It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men…
Although in the Book of Ecclesiastes there is much that seems to be contradictory of our ordinary judgments of life, much that is at first apparently calculated to prevent our taking an interest in its business and pleasures - which are all asserted to be vanity and vexation of spirit - there are yet to be found in it sober and well-grounded exhortations, which we can only neglect at our peril. Out of his large experience the writer brings some lessons of great value. It is sometimes the case, indeed, that he speaks in such a way that we feel it is reasonable in us to discount his judgment pretty heavily. When he speaks as a sated voluptuary, as one who had tried every kind of sensuous pleasure, who had gratified to the utmost every desire, who had enjoyed all the luxuries which his great wealth could procure, and found all his efforts to secure happiness vain - I say, when he speaks in this way, and asks us to believe that none of these things are worth the pains, we are not inclined to believe him implicitly. We are inclined rather to resent being lectured in such a way by such a man. The satiety, the weariness, the ennui, which result from over-indulgence, do not qualify a man for setting up as a moral and spiritual guide; they rather disqualify him for exercising such an office. In answer to the austere and sweeping condemnation which he is inclined to pass upon the sources from which we think may be drawn a reasonable amount of pleasure, we may say, "Oh yes! it is all very well for you to speak in that way. You have worn out your strength and blunted your taste by over-indulgence; and it comes with a bad grace from you to recommend an abstentious and severe mood of life which you have never tried yourself. The exhortations which befit the lips of a John the Baptist, nurtured from early life in the desert, lose their power when spoken by a jaded epicure." The answer would be perfectly just. And if Solomon's reflections were all of the type described, we should he justified in placing less value upon them than he did. It is true that more than once he speaks with a bitterness and disgust of all the occupations and pleasures of life, which we cannot, with our experience, fairly endorse. But, as a rule, his moralizing is not of the ascetic type. He recommends, on the whole, a cheerful and grateful enjoyment of all the innocent pleasures of life, with a constant remembrance that the judgment draws ever nearer and nearer. While he has no hesitation in declaring that no earthly employments or pleasures can completely satisfy the soul and give it a resting-place, he does not, like the ancient hermits, approve of dressing in sackcloth, of feeding on bread and water only, and of retiring altogether from the society of our fellows. His teaching, indeed, contains a great deal more of true Christianity than has often been found in the writings and sermons of professedly Christian moralists and preachers. All the more weight, therefore, is to be attached to his words from this very fact, that he does not pose as an ascetic. We could not listen to him if he did; and accordingly we must be all the more careful not to lessen the value and weight of the words he speaks to which we should attend, by depreciating him as an authority. It is only of some of his judgments that we can say they are such as a healthy mind could scarcely endorse. This, in the passage before us, is certainly not one of them. It certainly runs counter to our ordinary sentiments and practices, like many of the sayings of Christ, but is not on that account to be hastily rejected; we are not justified either in seeking to diminish its weight or explain it away. It is not, indeed, a matter of surprise that the thoughts and feelings of beings under the influence of sinful habits, which enslave both mind and heart, should require to undergo a change before their teaching coincides with the mind of the Holy Spirit. In this section of the book we have teaching very much in the spirit of the New Testament. Compare with the second verse the sentences spoken by Christ: "Woe unto you that are full] for ye shall hunger; woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep" (Luke 6:25). And notice that the visits paid to the afflicted to console them, from which the Preacher declares he had gained moral and spiritual benefits, are recommended to us by the apostle as Christian duties (James 1:27). From even the saddest experiences, therefore, a thoughtful mind will derive some gain; some compensations there are to the deepest miseries. The house of mourning is that in which there is sorrow on account of death. According to Jewish customs, the expression of grief for the dead was very much more demonstrative and elaborate than with us. The time of mourning was for seven days (Ecclus. 22:10), sometimes in special cases for thirty days (Numbers 9:29; Deuteronomy 24:8). The presence of sympathizing friends (John 11:19), of hired mourners and minstrels (Matthew 9:23; Mark 5:38), the solemn meals of the bread and wine of affliction (Jeremiah 16:7; Hosea 9:4), made the scene very impressive. Over against the picture he suggests of lamentation and woe, he sets that of a house of feasting, filled with joyous guests, and he asserts that it is better to go to the former than to the latter. He contradicts the more natural and obvious inclination which we all have to joy rather than to sorrow. But a moment's consideration will convince us that he is in the right, whether we choose the better part or not. Joy at the best is harmless - it relieves an overstrain on the mind or spirit; but when it has passed away it leaves no positive gain behind. Sorrow rightly borne is able to draw the thoughts upward, to purify and transform the soul. Its office is like that attributed to tragedy by Aristotle: "to cleanse the mind from evil passions by pity and terror - pity at the sight of another's misfortune, and terror at the resemblance between the sufferer and ourselves" ('Poetics'). Contradictory of ordinary feelings and opinions though this teaching of Solomon's is, there are three ways in which a visit to the house of mourning is better than to the house of feasting.
I. IT AFFORDS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR SHOWING SYMPATHY WITH THE AFFLICTED. Among our best-spent hours are those in which we have sought to lighten and share the burden of the bereaved and distressed. We may not have been able to open sources of consolation which otherwise would have remained hidden and sealed; but the mere expression of our commiseration may be helpful and soothing. Sometimes we may be able to suggest consolatory thoughts, to impart serviceable advice, or to give needful relief. But in all cases we feel that we have received more than we have given - that in seeking to comfort the sorrowful we come into closer communion with that Savior who came from heaven to earth to bear the burden of sin and suffering, who was a welcome Guest on occasions of innocent festivity (John 2:2; Luke 7:36), but whose presence was still more eagerly desired in the homes of the afflicted (John 11:3; Mark 5:23).
