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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:Remember Death
Text:Psalms 90:12 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Running the race

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 139:1,3,9                                                                           

Hy 1

Reading – Psalm 90

Ps 90:1,5,6,8

Sermon – Psalm 90:12

Hy 54:1,4,5,6,7,8

Hy 83:1,2

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Brothers and sisters, on the desk in my study I don’t have a lot of decorations. Probably the most decorative thing is a colourful mug for the “World’s Greatest Dad,” filled with pens and highlighters. But there is an old tradition of having a skull on your desk. A real one, or an artificial one—but a human skull to sit there on the corner. As you work away, you can always see its empty eyes staring back at you… It’s kind of creepy, but it’s meant as a reminder. It’s a reminder of death, mortality, the shortness of life.

That’s not a bad thing to think about. In our daily working and studying, in our many plans and activities, we forget just how brief is this life, how fragile. More seriously, we can forget what purpose and direction we’re supposed to have while we’re here. A skull might remind us. And Psalm 90 reminds us!

In this Psalm, Moses is helping us to think about our mortality. That is to say, he wants us to remember that death comes to every person, great or small, rich or poor. He wants us to realize that a person’s time is set—its exact length established by God. And we should also know that our days on earth are going to be relatively few. So while we have breath, while we have life, we need to be busy with the kingdom of Christ!

These are good things for us to meditate on, no matter what day it is. Through Psalm 90, the Holy Spirit gives much needed wisdom for our reflections on life. This is a prayer as time keeps passing: “So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (v 12). We’ll consider this text on the theme,


As time keeps passing, we pray to the everlasting God:

  1. teach us to number our days
  2. that we may gain a heart of wisdom


1) teach us to number our days: The Psalm we’re looking at is called “A Prayer of Moses.” You might’ve noticed that much of this Psalm isn’t very cheerful. It’s a meditation on the sinfulness and weakness of our human life. You can imagine an old Moses offering this prayer, perhaps near the end of his time on earth. By then he’d been around the block more than a few times. The optimism and idealism of youth had been tempered by years of experience.

He offers this prayer, the title says, as “the man of God.” That reminds us that Moses was the one who was chosen to lead God’s people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. In this position of leadership he had seen a lot. He had witnessed the terrible sufferings of God’s people. He’d seen God’s mighty acts of deliverance and provision. But Moses had also seen Israel’s regular uprisings in the desert, and then the LORD’s just judgment, when He told them they couldn’t enter the land for forty years. For his sin Moses too, was not allowed to go in. So he’d gone with them while they all wandered and waited.

Over all those years, what had Moses learned? He’d learned about sin. About Israel’s, and about his own. He’d learned that sin can get its deathly grip on us. Even when we’ve got the best and holiest of intentions, our weakness can keep us from doing what’s right. Even when we think we’re in control, we’re capable of doing very wrong.

For do you think that the Israelites woke up one morning in the wilderness and said, “Today, let’s rise up against God. Today, let’s discard all his promises in unbelief?” Or do you think that Moses planned to strike the rock instead of speaking to it? No, suddenly he was in the moment and he was angry and frustrated and he did something against the will of God. All along, that’s the struggle against sin—for as long as we live.

And every sinner deserves God’s holy wrath. This is something else Moses saw often: “We have been consumed by your anger, and by your wrath we are terrified. [For] you have set our iniquities before you…” (vv 7-8). Reading the book of Exodus, you can see that Israel’s record of obedience was pretty dismal. So more than once they felt the heat of God’s anger.

In those years Moses also learned about the frailty of life. Think about the thousands of bodies he had seen fall in the desert. The Israelites died in battle, they died from diseases and snake bites, they died of old age. And consider what those forty years of wandering were like: God was just waiting for that sinful generation to die off. Wherever they went, the Israelites left corpses and graves behind them! Life was like a never-ending funeral procession.

