That saying was one of my first thoughts as the tragic death of Kobe Bryant sunk in. It was not only his relative youth, at 41 years old, that struck me, but also the fact that his 13-year-old daughter and her two teen-aged friends died with him in that helicopter crash. In fact, all of the nine who died were in their prime years, healthy, athletic. All their deaths seem untimely.

I couldn’t get that phrase out of my mind: “Only the good die young.” Let’s see, where in the Bible is that from? No, not the Bible? Shakespeare, then. Not Shakespeare either? These days, it’s usually easy to track down the origins of quotes on line, but not this one. I found the essence of the saying as far back as 445 BC in the words of Greek historian Herodotus: “The one whom the gods love dies young.” A similar idea can be found in an obscure poem by William Wordsworth (1770-1850), in which a young girl explains her family’s poverty this way: “Oh, Sir, the good die first, and they whose hearts are dry as summer dust burn to the socket.” American writer Oliver Herford (1863-1935) put a twist on the word order: “Only the young die good.” The earliest quote I could find with the words good and young in the familiar order was in a cynical remark made by British actor John Barrymore in about 1940: “The good die young, because they see it’s no use living if you have got to be good.” This same idea is behind the words of a 1977 Billy Joel song, which didn’t get much radio play time because it was seen as offensive to Roman Catholics:

Come out, Virginia, don’t let me wait
You Catholic girls start much too late
But sooner or later it comes down to fate
I might as well be the one
You know that only the good die young
They say there’s a heaven for those who will wait
Some say it’s better, but I say it ain’t
I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints
The sinners are much more fun
You know that only the good die young

In one episode of the 1960s TV series “Have Gun, Will Travel,” Paladin philosophized, “The good die young so they may not be corrupted, and the wicked live on so they may have a chance to repent.”

I don’t think there is any consistent correlation between the moral quality of people’s lives and how many years they spend on earth. Many innocent babies die before they have a chance to taste most of life’s joys. Some of the best of us live very brief lives, while some of the worst of us may live past the century mark. I don’t know why God set it up that way; maybe to keep us humble; maybe to keep us on our toes; maybe to keep us on our knees.

There are certainly a number of Bible verses that speak of long life as a blessing that comes from following the Lord’s way (Exodus 23:25-26, Deuteronomy 5:33, 6:1-2, Psalm 91:16, Proverbs 3:16, Ephesians 6:1-3,

1 Peter 3:10). But there are also some significant warnings about presuming on this as a guaranteed promise:

Lord. make me to know my end, and that my days on earth are limited. Let me know how transient I am. (Psalm 39:4)

He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and does not come again. (Psalm 78:39)

My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle and come to an end without hope. (Job 7:6)

My days are swifter than a runner; they flee away, they see no good. They drift by like reed canoes, like an eagle swooping on the prey. (Job 9:25-26)

For we are only of yesterday and know nothing, because our days on earth are as a shadow. (Job 8:9)

James, the brother of Jesus, summed it up this way:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin. (James 4:13-17)

–Pastor George Van Alstine