II. IT ENABLES US TO FORM TRUER ESTIMATES OF LIFE. It gives us a more trustworthy standard of judging the relative importance of those things that engage our attention and employ our faculties. It checks unworthy ambitions, flattering hopes, and sinful desires. We learn to realize that only some of the aims we have cherished have been worthy of us, only some of the pursuits in which we have been engaged are calculated to yield us lasting satisfaction when we come in the light of eternity to review the past of our lives. The sight of blighted hopes admonishes us not to run undue risk of disappointment by neglecting to take into account the transitory and changeful conditions in which we live. The spectacle of great sorrows patiently borne rebukes the fretfulness and impatience which we often manifest under the minor discomforts and troubles which we may be called to endure.
III. IT REMINDS US OF THE POSSIBLE NEARNESS OF OUR OWN END. (Ver. 2.) "It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart." Though the brevity of life is a fact with which we are all acquainted from the very first moment when we are able to see and know what is going on about us, it is a fact which it is very difficult for us to realize in our own case. "We think all are mortal but ourselves." No feelings of astonishment are excited in us by the sight of the aged and weakly sinking down into the grave, but we can scarcely believe that we are to follow them. The very aged still lay their plans as though death were far off; the dying can hardly be convinced till perhaps the very last moment that their great change is at hand. But a visit to the house of mourning gives us hard, palpable evidence, which must, though but for an instant, convince us that mortality is a universal law; that in a short time our end will come. The effect of such a thought need not be depressing; it need not poison all our enjoyments and paralyze all our efforts. It should lead us to resolve
(1) to make good use of every moment, since life is so brief; and
(2) to live as they should do who know that they have to give account of themselves to God. A practical benefit is thus to be drawn from even the saddest experiences, for by them "the heart is made better" (ver. 3). The foolish will seek out something which he calls enjoyment, in order to deliver his mind from gloomy thoughts; but the short-lived distraction of attention which he secures is not to be compared with the calm wisdom which piety can extract even from sorrow (ver. 4). Painful though some of the lessons taught us may be, they wound but to impart a permanent cure; while the mirth which drowns reflection soon passes away, and is succeeded by a deeper gloom (vers. 5, 6). One circumstance renders the teaching of this passage all the more impressible, and that is the absence from it of the ascetic spirit. This perhaps is, you will think, a paradoxical statement, when the whole tone of the utterance is of a somber, not to say gloomy, character. But you will notice that the author does not lay a ban upon all pleasure; he does not denounce all innocent enjoyments as wicked. He does not say it is sinful to go to the house of feasting, to indulge in laughter, to sing secular songs. There have been and are those who make these sweeping statements. But he says that a wise, serious-minded man will not find these things satisfying all his desires; that he will, on the contrary, often find it greatly for his advantage to familiarize himself with very different scenes and employments. In other words, there are two sides to life - the temporal and the eternal. The soul, like the head of Janus, looks both on the present, with all its varied and transitory events, and on the future, in which there are so many new and solemn experiences in store for us. The epicurean, the worldling, looks to the present alone; the ascetic looks to the future alone. The wise have true appreciation of them both; know what conduct duty prescribes as appropriate in regard to them both, The examples of Christ and his apostles show us that we may partake both in the business and innocent pleasures of life without being untrue to our higher calling. He, though "holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners," wrought with his own hands, and thus sanctified all honest labor; he graced a marriage-feast with his presence, and supplied by a miracle the means of convivial cheerfulness. The sights and sounds of city and country life, the mirth of happy homes, the splendor of palaces, the pageantry of courts, the sports of children, were not frowned upon by him as in themselves unworthy of attracting the attention of immortal natures; they were employed by him to illustrate eternal truths. And all through the writings and exhortations of his apostles the same spirit is manifest; the same counsel is virtually given to use the present world without abusing it - to receive with thankfulness every good creature of God. And at the same time, no one can deny that great stress is laid. by them also upon the things that are spiritual and eternal; greater even than on the others. For we are in greater risk of forgetting the eternal than of neglecting the temporal. Far too often is it true in the poet's words -
"The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." Therefore it is all the more necessary for startling admonitions like these of Solomon's to be given, which recall us with a jerk to attend to things that concern our higher welfare. The fact that there are dangers against which we must guard, dangers springing not merely from our own sinful perversity, but from the conditions of our lives, the danger especially of being too much taken up with the present, is calculated to arouse us to serious thought and effort. Very much easier would it have been for us if a code of rules for external conduct had been given us, so that at any time we might have made sure about being on the right way; but very much poorer and more barren would the life thus developed have been. We are called, as in this passage before us, to weigh matters carefully; to make our choice of worthy employments; to decide for ourselves when to enjoy that which is earthly and temporal, and when to sacrifice it for the sake of that which is spiritual and eternal. And we may be sure that that goodness which springs from an habitually wise choice is infinitely preferable to the narrow, rigid formalism which results from conformity with a Puritanic rule. It is not a sour, killjoy spirit that should drive us to prefer the house of mourning to the house of feasting; but the sober, intelligent conviction that at times we may find there help to order our lives aright, and have an opportunity of lightening by our sympathy the heavy burden of sorrow which God may see fit to lay upon our brethren. - J.W.
Parallel VersesKJV: It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart.