To whom shall I speak, and give warning, that they may hear? behold, their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot hearken.—Jer. 6.10

[The Right Improvement of a Time of Sickness & Mortality by Thomas Boston.]


Thomas Boston
Minister of the Gospel at Ettrick, Scotland.

Two sermons preached on a congregational fast-day, at Ettrick, April 27, 1720, on occasion of the great sickness and mortality then prevailing.
PSALM 90.12.—So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.


THIS text is a prayer suitable to the dispensation of this day. While we stand and see so much sickness and mortality prevailing among us, they have stout hearts indeed, who look not up to the Lord with this or the like petition in their hearts, So teach us, &c.

This psalm was calculated for a dying time, being supposed to be penned upon the occasion of that sentence passed in the wilderness, Num. 14.28, &c. concerning the death of those from twenty years old and upward who came out of the land of Egypt, so as none of them should enter Canaan, but Caleb and Joshua. It was penned, I say, by Moses, who saw, in the space of forty years, six hundred thousand men swept off by death, besides women and children.

There are three things insisted on in the body of this psalm, and summed up together, verses 10,11. A short life, a sure death, and a severe judgment. And here is the use of them, O to consider these so as to be wise for our souls, O for a sanctified use of the sad dispensation. In the words there is,

1. A lesson desired to be learned, (1.) The lesson itself, of counting or numbering of our days; i.e. of considering them duly and seriously, as he who tells any thing before him, looks to every one of the number, and makes a just reckoning. (2.) The teacher of whom only we can learn this is God himself. It is a difficult lesson to learn to purpose. Many good counters, who can dexterously count great sums, are quite out in the calculation of their days, Luke 12.19,20. There is a necessity of the teaching of the Spirit, in order to learn this divine arithmetic.

2. The standard of proficiency in this lesson, That we may apply our hearts unto wisdom; i.e. that we learn it so as we apply ourselves to serious godliness, which is the only wisdom: Heb. that we may bring in; a heart of wisdom, i.e. a wise heart. We have naturally light and foolish hearts; but he, and only he, learns this lesson well that brings in a serious, religious, and wise heart, from the school of the word and providence, where that lesson is taught. All under this standard are but bunglers at the lesson, they have not yet learned it truly: though they can talk of it, viz. the shortness and vanity of life, they are never a whit the wiser for all that, in respect of their souls; they have not yet got it by heart, but only by head; and therefore they are still the carnal, careless men they were before.

The words being thus explained, I shall, as the subject of this forenoon's discourse, observe the following doctrine:—

DOCTRINE. 'A time of mortality is a special call to all, rightly to number their days.'
Sin brought in mortality into the world, Gen. 2.17, compare chapter 5. And it has never gone out of it since; at all times some are here and there stepping off: but there are some times by way of eminency to be called 'times of mortality,' as that in the wilderness, and as now amongst us in this land. This has a special call.

Here I shall shew,

  1. What it is to number our days.
  2. That a time of mortality is a special call to this work.
I. I am to shew what it is to number our days. It imports,
1. Our days had a beginning, and we must reflect on that, Psalm 22.9. Every thing that is numbered must have a beginning; and therefore God's duration is not liable to numbering. But we may soon perceive our beginning to be in the world; and thence learn and observe,
(1.) That it is by divine appointment, and not by necessity of our nature, that we continue to be. The latter is proper to God only; by the former, angels and men, and all creatures, are continued in being. For he that once had no being, can never claim a natural necessity of continuing to be.

(2.) That every moment of our life hangs on the divine will and pleasure, Rev. 4.11. There is no necessary connection betwixt your living this moment and living the next. The only bond betwixt them is God's word of appointment, Heb. 1.3. Loose that, and remove it, our life goes, and our eyes shall never see the next moment. No food, no physic, can prevent it, Matth. 4.4. There is no outliving that word, Psalm 90.3. 'Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men,' so much as for one moment.

