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by Richard Nichols

Published in
The Christian Informer
September  2004

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The inscription on a grave stone or some other monument in memory of an individual who has died is called an “epitaph.”  Centuries ago, the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans put epitaphs on tombs and monuments.  They furnished the idea used by most mortuary inscriptions today.  Many different expressions by even sometimes the deceased were inscribed.  Look now at the epitaphs of several famous men of the past —  Henry II’s:  “To me, who thought the earth’s extent too small; Now eight poor feet, a narrow space is all.”  Melenger’s: “Hail, universal mother!  Lightly rest on that dead form, which when with life invested n’er oppressed its fellow-worm.”  Saon’s: “Beneath this stone Acanthian Saon lies, in holy sleep; the good man never dies.”  Shakespeare’s: “Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbeare... To digg the dust enclosed heare;
Bleste be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones.”
It is pointed out that this is just a mild echo of the terrible denunciation which some Roman epitaphs pronounced upon those who might violate the sanctity of their tombs.  For example —
“I give to the Gods below this tomb to keep – to Pluto – to Demeter, To Persephone, and the Erinnyes, and all other Gods below.  If any one shall disfigure this sepulchre, or shall open it, or shall move anything from it, to him let there be no earth to walk, no sea to sail, but may he be rooted out with all his race.  May he feel all disease, shuddering, and fever, and madness, and whatsoever ills exists for beasts or men.  May these light on him who dares move aught from this tomb.”
Isn’t it sad how men, left to their own imaginations, will conjure up such terrible thoughts and pronounce such dreadful curses upon other men.  Christians know that “the body is the earthly dwelling place of the eternal spirit which God gives each man.  Of course, we try to show respect to the body of the dead person, however, we who understand the teaching of the word of God know that the spirit or eternal component of the person is gone.  God’s word says,  “All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.  Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward...” (Eccl. 3:20,21).
When Jacob witnessed the death of Rebecca, his wife, as she gave birth to their son the Scriptures says that, “It came to pass, as her soul was in departing, (for she died) that she called his name Benoni: but his father called him Benjamin” (Genesis 35:18).  Even with the knowledge of her spirit being called away by God he respectfully erected a monument at burial of his wife’s earthly body.  Ever since that event it has been called the pillar of Rachel’s grave.
In the New Testament, using himself as an example, the apostle Paul addresses man’s priorities by saying, “For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked.  For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life.  Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.  So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord.  For we walk by faith, not by sight.  We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.   Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him.  For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.  Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men...” (2 Corinthians 5:1-11 N.K.J.).
At this point, however, we are interested in the epitaphs which God pronounced upon certain ones.  Although it is in reality a short historical record of those of the past who pleased the Lord, Hebrews 11 might be viewed as an epitaph to each one it mentions.  God’s epitaphs of the follow are —   Able -  “was righteous, God testifying of his gifts;” furthermore, although yet dead, by his act of faith, “yet speaketh.”  Enoch -  “pleased God” and therefore God translated him that he should not see death.  Noah - who had no natural evidence that what God said was true, “moved with fear,” by faith in the Lord, prepared the ark which saved himself and his household.  Abraham - acting“by faith” went out, obeying God, journeying and enduring extreme hardship, without knowing where God was sending him.  He looked for a city built by God.  The passage tells of his continuing to act “by faith” throughout his life.  Sarah - although past her normal age of childbearing, through faith received strength to bear the child judging God “faithful who had promised” her. 
We read that all these - “died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”
We are also told that at the end of life –  Isaac - “by faith... blessed” his sons in respect of what God had promised;  Joseph - directed where his remains should be taken;  Later the passage records that Moses - by faith, refused his royal position in the house of Pharaoh, but chose to be with his own people, the people of God, and became their great leader out of Egyptian bondage.
On the passage goes, calling to record the faith of – Rahab, Gideon, Samson and David, not recounting their failings but attesting to the faith each one had which caused them to “subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.  Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: and others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented;  (Of whom the world was not worthy) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”  What a wonderful passage!
We appreciate all these names listed above, but among them, is Rahab, the harlot, a woman whom some people would never forgive for her sinful occupation.  But James by inspiration recounts that, when the Israelites came to take the city, she showed faith in God by her “works” and she was “justified.”  The Bible says, “Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?” (James 2:25).  James and in Hebrews 11 lists with all those who were looking for a better land.
The list in the Hebrews letter includes, David, who was at one point confronted by the prophet saying: “Thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife.”  This all began when David lusted after Uriah’s wife; he committed adultery with her; she conceived and he tried to cover his sin by having her husband come home from battle to her.  That plan failed so David secretly schemed to have him killed in battle.
In 2 Samuel 11 we read where, David gave in to his human passions and committed all these sins.  But he repented of them, gained God’s forgiveness, and reigned another 20 years as king of Israel.  Oh, it’s true that wicked men, God’s enemies, took opportunity to speak evil of David and caused him heartache and trouble.  Among the troubles of David’s later life is the sin of Amnon, the rebellion of Absalom, and of Sheba, the plague in Israel for his sin of numbering the people, and the famine of the Gibeonites.  However, later we have David’s psalm saying, “For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me” (Psalms 51:3).  No one had to remind David of the evil he had done.  Throughout the Scriptures we read of great accolades heaped upon David and honors rendered to him, but the most striking of all is where it is repeated in Acts 13 that God  “raised up unto them David to be their king; to whom also he gave testimony, and said, I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after mine own heart, which shall fulfil all my will” (verse 22).  Yes, thousands of years later, and after all was said and done, God’s epitaph for this  man with all his faults and failures was, “I have found David... a man after mine own heart.”  Then the preacher in Acts 13 continues, “Of this man’s seed hath God according to his promise raised unto Israel a Saviour, Jesus” (verse 23).
Is there hope for you and me?  Certainly so!  This remarkable list in Hebrews 11 concludes that all these, including David, Rahab, Abraham and Sarah have received what we are calling God’s “epitaph” –  “a good report through faith.”  Now, then the writer turns the focus on us.  Those of the past have lived by faith and gained a good report.  The inspired writer is now saying that their receiving God’s approval should lend courage to us that through our unwavering faith and being lead by Christ who is “author and finisher of the faith,” we might also receive a good “epitaph” from God.  The question here is not what man will write about us but what God will say.  What will it be for me and you?