Compared to the everlasting God, Moses sees that mankind is almost nothing: “You carry them away like a flood; they are like a sleep. In the morning they are like grass which grows up: in the morning it flourishes and grows up; in the evening it is cut down and withers” (vv 5-6). God simply has to say it, and we’re gone—like debris washed away in a rain storm, like a person falling asleep at the end of the day, like green grass fading in the hot sun.

Viewed from one angle, that’s the nature of our life: nasty, brutal, and short. We are born hopelessly weak, we spend our life sinning, and then we die, every one of us. I told you this wasn’t a cheerful text! It can all seem a bit jarring, especially if we’re optimistic about the times ahead. We might be hopeful of success, we might expect something to come of our plans, and we look forward to more days of life. Does the Psalm say that all this isn’t worthwhile, and we might as well give up now?

There’s more here, of course. There’s good news in Psalm 90—there’s even the gospel of Christ Jesus. We’ll get to that. But in light of everything we know about this life, in light of all those uncomfortable observations in verses 1-11, we pray to God in verse 12: “Teach us to number our days.”

What’s numbering? In a way, it’s as simple as a Grade 1 exercise in math. You number the apples, you count the blocks—you add them all up, and write down the answer. And as adults, we keep numbering: you number the hours you worked last week, you number how many pairs of shoes are in your closet, perhaps you number the grandchildren that God has given.

Whether we’re young and old, we also have to number our days! Unlike counting apples, that this is something we need help with; notice that it’s a request: “Teach us, O God!” We’re not asking God to reveal how long we’re going to live, or when exactly we’ll die. But we’re praying that God will help us to contend with the fact that our days of life are short; we need to know that our days are limited.

When you’re a kid, of course, time can seem to stretch on forever. Two months of summer vacation can seem endless! Or you look ahead to when you’re as old as your mum and dad—and that seems impossibly far away. But when you get older, a decade passes by in a flash. Suddenly you’re the senior guy at the office, or suddenly the kids have moved out, or suddenly you’re dipping into your retirement fund, and you ask, “Where did the time go?”

But however it feels for us, and whatever fills those days, for each of us it’s the same: “The days of our lives are seventy years; and if by reason of strength they are eighty years… it is soon cut off, and we fly away” (v 10). Because of sin’s curse, all of creation is groaning. And because of sin’s curse, God has put a limit to our time on this earth.

They say that the average human being reaches the peak of his physical strength somewhere between their late twenties and early thirties. For some of us, that’s a long time ago! After that, your physical abilities are already in decline. And so it continues through all the remaining years. Sure, we can think of people who live past 80, into their 90s—even past 100. Yet the lesson is that even then, life is short. It’s limited. There’s not been a person on earth who didn’t face these limitations.

It’s something we need help to acknowledge, because we’re probably not inclined to think about it. No one wants to be weak or feeble. No one wants to hear the clock ticking. And what if we don’t think about our limitations? What if we don’t consider our coming death and what comes after? How are we going live then? We’re probably going to be very busy living for ourselves. We’ll be living for the moment, for all the fun we can have right now, for everything we can accomplish right now. We won’t think about judgment or the consequences of what we do and decide.

But God’s children pray, “Teach us to number our days.” Know that life is delicate. And if we take it seriously, life is difficult. The Spirit says our days are marked by “labour and sorrow” (v 10). We have good times, of course. There are seasons of achievement. You might enjoy some years of strength and collect some great memories. Our loving God surrounds his children with so many good gifts. I think that many of us can look at our life with a sense of gratitude and satisfaction—and we should! The Lord has been kind to us.

But if we’ve had our eyes open, then we’ve also seen sin’s effects on everything. Sin has done damage to your family, to your marriage, and your friendships. Satan has found a way to corrupt your work and your play. There is a brokenness eating away at your body, your mind. It’s in the church and this world. Everywhere there’s sighing and sorrow.

