Hamlet: What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the World, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me— nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.
Rosencrantz: My lord, there was no such stuff in my thoughts.[i]
Some 1,600 years after Christ was born Hamlet first expressed this eloquent judgment upon mankind, through the pen of William Shakespeare, the most celebrated English dramatist ever. He listed mankind’s humanistic virtues as they had been extolled in the neo-classicism of the Renaissance during the 1500’s.
These were the sorts of things a young prince would have been educated in: the revived and reborn arts, sciences and philosophy of the era. He spoke of such humanistic characteristics as noble reason, infinite ideas of the mind, expressive and admirable physical motion in dance and athletics, the ability to act with angelic purpose and effect, the god-like appearance of man in statuary and painting, man as the most beautiful thing on the earth, the very top of the food chain as well as the pinnacle of physical and mental ability and beauty. Yet, Hamlet condemned it all with his simple rebuttal, “Man delights not me—nor woman neither.”
It was so simple to topple the greatness of mankind in Hamlet’s eyes, because the ghost of his murdered father had appeared to him. This restless, anguished apparition opened Hamlet’s eyes to mankind’s fatal flaw, his Achilles heal: the loveless ambition of the self which murders even its own brother and husband. Hamlet learned his mother had had an affair with his father’s brother and she had conspired with the brother, Hamlet’s uncle, in the murder of Hamlet’s father, that the brother may replace him as king.
Recognizing the fact that the intent of mankind’s heart is evil continually, from the youth of a person forward, and that this causes “the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” Hamlet considers suicide. If he had more faith about what life after death would be about, and that taking his own life might not result in a worse misery than he had already found in this life, he thought he might just end it all:
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To sleep: perchance to dream:
ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: [ii]
Of course, many of us have at times wondered the same thing, if death may not be less miserable than continuing on in a life with so much suffering caused by other people and ourselves. From a humanistic perspective, I think Hamlet speaks for all of us when he says that our own cowardice and a lack of faith in life after death are usually sufficient causes to stop us from suicide:
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. [iii]
But from the perspective of the believer in Jesus Christ, it is not cowardice and uncertainty which stop us from ending it all. The believer is supposed to embrace life on this earth with great courage and faith in the future, because we know all about that undiscovered country from which no traveler returns. In fact, we know that several travelers have returned from there already. Lazarus, a little girl and an older man were all raised by Jesus. Many were raised when Jesus died on the Cross, and Jesus himself was raised. Paul raised some people, and in both testaments there is record of others received back from the dead.
But it is our faith in what God has done, is doing now and will do in the future that stops us from suicide. It is not our faith in human nature, in others or ourselves. It is not faith in our successes in the World, the World System of politics, government or business, nor do we trust in nature itself. Our faith is in God.
These things are true. To varying degrees, we believers have that sort of staunch faith in general. We know that it was some 5,500 years prior to Hamlet’s judgment on mankind, if the Bible allows us to date accurately the creation week[iv], that the very first evaluation of mankind occurred, by its very Creator:
26Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; … 31God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Genesis1:26-28, 31.
God saw that the entire creation, including mankind, was “very good.” Obviously, there were a few disappointments in the new prototype once God took it for that first test drive, despite the vegetarian diet. You know the story:
9Out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. … 16The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden [including the tree of life] you may eat freely; 17but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” 18Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” Genesis 2:9, 16-18.
Adam must have looked dumbly at God for a moment after being told he could eat anything but from that one tree, and God realized the poor guy needed a helper. (Actually, God planned all along to give man a helper.) To what extent Adam, and later Eve, understood the significance of the tree of life and the significance of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is a mystery. We know that later their eyes were opened, and they knew they were naked, so they must have had some substantial naivety at the outset. What they did clearly understand was the commandment about what not to eat. Apparently, after the woman was created, it wasn’t long before Adam or God shared with her what God had said about the forbidden fruit. And it wasn’t long after that until the serpent, Satan, paid Eve a visit.
