September 1, 1999
Contemporary influences encourage us to “live for the moment” without regard for eternal consequences. This kind of thinking, though, offers no lasting hope. In contrast, the psalmist teaches us to “number our days aright” and to be mindful of using our time to gain a heart of wisdom. Speaking to a college student audience, Alistair Begg cautions against squandering opportunities, encouraging believers to remain attentive to the ultimate relationship that exists between our mortality and sin.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I’m sure that you do not need me to come here to tell you what a unique privilege you enjoy also as members of the student body of what is an exemplary institution. So I come simply to encourage you in the words of Paul to the Ephesians: “Be very careful … how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”
I’m going to assume that the vast majority of you want to take that to heart. I’m going to also acknowledge the fact that some of you have already begun to squander this opportunity. And others of you actually have it in the back of your minds that you might. Of course, you haven’t acknowledged this to anyone on your right or your left. It’s just your own secret predilection at the moment. You may have come here as a freshman or returned in the continuing class of students, somewhat disillusioned, somewhat frustrated, perhaps even embittered, out of your summer break. And it is possible for you that you’re now about to embark and reembark on a course of studies which will not lead to godly wisdom but actually the reverse.
Therefore, I want, as it were, to stand at the crossroads in these couple of days together and to urge you to make sure that you do not join the group of those who may be tempted to squander the opportunity. And I’ve chosen, I trust, with the guidance of the Spirit of God, to address one or two areas of immediate and obvious practical concern. Just now, the issue of time. Directly related to that, this evening, the matter of laziness. So, for those of you who sleep rather than come, snooze well. We will think of you. Then in the morning, the matter of friendship, and then in the evening, one of the greatest barriers to friendship, jealousy. And then, concluding on Friday morning with a matter which emerges from the Bible and also from Jim Elliot’s journals, the whole issue of approval.
Now, I want to read to you just one verse from the Ninetieth Psalm. If you have your Bibles, I encourage you to turn to it and look at it, that it might be anchored in your mind. Psalm 90:12, where the psalmist says, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
Imagine that there is a bank that credits your account each morning with $86,400. It carries over no balance from day to day. Every evening, it deletes whatever part of the balance you failed to use during the day. What would you do? You would draw out every cent, of course. Each of us has such a bank. Its name is “Time.” Every morning it credits you with 86,400 seconds. Every night it writes off as lost whatever of this you have failed to invest to good purpose. It carries over no balance. It allows no overdraft. Each day it opens a new account for you. Each night it burns the remains of the day. If you’ve failed to use the day’s deposits, the loss is yours. There is no going back. There is no drawing against the tomorrow. You must live in the present, on today’s deposits, and invest it to derive the utmost from it.
I don’t know who wrote those words, but I find them particularly powerful when I read them earlier in the summer.
Now, keep them in mind as we look at this very simple and yet straightforward statement here in Psalm 90:12. The context in which this statement or this prayer or request is grounded is within the framework, first of all, of the eternity of God. If your Bible is open, you will notice that: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.” And in our hymns this morning, we have already reinforced that truth in our minds.
“Before the mountains were born,” he says in verse 2, “or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” In other words, God was when nothing else was. He was God when the earth was not a world but a chaos. And if you look at the fourth verse, you will see that while a host of days and nights go to make up a thousand years, to God that space of time does not even make up a whole night: “For a thousand years in your sight,” he says, “are like … a watch in the night.” And the watches came in three-hourly increments.
This, of course, is vast and beyond our ability to totally comprehend it. But it is foundational to a Christian worldview. It starts with God and his glory and the fact of his eternity. And this request by the psalmist is set within the context, first, then, of the eternity of God.
Also within the context of the fact of the brevity of life. When you think of all that mankind has managed to compress into a thousand years of human history, it is incredible—even, frankly, in the last fifty years or in the twenty years or so that, perhaps, you have been on planet Earth. Any reading of history at all points to the rise and fall of empires, the emergence and the fading of human philosophies, the glory and obliteration of dynasties.
Go to Scotland and look at the castles, read its history, think of Braveheart. Imagine William Wallace, all those years ago, saying, “March back to England, apologizing in every village and hamlet. Free-dom!” All right? That’s what I think of when I think of Scotland. And after, what, two hundred and seventy years, now we have a sitting Parliament in Edinburgh. But it will crumble too. It, frankly, doesn’t amount to much at all. It’s more of a token. It’s a sop, as it were, to these poor highlanders over the border from all the vastness and richness of England.
