I like weddings more than funerals. At a wedding there is excitement and joy and dancing. At a funeral, while there is sometimes laughter remembering stories about the deceased, and while there can be joy that the person is suffering no more and is at home with the Lord, let’s face it that funerals are filled with sadness. Weddings are filled, however, with the promise of the beginning of a new family unit, with all kinds of hopeful expectation for a future. Funerals mark the end, emphasizing that a person is gone and is not coming back.
The first two “better thans” are very similar. First, thinking about the Day of Death is better than thinking of the Day of Birth (Ecclesiastes 7:1-2) and second, sorrow is better than laughter (7:3-4). Pause reading this post and read those two passages in your Bible.
Did you hear that? Whew. Right out of the gate, the Teacher shares dark wisdom, and I have to admit I do not like it. Celebrating death is better than celebrating birth? I want to sit down with the Teacher and say, “Wait a minute. You’ve been talking about finding joy in the Lord, and now you’re telling us that funerals are better than child dedications?” This is the kind of stuff that gives Ecclesiastes the label of the most depressing book in the Bible. Who would rather go to a house where the family just suffered a tragedy than a house where the family is throwing a celebration?
But that is precisely where the Teacher locates wisdom. As much as I disagree emotionally with the Teacher, as much as I feel within me that I would much rather go to a party than to a wake, as much as this first section of the poem is a bitter pill, I have to admit that, like a bitter pill, the Teacher’s wisdom here has the purpose of healing us. We need to hear what he has to say, which is the wisdom that we humans would do well to face the reality that we will all die.
The Teacher isn’t saying that we need to like this truth, that we need to feel good about it, but he is saying that it will be really helpful to us if we take it to heart. In other words, the reality of our mortality should give us cause to think about how we are living our lives. We so rarely think about that, because we’re too busy, or we simply find it extremely uncomfortable to think about death. At funerals, though, we can’t get away from it. At funerals we are confronted with death. At funerals we can consider, “Am I wasting my life?”
As a preacher who has officiated funerals, I always wrestle with this reality. I know I have the audience’s attention for about thirty minutes. At a funeral people are thinking about death. Because of that I know they are feeling uncomfortable. Yet, people who would almost never want to have a serious conversation about death are open to it now. Try it out with your friends, “Hey, I just wanted to talk with you about the fact that we will all die.” How would that go over? Probably not too well. At funerals it is expected, and yet even at a funeral I know people can tune me out, because talk about death is expected. The people at funerals hopefully don’t go to a lot of funerals, but they still know the drill. At a funeral, the sermon will be about death. So I wrestle with how to talk about death in such a way that people will listen.
Because the Teacher is right. We need to talk about death. His larger purpose is that we will be able to live well if we are ready for death. From a Christian perspective, Jesus’ answer to this is his repeated teaching, “Be ready.” No one knows the day, time or hour of his return, or of their death, so be ready. Live life not in fear of death, but in a perpetual state of readiness. How? By making discipleship to Jesus our first priority. By following the way of Jesus, we will always be in a state of readiness. Ignore the topic of death, and it could be possible that we are spending our lives on lesser things, or it could be that we are not ready for death. Not ready physically, spiritually, or otherwise. That’s why Jesus was often talking about it, and so should we.
Of course the Teacher didn’t know anything about Jesus. The Teacher lived hundreds or maybe thousands of years before Jesus. But the wisdom in these “better thans” is right in line with what Jesus taught, that we should focus our lives on the way of discipleship, or the way of his Kingdom.