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Life in the Wilderness

Crying is all right in its way while it lasts.
But you have to stop sooner or later, and then
you still have to decide what to do.

C. S. Lewis

Attending even a single funeral can be a sobering experience, invoking reflections on the life we ourselves have lived and the inevitable end of that life. We cannot escape death. Where the friend whom we mourn today is, tomorrow is where we ourselves shall be.

For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing.

Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished

Ecclesiastes 9.5, 6

The living know they shall die.

In Ecclesiastes, we are further told that sorrow and even death have their place in life, ironically offering us a sense of balance, a sense of direction:

It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart.

Ecclesiastes 7.2

At first, this chilling paradox seems as mysterious as death itself. We understand, but we cannot comprehend. Yet, the end of life somehow gives meaning to life. All of us have heard someone say at a funeral, “This whole moment seems like a dream, and he will walk through the door any moment now just as he did yesterday.” We say such things but we instinctively know with death comes finality and irreversible closure. Words that could have been said or should have been said cannot be spoken now. The dust returns to the earth as it was; and the spirit, to the God who gave it. Such thoughts cause us to remember who we are and why we are here.

At a funeral, we remember ourselves as we remember the person who died; the living will lay it to his heart. Even the murderous King in Hamlet is compelled to think of himself as he portends his hypocritical tribute;

Yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death

Our hearts in grief . . . .

That we with wisest sorrow think on him,

Together with remembrance of ourselves

And so it is that in grieving for his deceased brother, Claudius must also remember himself. The words ring true even though Claudius himself is false, false to his very soul. He wanted to be king so much that he murdered his own brother, and then, married his brother’s widow. Claudius says the right words even when his thoughts are the wrong thoughts.

A funeral compels us to think, to reflect, to evaluate. At least, it does so for the wise; the foolish may grieve the passing of a friend, but that is all. Others see themselves as if looking at a reflection in a mirror.

If a single death can so impact us, imagine the death of a hundred people every day for every year for 40 years. We cannot know the precise number of people who died in the wilderness because they complained against God at Kadesh-barnea. However, based on the census in Numbers 1, those eligible for military service from 20 years and up numbered over 600,000 men. All of these died in the wilderness along with their wives and others not counted in the military census. A conservative estimate, then, would suggest that the total numbered who died may have been well over a million people, maybe even 1.5 million or even higher. Some critics have suggested a number in the range of 2 to 3 million.

As truly as I live, saith the LORD, as ye have spoken in mine ears, so will I do to you: Your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness; and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward which have murmured against me.

Numbers 14.29

Certainly, the words carcasses shall fall evoke a poignant scene. Indeed, the passage may well suggest that the bodies were not buried at all. Where they fell in the wilderness is where they died, and where they died is where they fell. More than one translation renders the scene depicted by 1 Corinthians 10.5 as “their bodies were scattered in the wilderness” — a hundred people a day for 40 years, all dying, all left behind. Most likely, the references here are not so much to the absence of burial as to the absence of formal burial ritual. Those who died, perished in ignominy.

Yet, if we read these passages as mere chronological records, we misread the literary imagery of corpses scattered in a barren landscape. Before we look at why this may be the case, let us look at one or two instances of corpses left exposed and unburied.

The opening lines of the Iliad depict an irascible Achilles refusing to thwart the massive losses of the Greeks, their bodies left on the battlefield as carrion for vultures and dogs. Not even the sight of his own people dying will move Achilles to action. Achilles cares for Achilles.

In Sophocles’ play, Ajax, the setting is still the Trojan Way, but Achilles has now died in battle. Refused the honor of being awarded the armor of Achilles. Ajax is driven to despair, ultimately taking his own life because of the humiliation. Agamemnon, though, refuses any proper burial for the corpse of Ajax. Odysseus, however, argues that not burying the corpse would be a greater shame —

Agamemnon— You will make us appear cowards this day.

Odysseus— Not, so, but just men in the sight of all the Greeks.

Agamemnon— So, you would have me allow the burying of the dead?

Odysseus— Yes, for I, too, shall come to that need. (1362-65)

Not burying the corpse of Ajax would be even a greater shame, especially so since all men will one day need to be buried by another’s hand. If Agamemnon refuses, he himself may be refused.

As to the wilderness wanderings, the image of scattered corpses probably should be best understood more as metaphor. To be sure, an entire generation did die in the wilderness and their bodies were scattered along the way of a never ending 40-year journey. The lack of details of any burial rites causes us to look far beyond a historical event, causes us to look within our lives and hearts. God does not want us distracted in a morass of details as if we are assembling some ancient puzzle. What we need to understand is that what happened to them can and often happens to us. We are led in sin into a wilderness, and for many, those who enter that wilderness never return. They spend their years in empty wanderings of a life gone mad. And even while they live, they live as rotting corpses, lost in a barren and sun-drenched land. Such an end is always the end of every life wasted in sin —

Every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.

James 1.14, 15

Today your neighbor dies, tomorrow, your cousin or a friend — for every day of every year for 40 years, massive deaths, inconsolable sorrow, and endless wanderings in a God-forsaken wasteland.

Whether such massive deaths on a daily basis is what happened in the wilderness, or whether God simply allowed them to live out their lives but never to leave that wilderness, we cannot know for sure. We do know, however, that an entire generation died in a desolate wilderness, and if averaged as deaths on a daily basis, the number becomes staggeringly grim and unrelenting. Indeed, it is more than we can comprehend. A life without God is always a life spent in a wilderness.

