The Time of One’s Death

A good name is better than precious ointment, 
   and the day of death than the day of birth. (Eccl. 7:1)

I recently read an article from the Hebrew4christian website titled “He was Born to Die – The Focus of the Christmas Message…” It’s an article worth reading in its entirety. I have learned so much from Hebrew4christians. It is my very, very favorite website.

But I’d like to focus on one statement in the article, which is that, in Jewish tradition, the day of one’s death is more important than the day of one’s birth, since death summarizes the meaning and significance of a person’s life in this world. Birth represents potential. Death represents inheritance.

I think that the Hebrew language and the Hebraic mindset is utterly unique. Even the Hebrew concept of time is utterly different from our western concept of time. I’ve read that the western mind see’s time in a chronological line: This happened, and then this happened…The Jews saw time as circular–as a continuous cycle of beginnings and endings, of seasons and appointed times. In an article about time called The East, Time, Eternity, the Universe and the Origin of All Things, the Ancient Hebrew Research Center wrote:

The eastern mind is not obsessed with time as the western mind is. Anyone who has lived and worked in the near or Middle East knows that they are event oriented rather than time oriented as we westerners. Their lives are not ruled by the clock. The tenses in Hebrew and Arabic and as well in the Greek are not primarily concerned with time but rather flow or type of action…

“We use north as our major orientation such as in maps which are always oriented to the north. While we use the north as our major direction, the Hebrews used the east [qedem] and all other directions are oriented to this direction. For example, one of the words for south is teyman from the root yaman meaning “to the right.”

The word qedem is also the word for “the past.” In the ancient Hebrew mind the past is in front of you while the future is behind you, the opposite way we think of the past and future. H. W. Wolff likens the Hebrew conception of time to the situation of a man rowing a boat. He sees the past as before him (qedem); the future is behind his back (aharit).

The first time I heard this, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around this strange concept. How can the past be in front of me and the future behind me?

I’ve pondered this, and there’s a lot to think about regarding this: I can see that we look back at the past but cannot see what future holds like the man in the boat can see where he’s been but not where he’s headed. Our past determines–shapes, forms–our future to a large extent. We are who we are because of where we’ve been. If we don’t remember our history as a people, we lose our identify as a people. Also, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past if we don’t remember the past.

But mostly I wonder if the past is before us because we look back at Scripture and at those who have lived lives of faithfulness and we learn from them so we can know how to walk in our own lives? Like in 1 Corinthians 10:

1 Now I would not have you ignorant, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; 2 and were all immersed into Moshe in the cloud and in the sea; 3 and all ate the same spiritual food; 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Messiah. 5 However with most of them, God was not well pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. 6 Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted. 7 Neither be idolaters, as some of them were. As it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” 8 Neither let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them committed, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell. 9Neither let us test the Lord, as some of them tested, and perished by the serpents. 10 Neither grumble, as some of them also grumbled, and perished by the destroyer. 11 Now all these things happened to them by way of example, and they were written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the ages have come. (1 Corinthians 10:1-11)

10 You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, 11 persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. 12 In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it,15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:10-17)

I can see that looking back can help us know how to live in the future. We can only walk rightly when we are grounded in the foundation of the Truth of the ancient (and timeless) Scriptures.

And I can see that the day of one’s death can be more significant than the day of one’s birth. We don’t control the day of our birth. When we are born, we are full of potential and not much else. However, the day of our death–the end of our life–is the culmination of who we have become, of the choices we have made.

One of my favorite quotes is by C.S. Lewis, who wrote about the choices we make in life:

…Everytime you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.

I have at times told JJ that too many people react to what is happening in their lives NOW, and they make choices based on what they want NOW, never thinking about where those choices will lead them. For example, JJ and I used to watch the TV program Cops when he was quite young (9 years old or so), and we’d discuss the program. We’d see the results of people who chose to drink, take drugs, or commit crimes. One episode showed a man high on drugs sitting on the ground in a dirty alley. The cops asked him his name and he couldn’t remember it. I’ve asked JJ if he wanted to be like this, not able to remember his own name. No? Then don’t make the choices that lead to it. Think about what sort of woman he wants to be his lifelong companion and mother to his children. Think about what could happen to lives if he has children outside of marriage. Think about the people we know who lost everything because they became alcholics. THINK about what kind of man he wants to become, and what kind of life he wants, and then choose to make choices TODAY that will lead him to becoming that man. Yes, he will make mistakes in his life, but he can choose to turn around (repentance) from those mistakes. Overall, on the day of his death, who does he want to be? What does he want people to say about him? What legacy (inheritance) does he want to leave behind? It’s important.

The day of one’s death is more important than the day of one’s birth, since death summarizes the meaning and significance of a person’s life in this world.

On the day of YOUR death, who do YOU want to be?

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