Daily Light -April 20, 2020

Why Funerals Are Better Than Feasts

Article by Matt McCullough, PhD, Pastor, Nashville, TN

Of the many upheavels the COVID-19 outbreak has brought to our lives, one has been especially on my mind. This pandemic has simultaneously confronted us with our mortality and also eliminated many of the distractions we normally use to shield ourselves from the truth. It has exposed the fragility of everything we take for granted (our healthy bodies most of all) while depriving us of so many favorite opportunities for escaping the harsh realities of life under the sun.

My preferred mind-numbing escape route has always been sports. Over the past few weeks, out of habit, I’ve opened my ESPN app only to find stirring headlines like “Peyton Manning crashes Tennessee online class” and “Justin Bieber treks through house in ‘floor is lava’ game.” I don’t know about you, but clickbait like this just isn’t enough to pull my eyes from the staggering unemployment numbers or the rising daily death totals.

Whatever else the Lord may be doing in this strange providence, he’s offering us the gift of wisdom. Wisdom in the Bible is an instinct for living well in the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Wisdom doesn’t hide from what’s grievous about life in this fallen world.

This wisdom is the goal of Ecclesiastes overall, and particularly of the series of proverbs that opens chapter 7.

These stark, provocative comparisons are meant to set off the way of the wise from the way of the fool. But like so much of Ecclesiastes, these proverbs disorient us in order to orient us. We’re told that the day of our death is better than the day of our birth (Eccles. 7:1). How can that be? We’re told that it’s better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting (Eccles. 7:2). That doesn’t sound right. And we’re told that sorrow is better than laughter (Eccles. 7:3). What does that mean?

Avoiding Two Ditches

Two clarifications are especially helpful.

First, the Preacher (the writer) has a specific kind of feasting and laughter in mind. He’s not against having fun or appreciating the goodness and beauty in the world. For all its moments of bleakness this book also celebrates joy in the good gifts of God (Eccles. 3:4; 5:18–20). Parties have their place.

But there’s a sort of feasting and laughter that’s deceptive and counterproductive. It’s the sort that Derek Kidner describes as the “hectic, empty gaity of fools, quick to catch alight, quick to fade.” This sort of levity is a substitute for careful reflection and honest emotional response to life. It’s a strategy, willful or not, for avoiding whatever might weigh us down or spoil our good time.

Parties have their place. But there’s a sort of feasting and laughter that’s deceptive and counterproductive.

Second, when the Preacher says that mourning is better than feasting or death better than birth, it’s not because sorrow and death are good in themselves. This isn’t simply resignation, some nihilistic acceptance of the power of darkness. It is rather that, as Kidner puts it, “the day of death has more to teach us than the day of birth.”

It’s not that death is better than life. It’s that we have more to learn from the sheer fact that our lives will end than from the fact that we’re alive in the first place. We learn these lessons not in the house of feasting, where quick-hitting pleasures keep our minds out of gear, but in the house of mourning, where we look long and hard at the truths that rightly break our hearts. “This is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Eccles. 7:2).

When the Preacher tells us it’s better to go to the house of mourning, he’s warning us not to numb ourselves with one diversion after another, living our lives like one long Netflix binge, hoping for happiness in that next episode.

When the Preacher tells us it’s better to go to the house of mourning, he’s warning us not to numb ourselves with one diversion after another, living our lives like one long Netflix binge, hoping for happiness in that next episode.

But he doesn’t aim to depress us, either. Perhaps the most surprising statement in these verses comes in verse 3: “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.” The reward of sorrow is something better than laughter: genuine gladness.

Sad Faces, Glad Hearts

But how? How do sad faces bring glad hearts?

I see at least two ways, one from within the perspective of Ecclesiastes, and another for which Ecclesiastes prepares us.

1. Putting God’s Gifts in their Proper Place

Ecclesiastes helps us enjoy the good gifts of life by preventing us from worshiping or trusting them. Under the sun no good gift is ours to keep. That’s what we learn in the house of mourning, and it’s a hard lesson.

If we fail to learn this lesson—if we aim for security in reputations or fortunes or careers or whatever else we build for ourselves—we’ll eventually deal with crippling futility and frustration. As permanent safeguards even the best gifts of life are vanity. To trust ourselves to them is to ruin any chance of truly enjoying them.

Under the sun no good gift is ours to keep. That’s what we learn in the house of mourning.

But if we accept the grief that comes with loss that comes with time, these gifts of God, like manna in the wilderness, don’t have to spoil. They can instead be what they are, what he intends them to be—not his competition, but tokens of his love for his children.

Consider encouraging passages like Ecclesiastes 2:24: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God” (cf. 3:12–13; 5:18). These are the Preacher’s sermon applications. The book’s brutal honesty about what time does to everything aims at joy in God’s good gifts. Mourning helps us accept their limitations. Accepting their limitations helps us see them for what they are, not for what they aren’t.

2. Setting Our Hearts on True Joy

Second, the sorrow that Ecclesiastes calls wisdom helps us set our hearts on the only source of true, resilient joy. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

If Christ isn’t raised, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, faith in him is as vain and futile as everything else. May as well eat, drink and be merry (1 Cor. 15:32). Let’s everybody meet up at the house of feasting after all! But in fact Christ has been raised, the firstfruits who will bring many sons to glory, beyond the sun, where God himself will be our light (Rev. 21:23).

We skip some parties now not because feasting is wrong, but because not all feasts are equal.

The house of mourning, where we tell the truth about the fragility of all that we love in this world, helps to lift our eyes and our hopes beyond this world, to the only true comfort in life and in death.

And in this way, ironically, the house of mourning stands in solidarity with another house of feasting. We skip some parties now not because feasting is wrong, but because not all feasts are equal. We’re saving our appetites for the banquet Christ has prepared for us, our endless feast in the house of Zion (Isa. 25:6).

Matt McCullough (PhD, Vanderbilt University) is pastor of Trinity Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and the author of Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope (Crossway, 2018) and The Cross of War: Christian Nationalism and U.S. Expansion in the Spanish-American War.

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