(3.) That we must go the way of all flesh; for many of those we found in the world at our coming into it, are now gone, Zech. 1.5. This world is always like a fair near the height, where some are coming in, others going out, and those within in confusion, Eccl. 1.4. I doubt not but there may be some in this house this day, who, if they will consider, shall not find one of all those that filled it at their first coming into it. But these are gone, and others have come into the room of them all. And shall not others reckon so of us in a little time?

2. Our days will have an end, and we must seriously consider that. Hence says the Psalmist, Psalm 39.4. 'Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is.' Every thing that is numerable has an end; and therefore eternity cannot be numbered, since it hath no end. But we may soon come to the end of our count, when we are counting our days; and thence may learn and observe,
(1.) That the shored tree will be cut down at length. 'I know that thou wilt bring me to death,' says Job, 'and to the house appointed for all living,' Job 30.23. When we were first planted in this world, the axe was laid down at the root of the tree, and we have grown up beside it. There is never a pain nor stitch, but it is a stroke of that axe, a pledge of a greater. Sometimes it has almost struck through, but in a little time it will go through altogether. So that man shall lie down, and not rise till the heavens be no more.

(2.) We will need nothing for this life ere long. Dip not so deep in the cares of this world as most do, to the ruin of their souls. Many have been anxious to provide for the day which they never saw, as the rich man in the parable did, Luke 12.17-20. The clods of earth will serve for back and belly ere long, and we will have no portion in what is done under the sun; others will possess the houses, land, &c. which we now occupy.

(3.) See now how ye will begin eternity. It will begin with us when our days are come to an end; and as we begin it, so we will continue in it, Heb. 9.27. Our state now is alterable, but then it is unalterable for ever. Therefore now or never let us secure a happy eternity. Learn your duty from the unjust steward, the serious consideration of which I recommend to you, Luke 14.3-8.

(4.) Working time for eternity will not last. It closeth with the end of our days: Therefore 'whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might: for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave whither thou goest,' Eccl. 9.10.

Use. Be not idle spectators of the dispensation of this day. Number your days, so as ye may apply your hearts unto wisdom. If you will not take warning to prepare for eternity, by the removal of others, take heed lest God make you a warning to others. Let the aged and young hear the voice of the rod, and seriously improve it.

3. Our days are few, and we must consider, that they are the number of a man, they may be counted. There are some things not innumerable in themselves, yet cannot be numbered for their multitude. But there is no such multitude of the days of our life.

(1.) Consider the counters the scripture affords us to count our days by. A web, Isa. 38; it is such a web as one is still working at without intermission, and therefore will soon be cut out:—grass, and a flower soon withered, Isa. 40.6,7;—green at morn, and cut down at night, Psalm 90.6:—a vapour that vanisheth away, frail, uncertain, and of short continuance, Jam. 4.14:—smoke, Psalm 90.3:—a wind, a blast, or puff, Job 7.7:—a sleep, Psalm 90.5:—a dream, Job 20.8:—a hand-breadth, Psalm 39.5:—nothing, ibid. compare Eccl. 3.2. Count with these counters, and the reckoning will be very small, which the scripture also has cast up to our hands.

(2.) Consider the scripture-reckoning of man's life. The highest reckoning is by years, now brought down to a few scores, Psalm 90.10. Nay, as we count the age of infants by months, so is man's age reckoned, Job 14.5. As if months were too big a word, it is brought down to days, and a few days, Job 14.1; yea, to one day, wherein there is but a morning, noon, and evening, Job 14.6; and yet lower, to an hour, 1 John 2.18; aye, to a moment, that is past ere one is aware, 2 Cor. 15.17. Prov. 12.19. So the sum of our days is very small.

From both ye may find that our days are few; and thence learn and observe,
(1.) It is no safe counting to count many years to come, whatever ye be, lest ye be out in your account, as the rich man was, Luke 12.19,20. Many whose youth and strength seemed to give them ground for counting so, have been forced to see their mistake, and count again, little to their comfort, death coming ere it was looked for.

