I am not sure why, but the words to a famous nineteenth-century hymn have been spinning around in my head for several days.
“When ends life’s transient dream/ when death’s cold sullen stream shall o’er me roll;/ blest Savior, then in love, fear and distrust remove;/ O bear me safe above, a ransomed soul!” (“My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” by Ray Palmer)
I have been asking myself, “Why this sudden preoccupation with death? Where is this coming from?”
Maybe it is the repeated images on TV news: hospital ICUs crowded again with patients struggling against the resurgence of COVID-19 and the daily reports of the number of COVID-related deaths.
It may be the recent death of the young son of a friend of mine who died under tragic circumstances. His passing has been on my mind a lot as I have prayed for his family in their anguish.
Or it may be because I just had my 75th birthday and I realize the distance to the finish line is getting closer by the day.
I rather think it is because I have been studying the book of Ecclesiastes. One of the persistent themes in this ancient book is the fact that life is short and death is inevitable. This is not a morbid thought. Nor is it pessimistic. It is realistic. It is the inspired wisdom of God.
The writer says: “So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them. All share a common destiny — the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. As it is with the good so with the sinful; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them. . . . The same destiny overtakes all . . . and afterward they join the dead. . . . For the living know that they will die” (Ecclesiastes 9:1-6).
This is, of course, the language of appearance. It is how things seem to be to limited human experience. The author of Ecclesiastes is not commenting on life after death. For the exposition of that glorious theme we must fast forward to the New Testament. Here he is taking a somber look at life “under the sun.” In a hundred years the majority of us will have been forgotten (v.5).
What happens at the time of death is worth pondering. The writer asks, “Who knows if the human spirit rises upward, and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth”(Ecclesiastes 3:21)? On our own we cannot know. Yes, God has put “eternity in our hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). This is the universal hope for immortality. But who can know apart from a revelation from God?
The writer of Ecclesiastes answers his own question: “The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to the God who gave it” (12:7). This is an intimation, a hint of continued existence with God after death. These words of wisdom were “given by one Shepherd” (12:11). The writer is conscious that he was inspired by God to write about the destiny of the sprit of believers at death. “The Lord is my Shepherd” (Psalm 23:1).
Ecclesiastes says the prospect of death produces one of two responses. On the one hand there are those who say, “Let us eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” On the other hand there are those who “fear God, and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it be good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
The book of Ecclesiastes teaches us to live life to the fullest as long as we have life, to enjoy it while we can. “Go, eat your food with gladness and drink your wine with a joyful heart for God has already approved what you do” (9:7). This life-affirming word is a reminder that the blessings of life are to be enjoyed as gifts from God: food and drink, love and marriage, vocation and purpose (vv. 8-10). We should not let the fear of death hover over us like a dreaded specter.
Those who are in Christ can look death in the eye without fear. Jesus takes away the fear of death because he has broken the power of death (Hebrews 2:14-15).
I have attended several funerals lately. Every funeral I attend is a reminder of my own mortality. But my faith is in Jesus the Savior. So, I can be sure that “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
Pastor Randy Faulkner