If I Should Die Before I Wake
September 10, 2008
One of the first prayers I learned to pray was my bedtime prayer. I do not remember how old I was when I first learned it, but I know I was just a young boy. Over the years it has helped millions of children get ready to go to bed. You probably know it by heart:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake,
I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to take.
It is the third line that has always struck me as unusual: “If I should die before I wake.” It seems odd that little children in the springtime of life should mention death in their bedtime prayer. But if you think about it, it’s not odd at all. Death comes to all of us sooner or later. Sometimes to children. And sometimes in the night before we wake.
Death comes to all of us sooner or later.
There is an art to dying well. The Puritans spoke of “dying grace,” which is the special help God gives his children as they prepare to cross the final river. I suppose all of us are planning to live a long time, but these days you can never be sure. The stray bullet, the out-of-control driver, the renegade gang member, the sudden heart attack, the unexpected tumor, who knows what will happen next? Any of us could be struck down at any moment.
After feeling ill for several days recently, a friend went to the doctor. Expecting to be told that he had a virus of some sort, he learned that he has cancer. They plan to try chemotherapy to see if they can prolong his life. But what is the long-term prognosis? The answer is, the prognosis is the same for him as it is for me and for you and for everyone else. We all die sooner or later.
To say that is not to despair but to face reality. We will all do some “box time” eventually. Death comes sooner for some, later for others, but it comes for all of us eventually. We are wise if we face that fact and foolish if we don’t.
The question therefore is not, “Will we die?” because the answer is always yes, but “How will we face our own death?”
Here is one mark of genuine Christianity. When you come to the end of your life, you still hold on to what you believe. When someone dies suddenly, we all want to know: What were his final words? That’s what our text is all about—the final words and deeds of three famous men. Hebrews 11:20-22 contains three brief snapshots from the end of life. One verse is devoted to each man:
Isaac in verse 20,
Jacob in verse 21, and
Joseph in verse 22.
These patriarchs have this in common: 1) What they did, they did by faith; 2) What they did, they did in the last hours of their life. They were all old and infirm and on the edge of the grave. And the Bible bids us take a close look at what they did before they died.
Here are three generations in focus:
Isaac the father,
Jacob his son,
Joseph his grandson.
From looking at these final moments we can discover how faith shows itself at the end of life.
I. Isaac: Faith for his Children
“By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future” (Hebrews 11:20).
The book of Genesis does not give us much information about Isaac. He appears in the Scriptural record as a plain and colorless man. It’s hard to get a handle on his personality because he lived in the shadow of his father Abraham and his son Jacob. It is clear that he was manipulated by his wife and by both his sons. Worse yet, he seems helpless to stop the scheming. Because had a strong father, a protective mother, and a domineering wife, he never establishes his own identity.
Here is one mark of genuine Christianity. When you come to the end of your life, you still hold on to what you believe. </h6 class=”pullquote”>Yet the Bible says, “By faith Isaac.” He must have done something right. At what point do we see his faith in action? Surely we see it when Jacob puts on the goatskins (at his mother’s instruction) and fools Isaac into thinking that he (Jacob) is his hairy brother Esau instead. Isaac then gives Jacob the blessing he intended to give to Esau. Later when Esau asks his father for a blessing, the deceit is discovered. This is the crucial moment. Isaac knows he has been tricked into giving Jacob the blessing. Everything about the way it was done was underhanded and wrong. And yet Isaac refused to reverse what he had done. “I blessed him—and indeed he will be blessed” (Genesis 27:33). Later he gives Esau a blessing as well, but it is much less significant.
This is an example of the overruling grace of God. He didn’t try to reverse the blessing obtained through deceit because he believed God was at work in the trickery of his wife and his younger son. He thus affirmed God’s choice of Jacob over Esau and God’s blessing of Jacob though he did not deserve it. His personal desire to bless Esau could not overcome God’s desire to bless Jacob first. By faith he ratified what God has ordained. Somehow he saw the hand of God behind all the conniving. What a lesson about the sovereignty of God working through sinful human circumstances. Isaac understood that God’s will comes first, and we must bow before it even when we don’t understand it. Sometimes we make decisions that hurt those we love the most. When that happens, we must do what is right even when it goes against our personal preferences. The question at that point becomes, Do we put God’s will above our own desires?
