Monday, September 10, 2012

Ecclesiastes 7:1-4 : Funerals are better than Birthdays !


TEXT:       Ecclesiastes   7: 1-4
THEME:    Funerals are better than Birthdays!

DATE:       09/09/2012



General Observations concerning  Chapter  7 

At face value  Ch. 7 looks like a disconnected set of Proverbs.There does not  seem to be much  coherence in the passage.  Upon closer inspection we  see that there  is  a coherent theme Words are repeatedly used  wisdom and  foolishness. The way  of the wise and the foolish  is contrasted.
There is  another  theme  running through  the first 10 verses. Here  we find a series of contrasts  in which the phrase  better than ’ is  frequently  used:
(i)                 A good name is better than  precious ointment (v.1a)
(ii)               The day of death is better than  the day of birth (v.1b)
(iii)              A house of mourning is s better than a house of feasting  (v.2)
(iv)              Sorrow is better than  laughter  (v.3)
(v)                A wise man’s rebuke is better than a fool’s song (v.5)
(vi)              The end of a thing is better  than its beginning (v.8a)
(vii)            Patience is better than pride (v.8b)
(viii)           Former days are not necessarily better than these days  (v.10a)

What surely  strikes us  here  is   some  of the  unusual   logic  or perspectives contained in this chapter. Today, as we remember the Lord’s death  at the  communion table, we shall  only consider the first  4 verses, and use that to bring us to the table that has been prepared for us. 

Ecclesiastes 7:1-4 :
“A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning  than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.  Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”    

This statement by Solomon  proceeds from what  he had said earlier  in  6:12: “For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?” 

Solomon  frequently  speaks  about  the futility, the  fleetingness of  life. We remember that he does not say this because he is a pessimist ( a negative thinker). He says this because he is a realist. It is true that  our  life is like a shadow – it is here now,  and  then  very quickly gone! This observation is shared elsewhere in Scripture.   James  observes : “ What is your life ? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes “ (Jas. 4:14). Peter ( quoting Isa. 40:6-8) reminds  us of the same thing :  All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass….” (1 Peter 1:24-25).  Surely it is It is true to say   that  in the midst of this fleeting  life  there is so much trouble  and futility. In Chapter 4   Solomon  had observed “ the oppressions  that are done under the sun (4:1) … and came to the conclusion … “ I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living still alive.” (4:2). So it is in that  light   of life’s  fickle circumstances that he asks:   “For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow?”

What is good?  Is there any good? Yes there is, and now  he will tell us what is good (Hebr.  tov’ ) or what is better – or  more good” than). Remember,  that  his  overarching   concern is to  show us that  wisdom  is better than foolishness. So as  we begin to study this passage, keep that in mind, and be  prepared to  have your conventional logic challenged!  
I have already drawn your attention to the series  of contrasts  found in the first  10 verses  in terms of what is better. And now, in  verses  1-4 there are two things   mentioned which are good,  or better,  and which require wisdom  and mature reflection: 
         1.   A good name is better than precious ointment
      2.  The day of death (is better) than the day of birth

1.      A Good Name is better than  Eau de Cologne
Fine perfume  was  a real status  symbol in the ancient east, and very expensive  (see  Matt  26:6-13). This is  also true  today . To buy fine perfume is a  real indulgence and a status symbol. Many  spend fortunes  on designer  perfumes (or designer clothes) , but do not necessarily give the same  amount of attention  to the developing of a  good name, or  good character.  Unfortunately, in a fallen world it is  generally considered more important to ‘ look good’ than to be ‘be good’.  But when it comes to our dying day , what is it that will be remembered  and appreciated ?  The fact  that we  regularly used  Christian Dior  or Gucci  or is our good name  after all more significant?
At the beginning of our lives we receive a name, but at the end of our lives  we receive a good name  (or a bad one). In fact, one’s name has the potential  of being more valuable at death  than at birth. The good  in this case  comes therefore at death.

