“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.” Ecclesiastes 7:2
As I am sure is true for many, the book of Ecclesiastes has frequently left me confused. When I was in high school, a recent convert once commented to me, in all sincerity, “I love the book of Ecclesiastes; it’s just so depressing.” Unsure of the message of the book myself, I was left speechless, although I doubted the author intended that sentiment to be our conclusion.
Then a couple years ago, amidst perhaps the most trying season of my life, I read a book called Living Life Backwards, by David Gibson. The book explores the argument of Ecclesiastes, carefully guiding readers through the preacher’s (i.e., the author of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon's) message. Apart from the Bible, I don’t think any book has ministered more to my soul. Gibson’s ability to concisely and pastorally explain Ecclesiastes is astonishing. His efforts caused me to fall in love with the words of the preacher, some of whose main points I have described in the following article.
While there is much to consider from Ecclesiastes, I want to focus on one facet of Solomon's words which left a lasting impression on my life. It is found in Ecclesiastes 7:2.
The verse perfectly summarizes one of the preacher’s main arguments threaded all throughout his writing—accept death. Contrary to our natural bent, he instructs us that it is better to linger at a funeral home than a buffet. Why? Because death awaits all men.
From the opening chapter, Solomon constructs his case to remind us just how fragile and transient we truly are on this earth. He candidly observes that our lives will be forgotten by the next generation (Ecc. 1:11). Death’s reach, he notes, takes hold of both the wise and the foolish (Ecc. 2:14). Like the beasts and creeping things of the earth, our bodies are feeble; we all will return to dust (Ecc. 3:19-20).
Accept death. Those aren’t two words we tell ourselves often. In fact, our society conditions us to do the opposite. To believe that death is an illusion. A mirage. A far-off event that must never damper our desire to live however we choose. Shun death, preaches our culture. Sweep it away. But for the preacher, that kind of thinking is the epitome of foolishness. He sets out to shatter the inclination within each one of us to live as though death isn’t real.
Acknowledge the Curse
The foundation for his appeal to accept death begins in the second verse of Ecclesiastes. Five times he remarks how this life is hevel (vanity). By using this Hebrew term, he declares that life is a breath or vapor. It’s like the grass and flowers of the field which flourish one day and then suddenly are gone (Ps. 103:15-16). Or the condensation which comes from your mouth on a frigid morning. Or the smoke which trickles from the candlestick then disappears almost instantaneously. This is the nature of hevel.
In one sense, the preacher isn’t saying anything new. He is just repackaging timeless truths in a blunt, yet incredibly helpful, manner. His wisdom can be traced back to the opening pages of the Old Testament.
Why does the preacher want us to accept death? Because he is a realist. He recognizes the presence of the curse,
and he wants us to do the same.
The possibility of the curse is stated in Genesis 2:17, where God tells Adam that if he eats of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he will die. That curse is then enacted in Genesis 3 after Adam and Eve sin and is reiterated by God telling Adam he will return to dust (Gen. 3:19). And just a few verses later, we see that this curse is permanent; no pathway exists back to the tree of life (Gen. 3:22-24). Our lives will be constrained to a maximum of 120 years on this earth (Gen. 6:1-3).
Adam and Eve realized the effects of the curse. They accepted death. Their second son was named Hevel (Abel), an acknowledgment by them that life is now a breath. And tragically, death would meet that son first. The frailty of life outside of Eden was evidenced through the senseless act of Cain. One day Abel went out to the field with his brother and never returned. His name foreshadowed his unexpected death and serves as a foretaste for the end of all mankind.
Live Life Backwards
Because of the curse, our lives are hevel. In imploring us to accept death and recognize the curse, the preacher is not being morbid or insensitive. Death is unnatural, a reality which was nonexistent in God’s original good creation. Likewise, death is painful, a source of grief and heartache. But make no mistake, outside of the garden, death is the fate of all mankind. There is one guaranteed event that will take place in your life—you will perish.
The beauty of Ecclesiastes, however, is that it is not a book about death, but life. King Solomon’s goal is to instruct us how to live. To give us an honest outlook on life so that we may live in a way which honors and pleases God. This is precisely why the preacher repeatedly directs our attention to death.
Live life backwards; that is the key. Most of us think about life from beginning to end, but the preacher tells us to start at the end.
Build your life around what is certain, not what is temporary and unpredictable.
Everything in life (every thought, word, decision, and action) ought to be filtered through the understanding that we will one day stand before a holy God and give an account. In the end, what is most important is that we “fear God and keep His commandments” (Ecc. 12:13).
So, come to the house of mourning. Dwell in it. Ponder its meaning. Embrace its existence. The last phrase of Ecclesiastes 7:2 is the key to this verse, and in many ways unlocks the message of the book altogether—the living will lay it to heart. Allow the house of mourning to become your instructor for how to truly live. Take its teaching to heart.
And as you exit the house of mourning, accepting death and now striving to live life backwards, set your gaze upon King Jesus. Bask in the glories of His resurrection and salvation which He has purchased. Long for our promised resurrection and the fulfillment of the new heavens and earth. Enjoy this life while simultaneously centering it around the permanent realities still to come.