Life’s Great Riddle: A Heart for Eternity
I had an interesting conversation recently while buying a stationary item. After paying for it, I gave the sales lady, Bongiwe, a small paper with writing on it and suggested she might like to read it during her coffee break. There weren't any more customers waiting in the queue so she immediately read it:
For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die ... Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God's work from beginning to end ... A good reputation is more valuable than costly perfume. And the day you die is better than the day you are born. (Ecclesiastes 3:1,2,11; 7:1,2)
She said, “This is so nice, I think I'll keep it here” as she carefully put it on the ledge of her cash register.
I asked if she knew who wrote it .... I explained that Solomon wrote it about 3,000 years ago!
With a grin of recognition, she said, “It's from the Bible!”
Over the years, I have shared this wise saying with hundreds of people: Zulus, Hindus and especially Muslims. I've noticed almost everyone responds warmly.
Several others, like Bongiwe, have told me, “I'd like to put this on a wall in my room” or “on my computer desk top.” One Imam said he wants to enlarge it and display it in the library which is accessible to the public.
You don't have to be intellectually brilliant to discern that eternity is the key to this proverb. This idea of eternal life in the hereafter has universal appeal. It resonates with everyone, whatever their culture or creed. Interestingly, the Bible says that during King Solomon's reign, people from all around the world came to visit him because of his exceptional wisdom. Today wise men still ponder his proverbs!
Without a doubt Solomon encrypted the Gospel seed in a beautiful, if elusive way. But there is another son of David who was even greater and wiser than Solomon – the Messiah. Do you know why he is greater?
He didn't just pen inspirational sayings, he unlocked and indeed, fulfilled Solomon's elusive proverbs, especially the one that points to eternal life! The Messiah “gives eternal life to each one … And this is the way to have eternal life – to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one you sent to earth.” (John 17:2,3, ESV)
I will try to explain this using four simple steps. It is my aim to make it simple in keeping with Matthew 18:3, “Unless you … become like children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (ESV)
Practical wisdom suggests not starting with NT verses which tell precisely what is eternal life, and how to receive it, (e.g. John 3:16; Romans 6:23) Instead, we will begin with an OT proverb and gradually unfold it, as God instructs us, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” (Psalm 119:130, NIV)
This method is similar to how a builder constructs a house. He begins with the foundation, then only he erects the walls and roof.
Glimpsing eternity in Ecclesiastes 3
On one occasion I showed a Muslim the tiny paper containing the proverbial saying about eternity planted in the human heart. (Muslims believe that the prophet Suleiman was gifted by Allah with much wisdom.)
This proverb sparked an interesting discussion as the man said, “We Muslims take death seriously. In fact, we are supposed to think about it twenty five times a day.” We Christians may view this practice as morbid, but Muslims feel it helps them maintain a proper fear of God and deters them from wrong doing. Most of the Muslims I shared this proverb with have appreciated it. Some have become curious. Others even welcomed it enthusiastically!
As one explores Solomon's wisdom further in Ecclesiastes you find another intriguing saying about birth and death which correlates with the earlier verses in chapter 3.
A good reputation is more valuable than costly perfume. And the day you die is better than the day you are born. Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties. After all everyone dies – so the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for sadness has a refining influence on us. A wise person thinks a lot about death, while a fool thinks only about having a good time. (Ecclesiastes 7:1-4)
Why do Muslims find this proverb so fascinating? Maybe they like seeing how the prophet Suleman acknowledged it is wise to think much about death. Not only so, did you notice how verse 11 of chapter 3 introduces an element of uncertainty and mystique? It says, “people cannot see the whole scope of God's work from beginning to end.” (bold font added) All humans long for a good life after the grave, but this hope is shrouded in uncertainty and our groping for immortality proves elusive.
Let me share a story that shows how this longing for eternity resonates even with non-Christians. I shared with an Imam friend a 1 1/2 page meditation on Ecclesiastes 3:11 entitled, Homeward Bound. He was so impressed that he presented these insights as a sermon in the mosque!
I trust you will look for the opportunity to read these verses from Ecclesiastes with a friend. Then simply ask your friend, “What do you think this proverb means?”
