recompense. It shall be accomplished before his time, and his branch shall not be green. He shall shake off his unripe grape as the vine, and shall cast off his flower as the olive.”
Third. Men’s righteousness is no security, because they live according to the rules of justice, and wrong no man, and strictly observe the sabbath and duties of divine worship.
We can’t by our strictness and righteousness oblige God to spare us. Indeed, true holiness and an interest in the grace of God does effectually secure from the evil of death, from its sting, its bad consequences, and does secure also from death itself, till God sees ’tis the fittest, and best time—best for us, and most for his own glory. But our own righteousness can give us no certainty, that we shall not soon die. Eccles. 9:2,
“All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked.”
Fourth. Our being dear to friends, is no security against death.
If we are never so dear to them, they can’t save or defend us. When the time appointed comes, we must go, how many friends soever stand weeping around us. Ps. 49:7–9,
“None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him; (for the redemption of their souls is precious, and it ceaseth forever:) that he should live, and not see corruption.” Eccles 12:5, “man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets.”
The love and tenderness of parents, or children, or brethren, or being beloved by our neighbors and acquaintances, won’t save at the hour of death.
Fifth. Our being useful persons won’t save us.
’Tis a vain thought to imagine that we are secure from death, because we do good in our generation, because we are charitable and useful to our neighbors, or because we are in public places and are useful to the commonwealth, or because [we] are useful in the church, and do much for the advancement of God’s kingdom and the interest of religion. God can spare us; he has no need of us to advance his kingdom; he can easily do that without us.
Sixth. Death won’t stay for us, because we are unprepared.
It won’t stay till we can get prepared, but when the time appointed comes, we must go, notwithstanding all our shrieking and hanging back. When the midnight cry was made, that the bridegroom was coming, they that were ready went in with him to the marriage; he did not stay till the foolish virgins could go and bring some oil to put in their vessels, but while they were gone to buy, the door was shut [Matt. 25:10].
III. We are come to give the reasons why we had need wisely to improve this short and uncertain life, though what we have said already is reason sufficient. But its shortness and uncertainty should engage us thus to improve it, for these reasons:
First. Because this is the only opportunity for that great work which we have to do.
We have said something of the greatness and difficulty and necessity of that work which we have to do, and this is the only opportunity we have to do it in. If our life should slip away, and the work should be unfinished, and we should be found not to have made our peace with God nor obtained an interest in Jesus Christ, what will become of us? We shall be undone forever, without hope. We shall never have another time of trial, never have another offer of mercy.
Second. A whole eternity depends upon the good—or ill—improvement of this short life.
’Tis not a hundred years or a thousand, but an infinity of duration; an everlasting state of happiness or misery. If our life be but forty years long, that is all the time we shall have to make provision for endless ages: and if it be but twenty years or less, an eternity depends upon it. That word, “eternity,” if we did but know what was meant by it, is enough to awaken all the powers of our soul, and put us upon the utmost diligence, that we may be ready for it when it comes.
Use I of Reproof to those who don’t wisely improve their time, who are guilty of such folly and madness that, notwithstanding the shortness and great uncertainty of their time, yet misspend it. Here are three sorts of persons that are reproved by the Doctrine:
First. Those that spend their time slothfully, who take but little or no care what they do in this short and changeable life, let slip their precious moments and do nothing in them; such as are of an indolent, careless, slothful disposition; that squander away their time in doing nothing, or doing nothing to any purpose.
Time is given to such in vain; they had as good be without the part of their short life, which they spend slothfully, as with it, and better far if they never had it: they would not have it to answer for. But now God lays it to their charge, and will call them to an account how they have improved it; and they had better never have the talent committed to them, than bury it in the earth, when they have it: for every minute of misspent time is what God will require of them.
Our time is short of itself, but such as those make their time much shorter: for all the time that is spent in negligence, is as if they had it not. Such do as it were die while they live, for all that time that is not improved, has as good be given to death as life. No other time should be reckoned into a man’s life than that which [is] improved to some good purpose, because all the rest is lost.
Such as spend a great deal of their time in company-keeping, may be reckoned among those. They’ll see themselves, some time or other, that it’s an unprofitable way of spending their time, and not merely unprofitable, but a course that exposes to abundance of temptation and sin; a way that tends to the soul’s ruin, and that, without doubt, has been the ruin of many souls.
Second. Such as spend all their short life in pursuing after things that will be of no account to them, as soon as that short life is at an end.
Such as these do also greatly misspend their lives. A man that spends the whole day in laboring hard for that [which] would be of no profit to him at night, nor never afterwards, would be counted an unwise and unprofitable laborer; and certainly, for the same reason may he be so accounted, that spends his whole life in laboring for that that will be no profit to him when his life is ended. When his labor is at an end, there is an end of the profit too. There are no fruits of his labors for him to enjoy, when he has done his work; no, the good of his labor vanishes as soon as his labor itself ceases. His works don’t follow him. If he has got a great deal of money or lands, he leaves it all behind him, for him that providence pleases to dispose it to. He has been moiling and toiling all his lifetime, and when he has done, he is sent away as naked as he was born.
