It is better to go to a house of mourning
Than to go to a house of feasting,
Because that is the end of every man,
And the living takes it to heart.
Here is a seemingly morbid portion of Scripture, and hardly a common piece of advice: Better to go to a funeral than a party.
My Dad, who is far more gifted with acronyms and alliteration than I could ever be, summarizes the book of Ecclesiastes this way: ITIA –“I Tried It All.”
It’s good to read books, because in a matter of hours or a few days you can absorb material it took the author perhaps years to learn. It’s good to talk to elderly people, because if you’re willing to listen and learn, in a matter of a few conversations you can take graduate level courses from the school of their hard knocks and keep the bumps off your own head.So it is with the little book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon, so far as I can tell, is writing as an old man. But not your ordinary old man, with body broken from a lifetime in the old salt mine, a bucket list a mile long but precious few lines scratched out. No, Solomon is an old man who had the money, authority, and intellectual firepower to do absolutely anything and everything he could have ever wanted, and the ambition to do them.
What does a man say who has crossed off everything on his bucket list – long before becoming an old man, no less – and lives the remaining years of his life simply pondering this thought: “I’ve tried it all. There’s nothing left I haven’t done. Now what?”
That’s the man I want to listen to. The man who has achieved everything he ever aspired to, left no pleasure untried or delicacy untasted, no beauty unenjoyed, no toy unplayed with, no party unattended. In a word, he has no more aspirations. Tell me, Mr. ITIA, what can you say to me, the one who wants so badly to try all the stuff you got to try. Is it fun? Is it worth it? Is there a point at which you lean back and say, “Life doesn’t get any better than this, and I’m okay with that.”
I can almost imagine Solomon standing in the street, with rings on every finger, the most beautiful women hanging off each arm, the finest wine dribbling down his beard, but with a vacant stare, pointing, like the Ghost of Christmas Future, to a funeral chapel. “Want my advice? Go there. Skip the party.”
Stand before the coffin awhile. It doesn’t matter who is in it; you need not know this soul, all you need to know is this: Everyone takes his turn lying in what JC Ryle calls “the narrow bed.” Only some may live with riches; only some may grasp the hand of ease and call her his companion. Only some may hold the heart of a lifelong friend and lover; only some will have the joy of sons and daughters. Not all may enter the house of feasting. But the house of mourning irresistibly beckons everyone, and that without discrimination.
Stand here in the face of death, which Solomon says is “the end of every man.”Stand here as the living, and “take it to heart.” What does the man who has tried it all aspire to now?
Solomon might stand in this little chapel before the dead and say this to us: I have dressed in the finest clothes, but I will depart this world naked. I have enjoyed the sweetest pleasures available to any man, but I will exit this life unable to find in them any comfort. I have built magnificent buildings, but I will live in them no longer. I have been warmed by hundreds of the most desirable women, but I will get into this last bed cold and alone.
Consider your end. Stare into that little box, soon to be reduced to dust along with all its contents. Gaze upon it, and take it to heart. Do not pretend your day is not coming. Do not forget it is drawing nigh.
It wasn’t so many years ago I didn’t plant trees, because 15 years seemed too long a time to wait for them to grow. It was an eternity! I signed a 30 year mortgage feeling like it was as good as a 3,000 year commitment. And today I realize my children are nearer to making me a grandfather than they are to the day they made me a father. My mortgage is almost half over. The trees I finally did plant are growing as fast now as radishes seemed to grow in my childhood.
The list of my friends who have taken their turn lying at the front of the house of mourning is growing, never shrinking. Some will say I am yet young; yet youth is no permanent state, and I am realizing that ever more clearly. The house of mourning teaches me this. The man who takes it to heart walks with a heavier, more deliberate step; his time in the house of feasting seems a bit less enchanting, and far less fulfilling.
The man who steps into the house of mourning, realizing that his name will soon be spelled out on the door of the chapel asks himself this: What is the point of this life, and what ought a man be doing as he sets aside his fame, fortune, and all the pleasures gained during his few years, and climbs into that little bed, to close his eyes the last time?
The answer is this: Find the Man who laid down in that bed, closed his eyes, but against all the laws of mortal flesh, woke up, walked out of the little house, never again to walk back in! Find Him, follow Him, and never let Him out of your sight; trust Him, worship Him, and make sure He’s standing by your side when that white sheet is pulled over your eyes.
The house of mourning beckons all, but it cannot contain all. It cannot contain Jesus Christ, nor the ones to whom He gives life. It is even better, during Holy Week, to go to the house of mourning, because it turns out, to those who follow hard after Jesus, the funeral chapel is just a “pit stop” on the way to the House of Everlasting Feasting.
Don’t go straight to the house of feasting. First you must go to the house of mourning, and it is imperative that you go there while you are yet living. Stop and ponder. Envision yourself surrounded by flowers that scarcely begin to mask the smell of the embalming fluid. Feel the fright of death, lest you fail to search out the One who gives eternal life.
The one who goes to the house of feasting without stopping at the house of mourning will find himself surprised and unprepared when he is escorted there by the irresistible hand of death. The one who stops before that day to see the end of every man and take it to heart, and by God’s grace will run to Christ Jesus.
And when you find Jesus, ask for a glimpse of the house of mourning in which He Himself once lay:
“Show me Jesus, the bed on which you lay while the sounds of many women sobbing and their tears falling to the ground fell on Your lifeless ears. Show me the great stone You rolled away, because no mere chunk of granite could ever keep You in the house of mourning! Show me the House of Feasting You have prepared for those who trust You, who follow You, those whose death You have taken upon Yourself. Show the eyes of my faith Your mighty right arm that will scoop me up from my narrow bed and set me beside You forever and ever, in that place where there is no longer a house of mourning, and every tear is wiped away.”
It is better, while you are numbered among the living, to go into the house of mourning than the house of feasting, for that is your end and mine. Let us take it to heart.
ed. note: this is part 7 of a series of articles written concerning some of the occasions the Bible uses the phrase “it is better…” These texts have always intrigued me, as they compare two things and evaluate them against each other, giving the reader a glimpse into the Divine opinion of what is truly valuable or disposable, that we might live with a proper orientation to seeking true riches.
photo credit: Wikipedia