Think of the Caesars’ proud and loud voices as they commanded the allegiance of men and women, as they urged their citizens to bow before them. Those voices have long since been silenced. Their grand edifices have been bowed and buried beneath mountains of rubble. And in the light of the brevity of our human existence and the eternity of God, the psalmist says, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
Now, I suggest to you that it is a very straightforward request, is it not? Pastors and teachers make a dreadful hash of this so often, you know. I recalled, as I was just preparing this morning, a phrase or two that I had picked up from Gettysburg the movie. And I can’t remember who says it to whom, but it goes something like this: one chap says to the other, “You have an amazing talent for trivializing the momentous and complicating the obvious. Ever thought of running for Congress?” Which seems to me to be a dreadful judgment on politicians, and frankly, many a Bible teacher has a tremendous talent for trivializing the momentous and complicating the obvious. I don’t want to do that.
I want you to note just two things: that the request that he makes is a necessary request, and it is a purposeful request.
Why, then, would it be necessary to be taught to number our days aright? Because by our very nature, we do not live in the truth of these things. We and the psalmist need God to bring this truth home to our hearts and minds even this morning. The people of God at that time, living in the wilderness, had discovered that some fifteen thousand of their friends and family and neighbors were dying annually in the wilderness wanderings. Fifteen thousand out of the community of faith, going into eternity. You would have thought that that alone would be enough for men and women to understand the brevity of their lives and the eternity of God. But it wasn’t. The fearfulness of mortality impressed itself on the whole nation, and yet still they needed to cry in this way.
And this morning it remains the case. Men and women in greater Chicago, as with the rest of the world, do not by nature recognize the ultimate relationship that exists between our mortality and sin. And there are many factors that play into this, but one of the most pressing at this time is simply the preoccupation with men and women to live for the moment. The existentialism of Sartre is still ebbing into the experience and thought forms and literature and songs of the contemporary generation.
And the notion of “seizing the day”—which, of course, has a biblical dimension to it—has been harnessed by Robin Williams in the Dead Poets Society, and so the notion is that if you walk around and look at the walls, and if you go, for example, even into an institution like this, if you listen to Robin Williams, Robin Williams would take you into the Billy Graham Museum; he would take you into various rooms around here, and he would show you the heroes from the past, and then he would say to you, “Now, come on and seize the day!” And you would say, “Well, that sounds very biblical.” But what was Williams saying? He was saying, “It is imperative to seize the day, because there is no yesterday, and there is no tomorrow. There is only now.”
Kris Kristofferson, now the great-grandfather of music, says,
Yesterday is dead and gone
And tomorrow’s out of sight.
So come on, baby,
And help me make it through the night.
And the lyric goes, “I don’t care what’s right or wrong.” Nor need he! If there is no yesterday and no tomorrow, what does he need to hear? What we need to hear! The cry of the psalmist: “Teach me to number my days aright, so that I will not think with the unwise but that I may think with the wise.”
You can tell a man’s age by the songs that he quotes, and it’s impossible now for me to evade this. But I recognize that I’m still tuning in to these “golden oldies” stations, and I feel like such an old fogy. I try it up on the edge every so often, but I just can’t get into it, I’m afraid. Dave Matthews is a whiner, as far as I’m concerned. If he wrote a decent melody line, I missed it. And Sarah McLachlan, if she’s happy, ought to tell her face about it.
No, you really need to go back to the late ’60s and early ’70s—to music, folks, you know, and to a lyric. If you want angst, you need to go back to Paul Simon. Some older people here, obviously. I thought all the faculty sat down here. I didn’t know they were scattered around. But in his song [“Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall”], in the second verse, he says,
No matter if you’re born
To play the king or pawn
For the line is thinly drawn ’tween joy and sorrow
[And] so my fantasy
And I must be what I must be and face tomorrow
[And] so I’ll continue to pretend
[That] my life will never end
And [that] flowers never bend
With the rainfall
In other words, it’s as futile to believe that death is not the destiny of every man—for the statistics are clear: one out of one dies—it’s as futile to believe that as it is to believe that as these autumn breezes will turn to winds and the flowers of the summer will be bowed beneath them, that they will stand up tall and make it through the winter snows. No, it will not be.
But you see, my dear young friends, it suits us to live with such an illusion. And that’s why it’s possible for us to believe that everyone else will fall off their motorbike, but we never will. That’s why it’s possible for us to walk through graveyards and to miss the fact that the dates are getting closer to us, to tread the well-worn paths of our forebears, to meet people at our uncles’ and our grandparents’ funeral and still not to do what the psalmist says here—namely, to begin to number my days “aright.”
