Now and again, I receive letters from children who have read my fantasy novels, With My Knife and Dragonfox.* These letters give me great pleasure, brimming as they are with admiration, enthusiasm, suggestions and questions.
One girl, Jocelyn (Year 6), wrote: “Our class has read two of your books ‘With My Knife’ and ‘Dragonfox’ and both books we give you 10 out of 10.”
Another girl, Lacie (Year 6/7), wrote: “When Mrs C read the two outstanding books it made me gleam up with glee.”
A boy, Jamie (Year 7), wrote: “I think that your book With My Knife is one of my favourite books I’ve ever read. Every line puts me under more suspense even if its not meant to. … Mrs V read it to our class but before she got a quarter of the way through I read my brothers copy because the suspense was just too much. …”
Another boy, Ben (aged 9), wrote: “Can you hurry up with the third one. It’s suspense. I love them. With My Knife was excellent. Dragonfox was even better. I’m only 9. Alot of people in my school have read it. Do you have any other hobbies. I’ve got a sister that’s a pain in the neck. Shes two years older than me. Shes going to read your books soon. I sacrifised reading to write this letter. I read for 4 hours. Here’s a tip—Could you put in polar bears.”
Ben’s “polar bears” comment is one of my favourites. Another is Lacie’s “gleam up with glee”.
However, the comment I like most of all is in a letter from a boy with my own name, Andrew (aged 10). He wrote: “You are the best Auther in the world. The book ‘With my knife’ is the best as well. How did you think of the weird names in it? and how many books have you sold? Please write back if your not dead.”
What a hoot! I replied: “Dear Andrew, As I’m not dead, I’m writing back to you …”
Please write back if you’re not dead! It is funny … and yet … somehow it is not. Though only ten years old, my correspondent knew that authors, like everyone else, die. He knew that death catches up with us all eventually. He just did not know if it had as yet caught up with me.
After having a chuckle at the boy’s comment, I found myself feeling strangely sombre. For the truth is, the prospect of my death fills me with sadness. I do not expect many people to share this sadness because I am not personally known to many. But anyone who has thought about his or her own death (or the death of a loved one) will know the sadness I am talking about. Death is a great grief for those concerned.
And one of those concerned about each of us is God, our Creator. His word, the Bible, contains many expressions of sorrow over our mortality. It depicts the transience of human life on earth as a great tragedy. Consider some of the laments by some of the men whom God motivated and guided to write the Bible.
Job grieved: “My days are swifter than a runner;/ they flee away; they see no good./ They go by like skiffs of reed,/ like an
eagle swooping on the prey” (Job 9:25-26). Again, Job said: “Man who is born of a woman/ is few of days and full of trouble./ He comes out like a flower and withers;/ he flees like a shadow and continues not” (Job 14:1-2).
In one of his prayers King David mourned: “For we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding” (1 Chronicles 29:15). David expressed a similar thought in Psalm 144:4: “Man is like a breath;/ his days are like a passing shadow.”
Likewise, Moses lamented in Psalm 90:9-10: “we bring our years to an end like a sigh./ The years of our life are seventy,/ or even by reason of strength eighty;/ yet their span is but toil and trouble;/ they are soon gone, and we fly away.”
We are going to die. Our lives on earth are fleeting, transitory, ephemeral. We will not last: we will come to an end. This is an overwhelming sadness, an unutterable sorrow. Long ago, the writers of the Bible felt and expressed this sorrow, too.
However, for the biblical authors, the sorrow associated with our mortality served a purpose. It was not an end in itself, drawing them into despair or resignation. Rather, it prompted them to look to the permanent and the eternal, which is found always and only in God.
Downcast because of his weakness and mortality, one psalmist began to reflect on and hope in the sovereignty and eternity of God: “My days are like an evening shadow;/ I wither away like grass./ But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever” (Psalm 102:11-12; cf 90:1-3).
Another psalmist, disheartened by the thought of man’s fleeting existence on earth, found solace in the fact of God’s unfailing love: “As for man, his days are like grass;/ he flourishes like a flower of the field;/ for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,/
and its place knows it no more./ But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him” (Psalm 103:15-17).
Thoughts about the transience of our lives moved the prophet Isaiah to consider the permanence and importance of God’s word, the Bible: “All flesh is grass,/ and all its beauty is like the flower of the field./ … The grass withers, the flower fades;/ but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8).
David actually asked God to make him mindful of his mortality so that he would not become self-satisfied and materialistic and forget that his only hope was in the Lord: “O LORD, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!” (Psalm 39:4).
Grief for our mortality moved Moses to ask God to help him to make the most of his life, so that his labours would stand the test of time and he himself would withstand the test of God’s judgment: “You turn man to dust/ … You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream/ … So teach us to number our days/ that we may get a heart of wisdom./ … establish the work of our hands” (Psalm 90:3, 5, 12).
Sorrow over the encroachment of old age and death led another biblical writer to contemplate the judgment of God that all people will face after death: “man goes to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets … the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” In the face of this sad frailty and fading away, the writer concludes: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:5, 7, 13-14).
There is a greater tragedy than our approaching death: it is the tragedy of entering death unprepared to meet our Maker. Reflection on our mortality should impel us to “Fear God and keep his commandments”. And the first of God’s commandments is to repent of our sins and trust in his Son, Jesus Christ: “this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 3:23). For Jesus, who himself experienced death but triumphed over it, is the only one who can set us right with God the Father and thereby get us through the judgment and into the life everlasting.