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What’s Past is Prologue

Shakespeare used it. English historian Arnold J Toynbee used it. It’s engraved on the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.

"What's past is prologue."

In The Tempest by William Shakespeare, Act II, scene i, the character of Antonio was trying to convince Sebastian to murder his sleeping father so that Sebastian could become king. And although Sebastian has some concerns of conscience, Antonio dismisses such worries and urges action while everyone is asleep:

“Whereof what’s past is prologue; what to come, in yours and my discharge.”

All that had happened up until then – their past – was merely a prologue to the great things to come if they went through with the deed. Prologue, when used in this context, embraces the idea that history can be a preview of what’s to come. Nothing stings harder and lingers longer than failing at something. Especially when, in retrospect, we examine our past and question the things we should have done.

Throughout history, many have looked back and pondered choices and decisions made. Some have even surmised that actions in bygone days have forever altered their paths and thus are doomed to repeat the same missteps of failure and transgression again and again. That past events were precursors to what was to come. Surely the children of Israel had moments where they too reflected on choices they and their forefathers made which resulted in the tragic outcome many of them experienced in captivity.

The book of Deuteronomy is a record of the last three speeches Moses gave to the nation of Israel as they stood across the Jordan, preparing to enter the Promised Land. The book begins with a historical prologue; it then lays out the stipulations or laws to be kept by the people; and it concludes with a list of blessings and curses that will accrue to the people according to their obedience or disobedience.

“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life 2 and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days,”
Deuteronomy 30.15-20a

For the Israelites who read Deuteronomy in the first centuries following Moses' death, the past was indeed a prologue. God's predictions of their disobedience proved to be correct.

The question for us becomes will our past prove to be prophecy or a dispensable prologue? Our history of sin and rebellion against God necessarily condemns us (Romans 3.23a). Many can delude themselves and enjoy an imaginary peace, creating and living selfish lives of our own making with no moral compass to guide us. Or we can acknowledge the truth about our lives and seek the narrow path that leads to righteousness and true peace (Matthew 7.13-14). Stop clinging to the dust of our past and seek life in His Word.

25 My soul clings to the dust;
give me life according to your word!
26 When I told of my ways, you answered me;
teach me your statutes!
27 Make me understand the way of your precepts,
and I will meditate on your wondrous works.
28 My soul melts away for sorrow;
strengthen me according to your word!
29 Put false ways far from me and graciously teach me your law!

Psalm 119.25-29

Our past, all of our roles, all of those threads, leading to now. As we glimpse into our past and reflect, we in turn prepare ourselves for the future. And recognize that the story of the cross is where our dark past is erased in order to bring us to a glorious future in Him.

“the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”
1 Peter 2.9b

Thanks be to God that our past is not our whole story. The past is written, but the future is ours to wield, subject to the choices we decide to make.

What's past is prologue, but the future is still. . .