It makes no difference whether a person is a prince or a pauper, we face the same ultimate reality -- our own mortality. The wise King Solomon had quite a bit to say about this issue as he contemplated in the book of Ecclesiastes. He compares the pursuit and accumulation of this world's goods as "grasping for the wind/air" in Ecclesiastes 1:14. When you look at his life, it is not difficult to conclude that if happiness and satisfaction could be found in the things this world has to offer, then Solomon would have been the happiest man who ever lived. When it came to wealth, he was rich beyond measure. He had 700 wives and 300 concubines. He had the utmost in power, position, wisdom and influence. If ultimate satisfaction could have been achieved through the things of this life, Solomon would have certainly possessed it in abundance.
Singer and songwriter Johnny Cash was one of the most legendary music and cultural icons of the 20th century He sold millions of albums, had multiple number one hits, and even his own television show for a while. He possessed all the wealth and fame that goes with such great accomplishments. But, on Sept. 12, 2003, Johnny Cash died. In just one instant all that he had accumulated over his 70-plus years was left to someone else. Illness and death should not be among earth's surprises but these tend to shock, nevertheless.
Cash seemed to have a perspective that most do not. He had traveled a long way with God over his years from the depths of drug and alcohol abuse, a failed marriage, and a Christ-haunted existence, until ultimately coming to peace with God in mid-life. Later, as his death drew near, he recorded and released a song which became something of a strange capstone to his stellar career. Stricken by this time with diabetes, Parkinson's, and other maladies, he recorded a song simply called "Hurt," which was his adaptation of a 1994 song by Nine Inch Nails.
Cash alludes through his personalization of this song that he is at the point in his existence where he questions if he still has the ability to feel. Pain assuredly has now become his focus, and the only thing that hardly seems real. Trying to forget the past becomes something of a curse to his mind as he "remembers everything." He asks rhetorically "What have I become?" As he reflects, "Everyone I know goes away in the end." Certainly he had lost friends and loved ones. He even lived long enough to experience the painful death of his beloved wife June.
Cash sings, "You could have it all," which indeed, he must have felt that he did. Interestingly he sings of his "empire of dirt." Indeed this will "let you down" in the end. He sings "I wear this crown of thorns" an obvious allusion to his identifying with Christ and to the fact that He matters when we do not and that life can only be truly understood in the context of the certainty of earthly death juxtaposed with the hope of eternal life through Christ.
Solomon concluded the book of Ecclesiastes by writing, "Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: fear God and keep His commandments. For this is man's all" (Ecclesiastes 12:13). I believe Cash sought to convey that, as human strength fades and ultimately fails, the dependence upon the person of Christ must grow stronger. He reflects that "If I could start again a million miles away I would keep myself, I would find a way." I believe he is expressing his belief he had lost himself somewhere along the way; that he had sold out to a multitude of earthly pleasures and pursuits, plus the expectations and demands of others upon him when, in the end, it should have been exclusively about Christ.
When people are near death, they prefer close family and friends around. They do not ask for big and important things, but rather the simple (a glass of water, a squeeze of the hand, a prayer, and maybe a smile). The gentle comfort of a loved one means more than if the president of the United States were to call on the phone. I believe Cash, by the end of his life, wished he had not wasted so many years chasing after the things most people spend their lives pursuing. In the end, many are left with emptiness.
Jim Elliot, the slain South American missionary of the 1950s, said, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose."
Scripture is clear: It is appointed unto man once to die, and after that comes judgment (Hebrews 9:17). How much better our lives might be if we discovered this truth sooner, rather than later. May we all learn from those who have lived and died before.
Allen Raynor is interim pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in Bailey, Colo. He previously served at churches in Oklahoma, Missouri and Colorado. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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