Death is an occasion and funeral homes are a place marked by much sadness and grief. And yet, according to Holy Scripture, there is something potentially beneficial about such an occasion and such a place. As the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting” (7:2 NIV). To paraphrase, “Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties” (NLT). Why would the Bible make such an assertion? What is this passage teaching us?
What the Text Isn’t Saying
To begin with, let’s consider what this passage is not teaching:
1. It’s not teaching that life is a drag
The writer of Ecclesiastes is not forbidding or discouraging us from enjoying ourselves at festive occasions. In other words, the text is not teaching that it’s wrong to celebrate and to be happy. Earlier in the book the writer says, “There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (3:4). Later, he says, “When times are good, be happy” (7:14). According to the New Testament, the Lord Jesus himself celebrated weddings (John 2:1-11) and enjoyed feasts (Matt 11:19). So it’s not necessarily wrong to be to be in “the house of feasting.” God isn’t a cosmic killjoy!
2. It is not teaching that death is a joke
The text is not making light of the grief and pain that we feel at such an occasion. The Scripture writer is not trying to inject a little humor. He’s not trying to loosen us up with an off-the-wall sarcasm. No, he is very serious. We might even say with no pun intended that he is deathly serious.
What the Text Is Saying
That brings us to the real reason why the Scripture writer can say funerals are better than parties. As he himself puts it,
It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to a house of feasting
because death is the destiny of every man;
the living should take this to heart (emphasis added).
1. Death is a serious matter
Funerals bring us face to face with what is the weightiest reality of our life, which, ironically, is our own DEATH. Death is the certain destiny of every human being. That’s a pretty serious matter!
Some tell us not to take death so seriously. They tell us that death is just a part of nature. It is merely the process of “natural selection.” As a leaf blossoms in spring, thrives in summer, withers in fall, and decomposes in winter, so you and I are born, we live out our lives, we get old, and we return to the dust. “Nothing to get worked up about. Nothing to be sad about. Just part of nature. Don’t take death so seriously,” some say.
But there is something inside of us that won’t accept that kind of reasoning. The sadness, and the grief, and the aversion that we have towards death all shout that death is not natural. We don’t like it. We don’t want it. We wish that we could escape from it! In fact, that’s why we often go to “the house of feasting.” Amidst the food, and drink, and laughter, we forget. And for a time, we’re able to live as if death were not real.
“But that’s not good,” says the Scripture writer. “It’s better to be in the house of mourning.” That is, it is better to face the reality of death “square in the eye” than to try and ignore it. To cite another line of the passage,
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure (7:4).
In popular language, “All fun and no funerals not only makes Jack a dull boy but also makes him a dumb boy.” It would be absolutely foolish of us not to use the occasion of a funeral as an opportunity to think deeply about the meaning of life and death!
2. Death is a spiritual matter
Death is not only a serious matter but it’s also a spiritual matter. And if you and I would be wise, then we must “take it to heart.” Which raises the question: What is it about death that God wants us to take to heart? Let me briefly suggest four things:
Death reminds us that we live in a world cursed by sin
According to Scripture, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (Rom 5:12). Death is not natural. Death is not what God intended when he created the world. But human death is ultimately a consequence of human sin (see Gen 3:17-19). A particular sin isn’t always the immediate cause of a person’s death, but human sin against God is the ultimate cause behind human death.
Death reminds us that we are alienated from God
Moses, referring to death in Psalm 90, wrote:
We are consumed by [God’s] anger
and terrified by [His] indignation.
[God has] set our iniquities before [Him],
our secret sins in the light of [His] presence.
All our days pass away under [God’s] wrath;
we finish our years with a moan (90:7-9 NIV).
Where did religion come from? Where did the idea of killing animals and sacrificing them to some deity come from? Where did the notions of penance and confession of sin come from? I don’t believe these ideas and practices came from some introspective half-monkey/half-man in some distant evolutionary past.
Rather, our fear of death, our uneasy conscience, and our deep-seated sense that there must be SOMEONE out there to whom we have to give an account are evidence that things are not right between us and our Maker.
Death reminds us that we have to answer to God
The author of Hebrews puts it this way: “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that the judgment” (9:27). There is a day coming that is just as real as every hospital, as every mortuary, and as every cemetery. Just as real as the sorrow, grief, and pain we at the funeral of a loved one.
May I suggest that this is one reason some people completely reject religion and other people don’t like to talk about it. Some people insist that there is no God. Others claim to believe in God, but they don’t want to talk about him. The first are atheists in creed; the second may be religious in creed, but they are atheists in practice.
For the first twenty-two years of my life, I belonged in that second category. I was baptized in the church. I was catechized in the church. I was confirmed in the church. I went through all the right religious “motions,” but my heart was far from God. I was a Christian in name, but an atheist in practice. Why? Because in my heart, I knew there was a God, I knew I wasn’t right with him, and I knew I’d have to face him after death. But I did nothing about it. I even tried to suppress these thoughts in my mind.
Death reminds us to prepare for that coming day
Here is where the real benefit comes. Listen to the book of Ecclesiastes ends:
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter [the bottom line]:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil (12:13-14 NIV).
So the way to prepare for death is to “fear God and keep his commandments.” That’s the sum total of what we need to take away from “the house of mourning.”
Coming to Grips with God
What does it mean to “fear God and keep his commandments”?
Negatively, it does not mean, “Be terrified of God and try harder to be a good person”; it doesn’t mean, “Be terrified of God and turn over a new leaf.” The Scripture writer is talking about something more profound—he’s talking about a fundamental change in the way we view reality and relate to God.
Positively, “to fear God and keep his commandments” means the following:
- First, the word “fear” in the Bible often refers to “respect” or “devotion.” Thus, to “fear God” means that we come to acknowledge God as God. We stop living as if God didn’t exist (see Rom 1:18-21).
- Second, to “fear God” is to honor God, trust God, and serve God (Job 1:1; Prov 1:7; 9:10). God is the one who calls the shots. He’s at the steering wheel. We are His creatures, and to fear Him means that we have come to trust that He knows best. He doesn’t make any mistakes. And our main purpose for existence is to honor him and serve him.
- Third, to “fear God” means that we must repent of our sins and we must believe in God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, for salvation. Jesus himself put it like this: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV).
In short, to fear God is to enter into a saving relationship with Him through His Son. Then, flowing from that relationship, we have a heart that delights in keeping His commandments. The end result of all of that is, according to the God’s Word, eternal life and happiness with God. To cite Scripture again,
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him (John 3:36 NIV).
The End of the Matter
Unlike parties, funerals are not fun. They bring us much sorrow, sadness, and grief. But life isn’t just a party. All fun makes us dumb. Funerals, on the other hand, have the potential of making us wise. They help us to reflect on the weightiest issues of life. And if the end result is eternal happiness and acceptance with God, then we’ll be able to say, “It was truly good for me to be in the house of mourning.” If the end result is a closer walk with God and life sacrificed to His service, then we’ll thank God for funerals.