Posts Tagged ‘death’
On the morning of Tuesday 24th March 2015, 150 people – passengers and crew – boarded Germanwings flight 4U9525. They were travelling from Barcelona in Spain to Düsseldorf in Germany. The flight took off at 9.01am. The final contact with air traffic control was at 9.30am. At 9.30am the autopilot was switched on. By 9.31am the aircraft was in a controlled descent over the Alps. There was no response at 9.35am when air traffic control attempted to make further contact, but the flight recorders picked up the sound of some kind of pounding on the cabin door. The last radar contact was made at 9.40am, with the aircraft about 2000 feet above the mountains; screaming can be heard on the recordings. Within moments the aircraft struck the ground at 430 miles an hour. All 150 people on board were killed almost instantly.
How do you respond to these events? Perhaps with shock, grief, anger or fear? As we survey these things, we have seen courage and dignity, pride and vindictiveness, pain and sorrow, anguish and bewilderment. We are reminded that we do not know what is in the heart of man, and we may never know all that took place in the aeroplane.
But what should you make of it? What lessons can we learn from such a tragedy? In the Bible, a king called David was writing about some of the triumphs that he had enjoyed and the mercies he had obtained. And then he strikes a thoughtful, sober note: “Lord, what is man, that You take knowledge of him? Or the son of man, that You are mindful of him? Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow” (Psalm 144:3–4).
In these words, mankind is seen to scale in a fallen world full of sin and sorrow. It puts my life and yours in perspective. These words remind us that life is a breath and a blessing.
Life is a breath
Why does the God of heaven have regard for mankind? These words suggest a comparison while they make a declaration. Breath is mere vapour, a puff of air, something that is empty. A passing shadow has no strength or substance – it is a shade that slips away. This is a picture of human life in a fallen world.
It speaks of frailty. Even a child knows that bubbles do not last and balloons do not endure. The life of a shadow depends on the passing clouds! When the aircraft struck the ground, humanly speaking, there was no chance of survival. The strongest, wisest, cleverest, fittest, richest, most gifted and talented people died just as suddenly as any others. King David enthroned in triumph acknowledges that his life is a breath. Assaults, accidents, diseases – all bring men and women to a quick end.
The language also communicates brevity, the shortness of life. Bubbles burst, breaths are exhaled. The longest lifespan of a shadow is a single day, and it leaves no trace behind. A man who lived to be 130 years old said, “few and evil have been the days of the years of my life” (Genesis 47:9). There was a seven month old baby who died. Sixteen school children were killed. And yet the longest life on that plane was a relatively short one.
Then we learn of the uncertainty of life. Perhaps no-one boarded that plane – perhaps one person did – thinking that they were in the last hour of their life. Those school children sent texts of eager anticipation at being home. We have heard reports of the expectations and ambitions, the dreams and the schemes of some of those who died. Those grand plans and efforts have now come to nothing. You and I do not know when or how our life on earth will end. The Word of God warns us, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth” (Proverbs 27:1). So many people are ushered unprepared into eternity, imagining a longer life and making no preparation for death and judgment.
Have you considered these painful realities of human life in a fallen world? Such events – especially such tragedies – force us to face the frailty, brevity and uncertainty of life, and the fact that afterward there is a judgement. The Lord Jesus himself reminded people, in the face of various sudden deaths, that the people who suffered them were no worse sinners than any others. He used the occasion to warn us that “unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke’s Gospel 13:1–5).
These are painful lessons to us who remain. We are too often arrogant bubbles and proud shadows, quick to boast of our strength and to forget the fearful reality.
Life is a blessing
So what is our hope? If our lives are so frail, brief and uncertain, is there any prospect for us? Remember the words of King David: “Lord, what is man, that You take knowledge of him? Or the son of man, that You are mindful of him? Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow” (Psalm 144:3–4).
Here is an astounding fact: the Lord God Almighty takes notice of mankind. It does not mean that God is aware of our existence and sends a passing glance in our direction. It means that he plans and purposes with mankind in mind, he designs and determines to take account of sinful creatures like you and me. God is mindful of mankind with regard to both our weakness and our wickedness.
With regard to our weakness, life is given and sustained. Perhaps we presume our entitlement to life. We ought to be grateful for the gift. God is described in the Bible as the one who “gives to all life, breath, and all things” (Acts17:25). The tragedy is that we often live like another king from history who lived as he pleased and worshipped what he wanted, but “the God who holds your breath in His hand and owns all your ways, you have not glorified” (Daniel 5:23). God ought to be glorified by you and all his creatures, “for of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever” (Romans 11:36). The gift of life is not to be used to pursue your sinful pleasures but to seek the glory of God who made you. Do you have any thought of God? Do you live with any regard for him? Do you serve him with your life or waste your hours on vanities? Our opportunities are so short, and our life is so unstable, and yet we live with no regard for God.
Furthermore, that life given is sustained. Though life in itself is frail, brief and uncertain, yet you are still alive to read these words! How many times have you been spared death? How many times has your life been preserved? Perhaps you can remember assaults, accidents or sicknesses when you almost lost your life. Perhaps there were risks and dangers about which you still have no idea. You owe to a merciful God not only the life you have but the fact that you still have it. That is true on the largest scale: God sustains this world and everything in it, all its reliability and stability in terms of days and seasons (Genesis 8-9). “He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew’s Gospel 5:45). We all benefit from his kindnesses. It is true on the smallest scale, for our individual lives are all known to him. We can say that “in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them” (Psalm 139:16). A Christian can say with confidence that not even the smallest bird “falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew’s Gospel 10:29–30).
But God is mindful not only of our weakness but also our wickedness. You see, the problem is not merely that we are creatures, but we are sinful creatures. Though we have been given life, breath and all things by a mighty and merciful God, we live as if we were gods, as if we called all the shots in our life. And yet God is still mindful of mankind. In the face of our rebellions and sins, life is offered and assured.
Not only has God given us what we might call common mercies, he also holds out saving mercies. He offers us eternal life in his kingdom, so that one writer can say that “even when we were dead in trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5). God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to be our peace, to make it and to proclaim it to sinners like us. He “remembered us in our lowly state … and rescued us from our enemies, for His mercy endures forever” (Psalm 136:23–24). Those enemies include sin and death – the only way to be prepared for our entrance into eternity is through Jesus Christ, whom God sent in love so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life (John’s Gospel 3:16). This is God taking knowledge of sinners so as to hold out salvation to us. The Son of God became a man and died on the cross so that sinners like us might have everlasting love (Philippians 2:5–8). This is God’s mercy to and pity for sinners, offering life to us though we are lost and helpless in ourselves. He has thought upon us and held out life in Christ.
And this life is assured. When a sinner trusts in Jesus Christ they obtain a life which death itself cannot end, and are given “an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:4–5). Our present body can be likened to “our earthly house, this tent,” but if it is destroyed, a Christian can say that “we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1). There is nothing frail, brief or uncertain about that life! Your hope in life and in death hinges upon the saving mercies of God in Christ, grasped by faith. In the Old Testament, a prophet called Isaiah contrasted the person who trusts in empty things with the one who believes in God: “When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you. But the wind will carry them all away, a breath will take them. But he who puts his trust in Me shall possess the land, and shall inherit My holy mountain” (Isaiah 57:13). So those who trust in Jesus, according to the promise of God, “look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).
Have you considered the frailty, brevity and uncertainty of your life? Let the dreadful events of recent days press these things home to your soul. And remember, in the face of all your weakness, and despite all your sin and your sinning, God has given and sustained the gift of natural life. Furthermore, in the face of all your wickedness, God has sent his Son, Jesus Christ, that you might have life in his name, and might have it more abundantly (John’s Gospel 10:10) – life everlasting!
The God of heaven and earth is marvellously, mercifully, mindful of mankind. This is your only hope in this world and for the next. The only answer to your frail, brief, uncertain life is the divine mercy and sufficiency.
I plead with you to think about the mercies you have already received in the face of your weakness and your wickedness. Your life is a gracious gift, and though it may hang by a thread, you still possess it. What thought – what gratitude, worship and service – have you given to the God who gives and sustains your life?
But think, too, of the mercies you are now offered in the face of your weakness and wickedness. Life is passing, but God has been mindful of you. Without Christ, you will die and go into judgement, and face the horrors of hell. But God has sent Christ as a Saviour, and has put this leaflet in your hand to warn you of eternal death and awful damnation and to hold out everlasting life in Christ. Christ says, “Incline your ear, and come to Me. Hear, and your soul shall live” (Isaiah 55:3).
These are fearful words to most of us, and rightly so. To be told that you have heart disease is to be told of a fundamental threat to life. Sometimes the only options are radical surgery and a complete revolution in our lifestyle. Most of us – were we or one of our family members in such a position – would be very quick to do whatever was necessary to put the situation right. After all, our life would be on the line.
But there is a yet more terrible heart disease which we are often all too ready to ignore, but which kills us all. Even as you read, you are suffering from this heart disease, and you need to know the symptoms, diagnosis and cure.
Its symptoms are very evident. Are you self-centred? Are you envious of what others have? Do you lie and cheat? Do you curse and blaspheme? Do you get drunk? Have you ever stolen? Do you want or have you had a sexual relationship with someone who is not your husband or wife? Are you often angry? Do you hate someone? Do you never go to worship God? Do you ignore Sunday, God’s day, and do whatever you like? Do you think nothing of Jesus Christ? Are you disobedient to your parents? If any or all of the above symptoms are present, then you suffer from this heart disease
The diagnosis is equally plain. “From within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man” (Mark’s Gospel, chapter 7, verses 21-23). In other words, you have a sinful heart that is contrary to God and his law, and for which you deserve to be condemned and punished. In one sense, you are already dead: dead in trespasses and sins.
