Better to go to the house of mourning
Than to go to the house of feasting,
For that is the end of all men;
And the living will take it to heart. (Eccl. 7:2)
This proverb comes in a portion of Ecclesiastes that essentially argues, via a series of proverbial statements, that adversity can be more instructive than prosperity. There are times when sorrow is better than laughter (Eccl. 7:3), the rebuke of the wise is better than the song of fools (vs.5), and, as verse two states: it’s better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting (vs.2).
In the context of the Ancient Near East the house of mourning was essentially the place of the funeral. It was the place where friends and loved ones wept and lamented the death of someone they cared about. Throughout the Old Testament we see that periods of mourning could go on for quite a time. The nation of Israel mourned the death of Saul and his sons for seven days (1 Sam. 31:13), while the nation, years earlier, lamented the loss of Aaron and Moses forty days each (Num. 20:29; Deut. 34:8).
You can get a glimpse of what the house of mourning looked like in the eleventh chapter of John’s Gospel. Lazarus had died. He was Jesus’ friend; someone Jesus cared deeply about; and he, Lazarus, was the brother of two women, Martha and Mary. And in the account of Lazarus’ death the text tells us that many people came to Mary and Martha to console them concerning their brother (Jn. 11:19); so it was a time when relatives, friends, and acquaintances came to show care and provide comfort to those mourning. A little bit later on in the chapter we see Mary weeping and those with her weeping (vs.33); and, shortly thereafter, when Jesus entered into the place where Lazarus was laid, He, too, began to weep (vs.35)
As an important aside, one of the unique lessons that Christianity offers to those who attend funerals is that God incarnate does not simply know what it’s like to view a funeral from afar off, but He knows what it is like to groan inwardly and weep outwardly at a funeral. If you enter the John chapter 11 house of mourning, the house of Mary and Martha, one of the first lessons you learn is that Jesus is there – in the midst of the mourning; mourning with the mourners. That, in itself, speaks volumes. It’s not only a unique aspect of Christianity, it’s an immeasurably comforting reality – that God not only offers divine sympathy for our weeping in the house of mourning but He offers divine empathy.
Back to the Text
Now as precious as that lesson is, it’s not the lesson from Ecclesiastes chapter seven verse two. The reason Solomon gives as to why it’s better to go to the house of mourning as opposed to the house of feasting, i.e. the place of indulgent and perhaps careless frivolity (cf. Isa. 5:11), is seen in the second half of the verse: “For that is the end of all men; and the living will take it to heart” (Eccl. 7:2).
So, according to the text, being in the house of mourning provides an opportunity for forced sobriety. The funeral is an opportunity for the living to see where they are going. That’s not pessimism, that’s realism. All the effort and exercise, all the sleep and supplements will not change the fact that death is the expected end of all men. It’s not the end of existence; existence continues; it will either be infinitely better or infinitely worse; but it is the end of life as we know it here on earth. And according to the text of Scripture it is in the great self-interest of men and women not to practice perpetual avoidance concerning the subject of death. It’s an exercise of wisdom for the funeral attender to say ‘today’s memorial is about remembrance but it is also about readiness.’
Solomon said, when in the house of mourning, “the living will take it to heart.” The ‘rule of thumb’ is – anyone with a measure of sensitivity concerning the fragility and brevity of their life will think, in some measure, ‘that will be me soon.’ If they are familiar with the doctrine of Jesus’ second coming perhaps they tweak that a little bit and say, ‘Unless Jesus returns before then, that will be me soon.’ And while Solomon doesn’t expound upon what ‘taking-it-to-heart’ looks like, speaking from human experience, funerals and memorials are times when people ask questions like these: why does death exist? And what happens after I die? The Bible provides clear answers to both of those questions.
The Bible provides an explanation for the origin of death. Long before there were 7 billion people on the planet there were two. On the sixth day of creation, after God created the space-matter universe, put the sky in place, caused dry land to appear, created the sun, moon, and stars, filled the sky with birds and the oceans with living creatures, made all the animals that walk, hop, and creep on dry ground, He, in further demonstrations of omnipotent creative power and wisdom, formed man from the dust of the ground and He formed woman from the rib of the man, both in His image and likeness. Although the earth was furnished, God placed Adam and Eve in a garden with the freedom to eat from any tree except one. Thus, they bore inherent dignity (being made in God’s image), were given an initial responsibility (to tend the garden), and they enjoyed relational intimacy (with God and with each other).
But in the opening verse of Genesis chapter three, the tone of the text changes. As the account continues we find that Satan tempted Eve, telling her that if she ate from the tree she would not experience death and that she would be like God. She was deceived by the serpent and ate; Adam was not deceived and he ate; and when he did, sin entered the world and death through sin (Rom. 5:12). Had sin never entered the world neither would have death.
But as a result of Adam’s transgression all of his posterity (i.e. all of us) are born with a nature that is bent towards sin. We, then, are sinners both by nature and by choice. Every human being has told a lie at some point in their life; every human being has practiced idolatry at some point in their life – any person who has sinned has, at least for that moment, put something before God. Every human being at some point has failed to do the good they know to do and the Bible calls that sin. In one way or another we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). And as the Scripture plainly states: the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23a) – both temporally and eternally, physically and spiritually.
If that’s all the Scripture had to say on the subject we might as well lock ourselves in the house of mourning. But the good news is – there is hope in the house of mourning.
Although we were like prisoners on a procession to the gallows to be hung for our sin, One who was without sin, stood in the place of those who had committed crimes against Him and bore the sentence of all who would repent of their rebellion and trust in Him for the forgiveness of sins. The only way to save His people from the second death (Rev. 20:14) and bring them to a place where there would be no more death (Rev. 21:4), was for Him to experience a death far more painful than the gallows, crucifixion on a roman cross, where He bore God’s wrath and satisfied God’s justice. But that wasn’t the end. If that was the end, Paul said the Christian faith would be futile and believers would still be in their sins (1 Cor. 15:17). If that was the end worship songs should be traded in for funeral dirges, and garments of praise for spirits of heaviness. But in fulfillment of the Scriptures, as well as the very words He spoke, Jesus rose from the dead three days later.
So while the house of mourning reminds us that we are all going to die, it should also remind us that through Jesus’ death and resurrection He, “abolished death and brought life and immortality to the light through the Gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10b). And what is that Gospel? Paul, speaking to the church at Corinth summarized it like this:
3b that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3b-4)
If today you repent of your sin and self-righteousness and believe the Gospel, placing no confidence in the things that you have done to merit forgiveness but only in what Christ has done on your behalf, you will go from death to life; reconciled to God; and with a legitimate grounds to be free from the fear of death (Heb. 2:15).
And if that’s you, you can spend the rest of your life marveling that your Savior can empathize with what it’s like to weep at a funeral, and you can marvel that your Savior can empathize with the experience of death, but you can also marvel that you cannotempathize with what it’s like to bear the wrath of God. The Savior who loved you and gave Himself for you experienced that so you would never have to.