There is a sense in which we are less familiar with death than our forebears, more insulated from its horrors. Of course the death rate in the twenty-first century is identical to every century before and every century to come—“it is appointed for [each and every] man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” So perhaps it is better to say we are less familiar with what we consider premature death—the death of infants, children, and young adults.
Because we are less familiar with death, we tend to prepare less for its inevitable encroachment. With the average lifespan now extending well past the promised threescore and ten, it is easy enough to set death alongside retirement, pensions, and inheritances as matters that should concern us sometime in the future, but certainly not right now.
But it was not always so and there are lessons we can and should learn from previous generations of Christians, for they had a heightened understanding of the importance of being ready. They had to. Like first responders, they had to be in a state of constant preparation, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. Like servants, they had to be dressed and ready for the moment they were summoned into the presence of the king. They did not have the luxury of associating death with a life well-lived to a ripe old age. Death could come quickly and at any time. It commonly did.
In reading the Puritans and their successors, I’ve often come across a captivating little phrase: “knocking at the gates of the grave.” Jeremy Taylor wrote a whole book about Christian dying and said, “He that would die well must always look for death, every day knocking at the gates of the grave; and then the gates of the grave shall never prevail against him to do him mischief.” Theodore Cuyler sometimes recounted strolling through Greenwood cemetery where three of his children had been laid to rest—two as infants and one as a young adult—and using his time there to metaphorically knock at the gates of the grave, “to listen whether any painful echo comes back from within.”
We, too, should make it our habit to knock at the gates of the grave. To knock at the gates of the grave is to ponder the positive marks of grace that are associated with those who love the Lord and will depart this life to be with him forever. It is to ponder the marks of depravity and hypocrisy that are associated with those who hate the Lord and will depart this life to be separated from him forever. It is to heed the admonition of the Apostle who implored Christians to “examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”
We knock when we pray, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24)! We knock when we cry to God, “Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and my mind. For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in your faithfulness” (Psalm 26:2–3). We knock when we prepare to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and examine ourselves, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup (1 Corinthians 11:28). We knock when we consider whether our lives are increasingly marked by those precious evidences of God’s saving and sanctifying grace.
When we knock at the gates of the grave in these ways and many others, we meditatively listen to hear the distant echoes of the choir of angels or the distant echoes of the gavel of judgment. We knock and then listen for echoes that are encouraging or concerning, delightful or painful. We knock and listen so we are prepared for the day—the inevitable day—when the gates will open to receive us to new life or a second death, to the bliss of heaven or the horrors of hell. We knock to ensure we are waiting, to ensure we are ready, to ensure we will go to be with the Lord we love.