The other night my family watched the 25th anniversary concert of Les Miserables, and one of the songs that gets to me every time I hear it is “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” It’s the song Marius sings after he learns that he alone has survived the battle for revolution in France. In addition to his grief, Marius is also feeling guilty for having lived while his friends have died. Here’s the song performed by Eddie Redmayne in the 2012 movie version of the play:
As the story continues, Marius realizes that the best thing he can do is to go on living life to its fullest, but he determines that he will live his life in a way that honors his friends. In doing so, Marius gains continual inspiration and motivation from his friends – even though they are gone.
In the same way, Hebrews 12:1-3 claims that Christians have a never-ending source of encouragement to stay strong in our faith in those saints who have gone before us:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross,scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
The “witnesses” referred to in this passage are the saints who have lived and died so valiantly in Hebrews 11. For us, it would also include the modern-day Christians whose life of faith inspires us to imitate their devotion to Christ. And they witness to us, not by actually watching us from heaven, but by continuously “speaking” to us through their lives and examples.
As John Piper once noted, “The best way to illustrate this, I think, is with Hebrews 11:4, where the writer speaks of Abel and says, “Through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks.” So Abel is in the cloud of witnesses, and he is witnessing to us by his life through the Scriptures. This is the way all the witnesses of Hebrews 11 are helping us. They have gathered along the sidelines of our race and they hold out their wounds and their joys and give us the best high-fives we ever got: “Go for it! You can do it. By faith you can finish. You can lay the weights down and the sins. By faith, by the assurance of better things hoped for, you can do it. I did it. And I know it can be done. Run. Run!”
Hebrews 12:1-3 says that since we have this “great cloud of witnesses” to affirm us, inspire us, and let us know that we are not alone, we should do four things:
1. “Throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” (v. 1).
2. “Run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (v. 1)
3. “Fix our eyes on Jesus” (v. 2)
4. “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (v. 3).
Each of us can look back on our lives and see “empty chairs at empty tables” – and we greatly miss the people who used to sit in those chairs and at our tables. But if we let them, those Christ-followers who are now gone can continue to “speak” to us and inspire us to not give up on our faith.
We also need to remember that one day we will be among the “empty chairs at empty tables,” for we will be gone. But while we’re here, we can choose to live a life that will keep on “speaking” to those behind us. By faithfully following Jesus Christ in all we do, we will build a life that can join with God’s Spirit to keep on influencing and inspiring others to do the same.
So, what do you want people to say about you when you are an empty chair at an empty table?