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3/12/12 at 11:55 PM 0 Comments

Keep in Mind that You Are Going to Die

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By John Goldingay

Paul McCartney is the same age as me. Discussing with him his plans for the future and how long he would continue touring, a recent interviewer in the Rolling Stone asked him what he thought about dying on stage. Paul recoiled and asked, "What kind of question is that?"

Rather a good question, Ecclesiastes would say; death is a subject he keeps coming back to. He deals with the subject most systematically in chapter 9.

Faithful and wise people and their deeds are in God's hands. Both [God's] loving and repudiating: a person does not know either beforehand. Everything is as it is for everyone. A single lot comes to the faithful person and to the faithless, to the good and to the pure and to the polluted, to the person who offers sacrifice and to the person who does not sacrifice. As the good person so is the offender. The person who swears is like the person who is afraid of an oath. 3This is the bad thing about everything that occurs under the sun, that there is a single lot for everyone. Further, the mind of human beings is full of badness and there is madness in their heart during their life, and afterwards – to the dead. Because whoever is joined to all the living – there is hope. Because a living dog is better than a dead lion. Because the living know they will die, but the dead don't know anything. There is no more reward for them, because their memory has been forgotten. Both their loving and their repudiating, their passion, has already perished. They have no more share forever in all that occurs under the sun. Go, eat your food with gladness, drink wine with a good heart, because God already approved your actions. At all times your clothes should be white and oil should not be lacking on your head. See life with the woman you love all the days of the empty life that you have been given under the sun, all the empty days, because that is your share in life and in your labor that you expend under the sun. Everything that your hand finds to do, do with all your energy, because there is no action or explanation or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, where you are going. I again saw under the sun that the race does not belong to the swift people, the battle to the warriors, nor food to the wise people, nor wealth to the discerning people, nor favor to the knowledgeable people, because time and chance happen to all of them. 12Rather, a person cannot know his time. Like fish that are taken in a bad net and like birds that are taken by a snare – like them, human beings are trapped by a bad time when it falls on them suddenly.

As is often the case, Ecclesiastes starts from the magnitude of the task that people like him set themselves in seeking to get an understanding of the world and what goes on in it. People like him are seeking to understand the entire purpose of God in the world, but even if they think about it all night as well as all day, they cannot reach an understanding. We are in God's hands, he comments. In other contexts, that fact would be good news, but in this context, not so. The point of the comment is that we know God is in control of the world and of our lives, but we can't see the rationale of that control. We know God is in control of our life and thus of our dying, but we can't know when the moment will come when God withdraws his life breath. While the point about his loving and his repudiating of us applies in general to when God makes or allows good things or bad things to happen to us, in the context of his comments about death, it refers in particular to whether God gives life or withdraws life. On any given day, you cannot know beforehand which it will be today. And it doesn't make any difference what kind of person you are.

Badness and madness characterize human life. Ecclesiastes agrees with the assessment in Genesis 6. You might think that this observation is gloomy enough. Ecclesiastes is even more appalled by the fact that it is all there is to human life. "Afterwards – to the dead." The austere reality of being dead means that there is something to be said for being alive (!). Where there's life there's hope. One might think of the hope that we will be able at least for a while to enjoy life in the way Ecclesiastes elsewhere commends. Yet the advantage he actually mentions is different, and it turns the positive statement into an irony. If you're alive, you know something – that you are going to die. If you're dead, you know nothing. You're not going to get anything out of existing when your existence is in Sheol. People are not going to be mindful of you and you are not going to be mindful of anything. When you're alive, you have passions; it's part of being human. You love and you reject, like God. When you're dead, passion is over.

Surprisingly, facing the facts about death doesn't make Churchman reject life. He does urge us to enjoy the lives we have, with their real simple human pleasures, as long as we have them. God has approved our doing so – either by giving humanity in general such a life to live, or by giving us as individuals the lives we have as long as we have them, until God decides to terminate them. The fact that you're going to be able to do nothing in Sheol is not reason to be paralyzed now; rather the opposite.

It was Ash Wednesday a few days ago, and one of its themes is the importance of keeping in mind that you're going to die (memento mori). Eastern Orthodox Christian teaching is particularly inclined to emphasize the importance of thinking about this fact. With Ecclesiastes, Orthodoxy affirms that facing death does not then inhibit you from enjoying life – again, rather the opposite. If you hide from the fact of death, it's still the elephant in the room. It still sits there in your unconscious. If you pretend things are otherwise, you may not be really able to enjoy life and be able to do in life what you would really want to do, before it is too late. Facing death means living in the present in the awareness that this might be the last day or week or month or year of my life. So I would be wise to do what I would not want to miss doing before I die, rather than putting off what I would not want to miss. Such an attitude brings depth and meaning to life.

I am thinking about Ecclesiastes because I am writing a series of commentaries called "The Old Testament for Everyone," and Ecclesiastes is where I have got to. I need another year to finish the series. I'm not assuming God will give me another year. I do know that it's something I want to get done. So I make it a priority. Oh, and I'd like to drop dead when I am either lecturing or preaching, But I won't have any choice about that, either.


John Goldingay is a professor at Fuller Seminary.

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