Did Isaac have faith? Yes. He was strong in the end when it counted. He made sure his children were blessed “regarding the future.” He didn’t accomplish a great deal from a worldly point of view but he passed his faith along to his children. And in the end, that’s all that matters. As I wrote those words, my mind drifted to a friend whom I saw several years ago for the first time in a long time. My friend has had his share of ups and downs, and although I have known him for at least 35 years, I haven’t seen him very often, and haven’t been around his family at all. But my travel schedule took me to his area so I got to spend an evening at his home in the country. He has a large family—seven or eight children, I think—and all of us (at least I think it was the whole family) gathered round a long table in the dining room. Plus his parents were there, and there were some grandchildren also. I remember everyone laughing a lot. The children (some of them in their early teens, others in their twenties) obviously doted on their father, proving it by teasing him unmercifully. After the meal, we adjourned to the living room where the family played a variety of guitars and mandolins, performing several songs, including the lovely Ashokan Farewell. It was a wonderful time, and as I left, I couldn’t remember an event in recent memory quite like it. Later, as my friend took me back to my motel, I told him what I was thinking about spending time with his family. “I don’t know about anything else, but I know this much. In the one area of life that really matters, when it comes to your family, you’ve hit the big home run.” If a man can raise a family where he and his wife love each other, and the children love their parents, and they all enjoy each other’s company, and they love the Lord, is there anything better than that?
God blessed these imperfect people in the Old Testament, and through them accomplished his will.</h6 class=”pullquote”>I don’t want to romanticize this too much. After all, Jacob and Esau didn’t get along very well, and Jacob’s sons fought among themselves. There are no perfect families, and sometimes fractures occur that time and prayer don’t seem to heal. When our families are not what we hoped they would be, we can still serve the Lord. God blessed these imperfect people in the Old Testament, and through them accomplished his will. That ought to encourage all of us. We are imperfect people living in an imperfect world—and God loves us in spite of our imperfections. So we can rejoice that God honored Isaac’s faith even though it occurred in the midst of a very dysfunctional family.
II. Jacob: Faith for his Grandchildren
“By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff” (Hebrews 11:21).
Jacob is now an old man. As the King James puts it, “he was a-dying.” One by one he calls in his sons and gives each one a blessing suited to him. When he comes to Joseph, he blesses him and then he blesses Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh. He also worshiped God while leaning on the top of his staff.
The story of the blessing of the grandsons is interesting because Jacob did an unexpected thing. Joseph wanted him to bless Manasseh the older with his right hand as a sign of the greater blessing. But at the last second old Jacob crossed his hands and blessed Ephraim the younger with his right hand. This displeased Joseph but Jacob would not change his blessing. Some of us who are younger sons and daughters can draw great encouragement from this story. Many times the firstborn children are favored and children that come later are overlooked. But the Bible is full of hope for younger children. Isaac was a younger child. So was Jacob. So was Joseph. So was Moses. So was Gideon. So was David.
“In the one area of life that really matters, when it comes to your family, you’ve hit the big home run.” </h6 class=”pullquote”>In blessing the younger over the older, Jacob teaches us that God is no respecter of persons. He exalts those who honor him regardless of their background or their birth order. Very often it is through the “overlooked” people of the world that God does his greatest work.
Jacob knew that his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh had been raised in the lap of luxury in Egypt. Because of Joseph’s exalted position, they had been reared to appreciate all that the pagan world had to offer and to enjoy all the glories of ancient Egypt. But Jacob looked into the future and saw a day when his descendants would return to Canaan. He wanted to make sure that his grandsons embraced their true spiritual heritage. If you stay in Egypt you cannot be blessed. At some point you must leave Egypt for the Promised Land. By blessing his grandsons he was moving them from worldly pomp to godly poverty. And he did it “by faith” because he judged that God would keep his Word and that the ragged tents of Canaan were a greater treasure than the vaunted temples of Egypt.