Notice how Solomon underscores the importance of sorrow. This lends itself to asking your friend if this describes how he feels at losing a loved one. There is something profound underlying this saying. Admittedly, it is normal for us, as humans, to feel grief but this is not all. If we reflect on the grief our first parents felt, i.e. Adam and Eve, we will humbly acknowledge that death, indeed, has a tragic meaning. Death came as a result of sin! Subsequent generations experienced death as very unpleasant, painful and even terrifying. (Psalm 55:4,5)
Considering how death evokes such negative emotions, it is natural to feel startled, if not intrigued, by Solomon's observation, “the day you die is better than the day you are born.”
God has made us in such a way that we need to figure out puzzles and solve mysteries. In this case, the riddle begs to be solved.
Not surprizingly, we find riddles and parables mentioned in the introduction to the book of Proverbs. Solomon encourages the reader to explore the meaning behind these intriguing sayings:
“Let the wise listen to these proverbs and become even wiser. Let those with understanding receive guidance by exploring the meaning in these proverbs and parables, the words of the wise and their riddles. Fear of the Lord is the foundation of true knowledge...” (Proverbs 1:5-7)
In keeping with Solomon's advice, we should encourage our friends to express their thoughts and feelings after reading Ecclesiastes 3:1,2,11; and 7:1-4.
A meditation on immortality: Psalm 49
It is fitting to continue exploring eternal life by looking at a Scripture which describes our heartfelt longing for eternity as a riddle. Psalm 49 serves as a fitting stepping stone along the pathway to eternal life. Like Solomon, the Psalmist thought deeply about death. The first 15 verses read as follows:
For the choir director: A psalm of the descendants of Korah.
1 Listen to this, all you people!
Pay attention, everyone in the world!
2 High and low,
rich and poor—listen!
3 For my words are wise,
and my thoughts are filled with insight.
4 I listen carefully to many proverbs
and solve riddles with inspiration from a harp.
5 Why should I fear when trouble comes,
when enemies surround me?
6 They trust in their wealth
and boast of great riches.
7 Yet they cannot redeem themselves from death by paying a ransom to God.
8 Redemption does not come so easily,
for no one can ever pay enough
9 to live forever and never see the grave.
10 Those who are wise must finally die,
just like the foolish and senseless,
leaving all their wealth behind.
11 The grave is their eternal home,
where they will stay forever.
They may name their estates after themselves,
12 but their fame will not last.
They will die, just like animals.
13 This is the fate of fools,
though they are remembered as being wise.
14 Like sheep, they are led to the grave,
where death will be their shepherd.
In the morning the godly will rule over them.
Their bodies will rot in the grave,
far from their grand estates.
15 But as for me, God will redeem my life.
He will snatch me from the power of the grave. Interlude
Having read this thought provoking meditation let me encourage you to continue exploring a riddle that wrestles with our dislike of death and our longing for eternal life. It is helpful to discuss with our friend what he/she thinks of Psalm 49. Be sure to consider what is meant by ransom/redemption. (see verses 7,8,15)
A man who yearned for eternity
Mark 10:17-31 tells the story of a rich young ruler who wanted to know, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He didn't merely have a casual interest or curiosity. He needed an answer urgently.
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked. “Only God is truly good. 19 But to answer your question, you know the commandments: ‘You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. You must not cheat anyone. Honor your father and mother.’”
21 Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. “There is still one thing you haven’t done,” he told him. “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
24 This amazed them. But Jesus said again, “Dear children, it is very hard to enter the Kingdom of God. 25 In fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”
29 “Yes,” Jesus replied, “and I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, 30 will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life. 31 But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.”
Notice how the disciples reacted when Jesus said it is difficult for rich people to attain eternal life. “They were amazed.” Jesus explained that gaining eternal life is as difficult as putting a camel through the eye of a needle. Hearing this, his disciples were even more amazed. They exclaimed, “Then who in the world can be saved?”
Can't you see the perplexity and incredulity on the faces of the disciples? The puzzled look on their faces calls to mind how the psalmist poses a riddle which is meant to prompt us to to seek to find answers to our heart felt longings for eternal life. We shouldn't be surprised, therefore, that Jesus used a cryptic saying to point to eternal life, i.e. a parable of a camel going through the eye of a needle.
Unfortunately because of space limitations we won't go into detail. But let me assure you: As a Christian, God has given you his Spirit to enable you to discuss these vital truths, including the young man's root problem – what hindered him from following Christ and finding what his heart so deeply wanted – eternal life.
After looking at Mark 10, I suggest you read John 4 which is the fourth leg of our journey, so to speak, towards understanding eternal life.
