I often read passages in the Bible assuming they are only saying the obvious, and missing what else they are saying which could be less obvious, even paradoxical. I often miss that the other side of the coin not explicit in the text is equally important, and may take a little more meditation through the Spirit to get there.
For example, when you read that your life is like grass, or a mist, or a flower, what is obvious about that? Well, I suppose you might say that your life is short, or it is fleeting. Obviously. Yes, that is important to consider. But do you also read that your life is valuable? Or do you read into the fact that since it is like a vanishing mist or withering grass or a fading flower that it is so short that it doesn’t matter so much? I do. At first. Then I am reminded of how ridiculous it is to assume that because life is short it is also meaningless. How ridiculous to think that is what Scripture is saying! How ridiculous to forget that a mist contributes significantly to temperature regulation and air conditions in the short time it is around, or that grass portrays the beauty of God’s creation with vivid color and provides nourishment to several creatures if only during daylight or for a season.
To say that the fleeting nature of life as referenced in the Bible is only meant to communicate the brevity of life and not also the value of life is reductionism. Scripture (thankfully!) is more than a compilation of obvious statements. It is also a sea of pearls that are hidden beneath the surface. The implication on the surface is that life is short and therefore not of much value. I think that is what we are prone to think. The pearl at the bottom is that life is short and therefore unspeakably valuable. We see its value despite its brevity, even in its brevity. Yet, is that intuitive from the passages that reference this? I don’t think so, hence my emphasizing it here. Yes, life is short! Even though it is so short - since it is so short - what are we to make of that reality? Eat, drink, be merry, and die only? God forbid!
Consider the book of Job. This fascinating portion of Scripture involves a godly man Job, who has experienced great loss and is attempting to work out the reason and purpose of his suffering, while his well-meaning but theologically naïve friends attempt to help him. How does one read and understand the book of Job? Are all the individual statements automatically truth because they are in Bible, even though in this case they are about the nature of an infinite God made by finite humans wrestling with thoughts too lofty for them? Can one read and understand Job truthfully without considering Christ?
Those are big questions. If you read Job 14 specifically, you see Job lamenting the reality that death comes soon to all. As Dr. Thomas Constable notes in his commentary, this chapter and Job’s remarks could be separated into three sections: the brevity of life (v. 1-6), the finality of death (v. 7-17), and the absence of hope (v. 18-22). Consider the words of Job here:
“Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of toil and trouble. He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not.” (v. 1-2)
“As waters fail from a lake and a river wastes away and dries up, so a man lies down and rises not again; till the heavens are no more he will not awake or be roused out of his sleep.” (v. 11-12)
“But the mountain falls and crumbles away, and the rock is removed from its place; the waters wear away the stones; the torrents wash away the soil of the earth; so you destroy the hope of man.” (v. 18-19)
You could say, as a faithful student of the Scriptures sensitive to genre and context, that Job is not speaking absolute truth on its own but instead modeling a natural response to suffering, acknowledging that it has purposes beyond his grasp and Scripture’s revelation. Questioning God, or even coming to false conclusions about the nature and purposes of God, is fine, if it accompanies steadfast faith in God despite the circumstances. You could say this is the purpose of the book of Job and statements like this.
Perhaps. Another way to say a similar thing is to say that these three realities that Job is emphasizing - the brevity of life, the finality of death, and the absence of hope - are absolutely true outside of Christ. It seems to me that Job is setting up a pretty strong gospel presentation. That he doesn’t happen to finish it is neither here nor there for those of us who have the whole story and the complete revelation in the Old and New Testament.
The rest of the story is that all three of these realities are reversed and redeemed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yes, life is fleeting, but through Christ it is immeasurably valuable and purposeful. Yes, death is final, but through Christ it is swallowed whole and becomes an entryway into paradise. Without Christ, there is no hope in life or death, yet through Christ hope is laid up for us in heaven! And as Puritan Thomas Brooks said, assurance of this hope (Hebrews 6:11, Hebrews 11:1) also produces heaven on earth. “An assured soul lives in paradise, and walks in paradise, and works in paradise; and rests in paradise; he hath heaven within him, and heaven about him, and heaven over him; all his language is Heaven, heaven! Glory, glory!” (Heaven on Earth, p. 139)
The overcoming of death and the eternal hope through Christ’s death and resurrection on our behalf is the center of the gospel. You see that articulated throughout the New Testament in glorious ways. But it is the redemption of this first reality mentioned by Job, namely, the brevity of life, that does not get enough attention in my opinion. It is not only Job that speaks of this reality. If you were to ask the Biblical authors the question, “what is my life?”, you would get several answers that all point to this same reality.
