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The Christadelphian | July 2010

In the magazine this month:

  • Editorial Better is the day of death
  • Letters to the Editor
  • Sunday morning “Find rest unto your souls” | George Dolphin
  • To Turkey with the Bible | David M. Pearce
  • Mary Magdalene | Rachel Madden
  • Witness in the Holocaust Memorial Centre, Budapest | Michael Owen
  • Mastering pride and prejudice | Sally Wright
  • “Let brotherly love continue” | Geoff Henstock
  • Ezekiel – prophet to the exiles 7 – The end of the civic order of Judah | Andrew E. Walker
  • The sons of Korah 5 – They “died not” | Jonathan Cope
  • “He will command his children” | Dudley Fifield
  • Signs of the times Britain and Israel
  • Israel and their land The Gaza flotilla
  • The brotherhood near and far

A sample article from this edition:

Editorial

Better is the day of death

SCRIPTURE often presents us with challenges of one form or another, causing us to think carefully about the implications for belief and daily life. Sometimes passages in different parts of the Bible appear to make contradictory points about the same subject matter, and therefore present a particular challenge by requiring us to see how the statements can be harmonised. Consider, for example, what the Lord Jesus said about a woman’s experiences in childbirth: “A woman, when she is in labour, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world” (John 16:21).

Jesus used this example, drawn from natural human experiences, to show his disciples that the sorrow they would experience when he was no longer with them was necessary if they were also to know the joy of eventually being with him for ever. Union with the Lord is therefore explained, at least partially, by thinking of the intense joy that a mother feels when her child finally enters the world.

Friends and neighbours

The joy of childbirth is not limited to the mother, nor is it restricted to the child’s two parents, but extends to their friends and family, colleagues and neighbours. When Ruth bore a son to Boaz, her friends and neighbours rejoiced with the baby’s grandmother Naomi, saying:

“May his name be famous in Israel! And may he be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you, who is better to you than seven sons, has borne him.” (Ruth 4:14,15)

Similarly, at the miraculous birth of John the Baptist, Elizabeth’s “neighbours and relatives heard how the Lord had shown great mercy to her, [and] rejoiced with her” (Luke 1:58).

Nothing has changed over the years. Newborn babies can melt the hearts of the most crusty individuals! And news of a baby’s birth circulates rapidly among all those who know the parents, who will often receive cards, notes and presents expressing the joy felt by all who hear of the child’s safe arrival. In some cultures it is the practice for relatives to present quite large sums of money to celebrate childbirth.

The house of mourning

Contrast these passages about the joy associated with childbirth with Solomon’s observations in Ecclesiastes:

“A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of one’s birth; better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men; and the living will take it to heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:1,2)

On the surface at least, the words of the wise king of Israel appear to contradict the Lord’s message and the examples of Ruth and Elizabeth. But all scripture is given by inspiration of God, so we cannot set one passage against another. We do not have to choose one or the other, but discover how both explain great truths, and in the process possibly discover that our own thinking is challenged, so that our thoughts and behaviour are moulded to reflect more accurately the mind of the Father and His Son.

The first point to note is that Solomon does not deny the fact that there is great rejoicing when a child is born, so there is no direct contradiction between his words and those of the Lord in John 16. Instead, Solomon draws out an important lesson from the normal human responses to childbirth and death. When a child is born, friends and relatives are united by the shared joy they all wish to express. On the occasion of a death, the same individuals unite in grief. Solomon indicates that those normal reactions, while being perfectly natural responses, do not take everything into account.

When a child is born, nothing is known about the future direction of his or her life. The baby may grow up to have an extremely serious health problem, suffer a horrific accident, develop into a violent criminal, enter into a disastrous marriage, or experience the heartache of wayward children. In later life the baby may give every semblance of contentment, health and worldly success, but inwardly nurse deep personal disillusionment. The extent that the baby was fêted at his birth gives no guarantee of how his life will develop – whether he will turn out well or badly.

Finishing the race

In that respect, Solomon’s words express a most important truth. Only when an individual dies is it possible to describe with certainty the path of his life, whereas it is absolutely impossible to describe the future life of a newborn baby. Two comments about himself, made by the Apostle Paul, illustrate this. Writing to the Corinthians, he revealed how he always had to be careful about the course of his discipleship:

“I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:27)

Much later in his life, and when he was facing certain death at Roman hands, he was much more sanguine:

“I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that day.” (2 Timothy 4:6-8)

So, while when a child is born there is every potential for the future course of its life, there can be no certainty about the final outcome. Furthermore, an infant devoid of any of the experiences of life through which characters are moulded cannot provide an example for others either to emulate or avoid.

Immediately after explaining the personal danger he faced of disqualification from God’s promises, the Apostle Paul told his Corinthian readers about the value of the Old Testament accounts of Israel’s history. “All these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). Unless disciples are prepared to learn from the incidents that have been divinely selected and preserved, they will be liable to disqualification. Paul therefore sounds an urgent warning, “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (verse 12).

Solomon’s words are to be seen in this context. Much more is to be learned from carefully meditating on a person’s complete life – when there is no possibility of it changing for good or ill – than from fantasising about the prospects for the life of a newborn child. In the first case, the outcome is known. After being exposed to the things of the Gospel, the man or woman chose either to follow Christ or reject him. While the final assessment about the lives of disciples lies with the Lord himself, those who rejected him in life can have no hope in death. In the second case, there is no certain information on which a sound judgement can be based; it will only be revealed as the child meets each new experience, trial or challenge.

A life of service

This is the sense in which we must understand Solomon’s comment that the day of death is better than the day of birth. Death marks the end of our mortal probation, and there is nothing that can any longer affect the course of life. We therefore sing the hymn whose words proclaim, “Life is the time to serve the Lord, to do His will, to learn His word” (Hymn 396); or as in Hymn 405, express the importance of daily discipleship, “Shall we be with him in that day? We make the answer now”.

To emphasise the importance of carefully assessing the way of life God demands of His children, Solomon extends the thought beyond a simple comparison between the day of birth and the day of death. He explains that there is infinitely more to be gained from spending time in the house of mourning than in the house of feasting. The advice is particularly appropriate in an age when life’s pleasures are enticingly advertised and beguilingly described. But throughout human history there have been men and women engaging in pleasure at the expense of serving or worshipping God.

Isaiah prophesied about Babylon, describing that great imperial city as a wanton woman, “given to pleasures, who dwells securely, who says in your heart, ‘I am, and there is no one else besides me’” (Isaiah 47:8). Ezekiel spoke of the wicked city of Sodom: “She and her daughter had pride, fullness of food, and abundance of idleness; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49). One of the characteristics of human society when the Lord returns will be its thoughtless and careless enjoyment: “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” (Matthew 24:38).

The true purpose of life

These daily aspects of life are not evil themselves, but need to be seen in their proper context, and kept in their proper place. They are a means of sustaining life, but they are not the purpose of life. Life’s purpose is to bring honour to the One who gives life, and we learn much more effectively how to do that by going to the house of mourning – “for that is the end of all men”. While there is naturally great sadness when a faithful disciple falls asleep, and the family and friends mourn because they can no longer converse or interact, there is a sense in which there should be great joy about a life of devoted service. Properly to put into practice Solomon’s view that the day of death is better than the day of birth is to respond as we know the Father responds. For the Psalmist tells us, “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.” (Psalm 116:15).

 

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