And Moses teaches us that life is fleeting. Perhaps you enjoy a measure of stability today—perhaps you have job security, you have decent health and strength, good relations with almost everyone—even so, remember that it can change in an instant. Our life can change so quickly. Suddenly you’re laid off from your job. You make one very bad decision. A family member gets sick, or you get sick. The phone rings: there’s been an accident. Someone has died.

We probably all know of people who didn’t live long. Humanly speaking, their lives were “cut short.” Dead in their teens, killed in their twenties: cancers and car accidents and drownings. We tend to think that it’d never happen to us. The secure think that we will stay secure. Yet the Psalm is asking us to consider it. To realize that this is a life that can change in a moment, that can end in an instant. Consider the possibility, because even now your days are numbered. “Teach us to see this, O LORD,” we pray. Because if we’re not ready, what then? If we haven’t served the LORD and believed in his Son before that moment, what will come of us?            

And that’s where the Holy Spirit wants us to go in this Psalm: to the LORD. To rest in him! That’s how it begins, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, you are God” (vv 1-2).

The backdrop for our brief life is the eternity of God. He has lived before all time, He lives through all time, and He will be when time is no more. Now, for us, change occurs with the constant passing of moments. Many moments fill each day, each year, and so we get older, and we make progress in one thing, and we decline in another. But if no moments pass for a person, there’s no change. That’s the LORD our God: He is outside time. When the eternal God looks at time, this Psalm says, there’s no difference between a day and a thousand years—they’re the same to him. He is everlasting.

So while we number our days, we do so realizing that the eternal God has numbered them already. Psalm 139 says of the LORD: “In your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them” (v 16). That’s amazing: we all know the day of our birth, but God already knows the day of our death. He knows whether it’ll be this year, or fifty years from now. He knows whether our death will be sudden, or if there’ll be lots of time of say good-bye. He knows the where and how and even the why of that moment.

And for those who rest in God, that’s a great comfort. As our Father, He sees us. As our Father, He knows us so well—down to our very last second—and his right hand holds us fast. Whatever happens, the everlasting God can be our dwelling place.

The only way that lowly sinners like us can rest in the Almighty God is through sacrifice, through atonement. Remember what this Psalm taught us, that all of our iniquities are before him, and his anger should consume us—that is, unless sin is paid for. And in Moses’ time and the age of Israel, God covered his people’s sin through the work of Christ. Already then, what Christ was going to accomplish was the reason they could live on. Already then, He was the reason that God would have compassion on his weak and sinful people. He is still the reason.

Jesus didn’t live a long life—not 70, not 80. His “career” lasted only a few years. Then, in his early thirties He was unjustly executed. If it was anyone else’s life, we’d call that a tragedy, a waste. He died “way before his time.” Yet though it was a short and a difficult life, it was a life with redeeming power. Jesus devoted every hour and day to God’s glory, and then at the end, He tasted God’s anger and was consumed by God’s wrath.

Because of that, all our years, however many or however few, can be cleansed with his blood. All our days, however weak or feeble, can be filled with his power. All our life, however sinful, can be purified by his grace. Through living in Christ alone, we gain a heart of wisdom.


2) that we may gain a heart of wisdom: If someone teaches you a lesson or some skill, hopefully you’re the wiser for it. You’ve learned something, so now you’re ready to put it into practice. That’s Moses’ prayer. After his request to God, “Teach us to number our days,” he hopes for this result: “That we may gain a heart of wisdom” (v 12).

That’s actually a surprising outcome: wisdom. You might expect that an awareness of life’s brevity and life’s trouble would make you sad. Or angry. Or careless. Some people deal with life’s brevity by making a “bucket list,” thinking of everything fun that they want to do before they die: go sky-diving, visit Paris, learn to play accordion. But a Christian has a different response. This awareness makes us wise! It becomes the basis for holy living. We learn that this short life needs to be well spent—spent for God!

