Scripture talks about people living to a ripe old age, full of years, sated. It is kind of ironic that it should start in Genesis, because when at last you read about Abraham living to a good old age, of Isaac and then Jacob, you can’t forget the fifth chapter of Genesis where people achieved much longer lives. And to think of that genealogy in chapter 5 is to think of the genealogy of death. That genealogy is peculiar for emphasizing death in a way others do not. What there is in Genesis is also a decline which is observed by the gloomy but perceptive Jacob: “The days of the years of my pilgrimage are an hundred and thirty years: few and evil have the days of the years of my life been, and have not attained unto the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their pilgrimage.” Last comes Joseph, who lives fewer years than his father before him, and Genesis closes with the description of his lying embalmed by the death-obsessed Egyptians, a mummy in a coffin.
But the negative view is not the only part of Scripture’s take on our present life, obviously. What seems to me odd is how much it emphasizes long life as something good, as the blessing of God. I have to think it matters a lot how relatively miserable you are during that time. I’m not so sure a long life would be that great a thing because I’m not so sure how happy I’m going to be throughout. What guarantee do you have that you’ll see no calamity? that war, pestilence and famine will not come upon you? That the Federal Reserve will not make a sad ruin of all your prudent savings?
Well, can come the chipper reply, you’ll have to trust in the Lord. But that’s where it gets particularly difficult for me because I don’t have a God whom I serve so that he makes my life comfortable and free from troubles, calamities, sickness, or even insomnia. I do believe these things come upon us or we bring those things upon ourselves out of foolishness, perversity, laziness and irresponsibility, and I don’t think it is God’s function in my life simply to remove them for me, though he can and does. Or not, like Job.
Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize,
And sailed through bloody seas?
That does not mean I cannot trust him, but simply that I cannot manipulate him. I can trust him. I can trust him so that if he decides through horrible circumstances to take away from me my precious wife, that in that taking away he will not take away himself and will be dearer to me for it. Would I not, however, be glib to say that knowing that and resting in that, I have no reason to dread the event should it come upon me? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I live in fear of that real possibility, it doesn’t have to happen and perhaps it never will. But it would be glib to act as if such an event would be easy to pass through, as if it could never happen because God would not do that to us. God has, God can, and God well might.
All of which goes to show that the long life enjoyed by Abraham had more to do with quality than with quantity, if I may put it that way. If you want a contrast, just look at Jacob.
So you have that in the Old Testament, this quantity of life with something unsettling flowing under it and the reasonable inference that quality has more to do it with quantity. And then you get to the New Testament; suddenly you have the life of our Lord which turns out short by anybody’s measure; he dies young! And he does not talk of long life, in fact he talks about losing your life. And what he says mostly about life that is positive is not that is should be long and then end, but that he offers everlasting life, unending life, eternal life. And in that there is also an implied emphasis long beyond quantity on quality because he is not talking about the eternal duration of the existence of the damned.
Abundant life is perhaps the term most suited to point out the quality. A life of no calamities after the last calamity has been conquered awaits us, and more. It is life uninterrupted by death ever again, but much more than a life of uninterrupted duration. And I think that is the point of all these things in the Old Testament. The point is not to teach us that long life in this life is desirable—it doesn’t have to be. Look at Paul, torn between living and dying both. The greater desire is not veiled in that passage: to die and not to live here is far better. And that is why the point of Job is not to teach us to endure some adversities in order to enjoy a mostly comfortable life in the end.* His story is an allegory of eternal life.
Thy saints in all this glorious war
Shall conquer, though they die;
They see the triumph from afar,
By faith’s discerning eye.
The Bible uses long life in the Old Testament that way, and I think the long life promised and enjoyed there is primarily a metaphor. It’s meaning is principally spiritual (I’m an amillennialist, of course, so I mainly spiritualize the OT; I don’t know, we think it is a spiritual book, I guess; maybe that inadvertently makes me gloomy:-). It is meant as a figure of eternal life. Do you read of anybody living to a ripe old age in the New Testament after the death of Christ? Is that held before us as a blessing? (If what I am saying is true, then it takes care of Ephesians 6:3.) Not to disparage a long life, if that is what you want, but to disparage settling for that when there are better things to long for. With the introduction of eternal bliss, doesn’t it almost seem abnormal to prolong the inferior happiness of this world? Purify your desires. Set your affections on things above.
I hope that in quality, for you this life’s extent is not enough. But you know, I doubt it will be if you have like me to learn contentment, resignation, self-denial or just basic self-examination. I don’t think those things are comfortably learned, you know? The New Testament’s metaphors are not of ease, but of combat, of struggle, of backbreaking labor, of overcoming. I can’t get over that, and I don’t think I’m alone. Are we called to rest in the hope and satisfaction of a long life here under the moon, or to labor rather to enter into the rest of endless Sabbaths where the quality of life rests on satisfactions far superior? We sing this hymn sometimes (if you have hymnals in your church still): Am I a Soldier of the Cross? It’s a good question.
Sure I must fight if I would reign;
Increase my courage, Lord.
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
Supported by Thy Word.* *
* It is a good observation that most of our lives here now are comfortable, mostly. We endure a little and complain a lot and are largely lacking in perspective and more significantly in the integrity of view our lives for what they are rather than whingeing as much as we do. It does not therefore follow that we can expect comfortable lives because the truth is God has not guaranteed that and none of us deserves them. I think we can enjoy whatever we can, but not rest in these present enjoyments. I do think it is a distortion of the teaching of Scripture to expect a placid comfortable life as something God owes the Christian.
* * Those are good words the stanzas end on, aren’t they?
They see the triumph from afar,
By faith’s discerning eye.
Supported by Thy Word.
Here is the ending of it all:
When that illustrious day shall rise,
And all Thy armies shine
In robes of victory through the skies,
The glory shall be Thine.