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The Lessons of Death

Psalm 39:4-7

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.

5 Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. Selah.

6 Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.

7 And now, Lord, what wait I for? my hope is in thee.


Robert M. Herhold, in his book Learning to Die, Learning to Live, said, “Death is the final separation of all that we have worked for and built up and hold near and dear. It is too bad that dying is the last thing we do.  Death could teach us so much about living.” There are lessons to be learned from death.

The psalmist is talking about that in Psalm 39:4-5, when he says, “Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am. Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth.” A handbreadth was a measurement of the ancient days. It was about four inches in width and they called it a handbreadth because they used the hand as the instrument of measurement. In a day before there were rulers or yardsticks, a man would have to guess at measurements. And so the width of the hand was about four inches. You put nine of those together and it makes a yard. That was how they measured things. When the psalmist says, “Thou hast made my days as a handbreadth,” he is suggesting the brevity of life. “Verily man at his best state is altogether vanity.” The word vanity means “a breath or vapor.” 

James said in the fourth chapter of his epistle, “What is your life? It is like a vapor that appears for a little while and then it vanishes away.” Go outside on a cold day and exhale the warm air of your lungs. When it hits the cold air on the outside, your breath will vaporize. For just a moment you can see that vapor; you can see that breath, but then almost as quickly as it comes, it vanishes away. James says that is a picture of your life, and how brief and how fleeting our life really is. The writer of the Psalms is saying that our life is like a breath—it is like a vapor.

But I want you to notice especially how he couches this idea. “Verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity.” Imagine a man in the prime of life who eats well, who sleeps well, and who exercises well, and his body is in tip-top shape. A man at his best state is altogether vanity. His life is still like a fleeting breath.

In verse six we read, “Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.” It is the idea of a man spending his life gathering material possessions and piling these things one on top of another. Then the man dies and his possessions are left to somebody else to enjoy them or to fight over them. But they are all left behind, and he has devoted his life to that which ultimately comes to nothing.

The psalmist continues in verse seven, “And now, Lord, what wait I for? my hope is in thee.” Four times in this chapter, he uses the word vanity to describe life. In verse five he says, “Verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity.” In verse six, it’s, “Surely every man walketh in a vain show.” In the middle part of that same verse, he says, “Surely, they are disquieted in vain.” In the last part of verse 11 he declares, “Surely every man is vanity.” He is emphasizing it so that we cannot miss the truth that life is uncertain. It is fleeting, it is passing away, and death is facing every one of us.

The background of this psalm is that the psalmist is facing some kind of very trying experience. He feels the hand of God weighing down heavily upon him and he is almost at the point of despair. In fact, he tells us in the psalm that he is tempted to say some rather harsh things to God for the way he was being treated. But he maintains self-control and he does not say what he is thinking. Rather than calling out in anger at God for what has happened to him, he breathes a prayer to God. His prayer is that God will make him aware of the shortness of his life and the certainty of death so that he may live every day to its best. He would be foolish if he were to spend his life trying to pile up things and have nothing else in life worthwhile.

Then he says, “What am I waiting for? Why am I standing around, sitting around in despair? My hope is in God.” He realizes that ultimately and finally what he needs to face life and to face death is a sure hope in almighty God.

The psalmist teaches us some important lessons from death in this experience—not lessons from life, but lessons for life, from the experience of death. 

There are at least three things that all of us need to learn from death. The first thing that we ought to learn from death is to have a healthier respect for time. The psalmist said, “Lord, teach me how sort my life so that I make the most of it and so that I may have a healthier respect for time.” It is only as we look at life from the vantage point of death or of growing old that we realize how important time is.

The second thing that death ought to teach us the futility of trusting in things—of devoting our life simply to the material things we buy, earn, build or touch. We shall soon come to the end of our days and we shall leave all of that behind for somebody else to enjoy or to squabble over. So death ought to teach us the futility of trusting in things.

And third, death ought to teach us the necessity of faith—the importance of trusting in God. We must realize that ultimately and finally our hope is in him, or we do not have any hope at all. 

1. Death teaches us to have a healthier respect for time.

The first thing that we ought to learn from death is to have a healthy respect for time. Everybody is related to time in some way or another. I read in Reader’s Digest several years ago a statement about our various relationships to time. The writer said, “Referees call time, prisoners serve time, musicians mark time, historians record time, loafers kill time, and statisticians keep time.” Regardless of how you are related to time, we all have exactly the same amount—24 hours a day, 168 hours a week—and we ought to use that time wisely. Looking at it from the vantage point of death always gives us a healthier respect for time.

Don Anthony was a deacon and an active Sunday school teacher in our church. He was the vice president of the University of Texas at Tyler, and then he moved from Tyler to Dallas to head up the Christian Education Commission for the Texas Baptists. Shortly after Don moved to Dallas he learned that he had cancer and a very short time to live. About three months before the doctor said he would die, he went to East Texas Baptist College, his alma mater, to work with the alumni association and he spent a whole day on the campus helping them to organize and plan to carry out some events that would affect the future of that college. After he left, President Jerry Dawson said, “When a man has only 90 days to live and he gives you one of them, he is giving you something significant.” It is only as we look at life from the end and realize how short it is and how few our days are that we realize the great significance of a day, or an hour, or even a minute. 

If we are wise, we will learn to savor time. We may talk about “saving time” but, of course, we cannot really save time. We can only savor it. We can make the most of it. We can use it wisely. 

It was Ben Franklin who said, “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff it is made of.” If we are going to live our lives in the light of eternity, then we need to decide what is important and to give ourselves to that. We need to give some time to God. We need to give some time to our families. We need to give some time to ourselves. We need to give some time to work and we need to keep our life and our time in the right perspective because ultimately and finally we have a very limited supply of it. 

Somebody has said that you need to take time to work for that’s the price of success. You need to take time to think, for that’s the source of power. You need to take time to play, for that’s the secret of youth. You need to take time to read, for that’s the foundation of wisdom. You need to take time to love, for that’s the highest joy of life. Take time to laugh, for that’s the music of the soul. But then let me add to that: take time for God, for prayer and for worship, for that is the key to eternity. If you do not take time for God—to give to him your highest and your best—nothing else will ultimately matter.

If you are going to have a healthy respect for time, today is the day to begin. Somebody said, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” It could also be the last day. And so, if you are going to develop a healthy respect for time, start now.

Several years ago, the Austin American newspaper carried a series of articles entitled “My Happiest Day.” They interviewed people in the city and asked them, “What was the happiest day of your life?” One time they interviewed a physician and he said, “Oh, there have been so many, it would be hard to decide which one was the most important. I suppose I could say the day I graduated from med school, or I might say the day I returned home from World War II intact, or the day I moved to Austin to establish my practice, or I might say the day my children were born, or I might say the day I saved my first patient’s life. But I guess finally and ultimately, I would have to say the best day of my life is today because I am here to enjoy it. I can look back on the past with good memories and I can still look forward to the future.” We ought to strive to make every day the best day of our lives.

The psalmist said in another place, “This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). In that verse there is both a recognition and a resolution. The recognition is that the Lord made today, and the Lord doesn’t make anything bad. There is also a resolution that he will rejoice and be glad in it. Most of our days are what we will them to be. Oh, every once in a while, the circumstances of life are such that they simply overwhelm us and almost overpower us. But generally speaking, most of our days are what we make them to be. The psalmist is recognizing that God made today, that it is a good day, and he would be determined to rejoice and be glad in it. It is as we look at life from the vantage point of death that we develop a more healthy respect for time. Make the most of today, for God has given you one of your most precious possessions—time. 

2. Death teaches us the futility of trusting in things.

Death not only teaches us to have a healthy respect for time—death teaches us the futility of trusting in things. I was called to the bedside of a man who had just learned he had a terminal illness. When I arrived he reached over to the nightstand and picked up a yellow legal pad. He said, “Preacher, last night I took time to list all of my assets on this legal pad. I listed every one of them in six pages. When you look at them from the end of life—rather what you thought to be the middle of life—they really don’t amount to very much.”

Not only does time look different from the vantage point of death, things look different from the vantage point of death. All that we give ourselves to and all that we spend ourselves on suddenly changes in its value and importance when we see life coming to an end. Jesus asked a question that we need to ponder: “What is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” Or “What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” There is nothing profited if you gain the world and lose your soul; there is nothing you can give in exchange for that soul. A man is a fool—an absolute unqualified fool—to give himself to the pursuit of things while neglecting his spiritual life.

Charlemagne, the great founder of the Carolingian Empire, asked when he died to be buried sitting upright on this throne, with a crown on his head and jewels about his neck. He also wanted a Bible in his hand, and his finger pointing to Mark 8:36: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

Jesus told the story about a successful farmer who produced so much that his barns couldn’t hold it all. So he tore down the old barns and he built some new ones and he filled them to overflowing. He sat back in his chair and said to himself, “Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry” (Luke 12:19). And the Lord came to him that night and said, “You fool, this night your soul will be required of you” (Luke 12:20).

We shall all outlive our income, and we will leave it all behind. I have never seen a U-Haul trailer behind a hearse. It is all left behind and unless we have laid up for ourselves treasures in heaven, the epitaph on our tombstone ought to read, “Fool.”

Two friends talked one day about a wealthy third friend who had died. One said to the other, “How much did he leave?” The other replied, “He left it all.” Ultimately every one of us leaves behind the same amount—all of it. If we live only for that, we are foolish. 

3. Death teaches us the necessity of faith.

Death teaches us the importance of coming to the Lord Jesus, of trusting in him, and of committing our souls to him. The psalmist comes to say in this passage of scripture, “And now, Lord, what wait I for? my hope is in thee.” The only real security we have is that security of soul when we entrust it to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Several years ago I went to an old country cemetery to bury one of our members. I could tell by just looking around that there was a time when that old area was alive with people. But now there was just an isolated farmhouse or two punctuating the horizon on this hillside and in that valley. The old school had been torn down, and there was no trace of it. The church was still there, but nobody met in it any more, and the cemetery was grown up in weeds.

When I go to a place like that I always spend some time either before the service or after the service walking around in the cemetery, reading the epitaphs, and thinking about the hopes and the dreams, the relationships, and the laughter and the tears that must be represented by all of the people who once were. As I thought about that community that had been, and as I saw the unkempt graves and the tumbled tombstones, my heart almost sank in despair. I literally asked myself the question, “What’s the meaning of all of this?” I felt something of what the psalmist must have felt when he said, “As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more” (Psalm 103:15-16). 

I almost despaired until I remembered that Jesus said, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). I was renewed again to remember that this is not the end. This grave is not the final resting place for the people of God, and there is more than a few years on this earth and struggle and heartache and tears. There is salvation, there is resurrection, there is redemption, there is eternity, there is hope in God. And that hope is highlighted by the fact of death.

The need of every man, woman, boy, and girl is to reach up in faith and to clasp the hand of the Lord Jesus who died on the cross, who gave his life, and who went through the chill of the grave and came out victoriously on the third day saying, “Because I live, you shall live also” (John 14:19). The great lesson of death is this: we must hasten to Jesus the Savior. We must trust him with all of our heart, for our hope is in him or we have no hope at all. Death ought to cause us to make sure that our relationship with God is right. Death ought to cause us to make sure that our relationships with our family and our friends are right. If there are broken relationships, they ought to be mended as soon as possible. If there are words that need to be spoken, they ought to be spoken as soon as possible. And death ought to remind us to invest our lives in that which shall endure eternity.

The prayer of the psalmist ought to be the prayer of every one of us: “Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is: that I may know how frail I am.”

Each time I think about my own death, I ask myself three questions to help me evaluate how well I am prepared for that day:

1. Am I right in my relationship with God?

2. Am I right in my relationships with my family, with my friends, with my coworkers? Are there relationships I need to reconcile? Are there words I need to say?

3. Am I investing myself in things that will last for eternity? 

Unless the Lord returns, I will someday die. Through faith in Christ, eternal life lies just beyond the door of death. The resurrection of Jesus has transformed death from an ending to a beginning, from a period into a comma, from a conclusion into an introduction, from a final destination to a rest stop. 

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Paul W. Powell - www.PaulPowellLibrary.com

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