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THAT IT IS MATTER OF GREAT USE AND CONCERNMENT, MUCH CONDUCING TO THE PURPOSES OF RELIGION, SERIOUSLY TO CONSIDER THE SHORTNESS AND UNCERTAINTY OF LIFE; AND THAT SUCH DUE CONSIDERATION OF OUR SHORT AND UNCERTAIN ABODE IN THIS WORLD IS THE GIFT OF GOD, AND THE EFFECT OF HIS GRACE, WHICH THEREFORE OUGHT TO BE SOUGHT FOR BY HUMBLE AND EARNEST PRAYER.
PSALM XXXix. 4.
Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am. THIS thirty-ninth Psalm, composed on the same occasion as the thirty-seventh, namely, on the scandal that David took at the prosperity of wicked men whilst he was himself in misery, hath also a mixture of contemplation upon the vanity of all worldly things. The particular calamity that prompted David to this useful contemplation is not by interpreters fully agreed on.
Many think that it was some sickness that David was at this time afflicted with. Others are of the opinion, that his trouble from Absalom was the particular occasion of the Psalm.
But for myself, I incline to the first opinion, which I am confirmed in by the eleventh verse, where David describes the beauty of man as consuming away like a moth at God's rebuke and cor
rection; and by the 13th and last verse, where he prays that God would spare him, that he might recover strength, before he should go hence, and be no more.
On which words a learned interpreter thus paraphrases a, "Withhold thy scourge from me a little "while, that I may recover my former strength, or health, before I am forced to depart out of this "world never more to return hither again."
This Psalm is, by the wisdom of our church, appointed to be used in the Office for the Burial of the Dead, as being almost wholly spent on the theme of the shortness and vanity of this our mortal life on earth; and is indeed a rich repository or commonplace of fit texts for funeral sermons.
As for the words which I have now chosen for the subject of my present discourse, they are evidently a devout prayer of David, relating to his death and departure out of this world. But it is questioned what the thing distinctly is for which David prays in these words, Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days.
Some have thought that he prays for a special revelation from God of the time of his death, taken either precisely or with some latitude, how long he should live, when he should die, and be called out of this world. Indeed this is a favour which it hath pleased God to grant unto some men. Thus Moses and Aaron, some time before their death, had notice given them of it, and of the place where they should lay themselves down and die, the one on mount Hor,
a Abstine paululum a flagellando me, ut vires pristinas recipiam, priusquam migrare cogar, nunquam huc reversurus.
the other on mount Nebo, Deut. xxxii. 49,50. Thus Hezekiah had warning given him by the prophet Isaiah, to make his last will and testament, and to set his house in order, and prepare for his approaching death, Isai. xxxviii. 1. And when God was pleased, upon his earnest prayer and humble supplication, to reprieve him from that death, under which, according to the course of nature, he must necessarily have fallen, and extraordinarily to add some more years unto his life, he had this second favour from God, to know by the same prophet the precise number of years so added, viz. fifteen years, no more nor no less, verse 5. Thus Elijah had a revelation from God beforehand of his translation from this earth to heaven, as we read 2 Kings ii. And in the New Testament we find St. Peter was informed by our Lord Jesus of his approaching death and martyrdom, 2 Peter i. 13, 14. I think it meet, as long as I am in this tabernacle, to stir you up, by putting you in remembrance; knowing that shortly I must put off this my tabernacle, even as our Lord Jesus Christ hath shewed me.
In ecclesiastical history, in the acts of Polycarp, recited by Eusebius in the fourth book of his History, chap. xv. we read that the blessed bishop and martyr, some days before his death, dreamt, that the pillow on which he lay was first all in a flame about him, and then burnt to ashes; and thereupon awaking, he told the brethren that he was sure he should very shortly be burnt at the stake for the confession of the Christian faith; which accordingly came to pass. Nor do we want some certain instances in our own age, of persons so instructed by their guardian angel, or by some other means, as that they have
been able, when in perfect health, punctually to foretell the day of their death.
But these are extraordinary cases. The prescience or foreknowledge of the day or time of our death is a thing for the most part unfit for us to ask of God, or for him to grant unto us; and therefore ordinarily the all-wise and good God reserves it as a secret unto himself. If men generally knew the day of their death, the Kúpopo, they of shorter lives would spend their few days in grief and sorrow, and be continually vexed to see their lives circumscribed within so narrow limits, and be sluggish to all noble and generous actions that require time and labour. On the other side, they that knew they had many years yet to live, would be apt to procrastinate their repentance, and from that delay to take occasion of licentiousness. Our last day is therefore in mercy ordinarily hid from us, to the end that we should every day and continually prepare for it. Nor would men be careful to use the due means for the preservation of their health and life, if they knew terminum vitæ fatalem, "the fatal period of it."
This therefore I am persuaded is not the thing that David here prays for. What then, you will say, doth he pray for? I answer, he prays that God would make him to know in general how short and uncertain man's life here on earth is, that every man must certainly die, after a determinate and short number of years expired, being in the mean while uncertain and ignorant of that fatal period.
But, you will say again, doth not every man know as much as this? Yes; but very few consider it. When therefore David prays, that God would make him to know his end, and the measure of his days,
we are to call to mind the known rule of divines: "In Scripture, words of knowledge betoken suitable "affections" For a man therefore to know his end, and the measure of his days, what it is, or to know how short and uncertain his life is on earth, is for him seriously to consider and lay to heart that great truth, and to live accordingly. This is not what every man doth, though every man ought to do it. In short, therefore, David here in my text prays for the very same thing that Moses doth in his prayer, Psalm xc. 12. So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom, i. e. By thy grace enable us to make a just account of the shortness and uncertainty of our life on earth, that so we may wisely apply ourselves to make the best use we can of it, in repenting of our sins, and fitting ourselves for the final absolution. David's measuring of his days is doubtless the same with Moses's numbering his days.
The text being thus I hope sufficiently explained, I proceed to raise my observations from it, which shall be these two.
I. I observe, it is a matter of great use and concernment, much conducing to the purposes of religion, for a man to know his end, and the measure of his days, i. e. seriously to consider the shortness and uncertainty of his life here on earth. For you see David in my text makes this the matter of his serious prayer and humble supplication to Almighty God.
II. I observe, a due consideration of the shortness and uncertainty of man's life in this world is the gift of God, and the effect of his grace, which therefore
b In Scripturis, verba scientiæ connotant affectus.