“… behold, I have played the fool.”
“I have fought a good fight… I have kept the faith.”
One can learn so much walking through a grave yard— what names were popular, the infant mortality rate, who was rich and who was poor, even what taste people had in art. Did you know that a broken pillar is a symbol that the deceased was murdered, cut down in his prime? War cemeteries tell one much as well. A general on a horse with all 4 feet on the ground means he lived through the war. Three feet on the ground means he was wounded. And two feet on the ground means he was killed.
But perhaps that which tells us the most about the deceased is the epitaph written on the headstone. In William Shakespeare’s play, Richard II, the dying Duke of Lancaster says, “O, but they say the tongues of dying men enforce attention like deep harmony: when words are scarce they are seldom spent in vain, for they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.” The fact is, we get serious when we speak our last words. And others generally are serious in the last words they write about us.
One grave marker in the rural Appalachian mountains says,
“We can but mourn his loss,
Though wretched was his life.
Death took him from the cross
Erected by his wife.”
Another favorite of mine says,
“God works a wonder now and then,
He, though a lawyer,
Was an honest man.”
And how about this one—
“Underneath this pile of stones,
Lies all that’s left of Sally Jones.
Her name was Lord, it was not Jones.
But Jones was used to rhyme with stones.”
Another points to hope—
“While on earth, my knee was lame,
I had to nurse and heed it.
But now I’m at a better place,
Where I don’t even need it.”
Here’s one that is filled with honest wonder as to life’s meaning,
“Since I so very soon
Was done for,
I wonder why
I was begun for.”
Not all grave writing is serious or whimsy. Some of it is judgmental. A sports minded author must have chiseled the headstone of a selfish and single woman who lived uninvolved… without risks…
“Here lies the bones of Nancy Jones,
For her life held no terrors.
She lived an old maid,
She died an old maid;
No hits, no runs, no errors.”
One needs to remember that we ourselves do not always get to write our own epitaph, sometimes others do it. And they often are not as flattering as we might have hoped.
The Bible has epitaphs in it. Many is the man and woman of history who finds his name called and his whole life summed up in a sentence before he is to death dismissed. Take, for instance, Uzziah, King of Israel for 52 years. 2 Chronicles 26:16 is his epitaph. “… as his power increased his heart grew proud… and this was his ruin.”
Paul, in his New Testament writings, had the last word about so many people. In Philippians 4:2 he wrote, “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Synthyche to agree in the Lord.” How would you like to be remembered only as a quarreler? 2 Timothy 1:15-18 mentions Phygelus and Hermogenes as quitters— “You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, and among them Phygelus and Hermogenes…” But then there is the noble Onesiphorus, whose epitaph reads, “May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me; he was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me eagerly and found me— may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day— and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus.” What a legacy! “Onesiphorus— he often refreshed me, he was not ashamed, he searched for me, he found me, he rendered service!”
Not just headstones and Scripture sum up our lives in sentences, history books do it as well. Several years ago, Time magazine related the story of a Middle Eastern ruler who ascended the throne by exterminating his predecessor. Though the kingdom was small, it had great wealth. Yet the king used none of it to benefit his people. There was no educational program, no medical improvements, no economy built. The king simply made himself comfortable in his nation of pain. And within a few years he, too, was eliminated. The foreign correspondent summarized the man’s life with words I’ve never forgotten. “He slid like a wilted leaf down the drainpipe of history.” And what a fitting epitaph for so many who choose to live for nothing but themselves.
But you say, “Stephen, Stephen! Why all this sober talk about headstones, life summaries, and death?” Well, not only is it All Saints Day in the church year, a time when we study death and heaven from a biblical point of view, I also happen to personally believe a person is not fit to live his life until he knows what he wants written on his tombstone. And in our preparing to live by preparing to die I want us to consider two men who wrote their own epitaphs.
Both men were given the same name at birth— Saul. The one is an Old Testament figure. The other is a New Testament man. Both were Jews from the tribe of Benjamin. Both were men of ability who took on great responsibility. Both had what we’d today call “charisma” and went on to great achievements. And, as always, both men had their detractors. Both men were even killed— one in physical warfare, the other in spiritual battle.
Yet each Saul’s life ended so differently. And they both wrote their own epitaphs summing up their years. King Saul, surveying a fine life wrecked by disobedience, scowled at himself and said, “…behold, I have played the fool.” The apostle Paul surveyed his life of conflict and faithfulness and sighed, “I have fought a good fight… I have kept the faith.”
And how did each man come to such conclusions about himself? Let’s look and see.