2.      A Death day is better than a Birthday
With that perspective in mind , we then take note of what follows  in  7:1b- 4: “…the  day of death (is better than )  the day of birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning  than to go to the house of  feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.  Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”
“…the day of death (is better) than the day of birth…”. How is this for perspective?  When we are born  into this world under the sun,  filled with so much vanity, and often with so much suffering, we are reminded  that    we enter  into a temporal  state of existence .  After we have lived for a little while, then comes death ( because of Gen.3; Rom 6:23), but here  is the Good News!  For the believer  in Christ, death is not the end. It  is the beginning of  real glory  for all eternity!   
Now you will begin to appreciate and  understand what the apostle Paul meant  when he  wrote  to  the  Philippians  in Ch. 1:22-23:  If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful  labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”  Let us be clear on this. Life in this fallen world  was not meaningless for Paul.  He had no death wish and even less  does he have thoughts of suicide. On the contrary, he  regards  his life  now as an opportunity   for   fruitful labour, but if he had to be pressed into choosing where he would rather be, then it  would be dead and then alive  with the Lord, in heaven, in eternity! You see, biblical logic and perspective had taken hold of  Paul, and when you meet Jesus  your whole perspective  changes from an earthly mindedness  to a heavenly mindedness.  The well- known  chorus says: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, and the things of this world will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace .”  When you have   become a Christian  and when  you have seen  and tasted what is before you, this life begins to hold very limited attractions for you, and death  holds no fear for you – in fact this is your crowning day!
David says the  same thing in Psalm 73:25:Whom have I in  heaven but you? And there  is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.” This is what Solomon  sees  and it is on the basis of this understanding that he continues to  say, “ It is better to go to the house of mourning  than to go to the house of  feasting” ;  and “sorrow is better than laughter” .

What  good is  it that we learn in the house of mourning that we do not learn anywhere else? What  good do we learn when we look into a coffin  and see the lifeless face of an acquaintance, friend or loved one? 

(i)        We learn   that this is as a result  of the fall  (Gen 3;  Rom 6:23)
(ii)     We are made aware that life is brief and  that eternity is long .
(iii)    We are led to ask the question :  what have I done with my life so far? Will mine be a good name after I die ?
(iv)    We ask ultimate  questions  about our future state. Where will I spend eternity? 
(v)    We have the opportunity to  repent  or recommit ourselves in the face of death and in the light of eternity.
(vi)       We  prepare  to die ourselves.  Every funeral anticipates  our  own.

“…for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” (v.2b).  I often  remind the mourners at  a funeral  that  the death of the loved one must not fail to have a good  effect upon themselves. In that sense no death must be seen as meaningless. Even when the worst   and most hardened sinner dies,  the living must take this to heart, and  learn  from this . If we do , then  a death day will be better than a birth day.
Frankly speaking, there   is more reality at an open  grave than at a birthday party! There is  more reality in the face of death than  at  a feast. Both happened on the  ship , Titanic -  life on board of the Titanic was a party until  an iceberg got in the way!  There's a true story  told in this regard.  A wealthy  woman found her place in a lifeboat that was about to be lowered into the icy  North Atlantic. She suddenly thought of something she needed, so she asked permission to return to her cabin  before they  lowered the boats. She was granted three minutes or they would leave without her. She ran  through the gambling room with all the money that had rolled to one side, ankle deep. She came to her  cabin  and quickly pushed aside her diamond rings and expensive bracelets and necklaces as she reached to the shelf above her bed and grabbed three small oranges and made her way back to the lifeboat.

Now that seems incredible because thirty minutes earlier she would not have chosen a crate of oranges over the smallest diamond in her possession . But, you see,  death had boarded the Titanic and had instantly transformed all values. Instantaneously, priceless things had become worthless. Worthless things had become priceless. And in that moment she preferred three small oranges to a crate of diamonds.[1]  Death gives you  that sort of wisdom . You  do remember that  wisdom and folly are the theme of this chapter ? What will be  really  important  to you when  you lie on your deathbed ?  As Solomon  surveys life  under the sun , he  all of a sudden  has lost an interest in the silly side of life ;  all of a sudden  earthly logic is eclipsed  by a greater  logic! Do you know what he is talking about? 
So , Solomon’s conclusion is this: The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”  What does this sort of logic  teach us?   It teaches o recognize that there’s not much wisdom out there. This biblical logic, this wisdom is not natural  to us. It is a gift of God.  And so the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God, the recognition that we need wisdom from Him.  That is what  Solomon  teaches us in this great chapter as he looks at wisdom and folly.

The Communion  table

And now we  remember  that   the death that  Jesus  died (senseless and brutal as it seemed  at the time) is God’s  amazing logic  and plan  for our redemption. The  common man cannot comprehend it .  But it is the wisdom of a holy God, who can only deal with our sin via   a sacrifice .  Let us draw near with  humble thankfulness . Amen



[1] Charles Swindoll : Living on the ragged edge  , p. 195

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