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TRUTH IN ART: Numbering our days

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–With the turn of a new year comes the opportunity for evaluating our past, present and future. Rather than floating along through life as though little is at stake, God desires that we walk in His wisdom. The prayer of the Psalmist should be our own, “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

But how do we gain such wisdom? God is the beginning and end of all life-giving truth. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). God graciously spoke to us through the Bible.

He also established that the testimony of the created world serves as a magnet, pulling our mind and heart to Him. Mountains, oceans, galaxies, animals and plants — these all speak of a powerful and magnificent Creator (Psalm 19:1).

Also, our daily routines should awaken us to our dependence on God. Several times a day our stomachs shout “Feed me!” Sleep overtakes us each night. But why? Why do we have to submit to these demands?

We submit because we are human. We are created with God-dependence written into our muscles and bones. Daily, these physical limitations remind us that we are not God. No matter how important we may think we are, at least once a day the earth continues to travel the galaxy even as we slumber and snore.

But it is not so with God. He never sleeps. That is why David can sing, “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8). David could sleep in peace because he knew that the sovereign God needs no sleep.

So, sleeping and eating are tools to direct our thoughts toward God. But what other tools are there for our use? Francisco de Zurbarán painted “St. Francis Contemplating a Skull,” teaching us that death itself is a powerful prompt for contemplating eternity.

Zurbarán lived in the 17th century, a time of religious wars and political upheaval. Even with the beginning of modern science, the average human lifespan was still under 30 years.

Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet” when Zurbarán was just a boy. Do you remember the graveside scene in Hamlet, where the young prince comes alongside some gravediggers? In a day before steel coffins, Hamlet picks up a skull from the dirt and asks the diggers to whom the skull belonged. Hamlet was amazed when they told him the skull was from a man named Yorick, for this was the court-jester who had entertained him as a boy.

Hamlet says, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio. A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?”

Hamlet meditates further, contemplating how even powerful men like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar could not escape the indignity of death. He remarks that the dust of Caesar could at this very moment be the dirt that keeps wind from coming through the bricks in a home.

Shakespeare and Zurbarán produced their works with like-mindedness, one with a pen and one with a brush. Both Hamlet and Francis contemplated human fragility and mortality as a result of looking at a skull. Where there was once life, now there is just bone. Just as death came to the skull’s owner, so too shall death come to the skull’s holder.

How are you spending your life? Hear the Apostle Paul’s admonition to “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16).

Perhaps you live as though this world is all there is to be had. Paul reasoned that, “If the dead are not raised, Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32).

But we, following Paul’s own conclusion, know that the dead will be raised. We know that there is life after death. We know that Christ died on the cross and was buried, but His body did not rot in the grave. We know that God raised Him to life again, brought Him back to heaven, and that He will come again in glory and power. We know that the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). We know that God will judge all mankind by the standard of Jesus Christ, and that only those found in Christ will receive salvation from the punishment of sin (Acts 10:42, 2 Timothy 4:1, Revelation 20).

As a new year begins, give some time to prayer and meditation on your physical mortality. This may sound like a depressing proposal, but it should not be so for a Christian. Be sober-minded about the length of your life, especially in light of the length of eternity.

Perhaps you should spend an afternoon walking around a cemetery, reading the gravestones and calculating how many of the people buried in the ground lived lives shorter than your own. Consider how each one of the deceased had the opportunity to do just as you are doing now. They each had the opportunity to consider their life in light of eternity. They could have read verses like Hebrews 9:27, “Just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” How they responded to such knowledge at that time determined where their soul resides even now.

While you are still in the land of the living, give thought to the things of Christ and follow him … today!

Only one life, will soon be passed. Only what’s done for Christ will last!
W. Scott Lamb serves as director of research for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr., and along with Tim Ellsworth, the author of a forthcoming biography on Albert Pujols.

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  • W. Scott Lamb