(2.) Our days will soon be at an end. We will quickly be over our hand-breadth. They fly like a shadow, Job 14.2. And though a weaver's shuttle is very swift, in going from one side of the web to the other, our days are swifter than it is, Job 7.6. See what Job says, chapter 9, verses 25,26. 'Now my days are swifter than a post; they flee away, they see no good. They are passed away as the swift ships; as the eagle that hasteth to the prey.'

(3.) We have no time to be idle. Our work for eternity is great, for it is long, and our time is short. They who have much work, little time to do it in, little strength to do it with, and much opposition to wrestle against, had need to lose no time, John 9.4. The shadows of the evening are stretched out; we have made but little way; let us therefore mend our pace.

(4.) Lastly, We must make the considering of our days, a serious business. The counting of them to purpose will not do otherwise. It deserves it, for eternity lies upon it; a mistake in that may be fatal; and we are very ready to miscount our days. And,

[1.] Make it a work by itself. If one have but a few threads to count, they will let other work alone till that be done; for it is of that nature that it will not mix with other pieces of work. Surely at any time, and much more at this time, God calls us to take some particular time for this work, Hag. 1.5.

[2.] Hold to it, till you have done it to purpose. Counting is not a work to be done by fits and starts. If it be broken off, readily all that is counted is lost, and one must just begin again, having lost his count. Fleeting thoughts of the shortness and uncertainty of time are to little purpose. The impression they make is soon worn off.

[3.] Dip into the business, and be not overly [careless] in it. One thing that is counting will be loath to hear or answer a word spoken to him, lest he miss his count. Satan and our ill hearts are apt to cast in diversions to those employed in counting their days; and by that means many times mar the work. But ye must stop your ears, and mind your business.

II. I proceed to shew, that a time of mortality is a special call to this work.
1. It sets death and eternity in a particular manner before the eyes of mortals, as appears from this psalm wherein our text lies. It is a looking-glass wherein every one may see his own frailty; for the strength of the hale is no more the strength of stones, nor their bones brass, more than others whom death has cut down. What is the lot of one mortal to-day, may be the lot of another to-morrow; and that calls to consider it.

2. God, by laying his hand on some, speaks unto others, as appears from what our Lord says, Luke 13.1, and downwards, and warns them. And they that are wise will take warning, Micah 6.9. And it is a sad evidence when people will not hear it. They look like those marked for destruction, who, in the face of God's judgments going abroad in a place still do wickedly, Isa. 26.11.

3. It is an evidence of the Lord's anger against a land or country-side where it prevails, Amos 3.8. And not laying it to heart is a contempt of God, that he will surely avenge, Psalm 28.5. It speaks God to be risen up from his place to punish; and who knows who may fall ere God's sword, once drawn, be returned into its sheath?

Use. Let old and young comply with the call of God by the present sickness and mortality: let every one be stirred up thereby so to count their days, as they may apply their hearts unto wisdom. For motives, consider,

1. We will be most inexcusable, if after all these warnings death find us unprovided. The dispensation of the day is such, that no body needs to pretend to be surprised with death's coming to their own door, since it is carrying off so many, both young and old.

2. It is a piece of that duty we owe to an angry God, as we would not inflame his anger more against us, Psalm 28.5. Amos 3.8. It is not true courage, but stupidity and obstinacy, not to be deeply affected with the hand of God gone out against us. Let creatures despise, if they will, the stroke of their fellow worms, but let them not despise the stroke of God, Heb. 12.5. It becomes saints of the highest pitch to fear God smiting, Luke 12.4,5.

3. This would be the way to get the stroke removed, or at least to get it sanctified, Hab. 3.16. The design of Providence in the stroke is to stir us up to this duty, and the answering of the call of the rod bids fairest for the removal of it, Lev. 26.41,42. If not, the venom will be taken out of it; and if one be taken away being fitted for it, he will exchange this life for a better.

4. Lastly, If this be misimproved, it lays us open to a worse, Amos 4.11,12. In a land so full of sin, so often threatened with desolating strokes, and so often delivered, but nothing bettered by deliverances, this stroke looks rather like the beginning than the end of sorrows, rather like an earnest than the round sum, that might clear the accounts betwixt God and a sinful nation.