You see, this is not a mathematical request. This is not the psalmist saying, “Help me to count.” You know, “Help me to know that Tuesday comes after Monday,” and so on, “and to multiply it by the number of years I’ve lived,” and so on. No, he’s not saying that. It’s not even an actuarial request. He’s not suggesting here that somehow or another he might be brought to understand and calculate the statistics of survival. No, the key word is “aright.” Or in the King James Version, “Teach us so to number our days.”
Now, you know, in Scrabble, you don’t want to give up on two-letter words, especially if you get them on one of those diamonds or whatever it is. And it can be the difference between victory and defeat. “Teach us so to number our days.” What do you mean, “so to number our days”? Well, the NIV helps us out. He says, “Teach us to number our days aright.” But even “aright”… You go off this morning and you say, “What does ‘aright’ mean?” Someone says, “Well, it means the opposite of ‘a left.’” No! What he is saying, when you read the whole psalm, is this: “Teach me to go through my life estimating time in light of eternity.”
In other words, “Teach me to recognize that the great span of God’s providential care is that which gives substance and foundation and meaning to my existence; that I am not ‘an orphan in an age of no tomorrows’”—which is Joan Baez, who’s like the great-grandmother now of folk music—“that I do not embrace the notion that there is no future; that I do not find scant comfort in the dismissive throwaway line,” when you’ve just failed an exam for the third time, and you take a cup of coffee, and you sit down and you look at the wall, and you say, “What will it matter in a hundred years?” It’ll matter. For every seed you sow is not only grounded in time, but it is eternity stamped on it.
Every song you write
Every move you make
I’ll be watching you.
Sorry. You can explain that to your faculty later.
It’s a necessary request, then, because by nature we do not ponder these great truths, and secondly—and I said there were only two—it’s a purposeful request. “Teach us to number our days aright.” Why? “That we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Now, the Bible uses the heart as the arena of response, doesn’t it, to convey the totality of who we are? It’s one of the ways in which it expresses our human existence, both our mental and our moral and our spiritual nature. And when he says here “that [I] may gain a heart of wisdom,” it encompasses a mind that thinks and a spirit that feels and a will that acts.
Now, how do I gain such a heart of wisdom? Well, it doesn’t come about as a result of calculation, but it comes about as a result of transformation. And where, then, is a heart of wisdom grounded? Well, we move from the psalmist to Solomon. We go to Proverbs 1, and it says, “And the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Not the servile fear, whereby we are living all of our days waiting that something dreadful may happen from the sky, but the filial fear of a son for his father—of a child for their parent—fearing not so much what will be their end if they step out of line, as a result of the intrusion of their father—i.e., fearing not so much what their actions will mean to them as a result of what their father will do to him—but rather fearing what I will do to my father as a result of my refusal to gain a heart of wisdom.
Of all the things that you will gain here—and what a lot you have already begun to gain!—and as the horizon opens up before you in friendships and relationships, in the realm of academia, in the enjoyment of sports, in the arts, in science, in all the panorama of your life that opens up, as you write in your own journals and notch in those little expectations that perhaps you’re not prepared even to share with your nearest and dearest, as all of those expectations are there, can I suggest to you that at least some of you may go away and notch into that expectation file of yours, “O God, whatever else happens to me at Wheaton College—whatever I may gain, whatever I may be able to stamp on my résumé, whatever I may be able to wear on my sleeve, whatever I may be able to wear in terms of pulling a shirt over my shoulders in the realm of sports—O God, whatever else, grant that I may gain a heart of wisdom”?
And I suggest to you, if I may, as an older man, that you gain it now while you have the chance. Because if you don’t, it’s gonna be hard to play catch-up. And that’s why you find that people have set their patterns, and in their lives, as you meet them in their middle course, much of what they are in the middle course has to do with the way they set up their stall where you are today. And when you meet an old man or an old lady, what they are in their elderly years is largely as a result of them having made it through the transition years of middle life. And how did they make it through the transition years? As a result of the commitments that they made in days like this. Oh, it doesn’t need to be with a great dramatic display. It’s irrelevant, really, whether others know. But it is that in your heart you say, “O God, teach me to number my days aright, that I may gain this heart of wisdom.”
Why is it so important that we do it now? Well, because you don’t stay young very long.
You say, “Well, I know, I can hear you saying that, but I don’t believe it.”
Believe me! I was where you are twenty-nine years ago. Twenty-nine years ago? I’m not supposed to know about twenty-nine years ago! I wasn’t here.
