Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"GOD’S PROSPEROUS PEOPLE ARE TOLD THAT A FUNERAL IS MORE WHOLESOME THAN A FEAST."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
Unlike so many other western countries, Australia does not have an official Thanksgiving Day. Yet it is proper to make a special point of thanking the Lord for all the blessings He showers upon us in this country – blessings of freedom, of prosperity, of highly developed medical assistance, etc. Traditionally, the Free Reformed Churches of Australia have set aside the third Sunday of February as Thanksgiving Day.
Thanksgiving Day. Indeed, we have so many reasons for deep gratitude. While around the world so many millions upon millions in so many countries groan under the heavy hand of a totalitarian government, we enjoy freedoms to think, speak, travel, go to church, maintain Biblically centered schools, and so much more. The material prosperity we receive in our land is the envy of billions; we have money and conveniences and comforts like few others have today or ever had in the history of the world. We can speak of church life, of the work of the office-bearers, the Catechism instruction, Bible study clubs, and here again we have received so very, very much. And set all of that, congregation, in the light of what we deserve (for we are no better than anybody else; on the contrary), and we begin to realize that one posture alone is fitting – and that is gratitude, deep gratitude. O praise the Lord, for He is good! That today our home life and our conversations together, our contributions in the collection bag and our prayers should display gratitude is so very, very fitting!
There lived in Israel so long ago a people who had every bit as much reason for a heart-felt Thanksgiving Day as we have today. In the days of King Solomon, "Judah and Israel dwelt safely, each man under his vine and his fig tree" (1 Kings 4:25). Through King Solomon, the Holy Spirit impressed upon this prosperous people the words of our text: "Better to go to the house of mourning Than to go to the house of feasting." Indeed, the Holy Spirit has put this instruction into the Bible He gives us. As we reflect today on the abundance the Lord has given us, we may do well to listen in to the instruction of the Spirit to prosperous Israel through Solomon.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
GOD’S PROSPEROUS PEOPLE ARE TOLD THAT A FUNERAL IS MORE WHOLESOME THAN A FEAST.
1. The setting of this wisdom.
Solomon uses in our text the phrase "the house of mourning". That is: this particular house was characterized by mourning. The reason for the mourning, of course, was that somebody in that family had died. When someone died in Israel, the custom was for the family members, friends and neighbors to mourn. People expressed their grief very openly, with wailing and lamentation, by tearing their clothes (and so wearing them torn), and putting sackcloth around their waists. Mourners usually took off their shoes, and men often covered their heads. Sometimes they threw dirt over their heads, rolled in the dust or sat among ashes. For the duration of the mourning period, they gave up the fine things of life, including perfumes and washing; they fasted. Burial generally happened on the day of death, but the period of mourning generally lasted a full week.
We realize: a ‘house of mourning’ was not the place to go to get a buzz. It was a dark place, a gloomy place, a place where the down side of life was very much in-your-face. Specifically: here one stared death in the face, here one was confronted with an empty place in your life…. Grief, gloom….
Solomon speaks also of "the house of feasting." This particular house was characterized by feasting, partying, a banquet. One may think of a wedding celebration, a birthday party, an anniversary. Indeed, Israel had plenty of feasts; the Lord God Himself legislated at least three national celebrations each year where the people had to come together (Dt 16:1-17). Specifically on the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles, the people had to "rejoice", had to enjoy the blessings of the threshing floor (bread and cakes) and the blessings of the winepress (Dt 16:13). You see: the Lord did not frown on celebrations and parties, and Israel had plenty of them.
Yet the Holy Spirit moved Solomon to compare the "house of feasting" with the "house of mourning", and declare that "the house of mourning" is a better place to visit than "the house of feasting". In a word: a funeral is more wholesome than a banquet. We wonder: why? To answer that question properly, brothers and sisters, we very much need to keep in mind the context in which these words were spoken.
That context: I need not repeat everything I said on the point last week. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes, I explained, is none other than Solomon – "the son of David, king in Jerusalem" (1:1,12,16). The people of Israel in Solomon’s day enjoyed comforts and peace and prosperity second only to the peace and prosperity of our modern western culture. Because of Israel’ political power over the surrounding nations, Solomon made gold and silver as common in Jerusalem as stones (2 Chron 1:15). The people shared in his riches so much that each could enjoy the good life in the shade of their own fig tree, with a wine glass or stubbie in hand. In the words of 1 Kings 4: "Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand by the sea in multitude, eating and drinking and rejoicing" (vs 20). