Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 70


The Transitoriness of Life

Preached December 28, 1851

  Frederick W. Robertson

“So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” - Psalm 90:12


This is the key-note of the 90th Psalm. It numbers sadly the days and vicissitudes of human life; but it does this, not for the sake of mere sentiment, but rather for practical purposes, that it may furnish a motive for a wiser life of the heart. We know nothing of the Psalm except that it was the composition of “Moses, the man of God.” It was written evidently in the wilderness, after years of apparently fruitless wandering: its tone is that of deep sadness-retrospective; its images are borrowed from the circumstances of the pilgrimage-the mountain-flood, the grass, the nightwatch of an army on the march.

See here, again, what is meant by inspiration. Observe the peculiarly human character of this Psalm. Moses, “the man of God,” is commissioned not to tell truths superhuman, but truths emphatically human. The utterances of this Psalm are true to nature. Moses felt as we feel, only God gave him a voice to interpret, and he felt more deeply than all, what all in their measure feel. His inspiration lay not in this, that he was gifted with legislative wisdom; but rather in this, that his bosom vibrated truly and healthfully to every note of the still sad music of humanity. We will consider-


I. The feelings suggested by a retrospect of the past.

II. The right direction of those feelings.


1. The analogies of nature which correspond with human life. All the images in this Psalm are suggested by the circumstances of their forty years’ pilgrimage. Human life felt to be like a flood-the withering grass-a sleep broken-the pain-the start-death-the awakening-a night-watch-a tale told, whose progress we watched with interest, but of which when done the impression alone remains, the words are gone forever. These are not artificial images, but natural. They are not similes forced by the writer into his service because of their prettiness, but similes which forced themselves on him by their truthfulness. Now this is God’s arrangement. All things here are double. The world without corresponds with the world within. No man could look on a stream when alone by himself, and all noisy companionship overpowering good thoughts was away, without the thought that just so his own particular current of life will fall at last into the “unfathomable gulf where all is still.”

No man can look upon a field of corn, in its yellow ripeness, which he has passed weeks before when it was green, or a convolvulus withering as soon as plucked, without experiencing a chastened feeling of the fleetingness of all earthly things.

No man ever went through a night-watch in the bivouac, when the distant hum of men and the random shot fired told of possible death on the morrow; or watched in a sick-room, when time was measured by the sufferer’s breathing or the intolerable ticking of the clock, without a firmer grasp on the realities of life and time.

So God walks His appointed rounds through the year: and every season and every sound has a special voice for the varying phases of our manifold existence. Spring comes, when earth unbosoms her mighty heart to God, and anthems of gratitude seem to ascend from every created thing. It is something deeper than an arbitrary connection which compels us to liken this to the thought of human youth.

And then comes summer, with its full stationariness, its noontide heat, its dust, and toil, an emblem of ripe manhood. The interests of youth are gone by. The interest of a near grave has not yet come. Its duty is work. And afterwards autumn, with its mournfulness, its pleasant melancholy, tells us of coming rest and quiet calm.

And now has come winter again. This is the last Sunday in the year.

It is not a mere preacher’s voice performing an allotted task. The call and correspondence are real. The young have felt the melancholy of the last two months. With a transient feeling-even amounting to a luxury-the prophetic soul within us anticipates with sentiment the real gloom of later life, and enables us to sympathize with what we have not yet experienced. The old have felt it as no mere romance-an awful fact-a correspondence between the world without and the world within. We have all felt it in the damp mist, in the slanting shadows, the dimmer skies, the pale, watery glow of the red setting sun, shorn of half its lustre. In the dripping of the woodland, in the limp leaves trodden by heaps into clay, in the depressing north wind, in the sepulchral cough of the aged man at the corner of the street under the inclement sky, God has said to us, as He said to Moses, “Pause, and number thy days, for they are numbered.”

2. There is also a sense of loss. Every sentence tells us that this Psalm was written after a long period was past. It was retrospective, not prospective. Moses is looking back, and his feeling is loss. How much was lost? Into that flood of time how much had fallen? Many a one consumed, like Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, by the wrath of God. Many a Hebrew warrior stricken in battle, and over him a sand-heap. And those who remembered these things were old men- “consuming,” his strong expression, “their strength in labor and sorrow.”

Such is life! At first, all seems given. We are acquiring associations, sensations, new startling feelings; then comes the time when all give pleasure or pain by association-by touching some old chord which vibrates again. And after that, all is loss-something gone, and more is going. Every day, every year-this year, like all others. Into that flood have fallen treasures that will not be recovered. Intimacies have been dissolved that will not be reunited. Affections cooled, we can not say why. Many a ship foundered, and the brave hearts in her will be seen no more till the sea shall give up her dead. Many a British soldier fallen before Asiatic pestilence, or beneath the Kaffir assegai, above him the bush or jungle is waving green, but he himself is now where the rifle’s ring is heard, and the sabre’s glitter is seen, no more. Many a pew before me is full, which at the beginning of the year was filled by others. Many a hearth-stone is cold, and many a chair is empty that will not be filled again. We stand upon the shore of that illimitable sea which never restores what has once fallen into it; we hear only the boom of the waves that throb over all-forever.

3. There is, too, an apparent non-attainment.

A deeper feeling pervades this Psalm than that of mere transitoriness: it is that of the impotency of human effort. “We are consumed”-perish aimlessly like the grass. No man was more likely to feel this than Moses. After forty years, the slaves he had emancipated were in heart slaves still-idolators. He called them rebels, and shattered the stone tables of the law, in sad and bitter disappointment. After forty years the promised land was not reached. He himself never entered it.

No wonder if life appeared to him like a stream, not merely transitory, but monotonous. Generation after generation, and no change; much lost, apparently nothing was won. No prospect of better time had been. “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be.” Here, too, is one of the great trials of all retrospect-the great trial of all earthly life.

The cycles of God’s providences are so large that our narrow lives scarcely measure a visible portion of them. So large that we ask, What can we effect ? Yet there is an almost irrepressible wish in our hearts to see success attend our labors, to enter the promised land in our own life. It is a hard lesson: to toil in faith and to die in the wilderness, not having attained the promises, but only seeing them afar off.

So in the past year, personally and publicly. Personally we dare not say that we are better than we were at the beginning. Can we say that we are purer? more earnest? has the lesson of the cross been cut sharply into our hearts? Have we only learned self-denial, to say nothing of self-sacrifice? And stagnation thus being apparently the case, or at most but very slow progress, the thought comes, Can such beings be destined for immortality?

On a larger scale, the young cries of freedom which caused all generous hearts to throb with sympathy have been stifled; itself trodden down beneath the iron heel of despotism all over Europe and rendered frantic and ferocious. Can we wish for its success? Are the better times coming at all? So does the heart sicken over the past. Every closing year seems to say, Shall we begin the old useless struggle over again? Shall we tell again the oft-told tale? Are not these hopes, so high, a mockery to a moth like man? Is all but a mere illusion, a mirage in the desert? Are the waters of life and home ever near, yet never reached, and the dry hot desert sand his only attainment?

Let us consider-


II. The right use of these sad suggestions. “So teach us to number our days.”

“So,” because the days may be numbered, as in this Psalm, and the heart not applied to wisdom. There are two ways in which days may be numbered to no purpose.

1. That of the Epicurean-“Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die.” There is a strong tendency to reckless enjoyment when the time is felt to be short, and religion does not exist to restrain.


[For example. In times of plague-Athens-Milan-London-danger only stimulates men to seize to-day the enjoyments which may not be theirs to-morrow. Again, at the close of the last century, when the prisons of Paris resounded with merriment, dance, and acting, a light and trivial people, atheists at heart, could extract from an hourly impending death no deeper lesson than this, “Let us eat and drink for to-morrow we die.”]


2. That of the sentimentalist.

It is no part of our Christian duty to think of decay in an abject spirit. That which the demoniac in the Gospels did, having his dwelling among the tombs, has sometimes been reckoned the perfection of Christian unworldliness. Men have looked on every joy as a temptation; on every earnest pursuit as a snare-the skull and the hour-glass their companions, curtaining life with melancholy, haunting it with visions and emblems of mortality. This is not Christianity.

Rather it is so to dwell on the thoughts of death “that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” If the history of these solemn truths does not stimulate us to duty and action, it were no duty to remind ourselves of them. Rather the reverse. Better shut out such gloomy and useless thoughts. But there is a way of dwelling amidst these facts which solemnizes life instead of paralyzing it. He is best prepared to meet change who sees it at a distance and contemplates it calmly. Affections are never deepened and refined until the possibility of loss is felt. Duty is done with all energy, then only, when we feel, “The night cometh, when no man can work,” in all its force.

Two thoughts are presented to make this easier.

1. The eternity of God. “Before the mountains were brought forth, even from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God.” With God there is no Time-it is one eternal Now. This is made conceivable to us by a recent writer, who has reminded us that there are spots in the universe which have not yet been reached by the beams of light which shone from this earth at its creation. If, therefore, we are able on an angel’s wings to reach that spot in a second or two of time, the sight of this globe would be just becoming visible as it was when chaos passed into beauty. A few myriads of miles nearer, we should be met by the picture of the world in the state of deluge. And so in turn would present themselves the spectacles of patriarchal life; of Assyrian, Grecian, Persian, Roman civilization; and, at a short distance from the earth, the scenes of yesterday. Thus a mere transposition in space would make the past present. And thus, all that we need is the annihilation of space to annihilate time. So that if we conceive a Being present everywhere in space, to Him all past events would be present. At the remotest extremity of the angel’s journey he would see the world’s creation: at this extremity, the events that pass before our eyes today. Omnipresence in space is thus equivalent to ubiquity in time. And to such a being, demonstrably, there would be no Time. All would be one vast eternal Now.

Apply this to practical wisdom. And this comes in to correct our despondency. For with God, “a thousand years are as one day.” In the mighty cycles in which God works, our years and ages are moments. It took fifteen hundred years to educate the Jewish nation. We wonder that Moses saw nothing in forty years. But the thought of the eternity of God was his consolation. And so, shall we give up our hopes of heaven and progress, because it is so slow, when we remember that God has innumerable ages before Him? Or our hopes for our personal improvement, when we recollect our immortality in Him who has been our refuge “from generation to generation?” Or for our schemes and plans which seem to fail, when we remember that they will grow after us, like the grass above our graves?


II. Next, consider the permanence of results. Read the conclusion of the Psalm, “Prosper Thou the work of our hands upon us, oh prosper Thou our handiwork.” It is a bright conclusion for a Psalm so dark and solemn. To correct the gloom that comes from brooding on decay, it is good to remember that there is a sense in which nothing perishes.

1. The permanence of our past seasons. Spring, summer, autumn, are gone, but the harvest is gathered in. Youth and manhood are passed, but their lessons have been learnt. The past is ours only when it is gone. We do not understand the meaning of our youth, our joys, our sorrows, till we look at them from a distance. We lose them to get them back again in a deeper way. The past is our true inheritance, which nothing can take from us. Its sacred lessons, its pure affections, are ours forever. Nothing but the annihilation of our being could rob us of them.

2. The permanence of lost affections. Over the departed ones Moses mourned. But take his own illustration-“A tale that is told.” The sound and words are gone, but the tale is indelibly impressed on the heart. So the lost are not really lost. Perhaps they are ours only truly when lost. Their patience, love, wisdom, are sacred now, and live in us. The apostles and prophets are more ours than they were the property of the generation who saw their daily life-“He being dead, yet speaketh.”

3. The permanence of our own selves-“The beauty of the Lord our God be upon us.” Very striking this. We survive. We are what the past has made us. The results of the past are ourselves. The perishable emotions, and the momentary acts of bygone years, are the scaffolding on which we build up the being that we are. As the tree is fertilized by its own broken branches and fallen leaves, and grows out by its own decay, so is the soul of man ripened out of broken hopes and blighted affections. The law of our humanity is the common law of the universe-life out of death, beauty out of decay. Not till those fierce young passions, over the decay of which the old man grieves, have been stilled into silence; not until the eye has lost its fire, and the cheek its hot flush, can “the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us”-the beauty of a spirit subdued, chastened, and purified by loss.

4. Let us correct these sad thoughts by the thought of the permanence of work. “Prosper thou the work of our hands.” Feelings pass, thoughts and imaginations pass: dreams pass: work remains. Through eternity, what you have done, that you are. They tell us that not a sound has ever ceased to vibrate through space; that not a ripple has ever been lost upon the ocean. Much more is it true that, not a true thought, nor a pure resolve, nor a loving act, has ever gone forth in vain.

So then we will end our year.

Amidst the solemn lessons taught to the giddy traveller as he journeys on by a Nature hastening with gigantic footsteps down to a winter grave, and by the solemn tolling of the bell of Time, which tells us that another, and another, and another, is gone before us, we will learn, not the lesson of the sensualist-enjoy while you can: not that of the feeble sentimentalist-mourn, for nothing lasts: but that of the Christian-work cheerfully.

“The beauty of the Lord our God be upon us.”

“Oh, prosper Thou our handiwork.”