“Yes, you were. You were a college student twenty-nine years ago. You’ve got a son that’s going to be twenty-one, a daughter who’s eighteen, and another one who’s seventeen. You’re over the hill, Begg, admit it. You wouldn’t know contemporary if it jumped up and bit you.” That’s me!
What about you?
Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them.”
When you’re sitting with your cereal bowl, and you take your spoon and it’s involuntarily moving all around the cereal bowl but not getting any cereal in it at all. And the people who are around you, watching you, are going, “I hope he doesn’t put it in the bowl, because…” and in it goes in the bowl, and then you have it. And it’s still going everywhere, and your grandchildren are going, “Oh, Grandpa, can I help you with that?” And you’re going, “No, I’m fine. I’m… no, no, it’s fine!” And how did you get like that? “When the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop.” You do these things, you know, like this.
You think you’re smart? Hey, we’ll see how smart you are! We’ll see you walking around Wheaton: “Look at him! He was a great soccer player.”
“Why’s he walking like that?”
“He’s old. And you should see him drinking coffee; it’s unbelievable. And he hasn’t eaten a solid meal in weeks, ’cause he has inadequate occlusion. His grinders have ceased. That’s a quote from Ecclesiastes 12. He doesn’t have enough on the top to meet the few he’s got left on the bottom. He gets up in the night and shouts at his wife because he can’t read the thing on the air-conditioning unit that says whether it’s on or it’s off. ‘Help me, Rosie,’ he says, ‘I can’t see.’ And she says, ‘Pardon? I can’t hear.’ The two of them are in it together! You take ’em to the mall and leave ’em there. You take ’em to the park and put them on opposite ends of the bench so they won’t fight with one another, ’cause they’re like children again.”
[They sit] on their park bench
[And the] newspaper blown through the grass
Falls on the round toes
Of the high shoes
Of the old friends.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Can you imagine us
Years from today
Sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange
To be seventy
I look forward to these few days. Let me finish by pointing out this to you: How do you squander time, the most precious of resources? The same way that you’ll squander the money that your parents just put into your checking account. It won’t be as a result of going out, buying a car, because there’s not enough in there to buy a car, I hope. It won’t be really as a result of buying a stereo. Let me tell you how you will do it. Let me tell you how to go through five hundred dollars painlessly: write tons and tons of checks or make lots and lots of withdrawals that are so small that they feel insignificant. In other words, just go to the ATM, go to the ATM, go to the ATM, and you’ll get used to it, and all of a sudden, you’re broke.
Do you want to know how to squander your time here at Wheaton? Exact same way. Take the five minutes, the fifteen minutes, the twenty minutes, the casual moments, and just let them fritter away.
To realize the value of one year, ask a student who failed a grade. To realize the value of one month, ask the mother of a premature baby. To realize the value of one week, ask the editor of a weekly newspaper. To realize the value of one day, ask a daily wage laborer with kids to feed. To realize the value of one hour, ask two people in love who are waiting to meet. To realize the value of one minute, ask a person who missed the train. To realize the value of one second, ask the person who just avoided an accident. To realize the value of one millisecond, ask the person who won a silver Olympic medal. To realize the value of one nanosecond, read today’s Wall Street Journal, and consider the war between Apple and Intel.
Let us pray together:
O God our Father, we thank you for this lovely day. We recognize that “our times are in your hands.” Thank you for bringing us to this place. Grant that in all that we plan to gain we may gain a heart of wisdom as you respond to the humble cry of our hearts. Lord, please teach us to number our days aright. For we ask these things, committing one another and our loved ones, people we’ve left behind, individuals who are on our hearts, lovingly into your care today, through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
 Ephesians 5:15–16 (NIV 1984).
 Marc Levy, If Only It Were True (New York: Atria, 2000), 208. Paraphrased.
 Psalm 90:1 (NIV 1984).
 Gettysburg, directed and written by Ronald F. Maxwell (New Line, 1993). Paraphrased.
 Kris Kristofferson, “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (1970). Paraphrased.
 Paul Simon, “Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall” (1965).
 Psalm 90:12 (paraphrased).
 Joan Baez, “The Hitchhikers’ Song” (1971). Paraphrased.
 Sting, “Every Breath You Take” (1983). Paraphrased.
 Ecclesiastes 12:1 (NIV 1984).
 Ecclesiastes 12:3 (NIV 1984).
 Ecclesiastes 12:3 (paraphrased).
 Paul Simon, “Old Friends” (1968).
 Marc Levy, If Only It Were True, 208–9. Paraphrased.
 Psalm 31:15 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.