Monday, January 13, 2020

Anonymous Asks (75)

“Does God know when I will die?”

Yes. How’s that for a quick and direct answer?

We find David reflecting on this exact subject in a psalm about God’s incredible knowledge of each of his creatures: “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” The words “every one of them” tell us that not only does God know the content of our experiences, but each individual time-fragment that makes up those experiences. Every single day.

Not only is God able to count the days of our lives, he has made a formal record of each one.

The Case of Hezekiah

But that’s poetry, you say. Maybe David was indulging in a bit of hyperbole. Okay, fair enough. So let’s look at some Bible history to see how the divine knowledge David talked about plays out in a man’s experience:
“In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die, you shall not recover.’ ”
King Hezekiah got sick, and God sent him a message: your number is up. In the ordinary course of events, Hezekiah had reached the end of the line. God was not judging him. God was not inserting himself into history and causing Hezekiah’s demise. In fact, Hezekiah was a good king, blessed by God and known for his devotion. God was simply giving his servant a ‘heads-up’. He did not want a good man to be unprepared for what was to come, and to leave his affairs in disarray. It was a special favor to send Isaiah to give Hezekiah a bit of knowledge most of us have to do without (and which I at least prefer to).

That revelation also turned out to be a bit of a character test for Hezekiah, which we will get to later.

Knowing and Causing

Or take the example of King Solomon. He too pleased God for most of his reign over Israel. At the beginning of that reign, God had made him a promise: “If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.” The Hebrew word 'arak means to prolong, to make a thing longer that would otherwise have been shorter. Perhaps, as many of us are, Solomon was genetically predisposed to a shorter lifespan. That happens. But God promised him a longer life than might otherwise have occurred.

So yes, God knows when you will die, just like he knew when David, Hezekiah and Solomon would. Does that mean God will step in and cause your death at a certain point? Not necessarily. God has certainly directly caused a few rather abrupt exits throughout history, but we have no indication in scripture that he makes a habit of it. Knowledge of an event does not automatically imply involvement in making that event happen. It may or may not. They are two separate issues, though they may certainly overlap in some cases. Many times they have nothing to do with one another. For example, I know my co-workers are getting a raise sometime in January 2020, but I am not the one giving them the extra money. I can neither be blamed if the raise is too small for their taste, nor praised if the raise is higher than expected. What will happen to them is quite independent of me, despite the fact that I know about it.

Designated Authority

God has a track record of designating responsibility to other “authorities” and, for the most part, letting them have their say. Sometimes these authorities do things we like, and sometimes they don’t. In the case of our lifespans, genetics are one of God’s “authorities”. They have a great deal to say about how long we will live, though genetics may be overridden if we catch an unexpected disease or end up in a head-on collision with a drunk. Each of us has also been granted a certain limited authority over our own lifespans. A two-pack a day cigarette habit is probably not the best way to express our thanks. Further, God designates authority to men to govern nations. Sometimes they do this well, and sometimes they do this poorly. Either way, lifespans are affected. Actions have consequences. All else being equal, if I live in a time of peace, I will probably live longer than if I am drafted to go to war. And of course there are many other “authorities” instituted by God that will have an impact on how long you and I live.

In most cases, then, I do not see from my Bible that God is said to be directly involved in prolonging life or causing death. These seem to be special and fairly unusual events, and generally have to do with the great movements of history, with making an example of individuals who have sinned in ways that harms the church of God, and with answers to the prayers of God’s people.

Prayers and Answers

However, we ought to think twice before we ask God to step in and change something which would have happened in due course anyway. Sin has entered the world, and barring an Enoch or Elijah experience, you and I will all die at some point. The notion that death is always the worst possible outcome is quite shortsighted. Death is not necessarily a sign of God’s disapproval. He may even grant it as a favor. It is far better to live a brief life pleasing to God and enjoy abundant reward than to live a long life that ends with a major sin or failure of Christian testimony.

In the case of Hezekiah, I’m not sure his prayer for a longer life than would otherwise have occurred was a wise one. Fifteen years is a long time, and it’s enough time to make the sort of mistake that seriously tarnishes your legacy, and to hear news that sensible people would rather not hear.

Hard Pressed Between the Two

The apostle Paul muses about dying without coming to a definite conclusion. He wrote to the Philippians:
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”
In the end, Paul believed he was scheduled to remain for a while longer, which turned out to be correct (it was another five or six years), though he would have preferred to be called home to his Lord if the decision had been left up to him. Still, he does not insist on getting his way, nor does he pray for his own will to be done.

Given all that we don’t know about the unforeseen consequences of our presence and actions on the world, we are wise to do the same.

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