Jonathan Edwards on the Brevity of Mortal Life

Matthew Everhard
Wednesday, October 27th 2021

Resolution 6: Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.[1]

Life is short.

When we were children, it seemed like ages from one birthday to the next. We marked our lives by six-month increments because years were too long to comprehend. We boasted, “I’m five and a half!” Now into my fifth decade, I am convinced that the passage of time increases in velocity, relative to the age of the observer. I cannot seem to slow my life down, even when I try. Birthdays seem to come every fortnight rather than every year. The past and future seem as vast as the sea, but the present is as thin as a razor blade. Grain after grain slips through the hourglass, and no one can slow it down or cling to even one moment.

The teenage Jonathan Edwards—not yet famous, not yet influential—realized that his time on this Earth was going to go by fast. On December 18th, of 1722, when he was just nineteen years old, he began a series of seventy resolutions—or personal vows—that would guard the trajectory of his life. “While I do live,” he resolved, I should live with “all my might.” I take this expression as a determination to face life head on, intentionally and purposefully; rather than carelessly and matter-of-factly. The brevity of our lives only seems to increase the urgency of living them purposefully. Our lives (though short) are deep, beautiful, and meaningful if we view them as means to glorify the eternal God. According to Edwards, life is to be seized and apprehended actively, rather than carrying us along passively like corks bobbing on the water.

James, the brother of our Lord, acknowledged the fleeting nature of time when he wrote,

For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that. But now ye rejoice in your boastings: all such rejoicing is evil. Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.

James 4:13-17

In this text, James warns those who would greedily collect goods and riches in this present life rather than living faithfully and obediently, with the dawning of eternity in full view. He scolds those who merely view life as an exercise in unbridled materialism, fattening themselves to no good spiritual end. He chides those who view time as something that can be possessed. Grasped. Manipulated. In using the imagery of the “mist” or vapor, James employs an age-old prophetic metaphor to capture the rapidity of passing time (see also Psalm 102:3, Job 7:7). The mist of life is here and then gone as soon as the morning sun rises over the tree line.

Along with the brevity of life, Edwards’s sixth resolution also seems to accept life’s inevitable end: death. Notice: “while I do live.” Just a teenager, the young Edwards had already experienced several of his relatives dying in the prime of life. Just a year after his birth, for instance, Edwards’s uncle John Stoddard had been in Deerfield where thirty-nine of the town’s three hundred residents were killed in a sudden attack. One hundred and twelve more were taken captive by French and Indian raiders. Somehow, Stoddard escaped.[2] Young Puritans in the Colonial era were raised to accept death as a matter of fact, alongside its corollary, the preciousness of life. The New England Primer, studied by all children in Edwards’s time, stated memorably for the letter T, “Time cuts down all, both great and small.” For the letter Y it read, “Youth forward slips, Death soonest nips.”[3]

But the brevity of life does not in any way diminish the importance and significance of being alive while we do live. That’s what Edwards intoned with his phrase “all my might.” This line is no doubt a reference to the Greatest Commandment in Matthew 22:37. Having read the Bible since childhood, young Jonathan would have also been familiar with the sentiments of the Apostle Paul, who likewise spoke in such ways. Paul said in one place, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not. For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better” (Philippians 1:21-23). Again he said in another place, “But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).

Even at the young age of nineteen, Edwards sensed that life—though short—can be used for great ends. The eternal, ever-living God can be gloried through the finite, mortal lives of His people. Edwards longed for such a meaningful life, and mightily determined to pursue it.

Resolution 17: Resolved, that I will live so as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.[4]

As he sketched out the first 30 or so resolutions on that cold December night, the teenager came back again and again to the brevity of life. In the seventeenth resolution, he promised himself to have few regrets in this sort, mortal, pilgrimage.

One day—as impossible as it may be to imagine now—you might find yourself lying almost inert on a hospice bed. You will have already taken your last steps. Your strength will be sapped. Your vigor evaporated; your body wrinkly, gray, and tired. Perhaps your family will surround you in those moments singing hymns, praying, and reading the Scriptures to bring you spiritual comfort. Or perhaps you may find yourself lying there alone with your thoughts. As I picture this scenario, I imagine it will be in those moments when our reflections on the significance of our lives will be the most acute and intense.