2The woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; 3but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.'” 4The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! 5“For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Well, the rest is history. The first married couple made a mess of it together, and disobeyed God. What choice did that leave God? He could pound the lump of clay back into a ball and start over; he could go back to the drawing board and redesign mankind. But He didn’t. What He did do was immediately modify the terms of mankind’s lease on life. He took away the option to purchase, the option to eat of the tree of life:
… 22Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— 23therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. 24So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life. Genesis 3.
As soon as mankind ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, effectively disobeying God, the penalty for that sin was upon them. In that day Adam and Eve died spiritually, with a progressive effect on their minds and bodies. The bloom was off the rose. At that point they began to live, more and more, like the sort of humans you and I see around us everyday. Eyes opened to sin. Heart fearing and hating aging and physical death, feeling insecure and overly conscious of themselves and their vulnerabilities.
Like Hamlet, the cares and concerns of life left them to varying degrees miserable and unable to cope, making them prefer not to have to live through it. Yet, fearing the future and life after death, they were helplessly controlled by the instinct of self-preservation. As then, today humans know down deep that we are ultimately doomed. Our days are finite. Something is broken. Something is continually unfulfilled. Something is profoundly wrong. Something critical is missing from this picture.
We go on through life suffering with one or more severe handicaps in our psyches and bodies, which we have learned to compensate for to some degree. We are so accustomed to them that we think they are normal “human nature”, and we don’t really regard these deficits as abnormal. In a way, we don’t consciously miss that which in its absence has crippled us and enslaved us. We are born into life the way it is.
If you had never seen the sun, you never would have known to miss it. But that would not take away your inherent need for its warmth, light, special properties in its waves, and the optimistic security it brings. After a while, we hate an overcast day, and many in a row drags us way down. Some of us have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), not even aware that what we so desperately need is just some sunshine. So it is, by analogy, when we are missing the Spirit of God. Those without the Spirit may have the spiritual symptoms, but they don’t consciously piece it together that what they need is the Light of Christ dawning in their hearts.
In any case, God knew what had happened to mankind when it fell to its new miserable state. He not only knew that the rest of human life on earth would be a mere semblance of what it was in the Garden, but He knew that if mankind had eaten of the tree of life while in this fallen state, it would have doomed mankind to eternal death. That is, mankind might “take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” in this Fallen state. God did not allow that to happen. He cast mankind from Eden, from the tree of life, and from Himself. This was the only way to save mankind from itself. But to what end?
What started with such promise, in that it was so very good, fell to the lowly state we see even today. It was soon thereafter that sibling rivalry gave way to murder. Within just about 1,600 years[v] after the fall, just before the flood, God had had enough:
“the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. 7The LORD said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.’” Genesis 6:5-7.
Fortunately for mankind, there was one righteous human walking around at the time, Noah. He found favor with God, and his household was spared in the ark solely for that reason. God said, “you alone I have seen to be righteous before Me in this time.” Genesis 6:9, 7:1.
One thing is for sure. If Noah was “seen” to be righteous, he was righteous through his actions. As John the Apostle comments so long later, “… the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; 8the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning.” 1 John 3:7-8. Indeed, Noah “walked” with God. Genesis 6:9. In the Bible, “walking” generally means to live a certain way, but specifically to take action a certain way.
When Noah’s great grandfather, Enoch, walked with God, he may have been in total communion with the Father, in His presence spiritually and even physically here on earth prior to his disappearance, but that does not mean Enoch’s ways of living were not literally actions and inactions which were righteous and pleased the Lord. You get the sense that those who walked with God pleased the Lord by their actions and their hearts, and for that reason enjoyed close fellowship with Him.
No one thinks Noah was perfect in his conduct, though He probably sinned much less than everyone else. Rather, like Abram later, Noah’s faith in God’s promises was counted as righteousness, covering his sins when He did err:
7By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the World, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith. Hebrews 11:7.
