By Daniel H. King
In Ecclesiastes 7:2 the wise man deliberately shocks us with his statement that, “it is better to go into the house of mourning than into the house of feasting. ” Of course, none of us would choose the house of mourning, if it were ours to make the selection. But that is not usually the way it is. The house of mourning most often beckons us there for our visit. We go because of our respect for the deceased and the family. At times we are in attendance because the departed was a part of our own little household. It is especially sobering then, but, in truth, we always come away better people for our visit.
The reason this is so is because the funeral home and grave side are places of instruction, schools of higher learning. In a sense it could be said that they are the schools of “highest learning.” Most of us spend our days working at learning a living and accomplishing the necessary but trivial duties of life. We seldom pause to ask ourselves, “What am I doing this for?” or yet, “What am I really here to get done?” When the call comes from the house of mourning, we are arrested in mid-stride, as it were, and forced to gaze beyond the incidental things to consider, if only momentarily, that which is truly worthwhile about life and living.
Let me consider with you in these few lines some of the most precious lessons from the house of mourning.
The Value of Life
God’s word describes life as the creation of God himself.
To this date the combined efforts of scientists and researchers in the laboratories of earth have not been able to duplicate, even in the simplest of its forms, this great miracle of God. Yet we take it for granted every day. It surrounds us in its astounding variety and we seldom consider the true wonder of it!
There is a time when we take thought of it, though, and that is when we visit the house of the dying or of the dead. Then for that fleeting moment we ponder how amazingly fragile this gift from God truly is. I remember with fondness an incident in my own childhood that taught me this timeless lesson. My brothers and I had been given a little puppy that we had come to treat as one of our family. One day it fell asleep under the wheel of the car my parents had parked under a tall shade tree. When they pulled away our pup was crushed. I remember clearly (I was only about five at the time) my father wrapping him up in a sack and walking the three of us boys across the road to a field where he gently laid our little friend in the earth. I don’t remember his exact words, but I recall my dad saying something like this: “Boys, there will come a time for each of us, when we must go back to the dust also” That precious little life had been snuffed out like a candle’s wick. There was nothing we could do to bring it back. But what a lasting impression that simple scene and those words left upon us!
David lamented the death of his former master Saul and the loss of his friend Jonathan in 2 Samuel 1:17-27. In his lament he brought out the good that there was in the life of Saul. Even though he had not finished his life well, still there had been a time when he was the greatest warrior in Israel. He had started out to be a good king and a good man. It is this that David called to mind. Human life is exceedingly precious. David had counted Saul’s life as too valuable to take in an act of murder or even of revenge, while he had been presented several opportunities to take it. Life must not be treated as cheap (Gen. 9:56). One who maliciously takes the life of another should pay the ultimate price. A lessor penalty will cheapen this irreplaceable commodity. When God offered an appeasement for human transgression, he offered the most precious thing possible – the life of his Son (Jn. 3:16; 1 Jn. 3:16). We would be wise to value it just as highly as the God of heaven does.
The Brevity Of Life
During the forty years of wilderness wanderings, Moses watched an entire generation of his contemporaries vanish one by one. No doubt it was a humbling experience! His reflections upon their passing are found in Psalm 90. There he noted that while God is “from everlasting to everlasting” (v. 2), man is comparable to the ephemeral grass that “grows up in the morning” and “in the evening is cut down” (vv. 5-6). Our years are spent “as a tale that is told” (v. 9). Moses continued: “The days of our years are three score years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength but labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath. So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (vv. 10-12).
In the house of mourning we give thought to the brevity of our lives on earth, even as did Moses in the wilderness of Sinai. We recognize that we are like a “vapor that appeareth for a little time and then vanisheth away” (Jas. 4:14). Like Peter, we know that we all must soon “put off our earthly tabernacle” (2 Pet. 1:14).
It is our proximity to death in the house of mourning that brings this truth home to us. When we study the book of Job we see that this great patriarch, living as he did so many days at death’s doorstep, thought and spoke frequently of the awful reality of death. His descriptions of death are some of the most colorful images found in the Bible (Job 4:19; 7:6-10; 8:9; 9:25; 10:9; 13:12; 14:1).
