“That’s what the Preacher is saying: a coffin preaches better sermons than a cot. ‘Look forward,’ he says as he grabs us by the shoulders. ‘Don’t be a fool! Stop trying to escape life’s agonies by drowning them away, by laughing them off and pretending they don’t exist. Look forward to the day of your death and ask yourself, what kind of person should I be? For one day I will be dead.'” -David Gibson
From early on as a Christian, I have been drawn to that strange and curious book of the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes. I’ve found its attraction lies somewhat in the fact that it at times is so confounding. Why does the Preacher travel down this road and not that one? Is the author’s main message really that “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”? How come this book seems to have no real outline to it? What are we ultimately to make of it?
David Gibson has written a marvelous book that seeks to tackle the message of the Preacher (or the Teacher, or Qoheleth). In Living Life Backward, Gibson tries to tie the many strands of the Preacher’s message into something we can put our arms around. Reading through Gibson’s book along with Ecclesiastes, the message gets a bit clearer: focus your eyes on your death – for then you will understand how to really live.
“Whatever it is you think you’ve gained, it will soon vanish from the earth like morning mist, and you along with it too. Part of learning to live is simply accepting this. One day you will be dead and gone, and the world will go on, probably without even remembering you. A hundred years after your death, the chances are, no one will ever know you lived.”
In this quote, and others like it, Gibson tries to get us to understand our limitations. We are not the Creator – we are His creatures. With that, some humility is in order. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to know and understand all there is to know “under the sun”. True living, suggests Gibson, comes instead when “…we take the time to live inside the gifts themselves and see the hand of God in them.” As we begin to grasp this, we understand all of life is a gift, but still one that is moving towards an endpoint on this earth. With that we are reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:37-39 – “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (NIV). To live like this, Gibson argues, is really how to be remembered:
“But the wise person sits in the funeral home and stares at the coffin and realizes that one day it will be his turn. The wise person asks himself, ‘When it is my turn, what will my life have been worth? What will they be saying about me?’ He loved his bowling and his partying and his holidays. Is that it?”
How often do we think about our impending death? A few times a year, perhaps, if we’re really honest? I had a milestone birthday a few months ago and began to think of this more than I ever have before. In their 90s hit “Right Now”, Van Halen had a graphic in the video for that song that said “Right now your memory is getting longer while your life is getting shorter”. I think Gibson would say to that, “Exactly! Now listen to the Preacher and his message. What are you going to do with that?”
David Gibson has written a book that I think will stay with me a long time. His extended meditation on the Preacher’s message in Ecclesiastes gets us to view life in the light of death. Yes, it may make us uncomfortable. It may make us anxious even, or sad. But in doing so, we are given light to see how to truly live.
“Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.”
-Ecclesiastes 12:13 (NIV)