So, we see Noah’s belief of God’s promise, of salvation from destruction, acted out in actions of building and completing the ark, proving that Noah believed God. Noah demonstrated he was on God’s side, and he was with God’s program. He did not just wait for God to miraculously save him, but obeyed God to build an ark in a day when it had never rained and never flooded, in a day when he was the only person on the entire planet who agreed with God. Thus, Noah’s heart pleased God because it was combined with his actions. In that way, Noah was a spark of hope that stayed the hand of God from His inclination to pound this lump of clay back into a ball, to wipe the slate clean. God saw what He was looking for in mankind in this one man, Noah, a man who attained to righteousness by truly agreeing with the will of the Lord in his heart and by doing the will of the Lord in his actions.
Now, there is a coincidental, probably non-providential, though interesting, parallel going on here. The Creator is just about totally disgusted with mankind within 1,600 years of creation. Likewise, the greatest humanist writer of all time, Shakespeare, comes to the same conclusion within about 1,600 years of the coming of Christ:
Obviously, Shakespeare was not the first after Christ to feel or articulate such things, so I point this out for one reason alone. The fact that God created us innocent, and placed us in the Garden in communion with God in the beginning, did not stop mankind from sinning. In spite of all of our advantages at the outset, our predisposition to disobey God bore the fruit of disobedience. And God created us that way.
Likewise, on the other hand, the crucifixion of Jesus, such that he paid the sin penalty for all mankind, freeing us from enslavement to the Sin Nature, the World System and the forces of evil in the spiritual realm, did not stop mankind’s predisposition to disobey God, either. This is why Shakespeare, living 1,600 years after Christ paid the sin penalty, was able to observe what a “piece of work” mankind really is.
In other words, Christ did an amazing work on the Cross, which had the effect of freeing mankind to reenter into that condition like Adam enjoyed in the Garden with God, to take another swing at living righteously. Yet most of mankind refuses to enter back in, and many of those who do accept Christ as Savior don’t seem to have more than a toehold in Eden, because they are not living a Christlike life. If many of those who accept Him as Savior also accept Him as Lord, they sure have a funny way of showing it.
Man has been “a piece of work” from the creation, and he has not gotten any better, but only worse. Those who think natural mankind is evolving and becoming more enlightened obviously disagree with both Hamlet and God. They obviously are not concerned with the evil which dwells in the heart of natural mankind, and which is not restrained by good intentions, will power, peer pressure, rules, laws, incentives or punishments.
Secular Humanists of all varieties each believe they themselves represent the next link in human evolutionary enlightenment. If only they could get everyone else to see it their way. What a wonderful World it would be. But that is the very point. Each person is not only bound to disobedience to God, but bound to enmity with his neighbor. The Sin Nature will never allow any utopian dream to succeed, or for an intellectual enlightenment of the mind to bring about peace. It is the arrogance of the self which is led by the Sin Nature that makes it fantasize a perfect life without God and his law. In so fantasizing, the self is self-deluded and deceived. The natural self is unrighteous, and it will never be righteous.
The yardstick by which we know that mankind is really a perpetually self-deluded failure is the standard God has set up, which Noah attained to: Righteousness. If you are righteous, then you perfectly do His will. The opposite of righteousness is lawlessness. 2 Corinthians 6:14. If you only partially do His will, you are not partially righteous. No. With the very first sin you are unrighteous. The purpose of forgiveness of sins is to restore you to the position of being counted as perfectly righteous.
Well, no one is perfect, we complain. And God says, you are right. No one except me. Tell you what: I’ll set up a way for you to participate in my righteousness. I will pay off your sin penalty through my Son dying for your sins, which you can partake in by believing my promises, and I will empower you to stop sinning and start doing my will, what do you say?
Some of mankind rejects this out of hand. Some of mankind says, sure. But then many of those who who accept God’s offer do not stay with the program. Instead, they say, thank you very much for that free ticket to heaven; they they come up with all sorts of reasons for why they are not supposed to be part of that program to be righteous.
Most believers give excuses for why it is impossible to be righteous and there is no reason to really expect righteousness out of us, even if we claim to be saved by Jesus. Basically, many of us really have not believed the promise that He will lead and empower us to obey Him.
