All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. Psalm 90:9-10
Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many... Hebrews 9:27-28
I was chatting recently to someone I have known pretty well all my life. She is now in her eighties, and we agreed that we ought to fix up some time to meet. I added, joking really, that “After all, we don’t know how much time we’ve got left, do we?” Whereupon she laughed nervously and said, “Oh, I don’t think about things like that.”
I suppose her attitude is understandable if you aren’t a Christian, and have no belief or assurance about what happens after death - turn a blind eye; bury your head in the sand; pretend it just isn’t going to happen.
But it really isn’t wise, because if there’s one thing the Bible is brutally honest about, it’s the reality of death.
It’s right there in the beginning as a solemn warning: God tells the man and woman that if they eat the fruit of the forbidden tree “you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:17). And it’s right there at the end, though this time as a wonderful promise: “There will be no more death...” (Revelation 21:4).
In between Genesis and Revelation it’s clear that death is an enemy: Paul describes it as “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Psalm 90, likewise, is an extended meditation on the sheer shortness of life in comparison with the eternal existence of God. The picture it paints (admittedly only a partial picture) is gloomy: “... we finish our years with a moan. Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.”
A life lesson that we all learn while young (hopefully!) is that a problem or sadness - any problem or sadness, large or small - doesn’t disappear through being ignored. No: it will just lurk there in the shadows of our minds, and in the end force itself on us; and so the only sensible way to deal with it is to look it fair and square in the face right now. And that is what the Bible encourages us to do when it comes to death.
If Psalm 90 gives us the bad news, Hebrews 9:27-28 is just one of many places that (thank God!) give us the good.
It speaks plainly about the once-for-all nature of death: “... people are destined to die once...” (no doctrine of reincarnation here), and then goes on to describe what follows: “... and after that to face judgment”.
Yes, we are all answerable to God our maker, and he will pass our lives under his holy scrutiny.
But if the idea of standing in all our sinfulness before God is frightening, this is where the gospel really is good news. For it tells us that “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28). Paul expresses the same thought with beautiful simplicity in Romans 8: “... there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”.
Certainly, the idea of death remains a solemn and disturbing thought; but if these words are true, its horror is taken away.
When we are young, life seems never-ending: we simply can’t imagine being old. But as time goes by it gets shorter and shorter: now, perhaps, we can hardly remember being young! Seventy years seems like the blink of an eye. (I remember the day it dawned on me that I had reached an age where I was older than my father was when he died - a sobering moment, that: how did that happen!)
But that’s the way it is. And if we learn no other lesson from it, surely it has to be this: to make good use of every day that is given. I don’t mean by that ticking off items on a “bucket list” (“one hundred things to do before you die”), but taking seriously that as long as God gives me another day of life, he has something for me to do, some ministry for me to exercise. Time for rest and fun and joy and laughter, of course; but, above all, time to know God ever more closely and to serve him ever more faithfully.
I mentioned at the start a friend who tried not to think about “things like that.” But I remember too another very elderly lady, a lady of deep faith in Jesus, who, in extreme old age, physical weakness and sheer weariness, used to say “Colin, please pray that the Lord would take me.” Which, of course, I did. And which, of course, he did.
And I remember standing at her grave-side with a handful of friends and gladly resting her in the hands of her Father God.
However unsettling the thought of approaching death may be, when that day comes may it be like that too for you and for me. Amen!
Lord, teach me to number my days, that I may gain a heart of wisdom. Amen.