Of course, it is also possible that we will not die that way at all, but much more suddenly, perhaps entirely unexpectedly. This too is an Edwardsean thought as we have already seen above in our considerations of Resolution no. 7. Of those who go through even non-fatal, surprise “near death” experiences, some 71% say they have experienced what is called an L.R.E. or “life review experience.”[5] This is the proverbial “my life flashed before my eyes” moment; an intense brain-event in which synapses fire rapidly and many memories are brought to the fore of the conscience at once. Either way, whether our death comes upon us very slowly or leaps upon us suddenly, we will want to have confidence—total confidence—that we lived altogether for the glory of God.

Edwards’s 17th resolution is as powerful as it is short and clear: Live now so that when the moment comes in which we will be brought into eternity through the inevitable corridor of death, we will have no regrets. One of the saddest deaths of the Old Testament is the death of King Jehoram in 2 Chronicles 21:19-20. The text tells us that when he died, “his people made no burning for him, like the burning of his fathers. Thirty and two years old was he when he began to reign, and he reigned in Jerusalem eight years, and departed without being desired. Howbeit they buried him in the city of David, but not in the sepulchres of the kings.” The ESV renders verse 20, “And he departed with no one’s regret.” No one would miss him. No one would mourn him. No fire would be built; he was not worthy to be buried with the other kings. His life was mostly an exercise in futility.

One of Edwards’s very earliest sermons is his 1722/23 sermon “The Nakedness of Job.” It was preached exactly at the same time that he was crafting the “Resolutions.” In brief, it is a meditation on death. The sermon itself rings hauntingly like a funeral bell, summoning mourners. His text on that Lord’s Day morning was simply “naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither” (Job 1:21). Edwards calls his congregation that day to imagine their own death:

They very seldom think where, and how, and what their bodies will be a few years hence. They are now in life and health, stirring and moving about the world amongst the rest of the crowd of mankind; but they little think how, in a little time, they must lie buried in the ground, in the dark, still, and silent grave, rotting and putrifying, loathsome and filthy, by degrees turning to dust, and none taking notice of them, their flesh by degrees rotting off from their bones, leaving nothing but the ghastly skeleton.[6]

But as disturbing as this image is, the nineteen-year-old preacher argued before his stunned-silent hearers that there is a fate worse still than death. It is dying without Christ. Dying and going into eternity unprepared is a miserable fate indeed. He concludes the sermon with an exhortation that melds directly into a penetrating question:

Let all be exhorted to apply themselves immediately to the preparations for eternity. Set about it with the greatest seriousness and diligence, with the utmost vigor and most fixed resolution, for such things as concern eternal happiness or eternal misery are not to be trifled with, nor to be trusted to a mere peradventure; for what shall it profit you, if you gain the whole world, and lose your own soul?[7]

If this short meditation is alarming to the reader, and I cannot see how it wouldn’t be, perhaps it would be best to consider Edwards’s own prescription to himself when he too was beset with these alarming thoughts. He records in his journal in the summer of 1723 the following entry:

Friday morning, July 5. Last night, when thinking what I should wish I had done, that I had not done, if I was then to die [almost a direct quotation of the 17th resolution]… I thought I should wish, that I had been more importunate with God, to fit me for death, and lead me into all truth, and that I might not be deceived, about the state of my soul.[8]

Indeed, it is both fitting and wise to ask God to prepare us for that moment—be it in a few days from now or many decades hence—so that death will be a joyful celebration and reception into the hands of God and His gathered saints, rather than a dreadful regret of the past and terror of what is to come.

Matthew Everhard is the Pastor of Gospel Fellowship PCA. He is the author of Hold Fast the Faith: A Devotional Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faithas well as A Theology of Joy: Jonathan Edwards and Eternal Happiness in the Holy Trinity, and has an active YouTube Channel on books, Bibles, and Reformed theology.

Some content taken from Holy Living: Jonathan Edwards’s Seventy Resolutions for Living the Christian Life (Hendrickson Publications, 2021) by Matthew Everhard. Copyright © 2021. Used by permission of Hendrickson Rose Publishing Group, represented by Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.

[1] Jonathan Edwards, The “Resolutions,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, 16:753.

[2] George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 14-15.

[3] Ibid., 27.

[4] WJE 16:754.

[5]Your Life Really Does Flash Before Your Eyes,” Laura Donnelly, London Telegraph, January 29, 2017.

[6] WJE 10:411-412.

[7] WJE 10:412.

[8] WJE 16:774.

Wednesday, October 27th 2021

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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