I was chatting with a friend yesterday morning. His wife, also a dear friend, is fighting cancer with faith and courage. I said he must be very tired. He said he was but that he has also been energised by the fresh realisation of his own mortality. He talked about his plans to invest more of his time in organizations that did things he really cared about. I have no doubts that he and his wife are in for some exciting times. They will probably be more alive than they have ever been for a while. That is what a fresh reminder of death can do for you.
I am always impressed by the human capacity to ignore death. Truth is, unless we are in that generation that is around when Christ returns, we are all going to die, to experience physical death. When I encounter a scene in a movie or a TV show where a doctor says: “He is not going to make it,” or some other euphemism for death, I want to shout, “hello, what’s the big deal? We are all going to die.” It’s just a question of when and how.
Ecclesiastes is the book of the bible that talks most about the universality of death. But the writer of Ecclesiastes (Qohelet) is not always energised by this. Instead, as Peter Enns notes, the fact that everybody dies, makes Qohelet think that life is absurd.
Since death comes to us all as the final leveler, nothing that we do has any ultimate value, because nothing lasts. So, anything that we might perceive as being meaningful, Qohelet goes to great lengths to point out, is really absurd. (“Ecclesiastes 1: Book of,” Dictionary of the Old Testament, Wisdom, Poetry & Writings, Eds. Tremper Longman III & Peter Enns, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008,129)
In the face of this apparent absurdity, Qohelet gives us some interesting advice. The first is — obey God.
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.
(Ecclesiastes 12: 13-14 TNIV)
The second is — enjoy God’s blessings and bless others.
What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him. (Ecclesiastes 3: 9-14 TNIV)
This life is absurd only if this life is all there is and if there is no loving, gracious and sovereign God. Although Qohelet does not have the benefit of the fullness of revelation that came with Jesus Christ and the New Testament, he knows enough to know:
1. There is a righteous God who will judge humanity so it is not nonsense to live righteous lives, although the rewards of righteousness may not be apparent “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9), that is, in this life.
This expression (“under the sun”) seems to imply that the speaker thinks a distinction can be made between what happens in human experience (“under the sun”) and what happens elsewhere. (Kathleen A. Farmer, Who Knows What is Good?, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991,206)
2. God makes everything beautiful in its time so we are free to enjoy the simple blessings of daily life — food and drink, work — even in the uncertainties and absurdities of life “under the sun.” And we are free to do good.
In summary, we are called to obey God, to enjoy His blessings, and to do good, because there is a life beyond this life, because God will judge between good and evil, and because He will make all things beautiful in His time.
I have a number of dear friends fighting cancer. They and their loved ones belong to that group of humanity who no longer have the luxury of avoiding the issue of death. Yet all of them are more alive than many others I know. My friends fighting cancer live lives of righteousness, they enjoy the blessings of life (one just saw the movie Transformers and recommended it to me), and they are blessing so many.
My dear friends, thank you for mentoring me about life. In truth, I too face death unless Christ chooses to return in my lifetime. But like many, I often forget that my days are numbered (Psalm 90:12). I am unfocused, I fritter my life away in distractions, I am numbed by over commitment, I major on the minors.
So thank you my friends, for reminding me how to live.
Every man dies – Not every man really lives.
(William Ross Wallace, from the movie Braveheart)