If he had spent some of that time in seeking God’s favor, and in religious duties, he might [have] carried away the profit of it with him; he might have obtained something that would have stayed by him forever. But now, notwithstanding all the pains he has taken to make himself rich in this world, his soul goes away quite naked into the world of spirits.
Third. Those who spend their time viciously.
There are many, such as those who fill up their lives with the service of sin and their lusts: some spend away their time in drinking; others with vain companions; others in the pursuit of other lusts. And indeed, all natural men do spend their lives in sin. They don’t spend their lives in doing nothing but in doing evil, in treasuring up misery to themselves when they come to die, in throwing fuel upon the fire that awaits them. You that do thus, if you continuing so doing, it would be well for you if your lives were shorter than they are, yea, if you had never been born.
Use II. To exhort all to a wise improvement of the present life.
Don’t sleep away nor sin away these precious moments. Let us improve the light of the sun while we enjoy it, for we know not how soon it may be eclipsed and hid from us. John 12:35,
“Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you: work while the day lasts”; [John 9:4,] “for the night cometh, wherein no man can work.”
There is so much reason in arguments of this nature, that one would wonder they don’t take with everyone. ’Tis such plain and evident reason that ’tis great folly and stupidity, when one has an eternal heaven and hell before them, one or t’other of which they must dwell in according as they improve the present life, nevertheless to neglect it, and take little care about it, that it is a wonder everyone is not convinced.
Especially when we are so often put in mind of these things, are told of ’em and have ’em urged and pressed upon us; and not only hear about death, but frequently see instances of it, stand about the beds of dying persons and follow them to their graves. ’Tis a wonder that persons can hear and see so much, and think so little, and take so little care of themselves. Hear what God says to you, Deut 32:29,
“O that they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end!”
Why should men need so much urging to take care that they may be saved from going to hell? Whose concern is it more than their own? Why should men be so set on their own ruin? Ezek. 18:31,
“why will ye die, O house of Israel?”
First. That it is not all your time that you are under advantages to do your great work in.
If you should live to be old, it would not be the whole time that you would have advantage to work in: some part of it is spent in childhood, great part of it spent in sleep, and then part of it is spent under the infirmities of old age. If a man has never done his great work till then, he is under but very poor advantage to do it then.
Second. Consider how much of your life has been already misimproved and lost.
There are many that have spent great part of their time already in sin. That time that is past can’t be recovered; ’tis gone forever, ’tis no longer yours, so that there is so much time as you have spent in sin, cut off from your short life, that must not be reckoned. Therefore, with how much greater diligence ought you improve the remainder? You don’t know how short the remainder is. It may be, you have spent the greatest part of your time already in the service of Satan, and you have all that you have done hitherto to undo, and to begin anew. Therefore, you had need set about your great concern immediately, and with the utmost degree of diligence.
Third. If you do not improve your time, to the best advantage, ’tis uncertain whether ever you will finish your work before you die.
God gives encouragement [to] them that do what they can, but not to those who are slothful and negligent. It depends upon his will and pleasure, whether or no your labors shall be blessed. Therefore, ’tis the best way, by all means, to do your utmost, and then there is great encouragement. If not, it is very uncertain whether God won’t have you to perish forever.
We shall give two or three Directions for the wise improvement of time, and conclude.
1. Chiefly mind spiritual things, and ben’t so careful about earthly things as to be diverted from the affairs of your soul.
Remember that religion is your main concern that you came into the world for, and that which alone will stand you in stead when you go out of the world. Make that, therefore, your main business, your chief pursuit, and subject all other affairs to it; and take great care that you don’t suffer your mind to be so much taken up with care and thought about your worldly concerns, as to be taken off from the one thing needful. You must learn to trust in that promise, Matt. 6:33,
“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”
2. Improve your short life after that manner, as you can be assured you shall approve of when you come to die.
Live so that you mayn’t have your own folly and sottish negligence to cry out at [at] that time. Consider now, in season, how it would be if you should be taken with some mortal distemper, and you should be given over by physicians. Consider what sort of improvement of time you should most approve of then. How should you wish you had lived? What sort of practices should you wish you had let alone, and what things should you wish you had practiced that you have neglected? Why, go, and do those same things: that’s the way to have peace in your latter end. And don’t admit of anything as an excuse for the doing or neglecting this or that, that you should not think a good excuse at such a time.
3. Live every day as much according to the rules of God’s Word, as if you were assured it was your last.
If this rule were observed, almost all sorts of men would live very differently, from what they now do. They do abundance of things, day after day, that [they would] dare not do if they knew they should die tomorrow. The observing of this rule is the way not to be afraid of death, and to meet that king of terrors without trembling, and to be able to say as the Apostle did, when the time of his departure was at hand, 2 Tim. 4:7–8,
“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, […] Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness.”
Jonathan Edwards, Jonathan Edwards Sermons, 1727–1728, Ps 90:12.