The Wisdom of Death: Steve Jobs, Jonathan Edwards, & Qoheleth

With the passing of Steve Jobs, news outlets were playing clips of his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University.  It’s been viewed millions of times on YouTube and I took a few minutes today to watch it in its entirety. I was struck by its profound wisdom.

This is the passage that stuck with me:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.  Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.  Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.

As I drove into work this morning, I thought of others who sounded this note.

Jonathan Edwards contemplated life from the perspective of his death quite often.  Here are two of his resolutions:

Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.

Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.

This may sound quite morbid to American ears, unaccustomed as we are to ponder death regularly.  But as Jobs points out, considering one’s death is wonderfully clarifying.  It puts trivialities into perspective, along with our fears and foolish idolatries.  It clarifies what’s truly important.

There’s precedent in wisdom literature to ponder death, to consider seriously life’s sober realities, and to consider present circumstances from that perspective.  Consider Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes:

It is better to go to a house of mourning
   than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
   the living should take this to heart.
Frustration is better than laughter,
   because a sad face is good for the heart.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
   but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure (7:2-4).


6 responses to “The Wisdom of Death: Steve Jobs, Jonathan Edwards, & Qoheleth

  • athanasius96

    Well, and then there’s Jesus:

    24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.
    25 “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.
    26 “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:24-26).

  • S Wu

    When I was doing some research on Romans 8:20, I came across the word “futility” (Greek: ματαιότης). The creation is subject to futility, Paul says. The whole creation groans, and the Christ-followers also groan in their present sufferings (8:18f). Scholars like Robert Jewett point us to the fact that the word is used frequently (and famously) in Ecclesiastes, which is often translated (from the Hebrew) as vanity or meaninglessness. Death is, of course, the key reason why life is so futile, as Tim pointed out in Ecclesiastes. I wonder whether Paul has in mind the teaching of Ecclesiastes in Romans 8, when he speaks of the sufferings of the Christ-community? The children of God can somehow have the hope of glory in Christ and in the Spirit in the face of sufferings and futility. Remarkable, I think.

  • Elsewhere (10.08.2011) | Near Emmaus

    […] (2) Steve Jobs has died. Tim Gombis’ post on death looks at Jobs, Jonathan Edwards, and Qoheleth. […]

  • John Thomson

    What should really concentrate the mind is that we have already died.

    Our death in Christ to self and our mind and affections set on things above on Christ should make our eventual death less significant; if to live now is Christ then to die is gain for it is more of Christ.

  • Andrea S. Watkins

    I’ll show my country side, but I thought of Tim McGraw’s song “Live Like You Were Dying.” I have that on my ipod for when I walk. It brings a tear to my eye, and reminds me to not get caught up in this world, but to take time for what is eternal.

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