“Brief Life Is Here Our Portion”

“LORD make me to know my end and the measure of my days, what it is, that I may know how frail I am.”

Psalm 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, letme be the scholar, and You 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, perhaps, 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 dishes at the china factories you have, perhaps, seen an impression produced–the inscription is to be there in the 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 Your own Divine art–burn it into me–make me to know my 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 unless God teaches us! And must He make us 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 of God. 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 outof 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 yourend–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 youdid desire it–a time will come when you must depart. Think, then, dear Brothers and Sisters–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 dug, for you 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, 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 my end.” It shall not be a halt, but a finale. Not a starting on the road, buta termination of the great journey of life. “My end,” my end for all things beneath the sun, the end of my sin as 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. My 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 state, 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 languor 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 acquaintances–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 so 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 we pray the Lord make us to anticipate it! In connection with this, it is 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 end, Beloved, will be the end of all our Christian labor 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 evangelizing. No longer can your hand be outstretched to distribute the Word which tells of the great Savior and the good Shepherd–our Lord Jesus Christ. On that bed you will be taking leave of all your Christian service and if anything 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, yetsurely 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, he then enters 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 trumpet, 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 trumpet of the archangel, and the voice of God! Which will it be with me? Ask this, dear Hearers, and ask your God to make you to know which it shall be–your spirit rejoicing in the Presence of Christ, your Savior, far from the world of grief and sin, eternally shut in with God–or shall it be your spirit mocking among kindred condemned in the Pit that has no bottom, where the iron key is turned and through the door of which there can be no escape? Which shall it be with you? When you think of your end, remember one of these must be your portion–Heaven or Hell! Then comes the Day of Judgment and of the Resurrection. The clarion, clear and shrill, shall be such as wakens 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 exceedingly 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 you gave Me meat; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; sick and imprisoned, and you ministered unto Me! Come, you blessed!” Or will it be to see the page turned over and to hear the voice declare, “I was hungry, and you gave Me no meat; thirsty and you gave Me no drink”? Will it be a record all of sin, and not of virtue, with the accompanying sentence, “Depart, you cursed, into everlasting fire”? “Lord make me to know my end,” and let not my end be to be banished forever with the wicked! Gather not my life with sinners, nor my soul with bloody men! Cast me not away from Your Presence! Banish me not from Your mercy! Shut me not up in the lowest Pit! Condemn me not to eternal destruction from the Presence of the Lord! “Make me to know my end,” and let this be the end–to be with Christ where He is, to behold His Glory, the Glory which You gave 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 realize 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 of 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.” 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 days are not to be counted. “Your generations, who can tell, or count the number of Your years? From everlasting to everlasting You are 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 Ihave to live after all. If 70 years is my term, of what small account they are! Perhaps you have sometimes stood by a sandcliff, 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 sandstone and limestone 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 shriveled 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 were you when we were formed? When the waving ocean was washing up these shells, where were you? 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, you angels–what infants we must seem in comparison with your age! Where were you when Gabriel first flew upon his errand, swift as lightning? Where were you 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 forever? 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 Your Throne, adoring Your eternal majesty–

“Great God, how infinite are Thee,
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, as far as we are concerned, decides the next.In this life a Believer, then a life of Glory, 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 another twenty, thirty, or forty years–or you may not live as many seconds! You may be spared for the next 50 years, and still taking part in life’s battle. Or it may be that before 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 remember 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 50 before he began to preach the Truth of God at all! This is a hopeful sign for some of you who have wasted your young days! There have been men of 60 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 100 years and dies a worldling. And yet another man, through God’s Grace, puts forth as much energy in two or three years as if he were a thunderbolt launched from the hands of God! And he leaves his name among imperishable memorials. Your life will be long enough to achieve great things if God will help you to remember, 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 your piece of the great work, though it be but a hair’s breadth you are allowed to perform, and though it is 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 great mercy that men don’t live too long. Where were progress if the old men of 200 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 forever–who would have wished to have a Voltaire forever stalking about this world! What a mercy that his was but a short life! What would you think if you had a Tom Paine blustering against Almighty God 500 years at a stretch? A mercy it is that even good men don’t live here forever, 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! I 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 respects, as we are known 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 past sin, be checked as to all future folly and desire henceforth to walk in holiness and fear in the service of God until our days are 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, someof us–we spend too much time at the table, too much in idle talk. Lord, help 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 of 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 frailty–


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. I may 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 Your service for the love of Christ and by the power of Your 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 wrapped in meditation and hymning my great Creator, or serving my fellow man with love to God, or in some way so laboring 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 always be 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 travelers 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 already fallen into the gulf. 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 still making merry–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 you to this tabernacle well in health and strong, but your next step may be into eternity! Beware, then, that you lay hold on the hand which was once crucified lest, when you slip, there be none to hold you up! And, when you fall, there be none to rescue you, and you fall through the black and cheerless darkness forever and ever, lost, lost, lost, beyond hope of rescue! God forbid this for His mercy’s sake. Amen.