Wisdom Gained From Considering Your Death
Topic: Death Passage: Ecclesiastes 7:1–4
Well, today we are going to talk about an exciting subject. Death. Okay, this may not be an exciting subject, but it is a much needed one.
If there is anything that Christians should excel, it is in how we approach death. We should, above all people on the face of the earth, die well. I think that probably makes sense to us intuitively because we would claim to have the hope of eternal life. Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world has come into the world to give eternal life to all who believe in him and so death is not the final chapter of our lives - we live on in Christ. Amen! We should be ready to die well.
I once heard a pastor say that it was his goal to help his people prepare to die well. Initially I was taken back and didn’t agree, but the more I thought about it, it seemed wise and loving. And I too believe that is foundational to my ministry. Of course, I should say that facing death equips you to live well too.
But in order to die well, we need to think about death and not just death in general, but our own. And that’s where to rub comes, because we don’t like to talk about death, especially our death. Even how we have renamed funerals (a celebration of life??) testifies to this. The Jews in the OT knew how to throw a party when there was a wedding, and they also knew how to mourn when there was a death. Moses, Joshua, Samuel, etc.
it is evident that the world AND also Christians have an aversion to talking truly about the reality of death. And in one sense, there is a good reason for that. The bible does not describe death as a friend; it is an enemy. In fact, the last enemy. The last enemy that won’t be put away until the Lord Jesus Christ comes. 1 Corinthians 15:54-55 says that when Christ comes and we put on immortal bodies,
Then shall come to pass the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?
It is a formidable enemy. Some suggest that when Jesus was at the tomb of Lazarus and it says that he was “deeply troubled”, it more literally means that he was indignant, he was angry. Death is not natural. It’s wrong. It’s not the way things are supposed to be.
Though it is unnatural. Though it is an enemy, Solomon the preacher says we gain wisdom by pondering death and so that is what we are going to do this morning. But our passage seems paradoxical. Solomon says it is actually better to be in the house of mourning (funeral) than the house of feasting (festival, marriage celebration). Sorrow is better than laughter. That may seem absurd. But let’s follow Solomon and see how he leads us to the One who is greater than Solomon - the Lord Jesus Christ. Verse 2 says,
It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.
So verse 2 gives us two reasons for why it is good to ponder death - to linger in the house of mourning.
First: Death is the Destiny of Every Person, Including You
These bodies we are in will die. This is the end of all mankind. Have you ever taken a cold shower - on purpose? Or had a bucket of cold water poured over your head? There is the shock of it, but it’s also kind of invigorating and if you are a little sleepy, it will do a great job of waking you up. Sometimes it’s good to be smacked with the cold, hard truth. Death is the end of all mankind. This is not a pessimistic statement. This is a certain truth.
Only two men escaped physical death - Enoch and Elijah. And we should not expect that to happen again to another. So taking out those two anomalies, the death rate is a staggering 100%. It is one absolute certainty for all of us. And so unless the Lord Jesus Christ comes first, we will return to dust. We came from dust and as Ecclesiastes 3:20 says, “To dust we shall return”. Whether you acknowledge this or not is irrelevant. But facing this cold, hard truth is good and helpful. It doesn’t really matter if you are great or small, you are rich or poor, sinner or saint, black, white, brown, male, female, young, old, etc. It doesn’t matter, death comes to all. Listen to Ecclesiastes 9:2-3:
2 It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all.
Death is an equal opportunity visitor. If you live under the sun, death will come knocking on your door. And in the end, it will prevail over you. Technology won’t keep you from dying. Ray Kurzweil, a futurist and atheist, believes that by 2030 we will achieve immortality through technology, because we’ll be able to inject the body with nanobots to repair the body as it decays. This is a vain hope. It is good for us to reckon with our mortality. We live among a race of people (called the human race) who are dying. And after we die, we go to meet our Maker. It is good for us to consider this, because this is the end of all mankind. We will go the way of all flesh.
But there is another reason that goes right along with it.
Reason Two: The living will take to heart the reality of death
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.
The living will lay it to heart. To lay to heart means to keep on our hearts, to remember, meditate on, think about, give it some of your attention. Lay it to heart. Of course the heart is the command and control center of our lives. What is on your heart will have a massive impact on you. We all know what it’s like to have something on our hearts - a fear, a joy, a love. When something is really “on the heart” it has a kind of controlling influence for good or bad. Let this be on your heart. Don’t rush out of the house of mourning. And don’t quickly push these thoughts out of your mind. Linger over them. Martyn Lloyd Jones, a British preacher in the 20th century said the following near the end of his life:
We don't give enough time to death and to going on - it is a very strange thing. Death is the one certainty and yet we don't think about it. We are too busy. We just allow life and circumstances to so occupy us but we don't stop and think. People say about sudden death that it is a wonderful way to go but I have come to the conclusion that that is quite wrong. I think the way we go out of this world is very important. The hope of sudden death is based upon the fear of death. It is the hope of wanting to slip through death RATHER THAN TO FACE IT. Death should be faced VICTORIOUSLY.”
Of course, Christians have the hope that death is not final for us and that to be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord. And the one who believes in Jesus Christ will in an ultimate sense never die. And so we can face death victoriously and should. But we need to face it first. We should not see the comfort given in the gospel as an escape from the reality of death, but rather as a way to courageously face death.
This phrase stands out to me: “the living will lay this to heart’. Who is this talking about? Who are the living? Well the most basic answer we would say is that it is those who have not yet died. Those who are still alive in the body will take to heart… and that is certainly the hope. But we know that’s not always the case. We all know people who have not taken seriously or laid this truth to heart. I have a friend who seemed very much to take these things to heart when he attended a funeral and heard me talk about these things. But before long, he went back to life as usual… and usually changes the subject when I talk to him about death and where he stands before God.