Saul of the Old Testament was a tall, handsome youth who, chosen by God, was full of the Holy Spirit and an excellent speaker. As Israel’s first king, Saul had the imposing task of uniting twelve squabbling tribes and providing for the nation’s defense against some bad neighbors— the Philistines and Amalekites.
Eager and strong, Saul achieved quick military victory over the Ammonites. But it went straight to his head. He began to think he could do anything. So when his army set out to fight the Philistines and the prophet Samuel was not there to make the sacrificial offering in worship, rather than wait, Saul offered it himself. And God had expressly forbidden that and so began the demise of a promising young man.
When I lived in Virginia there was a tree I walked by on my way to work each day. All alone on a hillside, it was one of the most perfect red maples I’ve ever seen. Yet a vine took root and began to grow up its trunk and no
one bothered to weed it out. After 3 years the vine had taken over the trunk and branches and obscured its beauty with its own mediocrity. And before I moved away the tree had fallen over in a windstorm due to the extra weight. Saul, king of Israel, was a man like that tree. At first the Bible calls him “a choice young man.” Samuel pointed to him and said, “See him whom the Lord has chosen, that there is none like him among the people.”
Yet Saul, filled with wilfulness and self, so soon proudly began to think he could rule and even overrule God. When Samuel berated him for hurrying worship and making an offering only a priest could make, Saul did not apologize. He only excused himself.
Later in battle, God told Saul to completely annihilate the Amalekites— men, women, children, and possessions. Yet Saul spared the choicest of Amalekite booty as a prize of war. Then stopping on the way home, he proudly erected a monument to himself and the victory he’d won.
Again Samuel confronted the disobedient Saul. And again Saul excused himself saying he was only giving the people what they wanted. When Samuel prophesied judgement, the kingdom torn from Saul’s hands, Saul still did not repent. Instead he asked the prophet to stand beside him in public so the people would think everything was still alright. Clearly Saul was more interested in keeping up appearances than in reality.
Well, you know the rest of the sorry story. Saul, having quenched the Spirit and being tormented by demons, finds solace in young David’s Psalms set to the music of the lyre. But as David is anointed future king, as David slays the giant Goliath and routs the Philistines, the people sing, “Saul has killed his thousands but David has killed his ten thousands.” And Saul is overcome with jealousy. He actually tries to track David down in the wilderness and kill him like a mad dog. But God will not allow him to do so.
Finally, on the eve of another great battle with the Philistines, Saul consults with the witch at Endor who predicts his death. And sure enough, the next day, fighting atop Mount Gilboa, Saul is wounded. And Rather than accept capture and torture by the enemy, Saul commits suicide, one of the few to take his own life mentioned in the entire Bible.
And worse, Saul disobedience even destroyed his own heritage. For his son Jonathan, one of the finest men in all of Scripture, is slain with him in battle.
So, what can one say in summing up Saul’s life? That it was a life of self, a life of compromise, of short cuts. That Saul was more interested in looking good than in being good. That Saul feared people more than he did God. That he was a good starter but a poor finisher. That his life did not live up to its promise. All this is certainly true. Yet Saul summed it up in a sentence. “… behold, I have played the fool,” he said. And such has been his epitaph.
And so we come to the second Saul, the Saul we know as the apostle Paul in the New Testament. As the first Saul was big physically and small spiritually, the second Saul was the exact opposite. He was short physically but large spiritually. The first Saul was a king. The second Saul was more often a prisoner who described himself as a servant. The first Saul was rich in worldly things while Paul was poor materially, yet rich spiritually. And while king Saul was disobedient, Paul was obedient. Saul of Tarsus was born in present day turkey over 1000 years after King Saul. He too was a Jew, but he was also a Roman citizen. Young, extremely well educated, Saul sat on the Supreme Court of Israel and persecuted early Christians even to the point of death. But while on the road to Damascus he met Jesus Christ in a blinding flash of revelation that left him totally blind. A few days later, at his baptism, Saul recovered his sight. But in a very real sense, Saul afterwards only had eyes for Jesus. He seemed to have no more personal ambition, no passion for worldly pleasures or plaudits— just a desire to serve God and His people.
When Saul came to Christ, the church was little more than a legalistic sect of Judaism cowering behind locked doors in Jerusalem. Yet by the time of his death Christianity had spread from the Middle East to North Africa to Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain and Northern Europe.
Clearly Saul as a young, educated Christian could have opted for a life of solitude, a life of ease and material blessing. He could have even had fame and honor as a teacher. But he gave it all up to become a vagrant preacher involved in evangelizing the major coastal cities of the Roman empire by a strategy of church planting. And who made up the membership of these various churches? They were slaves mostly, the poor, the refuse, along with a few soldiers and an occasional rich woman.
