“. . . because bewildering, seemingly capricious, destiny happens to the children of Adam* and bewildering, seemingly capricious, destiny happens to livestock, and one bewildering, seemingly capricious, destiny happens to them both. As the one dies, so dies the other, because they all have one spirit. So Adam* has no advantage over the livestock, because all is transitory, empty breath.” (Ecclesiastes 3:19)
These words made me think of a remark by Macbeth, when he learned that his wife had just died:
“She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
(William Shakespeare, Macbeth, V, v, 19)
Shakespeare’s words echo Moses’ lamentation that people were being cut down in their prime, at the age of seventy or eighty: “We spend our years as a tale that is told.” (Psalm 90:9)
The Psalmist says, “We are dust. As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.” (Psalm 103:14, 15)
That is how life is sometimes. And if our perspective, like Qoheleth’s, is limited only to what we can perceive by observation and natural reason, focusing only on what is “under the sun” (a phrase occurring 29 times in Ecclesiastes**), then we are left with existential despair and angst—a coprological view of life, because from time to time mess simply happens, without any apparent rhyme or reason, and we are all truly up the creek without a paddle, in a chicken wire canoe to boot.
How glad I am that these passages, and life itself, are part of a larger context. That context is the goodness of God and his kind and all pervasive providence. Question 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks: “What is your only comfort in life and death?”
“That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.”
It is in that larger context that the words from Psalm 103 are found:
“The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever. He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor re-warded us according to our iniquities. For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us. Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust. As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more. But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to ever-lasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children; To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them.” (Psalm 103:8-18)
All of this futility and trouble is the result of Adam’s sin, yet God in his goodness is working all things to his good goal for us in Jesus Christ. As Psalm 103:8-18 reminds us, even when Satan’s malice is stirring up the storms of life, and the billows are breaking over the bow, and we are deluged and swamped and see no relief on the horizon, still the great Pilot is at the helm, guiding us “over life’s tempestuous sea.”
‘Jesus, Savior, pilot me
Over life’s tempestuous sea;
Unknown waves before me roll,
Hiding rock, and treach’rous shoal;
Chart and compass came from Thee;
Jesus, Savior, pilot me.
‘As a mother stills her child,
Thou canst hush the ocean wild;
Boist’rous waves obey Thy will
When Thou say’st to them, “Be still;”
Wondrous Sov’reign of the sea,
Jesus, Savior, pilot me.
‘When at last I near the shore,
And the fearful breakers roar
‘Twixt me and the peaceful rest,
Then, while leaning on Thy breast,
May I hear Thee say to me,
“Fear not, I will pilot thee.”’
“You will never find Jesus so precious as when the world is one vast howling wilderness. Then he is like a rose blooming in the midst of the desolation, a rock rising above the storm.” Robert Murray McCheyne, letter: 9 March 1843.
* in the sense of humankind
** Ecclesiastes 1:3, 9, 14; 2:11, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22; 3:16; 4:1, 3, 7, 15; 5:13, 18; 6:1, 12; 8:9, 15, 17; 8:15, 17; 9:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 10:5