Certainly “the living” would refer to those who have been spiritually awakened. So what specifically should we lay to heart? Well, in addition to the fact that we will die, here’s a couple more things. First, the brevity of life. Whether you live to be 102 or 65 or 40 or 28, life is short. What is a hundred years in light of eternity? Well, James tells us:
What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. - Jas. 4:14)
That’s what you should lay to heart. I’m telling you. Teenagers! It does seem like I was your age only two weeks ago. I’m serious! We should lay to heart just how quickly our lives go by how the end will be here before we know it. Then we should lay to heart not just the fact that we will die, but also what follows. There is a sign on the interstate on the way out west (probably based on Amos 4:12) that says “Prepare to meet your God”. Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed for man to die once, and then comes the judgment.” Listen, when we take to heart our mortality, the brevity of life and the fact that we meet God when we die, it can prepare us for that day so that we die well.
Then of course we should lay to heart that our only hope in life and death is that we are not our own but belong body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior Jesus Christ. That, brothers and sisters is how we face death victoriously.
Well, when we face death squarely and lay it to heart, there are two outcomes. Two outcomes. Joy and Wisdom. When you take to heart the reality of death, it can produce an enduring joy and a wise walk.
Joy. Let’s talk about enduring joy first. Verse 3 says,
Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.
This seems so counter-intuitive, but it’s actually not novel to Ecclesiastes. Psalm 126:5-6 says, “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”
When you consider the fleeing nature of life - how short it is and then death comes. And when you die, you will meet God. All of this can produce a deep and lasting joy - gladness of heart. Here’s how I think it works. When we consider the end of our lives and the things we enjoy in life under that sun coming to an end, it can concentrate our attention on enduring joys that will never come to an end and can never be taken from us. Actually I think this enables us to enjoy the good gifts God gives us under the sun even more. So let’s consider two enduring joys. And the first is not a thing, but a Person - namely Jesus Christ.
1) Jesus Christ. Think about this: death is your enemy, no doubt. But even more it is the enemy of Jesus Christ. He cares about your death more than you do. So much so that he died the death you deserved, bearing the wrath of God in your place as a substitute. And he tasted death in order to destroy the one who has the power of death - the devil - and free you from the fear of death. Do you fear death? May I suggest you are not rejoicing in your devil-destroying, fear-abolishing Savior?
And it is not just what he has done in the past to deal with death so we don’t have to fear it. He is with us in the present. Ever-present with us. David prophetically spoke of our Lord as the Good Shepherd in Psalm 23, who will not leave us to walk through the valley of the shadow of death alone - NO! He will go with us, walk beside us, carry us through.
When death threatens us, it will not destroy us. It certainly will not separate us from God and his love. No! The all-conquering love of Jesus Christ will keep us, and even cause us to overwhelming conquer in and through death. That is amazing! Death, the enemy, will bow the knee to Jesus as he uses this enemy to serve our ultimate good. And in the end, our Lord will put death, your enemy - even more His enemy, under his feet as a defeated foe forever and raise you again bodily. Rejoice in the Lord always - again I say rejoice!
2) Eternal life. Death is so daunting and such a destroyer. Which makes the gift of eternal life inexpressibly precious. I think prior generations of Christians probably cherished eternal life more. Think of 2000 years ago. Even 100 years ago. Death was closer (1900 life expectancy versus today). Medical advances and technology have made life so much easier and more comfortable. We ought to be grateful for all of these things. But we do need to work harder to feed our joy on the riches of eternal life. Peter describes this life as an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Peter 1:4). Beloved, nothing under the sun can be described that way. All of creation groans, including us (Romans 8). But eternal life is “imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for us…” This is yet to come, eternal life in Christ. We get a foretaste now, which is real, but not the whole thing. We should spend much more time thinking about and stirring up our joy in eternal life.
So laying to heart our own dying can produce a deeper joy. And it can also produce wisdom. That’s where this entire book is driving. Wise living.
Wisdom. Verse 4 says,
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
Wisdom is truth applied to life. Wisdom is for living. Paul said, “Pay careful attention, then, how you walk, not as unwise, but as wise, making the best use of the time…” (Ephesians 5:15-16) The wisdom we gain in the house of mourning should drive us to do things that matter. Our motto should be 1 Peter 4:2:
[To] live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.
Life is short. Let’s do what matters. JC Ryle once urged people to be men and women of one thing and that one thing was a “burning desire to please God, to do His will, and to advance His glory in the world in every possible way.” CT Studd poem - each verse ended with the refrain: “One life to live, twill…”
Wise living is serious living. Our lives should be about more than just floating around from one fun thing to the next. I am not against fun. If you were a fly on the wall in my house, you would see us having a lot of fun. We turn the music up and dance and sing and laugh. But we are being trained to think that the highest good is to be entertained all the time. Taking to heart your death gives a sense of gravity to life, it sobers you up, it makes you more serious which is good. Matthew Henry tells the story of a man who was a British statesman who retired from public life later in life and got serious about Christ. His former companions came to visit him and told him he was becoming depressed. He replied thus:
"No, I am serious; for all are serious round about me. God is serious in observing us — Christ is serious in interceding for us — the Spirit is serious in striving with us — the truths of God are serious — our spiritual enemies are serious in their endeavors to ruin us — poor lost sinners are serious in Hell! Why then should not you and I be serious too?"
This is wisdom that can be gained by the grace of God from lingering in the house of mourning. You and I are going to die. We should lay this to heart - life is short, then we meet God. Our only hope in life and death is Christ. So, seek your highest joy in the things that last, and subordinately in the good gifts God gives under the sun. Live wisely - do what matters, because the days are short. And if you do this, you will live well and when the time comes, die well too. Let’s pray.