Have a heart of wisdom by knowing the everlasting God, knowing him in his glory. That’s what comes just before our text: “Who knows the power of your anger? For as the fear of you, so is your wrath” (v 11). Moses has been talking about our sins, and how they deserve God’s anger. And so he says that we should fear God greatly. But fear him not with a cowering, knees-knocking sort of fear—Christ has made us children of God, not his enemies! So while you live, have an attitude of reverence for God’s glory and awe at his majesty. Trust in his care. Depend on his compassion. Confess that God is greater, holier, truer. That’s a wise response.

And if we’re wise enough to fear God, we’ll be wise enough to listen to him. Know that you’re not smart enough to figure out life on your own. Realize that you shouldn’t trust your desires and instincts. Reject the idea of your independence. But be led and taught by the everlasting God who knows all, who has seen the end of a thing before its beginning, who isn’t influenced by trends and fads and styles like we are. His Word is eternal, his commands are flawless, and they’re meant for our good. Be wise with his wisdom.

Have a heart of wisdom by realizing that this short life should not be wasted. We’ve seen that there’s only so much time we have here, and the end comes quickly. The Spirit wants us to carefully reflect on this, so that we become a focused people, people with a mission. Since your days are numbered, make them fruitful for God! That means we need to think about what we’re doing, and think about what fills your time.

Maybe you’ve been working really hard lately. Long hours. A full schedule, week after week. This can be “survival mode,” the ongoing challenge to stay afloat. But there can be more to it too. Maybe we’re chasing something else with all our labours: a certain lifestyle, or recognition, or an escape from other callings. Let’s think: What’s our work for? Is it for God?

Or maybe there’s activities in your life that have no real value. Are you filling your time with shallow and senseless distractions? Are we making sure that we’re always being entertained, being informed about things we don’t need to know? Countless minutes and hours every day can be lost to things that are unwise and impure. When our time is up, will we have something to show for what we’ve done?

It’s hard for us to take the long view. It’s hard to see past tomorrow or next week. But realize that a life which might’ve been lived for God is wasted by thousands of small decisions; the opportunity is ruined by thousands of moments where we don’t think about what we’re doing. So we should think. Would you work on something that you knew was coming to nothing? Like digging a hole, and then filling it up? Pushing a rock up a hill only to let it roll back down? No one willingly chooses a life like that. But that’s the nature of our time here when it’s not lived in God, and for God. You’re pursuing an earthly goal or chasing an experience, you’re attaining it, then realizing that you’re still not happy – so you try again.

So a little later in this Psalm, Moses prays for God’s blessing on our labour: “Establish the work of our hands for us” (v 17). As you’re busy with whatever occupies you daily, pray that God’s favour would rest on you and all you do. Ask God to help you use your time and labour for something better. And He will help you! Christ has redeemed us from sin and futility so that we can be his servants. Then it’s not wasted, but sanctified!

And being wise means that we stay well aware of what comes next, when our days are done and we “fly away.” As a Christian from a different century once wrote, “It is the duty of all believers to be preparing themselves every day to die cheerfully, to die comfortably, and if it may be, triumphing in the Lord.” In our time, dying comfortably means proper pain management. But dying comfortable really means being in the Lord and in his love. It’s when you have a sure comfort, because you know Christ.

Then when death comes, we’re still OK: “If we die, we die to the Lord.” After all, the days of our life were written in God’s book before even one of them came to be. And for those who believe in him, life continues—just not here. As Paul once wrote, “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” It is gain because at death we enter the presence of God our Saviour.

So as we face the future, there’s no need to wonder what you’re going to do and what it’s all for. At the most fundamental level, you already know. You have a reason to live, because you belong to Christ. Whatever you’re doing here on earth, when it’s done for him, it’s not a waste. Whatever you’re doing, when it’s done with eyes fixed on the Lord, it’s holy and acceptable. Time will keep passing, but those who know the everlasting God through Christ Jesus will live forever! Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2018, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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