Jacob’s faith is strong as he comes to the end of life. How could he be filled with such confidence? After all, he was a schemer, a born cheater, and a compulsive manipulator. All his life he had “worked the angles” to get ahead. Years earlier he had deceived his father and cheated his brother. With such a checkered past, how could he be so joyful? The answer goes to the heart of the gospel. God held him guilty for nothing. I do not doubt that during the long years when he thought Joseph was dead, he felt guilty and probably thought that Joseph’s fate was somehow his fault. But in the end it didn’t matter. All of God’s purposes fit together. He worshiped with joy as he thought of the happy ending of a life filled with sadness, anger, betrayal, separation, loneliness, and manipulation. God takes our wicked past and places it on his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. And then God works through our sinful choices to accomplish his divine plan. This doesn’t make sin any less sinful but it does demonstrate the glory of God in overcoming evil with good.
III. Joseph: Faith for the Distant Future
“By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones” (Hebrews 11:22).
Though he was old and dying, Joseph saw past Egypt into the distant future. He knew that God would one day keep his promise and deliver the Israelites from Egypt and would give them a homeland of their own. Because he believed so firmly in that promise, he instructed the Israelites not to leave his bones in Egypt but to make sure and carry his mummified body with them and give him a burial place in the Promised Land.
God held Jacob guilty for nothing.</h6 class=”pullquote”>How could he be so sure about the future? First, he knew what God had promised his great-grandfather Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3). Second, his own life proved that God keeps his promises. He knew that Israel didn’t belong in Egypt and he didn’t want his bones staying in Egypt when the Jews left for Canaan. On the outside he looked like an Egyptian; on the inside he was an Israelite. He never forgot who he was or where he came from. The Bible tell us that Moses took the bones with him when the Jews left Egypt (Exodus 13:19) and years later Joshua buried them at Shechem (Joshua 24:32). There his bones rest in the dust of the earth to this day.
Joseph lived and died without ever hearing about Moses and Joshua. He knew nothing of their mighty deeds. But in his old age God gave him faith to believe that although he was dying in Egypt, his future belonged in the Promised Land. Joseph is saying, “I may be dying but I believe that one day God will keep his promises. I want to be there when it happens so don’t leave me down here in Egypt. Bury me in the Promised Land.”
Nothing of God dies when a Christian dies. We die, but the promises of God live on. They bury us, but they don’t bury God’s promises with us. Your death cannot nullify God’s faithfulness. Our God is the God of the future. He is the God of the generations to come.
Nothing of God dies when a Christian dies. </h6 class=”pullquote”>A servant whose master was dying was asked, “How is your master?” “He is dying full of life,” came the reply. It is a grand thing to die “full of life.” This is possible for those who know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. In July Tony Snow, former White House Press Secretary and well-known news anchor and political commentator, died of colon cancer at the age of 53. After he was diagnosed in 2005, he sought treatment and went into remission. When the cancer returned in 2007, he wrote an article for Christianity Today called Cancer’s Unexpected Blessings. Here in an excerpt in which he reflects on one of those blessings:
The moment you enter the Valley of the Shadow of Death, things change. You discover that Christianity is not something doughy, passive, pious, and soft. Faith may be the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. But it also draws you into a world shorn of fearful caution. The life of belief teems with thrills, boldness, danger, shocks, reversals, triumphs, and epiphanies.
I like that phrase—”shorn of fearful caution.” That’s how we all ought to live—shorn of fearful caution—free from fear, living life to the fullest, taking risks, going all in, living on the edge instead of playing it safe all the time. As Shirley Banta often said to me, “Pastor Ray, have a blast while you last.”
Three Lessons for Today
What can we learn from these glimpses at the last words and deeds of Isaac, Jacob and Joseph?
1) The greatest thing you can do is to pass your faith along to your children and grandchildren.
Abraham gave it to Isaac, Isaac gave it to Jacob, Jacob gave it to Joseph, and Joseph gave his faith to the whole nation of Israel.