WE are again met this day to humble ourselves under the hand of God, gone out against the congregation and country-side, in great sickness and mortality, and to deprecate the Lord's anger. I know no such expedient in our case, nor any thing that will bid so fair for the removal of the stroke, as our coming up to the standard of proficiency in the lesson in our text, which falls now to be spoken of, and which I shall cast into this doctrine.

DOCTRINE. 'The right and necessary improvement of a time of bodily sickness and mortality, is to become wise for our souls.'
The Lord is putting particular persons and families among us, yea, all of us, to the school of affliction, since the hand of God gone out against some concerns all; and it is necessary we learn our lesson aright, and become wise thereby.

In discoursing from this doctrine, I shall,

  1. Shew what is that wisdom we must learn thereby.
  2. Condescend on some particulars of wisdom which such a time calls us to apply our hearts to.
I. I am to shew, what is that wisdom we are to learn by a time of bodily sickness and mortality. It is serious godliness, or true religion. When one becomes seriously godly, leaving the way of sin, and entering on the way of faith and holiness, then he has learned the lesson that God is teaching us this day, Job 28.28, 'Unto man he said, Behold the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil, is understanding.' This is the only true wisdom; and they continue arrant fools who do not arrive at it, whatever other wisdom they be masters of. This is the wisdom taught at God's school of affliction, Heb. 12.10. The voice of the rod is, Be wise for your souls. That this is the true wisdom, appears in that,
1. It is practical wisdom, wisdom for regulating a man's life in the way to happiness, Hos. 14.9. How many are there accounted wise, who betray their folly in quite shooting by the mark, in the way of life they chuse, Jer. 22.13-16. Surely that is wisdom which sets men in the true way to happiness, which is faith and holiness, Mark 16.16. Heb. 12.14. What avail carnal worldly wit, the profound speculations of natural men in the learned sciences, and the dry and sapless notions of religion in formal professors? All these are but laborious trifling, and making a noise, doing nothing, while they never make them better men, though more knowing.

2. It is wisdom for one's self, Prov. 9.12. There is a set of men, whose wisdom is noted to be for others, but not for themselves, resembled by boatmen, who ferry others over, but, during the whole time of their rowing, have their eyes fixed on the place whence they came, and, immediately after landing their passengers, return to where they set out. Such is the wisdom of all ungodly men: their wisdom may profit other men's souls or bodies; but, alas! it profits not themselves, 1 Cor. 9.27. Matth. 6.19,20. But this is the excellency of real godliness, that 'it giveth life to them that have it,' Eccl. 7.12. It casts the soul into the mould of truth, sanctifies the heart and life in conformity to the divine nature and will; and so perfects human nature, raising up a glorious fabric out of the ruins in which it was laid by the fall.

3. It is wisdom for one's latter end, Deut. 32.29. The fool in the gospel had wit enough to provide for many years' life. But here lay his folly, he had nothing provided for his latter end, for a dying hour, Luke 12.20. Many such fools are among us. It was one of the dying expressions of a learned man of the last age, Ah! vitam perdidi, operose nihil agendo.

4. It is wisdom for the better part, Luke 10.41,42. The wisdom of the world is but for the baser part of man, the body; it makes him useful in business and civil conversation. But this reaches only the outworks, while in the mean time the soul's concerns lie by neglected. But this wisdom advanceth the life and interests of the soul, insures one's title to heaven, and sets him on the way to eternal happiness, Prov. 8.35.

5. Lastly, It is wisdom for the better world, Heb. 11.14,16. Our projects for this world, as to ourselves, must die with ourselves, Psalm 146.4, but they who are wise for that better world, by being religious indeed, will find their measures wisely laid in time, to take and have their effect happily in eternity, Rev. 14.13. What they now sow, they shall then joyfully reap.

III. I proceed to condescend on some particulars of wisdom which such a time calls us to apply our hearts to.
1. To inquire seriously into the causes of the Lord's controversy with us, Job 10.2. When God's hand is stretched out, it will be our wisdom to search wherefore it is so, Lam. 3.39. Surely there is a cause; he does not smite without good reason: and unless our eyes see it, our hearts cannot rue it.

