Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor who ruled from 161 to 180 A.D. He was the last of the rulers traditionally known as the five good emperors. He came to power near the end of the Pax Romana, an age of relative peace and stability in the empire.
Marcus was something of a philosopher, and wrote what are known as his “Meditations”. These are musings seem to be for his own consumption, talks that he might have with himself. Many of them describe ways to deal with circumstances and people, and the daily stresses that come even to an emperor. In one passage Marcus writes, “Consider when you are much vexed or grieved, that man’s life is only a moment, and after a short time we are all laid out dead.” His encouragement to himself is that when trouble comes, put it into perspective. Life, really, is short. What does this one vexing thing really matter in the end?
The musings of Marcus Aurelius sound rather similar to those of Solomon, the writer of Ecclesiastes. Solomon wrote, “A wise man's heart inclines him to the right, but a fool's heart to the left” (Ecc 10:2). The “wise man” for Solomon is the one who trusts in the Lord. The “fool” is the one who does not know or fear God. Marcus was not a Christian. Rome had a pantheon of gods. Even so, another of Marcus’ thoughts was, “If there is a god, all is well; and if chance rules, do not thou be governed by it.” In other words, if there is an all-powerful God (and I think here he also means One who is predisposed to be good and gracious), then we are in his hands, and all will be well in the end. If there is no God, then we are ruled by chance, but order your life so that you are not governed by it (chance). The gods for Marcus, though there were many available, were distant and unconcerned with his welfare. He says, in effect, “I don’t know if there really is a God or not.” Solomon, who knew God, writes, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecc 12:13).
The right context for all that vexes or grieves us in this life actually is to put everything in perspective. But whose perspective? What perspective? Solomon has it right. Fear Yahweh and keep his commandments. How does Solomon know Yahweh and Marcus does not? The answer? Revelation. Solomon in all his wisdom could not divine on his own what he knows of the God of the Bible. God had to reveal it. And during this Epiphany (revealing) season, we meditate on who Jesus is and what he has come to do.
Each of our lives has its highs and lows, its ups and its downs. So what wisdom do we have for the times of vexation or grief? I would tweak Marcus’ words just a little. Because there is a God, all is well. Don’t look within yourself to find peace in troubled times. Look up! Look to the God who made you, who knew every one of your days before one of them was written (Psalm 139). Trust in God who himself took on flesh to deal with the problem of sin, the cause of every vexation, who journeyed to the cross to take on death itself. Only with our eyes on Jesus can there be real peace in this grievous and vexing life.
The hymn by Horatio Spafford puts it well:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way; When sorrows, like sea billows, roll; Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.
And, Lord, haste the day when our faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll, the trumpet shall sound and the Lord shall descend; even so it is well with my soul.
He lives – oh, the bliss of this glorious thought; My sin, not in part, but the whole, is nailed to His cross, and I bear it no more. Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
It is well, with my soul, it is well, it is well with my soul.
May God’s peace be yours, even in vexing and grieving times, because of the deep love that God has demonstrated toward each one of us in the great epiphany of Jesus Christ our Savior, our friend, and our Lord. Amen!