The Christian faith is not a sprint and it’s not really a marathon. It’s a relay race and I am but one member of a team that stretches across the generations. I have faith because someone gave it to me. And someone gave it to the person who gave it to me. On and on the line goes, stretching back 2000 years. I must make sure my three boys follow in my steps. I must not fail here. The baton of faith must be passed on to the next generation. As the years quickly pass I am seeing more and more that passing my faith along is the work of an entire lifetime. It’s never done no matter how old I get. As long as I have life and breath I am to be like old Jacob with his children and grandchildren and the entire clan gathered round his bedside waiting to hear his final words. When that time comes for me, I pray that my family will be by my side, and I pray even harder that I will have something worthwhile to say.
The life of faith draws you into a world shorn of fearful caution.
2) The saddest thing that can happen is to become bitter in your old age.
We’ve all seen it happen to people we know and love. They become bitter, angry, and filled with resentment because life didn’t turn out the way they thought it would. Abraham had a promise from God but he never saw it completely fulfilled. Isaac had the same promise but he died without seeing it fulfilled. Jacob had the same promise and he died in Egypt. Joseph had the same promise but died in Egypt too. If ever any one had the right to become bitter it was these three men—Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. They lived and died with the promise unfulfilled but to their credit they never gave up hope.
3) The happiest way to live is to realize that God’s work is bigger than you are.
That’s why Isaac saw God’s hand at work in spite of the trickery of Rebekah and Jacob. That’s why Jacob blessed his grandchildren before he died. And that’s why Joseph said, “Don’t leave my bones in Egypt. Bury me in the Promised Land.” They all said the same thing: “God’s promises are true. I may never see the final fulfillment. But that doesn’t matter. My sons will see it. Or my grandsons will see it. I may die but everything God said will eventually come true.” Isaac, Jacob and Joseph were three links in God’s great chain of faith. They never gave up believing in God and they died in faith and in the faith.
I may live for 70 or 80 years and never see all that I dream about. I may pray for things that never happen. I may trust God for things that do not appear. I may struggle against great difficulty for many years. The way may be hard, the road steep, the path lonely. I may climb and climb and still never reach the summit of all that I set out to do. It may not be given to me to see everything I would like to see, but it is given to me to live faithfully day after day so that after I am gone, others may stand on my shoulders and see things I never saw. Here is a great goal: To have dreams so big they can’t possibly be fulfilled in my lifetime.
And this brings us to a tremendous truth: God’s plans are bigger than mine. My part is to live for God and to pass my faith along to my children and then to my grandchildren. And I must live so that those things for which I am praying and those things I dream about may happen some day after I am gone.
Here is a great goal: To have dreams so big they can’t possibly be fulfilled in my lifetime.</h6 class=”pullquote”>
In one of his books James Dobson sums up what matters most this way:
I have concluded that the accumulation of wealth, even if I could achieve it, is an insufficient reason for living. When I reach the end of my days, I must look backward onto something more meaningful than the pursuit of houses and land and machines and stocks and bonds. Nor is fame of any lasting benefit.
I will consider my earthly existence to have been wasted unless I can recall a loving family, a consistent investment in the lives of people, and an earnest attempt to serve the God who made me. And nothing else makes much sense.
Death cannot exhaust the promises of God. That’s why Paul could say, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (I Corinthians 15:55). Years ago I heard Stanley Collins, then director of Forest Home Conference Center in California, tell a story from his days with the British Army in World War II. One day he and another soldier came upon an unexploded land mine. Later that night he nearly passed out when he walked into the barracks and found his buddy resting his head on the same mine. Then he discovered that his buddy had removed the firing pin, rendering the land mine harmless. What had been an instrument of destruction had become a pillow for a weary soldier. Jesus has taken the sting out of death and given us victory over the grave.
For all the wonderful things that we have experienced at the hand of the Lord, we still must pass through the valley of the shadow of death. Our hope is this. But we know that he who has seen us this far will not abandon us when we need him most. He will be with us when we must cross the dark Jordan. He will personally escort us to the mansions of eternal light.
Cheer up, child of God. Smile through your tears. Death is the worst that can happen to us. The best is yet to come.