As a result, it is not just the unbelievers who have not believed God’s promises, because many believers still refuse to participate in God’s plan for them to be righteous in their actions. God saw it in the Garden, Hamlet saw it 500 years ago, and the statistics proclaim it. As we scratch our heads in bewilderment we must ponder: Do I know someone who is walking in righteousness? — I was not asking if they think they are positionally righteous in Christ. I was asking if they do the will of God.
So often our pastors become frustrated in their attempts to help their flocks of believers to live the Christian life and become like Jesus. They have been accustomed to very meager results and very little interest on the part of 80% of those souls to whom they have been charged as shepherd. Pastors purchase a sermon series, a book, a workbook, videos or an outside speaker, hoping that going through these things en masse and discussing it in small groups will kindle or fan a flame.
But every attempt at striking a spark in the hearts of believers is met with exhausted failure by many of those who embrace it, and a wall of sheer apathy from the 80% crowd who don’t embrace it. The lethargy of the body is palpable. They hear, learn and give their opinion in response. But little changes.
Most church goers are quite nice folks, having learned to be nice, and having learned to be good citizens. Most love their children. Most have seen some development in their character because they know Christ. But then for many of them, nothing new comes, or very little. They freely admit it would be presumptuous of them to suggest they resemble Christ, really. Their mantra is that “nobody’s perfect,” and they continually redefine and expand their “freedom in Christ” to include more ways they should follow what the World is doing.
Only through self delusion would they pretend they are obeying Christ all that much. But no matter. They are going to heaven, and who knows: Maybe the Spirit will sovereignly and spontaneously move them. Maybe God will allow some major loss, calamity, trouble or health problem that will cause something to happen within them, and they just might bear a little fruit here or there. They just might amass a little treasure in heaven. We can only hope and pray and do a devotion or two, … that is, if we remember to, … if we feel led to….
Having themselves become so accustomed to meager fruit, Pastors start telling the flock that they can’t expect to grow very fast; there is nothing they can do to grow or speed it but pray and read; but not to worry, because God ain’t finished with ‘em yet. Consequently, in these last days before the Second Coming, many, many believers are asleep at the wheel – to varying degrees lukewarm, spiritually numb, worldly, carnal, hypocritical, frustrated yet complacent, hoping yet doubtful, double-minded, somewhat good at worldly stewardship, and spiritually unthinking.
Though they may try to serve God in the church, though they may try to love a few people around them, though they may sing praise and worship songs and pray a fair amount, and do a fair amount of Bible study, true Spiritual fruit and their rewards in heaven remain questionable for them. It’s no fun to be in that position of having a form of godliness while tacitly denying its power, and it’s no fun trying to persuade such people to improve.
So, many preachers and teachers tend to do the opposite. They tell people that becoming more like Jesus is only in God’s time as He does it all, as we meanwhile strive and struggle just to keep our spiritual heads above water. But don’t worry, He has a wonderful plan for your life, and He isn’t finished yet. When Jesus comes back for His elect, that’s when you can expect to finally get it right.
Meanwhile, the Sin Nature is not only alive and well in the servants and the served alike, but it continues to rule, deceiving us that everything is okay. But those whose hearts have not been hardened, their consciences numbed, sense the Spirit saying something else. They sense the call of the Spirit, because something in the center of this Christian life is missing.
The American church continues to orbit the real issue, like the Hubble Telescope orbiting the Earth and looking outward instead of inward. We’re intensely searching the universe for something new we haven’t seen before. But for some reason we don’t focus all that magnification and focus on the core issue of the Christian life, which is hidden in plain sight right under our feet, in the solid Rock that is the Son.
The core issue is this: What does Jesus really expect from believers?
[i] Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 303–312
[ii] Hamlet Act 3, scene 1
[iii] Hamlet Act 3, scene 1
[v]http://www.abiblestudy.com/part1.html, “17 May 2344 BC”; http://www.wordsight.org/btl/000_btl-fp.htm, “Noah was called to build the ark and warn of the coming flood. (Circa. 2466 B.C.) Gen. 6”