James would tell you that your life is like a flower, which falls, and like grass, which withers, (James 1:10-11). He would also say it is like a mist, which vanishes (James 4:14). Notice, there are three realities in each of these answers. First, life is fleeting, like flowers, grass, and mist. Second, life does not last, instead it falls, withers, or vanishes. But third – do you see the other reality?? The third reality is that life is like flowers, grass, and mist. What are these things like? What is the purpose of these things? Surely, their purpose is not only evident but glorious. The beauty of flowers in the Spring, and the joy produced by flowers all year (ask your wife!) is worth our consideration, especially as we compare it to our life. And that is before saying anything about their more technical or scientific value to creation, which would also be seen in the grass and mist. If you don’t see the value of mist you need to go to Disney World in the hottest part of the year, or the Indianapolis 500 when it is 90 degrees outside. And that is man-made mist! How much more the wonderful cooling properties of a mist descending into a scenic valley on a hot day. I digress.
David, Moses, Isaiah, and Peter would all agree with James and answer that your life is like a flower or grass. Notice that David highlights that your life is not only like a flower, but flourishes like a flower (Psalm 103:15). Moses indicates the same in Psalm 90 and adds to it the concept of renewal (Psalm 90:5-6). Isaiah and Peter (who quotes Isaiah) describe the “beauty” (or “glory” in 1 Peter) of grass (Isaiah 40:6-8, 1 Peter 1:24-25). All life is short like grass, and withers like grass, but it is beautiful like grass!
Don’t you see?! Through Christ our life is like beautiful and valuable components of creation that bring joy and fruit to life. The fact that our earthly life is short and fleeting takes nothing away from its value and eternal purposes, in Christ. In and through Christ, life is a gift and a picture and a vessel and so much more. What are we to do with this? Eat? Yes! Drink? Sure! Be merry? Of course! Die? Sadly, yes. Anything else? Yes!!
We are to labor. The depth and detail of what this means is my passion in life. The Word of God has an enormous amount to say about this. The Word of God, that as Isaiah and Peter tell us, in contrast to the brevity of our life, is everlasting. As Tom Nelson has said, the theology of work and vocation (calling) is a central thread in the Bible, all the way from the Garden of Eden in Genesis to the New Heavens and New Earth in Revelation. What is your life? What is it made up of? I have always been prone to compartmentalize the parts of my life and then prioritize them into the categories of God, family, work, and ministry. In my case my work is in a secular business environment. Is my “labor” this day-job only? When Moses in Psalm 90 calls upon the favor of the Lord to fall upon us and for God to establish the “work” of our hands, and when Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 exhorts us that in the Lord our “labor” is not in vain, does this only mean our career? You can be sure, it absolutely means our career. That is essential to understand and live accordingly.
It also absolutely means every part of our life. Our work, our labor, our “craft” as I like to say, as finite humans who serve an eternal and infinite God, is our living and serving in every capacity in every part of our life. Work or labor is ultimately service to others, which is our highest calling in every activity. It is the purpose for which we were created and though our window of time is short, and our accomplishments are ultimately but a shadow, in and through Christ and according to His Word, we can glorify Him and contribute to his creation and redemptive plan in everlasting ways.
“Let us be on the watch for opportunities of usefulness; let us go about the world with our ears and our eyes open, ready to avail ourselves of every occasion for doing good; let us not be content till we are useful, but make this the main design and ambition of our lives.” – Charles Spurgeon (Counsel for Christian Workers, p. 108)
Let us get to work! For we do not have much time. Spring reminds us of new life. Let us not forget that winter will still come after. The grass will wither and the flower will fade, and so it will be with our life. May we live in such a way that our momentary flourishing will be seen and experienced by others and they will in turn give glory to our Father in Heaven.