The Certainty of Death
As the splendid military general Joshua stood before the children of Israel near the end of his valiant career, he admitted himself vulnerable to death’s certainity. “Behold, this day I am going the way of all the earth” (Josh. 23:14). While he had escaped the edge of the sword to live to a ripe old age, still he knew that there was no escaping the. eventual arrival of the Grim Reaper. All the medical miracles of our day can only postpone its coming. Life-sustaining machines only slow down its approach. Eventually it does arrive.
This being true, there is only one way to deal with it; treat it as did Joshua of old. He saw it as much a part of living as life itself. He also viewed it as an opportunity to die as he had lived, in faith and dedication to God. His departing words placed before his brethren the choice of serving God or turning to the gods of the nations. We especially admire his uncompromising stand. His words ring out clearly through the halls of time: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
The house of mourning should bring again to our minds the certainty of death. But it need not discourage or depress us. The Lord Jesus has broken the bonds of death and forever freed us from the fear of this dark reality (Heb. 2:14-16).
The Blessings of Human Sympathy
At the house of mourning families that are widely separated usually find the time to be back together for the occasion. Isn’t it sad that we often do not take the time otherwise? Scripture impresses us with the importance of weeping with those who weep (Rom. 12:15) and bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). At times when families lose loved ones we tend to take special care to give attention to their needs. It is at special moments like these that we recognize who our most valued friends are. As the Bible says, “A brother is born out of adversity” (Prov. 17:17). Our brothers and sisters in Christ are never more precious to us than at such times. I should think also that we would never more fully see the void left in our lives by their absence than at the house of mourning – if we have forsaken the Lord and his people.
The Urgency of Sacred Responsibility
The greatest fallacy of man is the sin of procrastination. It is the vice of putting off till tomorrow something that needs to be done today. Someone has said that “procrastination is the thief of time.” I know that this is so, for it has stolen many opportunities from me. But there are some things which must not be put off, for their consequences are eternal. For example, I know of many young people who have put off obeying the gospel of Jesus Christ until their hearts are hardened by the practice and the tender appeal of the Savior no longer haunts them. Now they cannot be reached by simple words of encouragement. Perhaps some catastrophic -event in their lives will move them on to action, and perhaps nothing will do it. In my book there is only one time to obey the gospel and that is now (Heb. 3:13; Jas. 4:13). Now is the time to do what we plan to do for God. We must be “always abounding in the work of the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). Tomorrow we may be lying cold and still in the house of mourning. All our good intentions will count for nothing if they are not put into action.
The Vanity of Earthly Things
So much of what we do here on earth is vain and empty. We will not even remember it ourselves. It certainly will not be written down in the history books for posterity. Solomon said that “All is vanity,” and asked, “What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?” (Eccl. 1:2-3) After he had completed the labor of a lifetime, of the architectural and engineering feats that were his pride, he said: “Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labor that I had labored to do: and behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun” (2:11).
If a man of such incomparable wisdom recognized earthly things to be vain, we ought to set our minds upon the eternal goals and aim for the heavenly sphere. “Seek those things which are above, where Christ is” (Col. 3:1). At the house of mourning we are brought back to the reality of the vanity of earthly things and the importance of spiritual verities.
The Value of Our Faith
Our religion is never more real or valuable to us than when we stare into the cold face of death. The house of mourning shows the real value of our faith. The Savior wept at the graveside of Lazarus and then charged the dead to come forth from the tomb (Jn. 11:14). He was Master of Death at the house of Jairus, calling the precious little daughter of the ruler of the synagogue from the bosom of darkness back into the light of life (Mk. 5:35ff). He brought the widow’s son again to the land of the living at the tiny village of Nain (Lk. 7:11-16). He was himself victorious on the third day when the disciples discovered the tomb empty (Lk. 24:3). And I am convinced that he will someday make us victors as well. The Christian man or woman would not trade that faith for all the world’s most precious things. Those things are not spendable currency in the house of mourning.
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 17, pp. 541-542
September 1, 1988