Their Name Liveth Forevermore
In so many towns and cities across this land, war memorials have been set up.
In parks, next to city halls, at major intersections and elsewhere, you come across large monuments of stone or bronze. As is well-known, these monuments or cenotaphs have been erected to preserve the memory of those men and women who fought and died in the various wars.
More specifically, a cenotaph honours those whose remains are in another place, whether lost on some distant battlefield, or interred in a military cemetery or other graveyard. According to the Greek origins of the word, a “cenotaph” is literally “an empty tomb.” There is no body here, only a memory.
Reading the Stones
Should you ever take time to read the inscriptions on a cenotaph, you’d see a number of different features. There is typically a listing of the wars that a country has been involved in, such as the Boer War, the Great War (or World War 1), World War 2, the Korean War, or more recent conflicts in Afghanistan. There might also be a record of those soldiers, sailors, and airmen from the area who gave their lives in battle. And there is sometimes a short statement speaking of the importance of these sacrifices for the cause of freedom and peace.
Besides the other inscriptions, many cenotaphs feature a prominent phrase, one that can be taken in with a passing glance. It might be those well-known words, “Lest We Forget.” Alternately, you might find, “For God and Country.” But on other cenotaphs, you read the striking words, “Their Name Liveth Forevermore.”
There is a couple layers of history behind this phrase. The first concerns how it has come to be inscribed on so many cenotaphs. In England, there is an organization called the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which is given the task of setting up and tending to the various cemeteries for British soldiers around the world.
Shortly after the conclusion of World War 1, Rudyard Kipling joined the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Kipling, author of such works as “The Jungle Book” and known for his staunch support of British imperialism, happened to make quite a significant contribution to the work of the Commission. For it was his suggestion that the phrase “Their Name Liveth Forevermore” be inscribed on the stones of remembrance placed in large military cemeteries. So it was done, a practice that was continued to some extent on the cenotaphs in other Commonwealth countries as well, including Canada and Australia.
A Text Without a Context
A second layer of history behind the phrase relates to its original setting. Kipling’s source for the quotation was the book of Ecclesiasticus, chapter 44:14. Not to be confused with the canonical book of Ecclesiastes, the book of Ecclesiasticus is numbered among the apocrypha—books that, while not belonging to the canon of Scripture, may be read by us and used for our instruction (see Belgic Confession, article 6). It is also commonly referred to as the Wisdom of Ben Sira (or Sirach). As with the other apocryphal books, Ecclesiasticus is not found in the Hebrew Bible, and it is included only in some modern English translations such as the Jerusalem Bible, in use in the Roman Catholic Church.
The full quotation from the verse reads: “Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name liveth forevermore.” Apparently, it was decided not to use the first part of the verse, as it was considered unsuitable for soldiers of every religious tradition.
However, the second half was thought to contain a noble sentiment, that those who had laid down their lives would not be forgotten because their names and reputations would “live on.” In death, their enduring legacy was the blessings of freedom and peace that others would enjoy.
A Hymn to the Fathers
The book of Ecclesiasticus is a compilation of ethical teachings, said to be from the hand of Ben Sira, from around the second century before Christ. The teachings address numerous aspects of daily life, and much like the Biblical book of Proverbs, promote the fear of God as the source of all true wisdom.
Beginning with chapter 44, and continuing into chapter 50, Ben Sira shares what is sometimes entitled “A Hymn to the Fathers.” After the opening words, “Let us now praise famous men and our fathers by descent” (44:1), he goes on to speak at length about the great things that God accomplished for his people Israel through various figures in her history—something akin to what we find in Hebrews 11. These men ruled kingdoms, become powerful, gave wise counsel, spoke prophecies, composed music, set out verse, and more. Of these men, “some…left behind a name, so that their praises might be told in detail” (v. 8), and the author tells us whom he is thinking of in the rest of the chapter and into the next few chapters: Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, and so on.
We know a good many of these “heroes of the faith” by name. But the names of a myriad more were not recorded for posterity; the author laments, “Of others there is no memorial, and they perished as though they had not existed” (v. 9). Yet according to Ben Sira, this doesn’t mean they should be forgotten, for these too were men of compassion and righteous deeds, and men who likewise had a lasting influence on their families and nation. So it is that the author concludes, “Forever will their seed remain, and their glory will not be blotted out” (v. 13).
Then comes the passage singled out by Kipling. In another translation of verses 14-15:
Their bodies were laid to rest, but their reputations will live forever. Nations will tell about the wisdom of these men, and God’s people will praise them.
Even if nothing is left of them, not even a name, their noble contributions will endure.
Lest We Forget
It is not hard to see why Kipling was drawn to this passage. For thinking of the task he was involved in—setting up cemeteries for the hundreds of thousands of British war dead—it would seem true that the names and accomplishments of so many soldiers were in real danger of being forgotten. People name streets and schools after the generals who drew up the winning strategies, and they hail the heroes who performed incredible feats of daring on the battlefield. People don’t always think of the ones who toiled in the trenches and who died in obscurity during some gas attack or artillery barrage.
And Kipling knew well about the horrors of World War 1, how the bodies of countless men were never recovered from amidst the mud and carnage of the Western Front. But even these, who “perished as though they had not existed,” made important contributions. Their accomplishments live on in the independence and prosperity that many enjoy today.
Do Their Names Really Live Forever?
But is it really true that their name will live forevermore? It is an apocryphal text, but can Ecclesiasticus 44:14 be applied rightly to the men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country?
To be sure, their names and reputations live on for a time, in the memories of families and friends and fellow citizens. And as we said, their accomplishments endure in the form of that precious gift of liberty, a liberty preserved for our nation and restored for others. Indeed, it is fitting that we remember the great sacrifices that have been made for us by previous generations, and appropriate that we often give thanks to God for our country’s peace.
Yet we realize that even the names inscribed in stone on cenotaphs and monuments will ultimately be forgotten—just as any human name and reputation and accomplishment will wither away with time. For decades will pass. More wars will be fought. Memories will fade. As Isaiah has told us, “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field” (40:6). It’s only those who have put their trust in the one true God who will live forever.
Written in the Book of Life
In this connection, Scripture says that the people of God will have their names inscribed in heaven. Like in Malachi 3, where the prophet speaks of how a “scroll of remembrance was written in God’s presence concerning those who feared the LORD and honoured his name” (v. 16). Those with their names recorded on that scroll would be remembered and claimed by the LORD when the time came for judgment.
We find a similar image in Revelation, where those people whose names were “not found written in the book of life,” were thrown into the lake of fire (20:15). But as for the person who by God’s grace is faithful and who overcomes in this wicked age, Christ promises in Revelation 3:5,
I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels.
Not blotted out, nor forgotten, but acknowledged!
Perhaps we as Christians and Church seem pretty insignificant today. The godless appear very successful, false religions seem to thrive, and among the greatest celebrities of the day are those who scorn God’s law—all while Christians are increasingly pushed into a place of obscurity and insignificance. We need to keep fighting the good fight of faith.
But far more important than being honoured and remembered by men is being honoured and remembered by God. That is God’s promise, that He will never forget those who are his own in Jesus Christ. Our names are written in heaven.
And united by faith to Christ, our names will live forevermore!