A woman who was thirsty: John 4
We have just read the story of a young man who implored Jesus to tell him how he could get eternal life. But John 4 presents a very different situation – a story of a woman who met Jesus unexpectedly. She came to the well, as was her custom, to draw water. If she had any concern about her eternal destiny it was likely the last thing on her mind. But it wasn't long before her curiosity was ignited and she wanted to know more about 'living' water.
The story begins with a Samaritan woman going to a well to draw water. When she got to the well of Sychar, she saw a tired traveller sitting and resting. Jesus was on route from Judea to Galilee. He purposely chose to travel this route which involved passing through Samaria. (Today, this province is called the West Bank). Jesus started the conversation:
“Please give me a drink.” He was alone at the time because his disciples had gone into the village to buy some food.
The woman was surprised, for Jews refuse to have anything to do with Samaritans. She said to Jesus, “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan woman. Why are you asking me for a drink?”
Jesus replied, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.”
But sir, you don't have a rope or bucket,” she said, “and this well is very deep. Where would you get this living water? And besides do you think you're greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well? How can you offer better water than he and his sons and animals enjoyed?”
Jesus replied, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again but those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.”
“Please sir,” the woman said, “give me this water! Then I'll never be thirsty again, and I won't have to come here to get water.”
“Go and get your husband,” Jesus told her, “I don't have a husband,” the woman replied.
Jesus said, “You're right! You don't have a husband – for you have had 5 husbands, and you aren't even married to the man you're living with now. You certainly spoke the truth!”
“Sir,” the woman said, “you must be a prophet. So tell me, why is it that you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place to worship, while we Samaritans claim it is here at Mt. Gerazim, where our ancestors worshipped?”
Jesus replied, Believe me, dear woman, the time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem. You Samaritans know very little about the one you worship, while we Jews know all about him, for salvation comes through the Jews. But the time is now coming – indeed it's here now – when true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.”
The woman said, “I know the Messiah is coming – the one who is called Christ. When he comes he will explain everything to us.”
Then Jesus told her, “I AM the Messiah!”
Just then his disciples came back. They were shocked to find him talking to a woman, but none of them had the nerve to ask, “What do you want with her?” or “Why are you talking to her?”The woman left her water jar beside the well and ran back to the village, telling everyone, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could he possibly be the Messiah?” So the people came streaming from the village to see him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging Jesus, “Rabbi eat something.”
But Jesus replied, “I have a kind of food you know nothing about.”
“Did someone bring him food while we were gone,” the disciples asked each other. ...
Many Samaritans from the village believed in Jesus because the woman had said, “He told me everything I ever did.” When they came out to see him, they begged him to stay in their village. So he stayed for two days, long enough for many more to hear his message and believe. Then they said to the woman, “Now we believe, not just because of what you told us, but because we have heard him ourselves. Now we know that he is indeed the Savior of the world.”
What can we learn from this story?
There are a couple vital background details that help us understand this story. Most importantly, the Jewish people and their Samaritan cousins believed in one God. Both communities practised circumcision - like their forefather Abraham. Moreover, each year they sacrificed a Passover lamb as instructed by the prophet Moses (albeit at two different Temples – Mt. Zion the Mt Gerazim). In spite of these significant similarities, certain differences sparked heated debates and animosity. In fact, this scenario has uncanny similarities to the widening gap is happening today between the world's two largest religions.
Can we learn anything by seeing how Jesus graciously bridged the chasm separating these two communities?
Jews did not associate with Samaritans, but this didn't stop Jesus from engaging a Samaritan in friendly conversation. We need to ask ourselves, “Are you and I willing to engage our Muslim neighbor in friendly conversation?”
Not only did Jesus disarm the woman's distrust, he ignited her curiosity to learn more about the gift of God, i.e. living water/eternal life!
It was not enough for Jesus to establish a trust bond, he firmly (yet graciously) exposed her sin and spiritual bancruptcy. He boldly spoke the truth she needed to hear – truth that would set her free, “You Samaritans know very little about the one you worship.” Most English versions do not weaken the rebuke implicit in Jesus' words as does the New Living Translation (quoted above). They retain the literal meaning of the Greek, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know.” You can imagine, it wasn't easy for her (as a Samaritan) to hear this, but she needed it. As it is written, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” (Proverbs 27:6)
This critical omission the Samaritan religion is also true of Islam: both religions have a form of godliness but they don't know God's salvation. Although they believe in the Messiah, they are profoundly ignorant of his primary mission – to bring God's salvation. (Isaiah 49:6)
Fortunately, the Samaritans asked Jesus to stay with them thus giving him the opportunity to fill in the gaps and correct their misunderstandings. The villagers heard him for themselves and learned who he really is – the Savior of the world.