God has a controversy with the congregation and country-side; it were good we could lay it to heart. Two things seem to have the main hand in it.

(1.) Abuse and misimprovement of spiritual mercies and privileges. Thus the Lord threatened the Old-Testament church, Deut. 28.58,59. 'If thou wilt not observe to do all the words of this law, that are written in this book, that thou mayest fear this glorious and fearful name, THE LORD THY GOD; then the Lord will make thy plagues wonderful, and the plagues of thy seed, even great plagues, and of long continuance and sore sicknesses, and of long continuance.' This brought a sore sickness upon the church of Corinth, 1 Cor. 11.30. The noted divisions, and deserting of ordinances, in the country, are the judgment and the sin of the corner, whereby contempt is poured on precious gospel-ordinances, the success of the gospel marred by so many hindrances laid in the way of souls getting good of it; and thus gnats are strained at, and camels swallowed down, in respect of the deep-dyed guilt in what it does to hinder the spiritual good of perishing souls. Men will not see it, but they shall see. And alas! how evident is our unfruitfulness under means of grace? How few are bettered now by a preached gospel? God's word is slighted, and ineffectual for our reformation, his holy name is profaned, his Sabbaths are violated, sacraments are neglected by some, and profaned by others with their unholy and untender lives. What wonder that for this cause 'many are weak and sickly among us, and many sleep?' 1 Cor. 11.30. Warnings and reproofs prevail not, conviction is rare, and conversion is more rare. Many have not a form of godliness left them; and few have any thing but a form of it. [2 Tim. 3.5.] Many are crying out against the sins of others, while the visible blots in their own lives do not make them smite on their own breasts and say 'What have I done!' God grant that the contempt and abuse of gospel-privileges bring not a removal of the kingdom of God from us.

(2.) Abuse and misimprovement of temporal mercies. It is observable, that with the promise of plenty to the church, using their plenty in an holy becoming manner, the promise of the taking away of sickness is joined, Exod. 23.25. Deut. 7.12-14. This says that God punisheth abuse of plenty with sickness. God has given the country plenteous years; and what has been the issue of it, but contempt of God and the rules of righteousness, increase of pride and vanity, and drunkenness, with an unordinary abuse of that fiery liquor, never ordained for ordinary drinking; masters breaking the yoke, undermining and undergoing one another through the country; servants bursting all bonds, and turned quite unmanageable and undutiful? The last year, a little before this time, I gave warning from the Lord's word against these things particularly: but I think there was never more of them in my time, than followed upon the back of it. No wonder then, that God has shapen us out another piece of work this year.

Let these things be weighed in an even balance, as in the sight of God, by us all. And let particular persons and families, especially those who have been or are under the rod, inquire into the causes of God's quarrel with them, that they may see why the Lord contendeth.

2. To be humbled under the causes of the Lord's anger, and to turn to a smiting God in Christ. This would be our wisdom, Lev. 26.41,42. Micah 6.9. It is not time to stand in the way of sinners, when God is risen up to plead; it is high time to fall down before him in humiliation, and to fall off from God-provoking courses by reformation. Hear the voice of the rod. It is crying two things loudly this day.

(1.) Improve a season of the gospel. Some sermons have of late been the last to them that heard them. Some heard the sermon on the Lord's day in health, that were in eternity ere the next Sabbath. This says, Hear ye every day as if it were to be your last.

(2.) Improve temporal mercies, lest God be provoked to take them from you. Health and strength, and other temporal conveniences, are to be wisely managed, for you see we have no tack [permanent hold] of them, Eccl. 9.10.

3. To be upon your guard, and make sure for eternity, while you live. Remember the parable of the wise and foolish builder, and how apt ye are to play the fool in these matters, while health and strength last.
(1.) Beware ye be not cheated out of your most valuable interests, by a deceitful heart, a treacherous world, and a wily devil. Satan goes about many a poor simple one, till they are tricked of their souls, their part of Christ and heaven, and all the happiness of another world, Matth. 16.26. And wherefore do they part with them, but for the gratifying of a lust, which is a practice more foolish than if one should part with an estate for a childish toy. So did Esau. Wherefore be wise in time.

