The brevity of human life is the subject of continual mention, and in a variety of aspects, in the Old Testament; and, generally speaking, it is associated with sorrow and regret. For example, when Hezekiah had been warned of his approaching death, he records, after that the Lord had, in answer to his prayer, lengthened his days, that he had said, "I am deprived of the residue of my years. I said, I shall not see the Lord, even the Lord, in the land of the living: I shall behold man no more with the inhabitants of the world. Mine age is departed, and is removed from me as a shepherd's tent: I have cut off like a weaver my life: He will cut me off with pining sickness: from day even to night wilt Thou make an end of me." (Isaiah 38:10 - 12.) Similar expressions of lamentation may be gleaned from Job, the Psalms, and the Prophets. Even our blessed Lord, who charged Himself with the infirmities and sorrows of His people, cried, when He poured out His complaint before Jehovah, "My days are like a shadow that declineth; and I am withered like grass"; and again, "He weakened my strength in the way; He shortened my days." (Psalm 102:11-23.)
Passing by the special significance of these words in their application to our Lord as the rejected Messiah, we may enquire what it was that led to these utterances of grief over the shortness of human days and the prospect of death. The answer is simple: earthly blessing was the characteristic promise to the saints of old. Death, therefore, was the end to them of all their hopes. To die was to die out of the sphere in which their special promises were to be realised. Read, for instance, Deuteronomy 28:1-13, and it will be at once seen that the blessings promised on the condition of obedience were limited to the earth. It is quite true that God had spoken of life in connection with keeping His statutes and His judgments (Leviticus 16); but there was nothing to indicate that more was meant than length of days in this world. Twice, moreover, eternal life is spoken of; still, in both cases it looks onward to the time of the Messiah's kingdom. As far as revealed, therefore, the horizon of the Jewish saint did not extend beyond this world. That there were secret things which belonged to Jehovah, Moses said; but he added, "those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law." (Deut. 29:29.) This fact fully explains why the saints of old spoke of death in the manner we have seen.
In Christianity all this is changed, the reason being that the characteristic blessings of the Christian are heavenly. On earth he is surrounded by mercies surely, mercies suited to his daily path and to his pilgrim condition. He has also the forgiveness of sins and the spirit of adoption, whereby he cries, Abba, Father; but, though faith is the "substantiating" of things hoped for, he does not enter upon his actual inheritance until after death, or after the Lord has come. The heavenly things are truly revealed by the blessed ministry of the Holy Ghost; and the soul that knows what it is to eat the flesh and to drink the blood of the Son of man will enjoy eternal life, and thus expatiate at large amid the heavenly scenes into which he will one day be introduced. It is, notwithstanding, the fact that the Christian has to wait for the coming of the Lord, or for death and resurrection, before he can enter upon the actual possession of that which has been secured for him in redemption. In one word, the Jew belonged to earth, and the Christian belongs to heaven.
If we remember this, we shall at once understand the different way in which death is regarded after Pentecost. The first time we are permitted to see a Christian in the prospect of death is in the case of Stephen. Surrounded by a mob filled with enmity, and in the very act of being stoned by the false witnesses which had risen up against him, his eyes were upward upon the glory of God, and upon Jesus at the right hand of God, when he called upon God and said, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." So far from regret at the termination of his earthly life, he was evidently filled with joyful anticipation of being with Him for whom, and to whom, he had testified to his nation, and was desiring at the same time the blessing of his persecutors and murderers. If the case of Paul be also considered the same thing will be witnessed. For four years he had been a prisoner at Rome, and part, if not all, of the time he had been chained to a pagan soldier. At any moment, as far as human probabilities went, he might have been fetched and cast to the lions, to suffer a cruel and shameful death. What then were his feelings? Was he cast down at the thought of being "deprived of the residue of his years"? Not so; for he speaks almost with exultation at the possibility of his martyrdom, writing, "According to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." There is, therefore, the greatest contrast imaginable between the earthly and the heavenly saint, and it is good for us to know it.
There is another secret of this difference of feeling in the prospect of death, and that is the resurrection of our blessed Lord. The apostle was showing the bearing of this upon the believer in 1 Cor. 15, and he concludes with the triumphant outburst, "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." Life and incorruptibility have thus been brought to light in the gospel; and hence it is that the Christian looks upon death as the path of life, and the path of life into the presence of his Lord. Indeed, he has already passed out of death into life - life morally known and enjoyed; and when, therefore, he departs to be with Christ, he does but enter upon the sphere to which he already belongs, and where, after he is conformed to the image of God's Son in resurrection, he will enjoy, in the power of the life which is already his, fulness of joy and pleasures for evermore.
The conclusion, then, is, that if we are living at the height of our heavenly calling, we shall neither regret the rapid flight of years, nor sorrow, if the Lord tarry, at the prospect of death. If not on our guard, we may soon descend to the level of the Jewish saint, when we are reminded of times and seasons at the close of a year. May the Lord help us rather so to live in His presence, and so to have Himself filling our hearts, that "dying daily" we may be already living beyond death the life of heaven. As Paul said, "Our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto His glorious body, according to the working whereby He is able even to subdue all things unto Himself."
Divine strength cannot be where human strength is.
If we do not know how to be nothing, God must make us nothing.
The place of nothingness is the place of moral exaltation. (Matthew 18:4.)