The harsh impact of such calamity seems to defy a suitable comparison. Admittedly, people die in war, as well as natural disasters. Here, though, the deaths are ultimately the result of their own choosing. How people actually handled the sense of doom and certain death at best leaves us bewildered. Those who had not yet died knew that they would die, and even the children who grew up in the wilderness knew that their parents would never leave the barren wilderness alive. In every sunrise of every day, there was a sense of impending and coming death.

A diary written in the 17th century by an Englishman named Samuel Pepys may offer some insight. Pepys lived through the Great Plague of 1665 which killed perhaps as many as 100,000 people in London alone. Pepys wrote what he saw in a diary, and that diary gives us a glimpse of life in England, of both the ordinary and the tragic. Here is an excerpt from that diary.

Thursday 14 September 1665

Down to the office, and there wrote letters to and again about this good news of our victory, and so by water home late. Where, when I come home, I spent some thoughts upon the occurrences of this day, giving matter for as much content on one hand and melancholy on another, as any day in all my life. For the first; the finding of my money and plate, and all safe at London, and speeding in my business of money this day.

The hearing of this good news to such excess, after so great a despair of my Lord’s doing anything this year; adding to that, the decrease of 500 and more, which is the first decrease we have yet had in the sickness since it begun: and great hopes that the next week it will be greater. Then, on the other side, my finding that though the Bill in general is abated, yet the City within the walls is encreased, and likely to continue so, and is close to our house there.

My meeting dead corpses of the plague, carried to be buried close to me at noon-day through the City in Fanchurch-street.

To see a person sick of the sores, carried close by me by Gracechurch in a hackneycoach. My finding the Angell tavern, at the lower end of Tower-hill, shut up, and more than that, the alehouse at the Tower-stairs, and more than that, the person was then dying of the plague when I was last there, a little while ago, at night, to write a short letter there, and I overheard the mistresse of the house sadly saying to her husband somebody was very ill, but did not think it was of the plague.

To hear that poor Payne, my waiter, hath buried a child, and is dying himself. To hear that a labourer I sent but the other day to Dagenhams, to know how they did there, is dead of the plague; and that one of my own watermen, that carried me daily, fell sick as soon as he had landed me on Friday morning last, when I had been all night upon the water (and I believe he did get his infection that day at Brainford), and is now dead of the plague.

To hear that Captain Lambert and Cuttle are killed in the taking these ships; and that Mr Sidney Montague is sick of a desperate fever at my Lady Carteret’s, at Scott’s-hall.

To hear that Mr Lewes hath another daughter sick. And, lastly, that both my servants, W. Hewer and Tom Edwards, have lost their fathers, both in St Sepulchre’s parish, of the plague this week, do put me into great apprehensions of melancholy, and with good reason.

But I put off the thoughts of sadness as much as I can, and the rather to keep my wife in good heart and family also. After supper (having eat nothing all this day) upon a fine tench-of Mr Shelden’s taking, we to bed.

The diary spans some 10 years; the Great Plague, of course, did not. Yet, even during the height of the plague, life seems to have gone on as life always does. Almost in the same line that Pepys talks about people dying here and dying there, he also talks about the mundane moments in life, of selling and buying. Day to day life during the wilderness wandering may have been very similar. It had to have crossed Pepys ‘mind that the man he saw this morning, he may never speak with again.

The wilderness is where Christ is tempted by Satan. In a very real sense, the wilderness is the home of Satan for the desolation of the wilderness is what he brings to every man who follows him into a life of emptiness. Those who refused God at Kadesh-barnea later wept for their plight, but the door was irrevocably closed. The die had been cast, and their destiny now became an aimless and meandering life of living death.

We sometimes say that where there is life, there is hope. And that is true, but it is also untrue. A man can go so far into the wilderness of sin that he can never make his way back. His life results in senseless loss and emptiness. He has no place to go, and yet, he must wander in circles of despair and sadness. The wilderness has become his home, and he cannot escape the depression. We have seen people who cried in the hurt of their life but could not change the direction of that life. We sometimes see them die even before their soul leaves this earth. Their words they sometimes speak may be like Balaam —

Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!

Numbers 23.10

They may cry such words aloud. Balaam did not die the death of the righteous. His body was found among the corpses of those who had fought against God. His end was not how he wanted his life to end. He died in the wilderness.

A man came to see a minister at two in the morning. He had been drinking heavily; as he sat down and pulled off his socks, he repeatedly sobbed, “Filthy, filthy; I am filthy.” He tried but the pull of alcohol would not relinquish him. His end was not how he wanted his life to end. He was lost and could not find his way. His life had become a rotting corpse, and he knew it. It was not that God would not and could not forgive him, but he was too ashamed to approach God. He ultimately died in shame in a wilderness of his own making.

In Gabriel Márquiez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Aureliano is told that his heart is rotting alive (159). When he dies, he dies in utter solitude with his family inside the house only a few yards away —

He could no longer find the memory. He pulled his head in between his shoulders like a baby chick and remained motionless with his forehead against the trunk of the chestnut tree. The family did not find out until the next day (250).

Don’t you think it’s time you came in out of the wilderness?

To day if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness.

Hebrews 3:7, 8