In the Pearl of Great Price, one of the things that has always puzzled me is why so much time is taken pointing out what age the ancient fathers lived to. (Methusela, 969 years. Lamech, 777 years. Enock, 430 years. Seth, 912 years. Jared, 962 years. Adam, 930 years.) The only reason I can see for it is that they all lived that long. But if they lived that long, why would they find that data good enough to record? Obviously it is interesting to us today because we see that humanity used to live longer, but why would they find it interesting to record? Was it a point of pleasure, like a badge of courage to last so long in the “lone and dreay world”?
To us, these ages are of interest because we see that the lifespan of humanity has been shortened by about a factor of ten. In Genesis we get this:
And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man,for that he also is flesh:yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years. (Genesis 6:3)
In Moses 8, the same verse is rendered differently, giving more insight:
And the Lord said unto Noah: My Spirit shall not always strive with man,for he shall know that all flesh shall die;yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years;and if men do not repent, I will send in the floods upon them. (Moses 8:17)
In the context of Noah’s life, it seems that the Lord was fed up with man’s shinnanigans and therefore decided to shorten man’s life span. Perhaps men in Noah’s day thought they had all the time in the world and were delaying their repentance.
In the context of the Lord’s goals to try to bring men to salvation, perhaps a shortening of the life span would remind men of death and give men a reason to consider what was most important in life (like maybe the gospel) and give them a motivation to fill their lives with the best things instead of wasting the time they had. Perhaps it was an invitation to hasten the Lord’s work. From another perspective, if they were filling their lives with wickedness and refusing to repent, these people would have to suffer for their own sins if they didn’t have faith in Christ. Shortening their life would be merciful act as it would lessen the amount of sins for which they would have to suffer all the consequences in spirit prison.
The long lives also make me think about what I would do with my time if I knew I would probably live in mortality for close to a thousand years. Would I choose the best things? Could I endure all the way to the end? (I suppose that the ancient patriarchs are definitely worthy of praise for enduring in the gospel to the end of their lives.)
It reminds me of Hugh Nibley’s stories about the essay test he gave his students asking them what they would do with their time if they lived 1000 years, and how they didn’t seem to be interested in living that long, and he wondered how they would make it through eternity if they could only imagine living 100 years or so. I suppose that a life not spent living the gospel would become a burden of absolute boredom, a desperate bid to find something to pass the time. Also, we look forward to spending eternity in a celestialized existence to which even the joys of mortality are unworthy to be compared.
I think ultimately we learn from these scriptures that the Lord has control over life span. I’m thankful to know this; it reminds me that the Lord has a plan for us with time for it to be carried out, and that He has the mercy to give us time to repent of our sins.