(2.) Beware the best bargain slip not through your fingers, while ye are pursuing vanities, Prov. 17.16. Alas! there are not a few, who, being busied with vanities of this world, which pass away with the using, miss the opportunity of making the treasure hid in the field of the gospel their own. Therefore be wise.

(3.) Beware of feeding yourselves with dreams and fancies, wherein there is no reality. There are many foolish virgins with lamps without oil, and foolish builders on the sand. There are many whose life is but one continued dream, wherein they judge aright of nothing, neither God, heaven, hell, nor the world. So that their awakening cannot be but terrible. But be ye wise.

4. To prepare timeously for death and judgment, Matth. 24.44. It is certain that naturally we are quite out of case for that great change: and, alas! we are naturally unwilling to think of it, or provide for it. But necessity has no law. We must die; and we must either be provided for death, or we are ruined: and if we be not timely provided, our candle may be put out ere our work be done.
(1.) Get habitual preparation for death, in a gracious state, Rom. 8.1. Be sure to get out of the state of nature into the state of grace. And then come death when it will, it will but transport you into the state of glory. And there are two things here to be secured.
[1.] Get your title to heaven fixed. None will get thither but those who have a right to it, Mat. 25.34; 2 Cor. 5.1. To others the door will be cast in their face. But, ye may say, how may we get a title to heaven? Answer. Marry the Heir, and heaven will be your dowry. The everlasting covenant is offered to you in the gospel, God to be your God in Christ, and Christ to be yours in all his offices. Therefore make a solemn deliberate transaction with God this night, embracing Christ in the covenant, and consenting to it, with an eye to death and eternity.

[2.] Get a fitness for heaven wrought in you, Col. 1.12. For ye cannot be meet for it, till your nature be changed. How may we get that fitness? may ye say. Answer. Believe and embrace Jesus Christ, for his spirit of sanctification, 1 Cor. 1.30. There is a fullness of the Spirit in him to be communicated, and faith must eye Christ for his sanctifying Spirit. Put off the old man, and put on the new man: be new creatures, and let old things pass away, and all things become new. In vain do men pretend to faith without this, 2 Cor. 5.17; and in vain will men look for heaven without it, John 3.3.

This is habitual preparation, which whoso have, if they should be struck dead in a moment, or immediately seized with deliriousness, and die raving, yet they are safe; 'for there is no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus,' Rom. 8.1.

(2.) Get actual preparation for death, in a gracious frame for dying, that ye may die comfortably.

[1.] Make speed with the work given you to do. Whatever piece of work is put into your hand, for God's honour, dispatch it with all expedition, Matth. 24.46, for if ye delay it, ye may lose the opportunity for ever.

[2.] Be habitually tender in your life, Acts 24.16. And beware of any standing controversy betwixt God and you: for if there be any such, it will readily stare you in a dying hour.

[3.] Be weaned from the world, and hold a loose grip of all you have in it, that it might drop like Joseph's mantle.

[4.] Keep waking and watchful, Luke 12.36. Be much in the thoughts of death, and the life to come, that ye be not surprised.

[5.] Lastly, To prepare for more public and general trials and calamities. This is a piece of wisdom to be learned from such a dispensation. For lesser strokes are usually the forerunners of greater ones. Sodom and Gomorrah were tried with a lesser stroke, ere they were destroyed by fire from heaven, Gen. 14.10. And our Lord told the Jews, that unless they repented, they should perish, Luke 13.5; which threatening was accomplished in the destruction of Jerusalem. The day may yet come, wherein men shall praise the dead, that are already dead; and they may miss this stroke, who are reserved for a worse, and shall meet with it ere all be done. In a time when the cup of God's anger is going through a land, they that drink first usually fare best. How are we to prepare? may ye say. Answer. Keep your garments clean from the sins and snares of the day, and place where ye live, and take up your lodging in the sure and unalterable covenant of grace, and then no evil shall befall you.