We live in a postmodern era where many Christians feel uncomfortable about correcting or rebuking people who've been ensnared in cults (counterfeit religions), such as Samaritanism or Islam. We are quick to show tolerance but we are reluctant to say anything critical because we're afraid of 'hurting' people's feelings. Indeed, often we are afraid others will accuse us of being Islamophobic! Such acquiescence indicates we've become children of our age. And the tragic result is: we've lost the cutting edge of effective witness.
Let us humbly ask ourselves, “Am I inhibited and shy or am I eager to tell neighbors about God's gift? Will I be like the Samaritan woman who went told everyone to come and see a man who read me like a book? Not only so, she posed a loaded question, “Could he possibly be the Messiah?”
It is not coincidental that Islam, like Samaritanism, contains a valid kernel of Messianic truth. I have read John 4 to many Muslim friends and seen it open a wonderful conversation pointing them to salvation as well as the priority of worshipping God in spirit and in truth.
Keep it simple
In closing, let me underscore what I said earlier about simplicity. Some readers feel daunted at the prospect of analyzing proverbial sayings, solving riddles, etc. You may feel all of this is too complicated and say to yourself, “I'm just an ordinary person. I'm not trained for such a specialized ministry.”
Let me remind you of a man who had a terrible inferiority complex. Gideon felt utterly inadequate for the daunting task of defeating the Midianite armies. But God used him in a mighty way beyond what he could have ever imagined.
Consider another encouraging story in the NT involving a new believer, who was untrained and seemingly unqualified. Shortly after believing in Christ he wanted to leave his home town and travel with Jesus. But Christ told him, “Go and tell your family everything the Lord has done for you and how merciful he has been.” Amazingly, this new believer obeyed the Lord. “He started off to visit the ten towns of that region and began to proclaim the great things Jesus had done for him.” (Mark 5:19,20)
Acts 8:1-4 records another encouraging story. The heroes of this story are ordinary believers went out spreading the Gospel. We are told that God allowed a great persecution to fall on the church in Jerusalem causing them to flee to the surrounding regions of “Judea and Samaria.” Up until this point in the book of Acts these areas hadn't been reached with the Gospel, even though Jesus specifically included them in the Great Commission (Acts 1:8).
Scripture tells us, “they preached the Good News wherever they went.” It is worth noting that “all the believers except the apostles were scattered.” (Acts 8:2, NIV bold font added for emphasis) In other words, it was the rank and file ordinary believers who shared their faith with the people of Judea and Samaria. Notice also, the Samaritans were ensnared in a religious cult. Jewish believers regarded them as very 'hard-to-reach'!
We may never have the final answer as to why the apostles didn't join the mass exodus of Christians from Jerusalem. However, we may safely conclude that they probably procrastinated about going to preach in Samaria. This correlates with John four where the disciples were strongly disinclined to talk with Samaritans. Indeed, on one occasion, James and John wanted to call fire down from heaven against a Samaritan village simply because an innkeeper turned them away! (Luke 9:51)
Furthermore, when we see the long-standing history of debates between Jewish and Samaritan leaders,1 coupled with the fiery outburst of John and James, we may conclude that in all likelihood the disciples were deeply prejudiced against Samaritans – an attitude that poisoned Jewish/Samaritan relations for over 600 years.
Jesus spent two days teaching the Samaritans in the village of Sychar. This was strategic as it meant they could hear the Word of God for themselves. In a similar way, let us share God's Word. Let us unwrap the theme of eternal life with unbelieving friends, including Muslims. Don't be timid. Let compassion banish shyness. Pray for opportunities to introduce the above mentioned Scripture passages. Read God's Word with confidence, for it “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit.” (Hebrews 4:12) As you read, God's Spirit will enable you to unravel the riddle about eternity planted in their heart.
A helpful way to conclude the process of unravelling the riddle of life and death is to read Paul's statement in Philippians 1:21 which sheds so much light on Ecclesiastes 7:1 i.e. death is better than birth.
Don't feel obligated to follow a strict sequence. However, bear in mind the common sense wisdom of unfolding truth from the OT to the NT.
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Other articles I have written are available online here.
All biblical quotations are from the New Living Translation unless otherwise indicated.