(pre July 1995)
"I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live." (Deut. 30:19)
"Let me die the death of the righteous,
and let my last end be like his!" (Numbers 23:10)
John Wesley was elderly when he died, and must have seen many, many of the saints of God, some young and some old, pass on to their eternal reward. On the basis of long experience he could say with confidence: "Our people die well." What did he mean by that? He no doubt meant that they were "ready for heaven," and that they passed from this world to the next with no dread and no fears, trusting in their Saviour, Jesus Christ, whom they had the assurance of seeing soon. After all, the dying thief had repented of his sins and had received the promise from Christ Himself, "Today thou shalt be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43)
In the New Testament there is only one case of suicide that comes to mind: that of Judas Iscariot. You will remember that the Gospel according to St. Matthew (27:5) records that after he had brought back to the chief priests and elders the thirty pieces of silver he had received for betraying Jesus, Judas "departed, and went out and hanged himself." What a tragedy that was, and what a tragedy it is when anyone, young or old, takes his own life today.
Some years ago the account was given in the newspapers of an elderly couple in New York City that had taken their own lives. He had been a clergyman, and had even served for some years as president of a well-known theological institution. Recently a number of teenagers took their lives in New Jersey. Why? The reasons may never be fully known for any of these tragedies, but the Bible sheds light on the problems and difficulties that people face, and how they can be conquerors and overcomers through the blood of Christ shed on Calvary's cross for you and me, and for the whole world.
Years ago I was privileged to teach high school literature to a group of students in one of our Christian schools. The anthology of American authors we were using contained a word picture in poetic form of a man living in a small town at a time of financial difficulty for almost everyone -- except this man. He was well dressed, "imperially slim," and everyone thought that he had not a worry in the world, although most of them had difficulty in buying sufficient food to drive away their hunger. Then, one morning, the rich man went out and killed himself.
A highly regarded book for young adolescents recounts the story of the friendship of three young people of junior high school age. Two of them struggle to make a go of things, although they seem to have enough to eat, and are able to go to the community school. The third is the only son of professional parents. He is by far the brightest student in the school, and seems to have every reason in the world to be happy and cheerful. However, he does seem to have concern for all of the problems, national and international, that he learns about in his extensive reading. Then one evening he allows himself to be caught stealing some small, inconsequential toys he was well able to afford. First one of his friends, and later his parents, are notified to go to the jail to see him; then, not long afterward, having been released from jail, he is found to have taken his own life.
The Psalmist David thought a good deal about matters of life and death. In the 34th Psalm he asks the question: "What man is he that desireth life, and loveth many days, that he may see good?" (v. 12) Then he gives some excellent advice: "Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it." (v. 13-14) There are those today who seem eager for long life, yet unwilling to take the proper steps to obtain it. One of these is the right kind of speech, the other, the right kind of actions.
The right kind of speech involves telling the truth, in love. Can this be done just by some sort of mental resolution, or a decision to tell the truth because "honesty is the best policy"? No. It must all begin with a change of heart. St. Paul exhorts the Ephesians (4:25) to put away lying, and to speak the truth, but he points out where this must begin: "Put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness." (v. 24) It is impossible to bridle and control the tongue in our own strength; this takes the power that only God can give, first in transformation of heart and life in a born-again experience, and in the experience of sanctification, and then as we wait before Him daily for His help and direction in our lives.
The right kind of actions is of equal importance with the right kind of speech. There is a great deal of theft in the world today, just as there was in the time of St. Paul. Some of it is the so-called "white-collar" theft, where expensively-dressed and high-living executives may be guilty of taking hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars that belong to their stockholders, or to the government, and yet feel that they should not be jailed when their crimes are discovered. Paul wrote to the Ephesians: "Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth." (v. 28) It was not enough to take care of their own needs and those of their families, as important as these were. There was to be a concern for the welfare of others, and a spirit of generosity and cheerful giving.
One of the great problems of our time is the state of idleness of so many of the young. They don't have anything to do, do not know a trade, have no interest in learning a musical instrument, taking up a hobby, or even further education. The ancient Jews had a saying to the effect that he that does not teach his son a trade, maketh him a thief. There is something basic in that statement. Of course we live in a fast-changing age, when many find it necessary to learn new skills, and turn to new opportunities. Right now, for instance, I am sitting at the keyboard of a computer such as was not even available just a few short years ago, but now is being found in more and more businesses and homes.
A favorite Bible verse of Benjamin Franklin was Proverbs 22:29: "Seest thou a man diligent in his business? he shall stand before kings." This kind of diligence needs to be cultivated early in life by parents and teachers, and all who have the privilege of working with the young. It applies to business and commerce, but it also applies to the spiritual life and welfare of us all. Do we take time daily, early in the morning, or at other times when our minds and bodies are fresh, to wait on the Lord in prayer, and the study of His Word? If not, how can we expect to be fortified against the terrible onslaughts of Satan that come, sooner or later, to everyone, testing the foundations of our faith?
Habits of taking time for prayer, Bible study, and useful toil can pay dividends for a lifetime. When John Wesley was nearing the end of his long and eventful life, and his brother Charles had already gone to be with the Lord, he arrived at the home of one of his lay preachers, eager to preach the Gospel, the simple story of salvation through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The lay preacher soon noticed that he had a bad cough, and should spend at least a few days in bed. Before he was willing to go upstairs to his bedroom, however, he insisted that there was something he needed, a generous supply of good books, to be studied while he was recuperating. He did not want to be idle, to waste the precious moments that were passing by forever.
Our second text quotes the words of an enigmatic prophet named Balaam. Great spiritual light was given to him, and he even had a vision of the coming Messiah, some thirteen hundred years before the birth of Christ: "There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel." (Numbers 24:17) Yet he was unwilling to "pay the price" for what he seemed so much to desire, to "die the death of the righteous." The attractions of wealth, of popularity, of the fleeting, temporary things of this world were so strong for him that he was unwilling to give them up in return for the eternal values that never perish.
The story is told of a conquering army of barbarians capturing a great capitol city. Looking through the ruins of the palace one soldier said to his companion, "Look what I have found, a leather bag for my food!" Saying this he poured out the contents, priceless gems that had been the treasured possession of the monarch, and contentedly went on his way with his new- found "treasure," a handsome leather pouch for his rations. How foolish, we say, for he might have been wealthy for a lifetime, but that is the same thing that happened to Balaam, and happens to anyone who holds onto the transient, trifling treasures of this life, and is not "rich toward God." Jesus pointed this out in Luke 12:16-21 when he gave us the parable of the rich fool, a man who had all heart could desire, and a many-years supply, but who was going to die and lose his soul that very night! He was not rich toward God.
I do not know much about the American millionaire, John Pierpont Morgan, how he lived, or what he did with his money, but I do know that before he died he had come to realize that there was nothing more important than the salvation of his soul. He also wanted his children to be aware of eternal values. In the very first paragraph of his will he said: "I commit my soul into the hands of my Saviour, in full confidence that having redeemed it and washed it in His most precious Blood, He will present it faultless before the throne of my Heavenly Father, and I entreat my children to maintain and defend at all hazards and at any cost of personal sacrifice the blessed doctrine of the complete atonement for sin through the Blood of Jesus Christ, once offered, and through that alone."
Life is worth living when we know the Lord in His cleansing power, and only then are we truly ready to die. "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain," said Saint Paul (Phil. 1:21)
An aged dying Scotsman was asked what he
thought about death. "It matters little to me whether I live or die. If
I die I will be with Jesus, and if I live Jesus will be with me."