Considering the Brevity of Life on Earth

I have read that Philip of Macedonia, a great conqueror of ancient time, who brought all of the Greek states under his control, had a peculiar custom.  Every morning, as soon as the sun began to rise, Philip was awakened by one of his slaves.  If they were on campaign, the slave would come into his tent.  If Philip was in his palace, the slave would come into the king’s chamber.  When rousing Philip from his sleep, the slave would not call him “Your Majesty,” or “My Lord,” or anything of the sort.  He simply called him by his given name, “Philip of Macedonia.”  Every morning, this is what he cried out—this is what Philip awoke to: “Philip of Macedonia, remember that thou must die.”  Philip began each day with a reminder of his mortality so that he might live each day to its fullest.

Psalm 39 faces the same reality.  In verses 4-6, we read: “Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.  You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in our sight.  Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.  Surely everyone goes about like a shadow.  Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; they heap up, and do not know who will gather.”  (A “handbreadth” was the ancient Hebrew measurement of the width of four fingers; it was one of the smallest measures in the Hebrew system of measuring.  To acknowledge that one’s lifespan is but “a few handbreadths” is to recognize how brief is our time on earth.)

As we face the brevity of our life, how are we to respond?  How are we to live?

Psalm 39 answers that question in verse 7: “And now, O Lord, what do I wait for?  My hope is in you.”

Over and over again, the message of the psalms is a call to us to turn to God in the midst of our struggles, in the midst of our fears, in the midst of our confusion, and in the midst of life’s apparent emptiness.  Noah Filipiak comments on this verse: “Even in your darkest hour, even when all hope seems lost, run to God.  Cry out to God.  Give him all of your emotion.  Blame him if you need to, he can handle it.  But keep your hope in him.  Keep him as your shelter in the storm and as your refuge in the war.”

As you consider the brevity of your life and how to make the best of your short time on planet Earth, consider a poem by Linda Ellis entitled How Do You Live Your Dash?

            I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend.

            He referred to the dates on her tombstone from the beginning…to the end.

            He noted that first came her date of birth, and spoke the following date with tears,

            But said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years.

            For that dash represents all the time that she spent alive on earth…

            And now only those who loved her know what that little line is worth.

            For it matters not how much we own: the cars, the house, the cash.

            What matters is how we live and love and how we spend our dash.

            So think about this long and hard: Are there things you’d like to change?

            For you never know how much time is left that can still be rearranged.

            If we could just slow down enough to consider what’s true and real,

            And always try to understand the way other people feel,

            And be less quick to anger, and show appreciation more,

            And love the people in our lives like we’ve never loved before,

            If we treat each other with respect, and more often wear a smile,

            Remembering that this special dash might only last a little while.

            So when your eulogy’s being read with your life’s actions to rehash,

            Would you be proud of the things they say about how you spent your dash?

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