In western culture there aren’t many taboo subjects that no one wants to speak about. But the silence is deafening in relation to death. A ComRes survey from 2014 found that eight in ten in the UK are uncomfortable talking about death. It seems as if we want to convince ourselves that death doesn’t exist, even though it is a central part of human experience. There is a natural human fear of death but our culture has taken it to the extreme of a paranoid phobia. It would be unlikely if this has not influenced the Church in some way. Is this the reason many funerals are more about the significance of life than death? Perhaps we are in denial about death too. Perhaps we’re not living in the light of eternity nor ready to think about the full significance of death unless we’re forced to. When we consider Scripture on this subject, we find that we can gain particular benefits from thinking about death.
We’re so influenced by our culture that we are repulsed by thinking about death as morbid. Yet isn’t it rare for us to to travel somewhere on a long journey and make little preparation for it? Wouldn’t we be thinking a good deal about our destination and what we need to make the journey? We may never make those trips for all we know but we do know that the journey of death to eternity is certain to happen.
James Durham points out that those who have been most holy have been most frequent in the thoughts and meditation of death. David prays “Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is: that I may know how frail I am” (Psalm 39:4). Moses says, “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Numbering our days is serious thinking about and meditating on approaching death. Our blessed Lord Jesus Christ, speaks at His transfiguration about his “decease, which he should accomplish at Jerusalem” Although there was something special in His death, speaking about it and preparing for it are an example for us. Solomon commends meditating on death (Ecclesiastes 7:2 and 11: 8, 9 and chapter 12).
What do we mean by meditating on death? It is of course thinking about it from a spiritual point of view. It is certain to happen yet the time and circumstances are uncertain. We need to reflect on what it is to die in the Lord rather die in sin. We also need to dwell on what will happen after death: it is the perfection of joy or the extremity of sorrow forever.
We lose a great deal by living in denial about death and refusing to dwell much on it. The following are all the benefits gained when we consider death seriously, but of course they are lost if we do not meditate on death. They are all drawn from a sermon by James Durham on: “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord” (Revelation 14:13).
The Benefits of Meditating on Death
Meditation on death is so frequently spoken about in Scripture and so profitable to believers.
1. It Helps Us Engage with Eternal Realities
It is impossible to know and believe aright how great a task and work (and happiness) it is to die well without meditating on it. If we take only a glance at it by the by and do not consider seriously what is at the back of death, it will shock us when it comes. The person who has been acquainting themselves with death beforehand can speak of it boldly and with wisdom.
2. It Helps Us Esteem Christ More
There is nothing that more readily heightens the estimation of God and Christ than the thoughts of death. The thoughts of death brings us closer and nearer to His bar of judgment. It makes them look on Him as judge. Then they consider their helplessness and vileness on the one hand and the greatness of the majesty of God on the other.
How sublimely David and Job speak about God! In one word they talk about the grave and in the other word highly ex∣alt the majesty and greatness of God. Meditation on death brings very near to us the thought of what God is and of what we are. It shows us beforehand how He will be found at and after death and what we will be then.
3. It Helps Us Edify Others More
Meditation on death would make Christians walk lovingly and edifyingly with others. They would be loather to do wrong, more patient when they suffered wrongs, and more ready to forgive and forget wrongs. Half an hour’s conversation together with the impression of the solemnity of death on us would (through God’s blessing) edify and profit us mutually more than many meeting many days without it.
4. It Helps Us Advance Spiritually
(a) It Enlightens Our Understanding
It stays the mind, it diverts us from vain things. Men are seldom or never in a more sober and in a better frame than when they are seriously apprehensive of death. The thoughts of death make a man wise and discreet. Without these thoughts we will rather wound our conscience than our reputation. Moses joins together, thinking on death and applying of the heart to wisdom (Psalm 90:12).
(b) It Restrains Our Affections
When Solomon is speaking to the young man who will not be held back by any restraints he uses irony. He invites him to rejoice and laugh on but urges him to remember that for all these things he will come to judgment (Ecclesiastes 11:9). Meditating on death and judgment would make people look on frothy hilarity as vanity, folly, and madness. These thoughts are especially suitable in prosperity and during youth when there is a light attitude to eternal things. Meditating on death is a remarkable bridle to such lightness.
(c) It Helps Us Put Sin to Death
Meditating on death makes a person care litle for the world, riches, pleasures, and honour. It puts to death three things which are the worlds trinity: pride, covetousness and fleshly lusts.
- It mortifies pride. We see this with David, who says, “Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is: that I may know how frail I am” (Psalm 39:4). Job says to corruption it is his father and to the worms, they are his sisters (Job 17:14). It makes us say, I am dust and to dust I will return.
- It mortifies covetousness. Meditating on death takes the heart from the things of the world, and gives us other thoughts to think on. Many are forced to say when death approaches that they have hampered themselves with the world and it has beguiled them.
- It mortifies fleshly pleasures. What can vain fleshly lusts do for those that are dying? However merry they may be now, these thoughts tell them that they must appear in a short time before God in judgment. If this is not a bridle to these lusts, I do not know what will be a bridle.
(d) It Helps Us Advance in Spiritual Activities
It stirs up to be diligent in all duties and engage in them seriously. One sermon or prayer after serious meditation on death would have more weight and benefit than many others without it. It humbles us and encourages sel-examination. It advances the fear of God and brings the soul to stand in awe of Him before whom it is to appear shortly. It advances repentance and prayer (Job 41:25).
Even the heathen sailors in the ship with Jonah prepared themselves for death by repentance, prayer, and offering sacrifices. If meditation on death makes godless men outwardly religious how much more should it make believers serious and spiritual? If God gives them time and seriousness at dying, their prayers will then be more effectual and fervent at that time than before.
(e) It Helps Us Handle Trials
It is exceedingly profitable in producing gracious submission to adverse providence. What anxious care will someone take who has been meditating on death when he loses property? He knows death will put an end to all these things.
(f) It Helps Us Prepare for Death
Solomon describes sickness and old age in Ecclesiastes 12 to make the young prepare for death before it comes. If there were no other advantages from meditating on death, not being unprepared for it is no small one. In some way this also mitigates the bitterness of death. It is not so terrible to those who have been thinking seriously on it as it is to others who have never done this. No wonder many are terrified or stupefied at death, since they never learned the lesson of dying before it came on them.