Critically, then, is there a cure? Yes! God has provided a means to be healed from this most terrible disease of sin, but it requires radical surgery and a complete revolution in lifestyle. In Psalm 51, verse 10, we find a man with a sinful heart crying out to God, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” Only this can save you from your sins. You need a new, clean heart from God, and you need to depart utterly from all your sinful ways.
Consider what is at stake: with your terrible heart disease of sin, you have only misery and condemnation to come. Get a new heart from God: he is rich in mercy to make men who are dead because of sin alive together with Christ. Come, then, to Jesus Christ, and you shall have everlasting life.
I appreciated David Murray’s letter to a beloved friend on the eve of that friend’s death, ending:
My heart fills with love and my eyes well up with tears as I bid you a last farewell from this sin-sick world.
I will never forget you.
See you “in the morning.”
It is no small thing so to live as to be worthy of such parting words.
Kevin DeYoung passes on a description of the death of Sarah Hodge, wife of Charles:
The next death that visited Hodge was infinitely dearer to him. On Christmas Day 1849, just four months after her return to Princeton with her daughter and grandchild, Sarah “softly & sweetly fell asleep in Jesus.” She most probably fell victim to uterine cancer.
Sarah’s health had begun to deteriorate soon after her return, and by December her condition was such that Hodge had lost all hope of recovery. In her final weeks, he personally nursed Sarah, spending countless hours simply lying next to her. During these times, he held her hand, and conversed with her when she had the strength. The depth of their love remained so intense that Hodge later commented that “to the last she was like a girl in love.” During her final weeks, Sarah asked Hodge to tell her in detail “how much you love me,” and they spent time recounting the high points of their life together.
Hodge’s last hours with his wife were particularly poignant. As her life ebbed away, Sarah looked at her children gathered around her bed and quietly murmured “I give them to God.” Hodge then asked her if she had thought him a devoted husband to which she replied as “she sweetly passed her hand over” his face: “There never was such another.” (Charles Hodge, 258)
Kevin then asks a good question:
Married couples, if you imagine that your final moments together will be like this, rejoice and again I say rejoice. Let the thought of such bittersweet sorrow put your present troubles and conflicts in perspective. But if this scene feels like an impossible dream, what must you change now so you and your spouse can die like this later?
Though I live in these days
Why should I evil fear,
When sin and death around me tread,
When wicked men draw near?
The wealth of earth will fade,
And life cannot be bought,
The godless soul will boast in vain,
And riches come to nought.
Both fool and wise will die,
Their wealth will be passed on,
Their works, their goods, their dwelling place,
From father down to son.
Like flowers in the field
Their glory dies and fades;
The foolish man says, “This is all:”
His words are swept away.
Fools go down to the grave
And in death’s shadow lie;
The upright man dominion has
When worldly men must die.
The beauty of the world
Consumed within its graves;
But God shall be my dwelling place,
My soul received and saved.
So as I walk this world
I fear not evil men.
Their power, their wealth, their glory here
Shall not pass on with them.
Like beasts that perish they,
Not blessed by God above,
Who gives to us his lasting gifts,
And true, eternal love.
See all hymns and psalms.
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard (expressed by every male patient)
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
It is a list that rather reveals the fears with which we live. I recall words from the deathbed of Major-General Sir Henry Havelock (not because I was there, you understand): “I have for forty years so ruled my life that when death came I might face it without fear.” If that will be so for us, alongside of gospel hope expressed in a life of righteousness, we would do well to consider whether or not we are living in fear.
Robert Bruce, the disciple of John Knox and Andrew Melville, died at Kinnaird on July 27th, 1631. He had come to breakfast and his younger daughter sat by his side. As he mused in silence, suddenly he cried, ‘Hold, daughter, hold; my Master calleth me.’ He asked that the Bible should be brought, but his sight failed him and he could not read. ‘Cast me up the eighth of Romans,’ cried he, and he repeated much of the latter portion of this Scripture till he came to the last two verses: ‘I am persuaded that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities nor powers nor things present nor things to come nor height nor depth nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ ‘Set my finger on these words,’ said the blind, dying man; ‘God be with you, my children. I have breakfasted with you, and shall sup with my Lord Jesus this night. I die believing these words.’
Marcus L. Loane, The Hope of Glory (Waco, 1968), page 160.
It is worth remembering that we do not get to die like this if we do not pursue the call to live like this.
HT: Ray Ortlund.