From a worldly point of view Saul threw away his career. “A tent and sail maker? A pastor of a bunch of Christian misfits? Ha!” Clearly Saul had given up so much for so little. His friends must have said of him, “Behold, he has played the fool!”
Yet Saul, now nick-named Paul, which is Latin for “Shorty”, continued to write and speak Jesus, to flesh out his theology in churches. He endured the conflict involvement surely brings— the criticism of the Jews, the arrest and imprisonment and whippings of Rome, shipwrecks, rejection, disappointment, abandonment by false friends and quitters, hunger, cold, poverty, uncertainly, ill health, and even failure with many of the Corinthian Christians.
After two tough mission tours, Paul was arrested and imprisoned to await trial for his life in Rome. While in jail he took time to write much of the New Testament and challenge Caesar’s best guards with the claims of Christ. Then, as tradition has it, Paul’s trial went against him, he was found guilty of treason, and in a barren field outside Rome, Paul’s head was cut off by a soldier.
In football when one team plods along persistently and wins a game against a ranked and dazzling foe, the sportswriter’s say, “It was not very pretty, but it was still a win.” And one might say the same thing about Paul’s life. He wasn’t very pretty— short, disfigured by stonings and lashings, a poor speaker, constantly embroiled in conflict, sick, often rejected— but still his life was a victory. Of Paul, God was to say in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And certainly no man has influenced the world more than Paul these last 2,000 years. We name our children and churches after him, his writings have become best sellers translated into more languages than any other books. His letters have been the inspiration for changed lives, sermons, colleges, orphanages, books, and so much more.
And what shall we say in summing up such a man’s life? That he was a Christian, that he was a durable servant, humble and involved in the church? Just this week I heard an exasperated Christian complaining about a talented member of their community. “Yes, they are talented,” she agreed, “But they only take the good jobs, the ones where they get recognition. And you can never count on them because they only do what they want to do and on their own terms.” Not so with Paul. He’d go to town, sew his tents and sails, build up a church to flesh out Christ’s gospel, and persist with people until they became a Silas or a Timothy or a Lydia or Philemon.
King Saul started so well yet ended so poorly. Paul started so poorly— a legalistic, self-willed persecutor— yet he ended so triumphantly. Saul, King of Israel was too important, too strong in himself, to be used of God. Yet Paul was weak enough to become strong through obedience to God. And no better epitaph can be written for Paul than his own words, “I have fought a good fight…I have kept the faith.”
The obvious question for you and for me is, “Which epitaph are you writing for yourself?” “…behold, I have played the fool.” Or, “I have fought a good fight…I have kept the faith.”
The honest answer is that each of us is probably writing a little of both. To be sure, there among the obedience to Christ as Lord, there is also the stubborn, willful, selfish pleasure-seeking disobedience of Saul. And that drives us to repentance and to the grace of God that waits to be received as sufficient for us all in our weaknesses.
Today can be good for us. It’s a chance to stop and think, to take stock of our lives, and to decide its course.
Not many of us will be as fortunate as Mr. Alfred Nobel, who in 1888 read his own obituary in the newspaper. It seems one of Alfred’s brothers had died and a reporter had mistakenly issued the wrong man’s obituary, Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite, was indeed very much alive, yet shocked to see himself described in his obituary as a “merchant of death,” and as a man who had made his fortune in destruction, in the death machines of war. Such a haunting image of his life caused him to reevaluate things, even to remake his will. Subsequently, he provided for the now famous Nobel Peace Prize which still bears his name.
And what do you say about yourself? What is to be your epitaph? What will others write about you in summing up?
A simple marker in a quiet cemetery reads,
“Beneath this stone
John Anderson lies,
Nobody laughed and nobody cries,
And where he’s going or how he fares,
Nobody knows and nobody cares.”
“He simply slid as a wilted leaf down the drainpipe of history.”
Yet right beside it is the grave of Mabel Whorley. And her epitaph reads, “Servant of God, well done! You were always last, but now you are first. Faithful until death, you are risen with Him to reign eternally.”
I want my epitaph to read, “While alive I had a lover’s quarrel with the world. Now dead and risen I have nothing but love in Christ.” Or this one: “This shouldn’t be that much of a problem…”
Ernest Hemingway said he wanted his epitaph to read, “Pardon me for not getting up.”
My wife wants her gravestone to simply read, “Kathryn C. Crotts, servant of Jesus.”
You, too shall die soon. And your life will be summed up in a single sentence. What do you want yours to say?
Oh Lord Jesus, make me to no longer play the fool. Make me faithful like Paul. For Christ’s sake. Amen