The Night is Coming
You probably don't recognize the name of Henry Allingham, do you? How about Jeanne Calment? No? Well, there's really no reason why you should; they both lived an entire ocean away, he in England, she in France. Why, then, should we link their names together, you ask, "What did they have in common?" Just this: they were both recognized as the oldest person in the world at the time of their death. Mrs. Calment died in 1997 at the age of 122. Mr. Allingham, at 113 years and 13 days, died in July of 2009.
These two were members of a rather select group dubbed supercentenarians. There are only seventy-seven of them in the world at the moment, at least according to those who keep count of such things. And, they also say, there have been only something over a thousand of these hoary heads documented in history.
Whether that includes (what shall we call them? Super-super centenarians of Genesis chapter five) is doubtful. Many people consider the Bible only a myth. Christians are not in that number; we believe that the Bible is history and not myth.
If so, the patriarchs of Genesis five are the hoariest of all the hoary heads on record, with ages ranging from 777 to 969 years. But aside from the advanced ages of these men of old, there is another hard fact that jumps out at us from this text: each brief biography (with the exception of Enoch's) ends with the words, "and he died." It happened that way with Ms. Calment; she lived 122 years and she died. And Henry Allingham; he lived 113 years and he died. That's how my story ends — and yours, and the story of all humankind. What's more, it's no big secret; "the living know that they will die" (Ecclesiastes 9:5). We'd have to be dense to overlook the constant parade of hearses.
Why bother, then, to write about the certainty and universality of death? Why spend the time and ink and paper? Surely, it's superfluous, isn't it? My answer is no. Even though we know it, we don't seem to get it. We hide it back in some dark recess of our minds; we deny it. Jeremiah said, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?" (17:9). We have to teach about things we already know because the human heart has a remarkable capacity for blocking out things it doesn't want to hear. And if we don't block them out entirely, we convince ourselves that we have plenty of time to deal with them.
Consider, then, two questions suggested by the fact of death:
When Must We Get Serious?
My short answer is: immediately, if not sooner. But let's look at the issue in biblical language. The writer of Ecclesiastes wrestled with the meaning of life, and here is his reply to our question:
"Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth, before the difficult days come, and the years draw near when you say, 'I have no pleasure in them'" (Ecclesiastes 12:1).
Life is fleeting, he says, so it's best to enjoy your youth while you can (11:9ff). Just do so with an eye on judgment. Enjoyment and seriousness are not mutually exclusive.
But what if youth passes us by and we fail to sober up until later in life? My answer is still the same: get on with it now. Jacob uttered a bit of unstudied wisdom after he learned that his lamented son Joseph was alive. He said, "I will go and see him before I die" (Genesis 45:28). Before I die — those are the pivotal words. It's the only time we have to act. And procrastination is folly; who can say when death will batter down our door? We all know someone to whom it was a sudden and cruel intruder.
Even Jesus was constrained by time. "I must work the works of Him who sent me while it is day," He said, "the night is coming when no one can work" (John 9:4). If true of the Master of time, how much more true of us. The wise will take it to heart.
What Must We Be Serious About?
Birth and death are common to us all; it's what comes between which distinguishes us from each other. Life is a stream of ever flowing choices, and they all matter because they all have consequences. The wise son of David tried them all. Here's what he found:
- Wisdom, though preferable to folly, falls short of being the key to life. To the contrary, "in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases in knowledge increases sorrow" (Ecclesiastes 1:18).
- The party life is a washout. Pleasure, wine, laughter — "What does it accomplish?" (2:1-3).
- Possessions don't cut it. Fine houses, servants, gold, silver, vineyards, flocks and herds — he denied himself nothing. And it was about as satisfying as a handful of wind.
So he wound up hating life "because the work that was done under the sun was distressing to him" (2:17). But then, finally, he worked his way to what he called "the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man's all" (12:13).
So what will it be? God has set before us "life and death, blessing and cursing" (Deuteronomy 30:19). With Moses, I urge you, "Therefore, choose life," and one more thing: do it now. "The night is coming when no one can work."
— via The Lost River Bulletin, Bowling Green, Kentucky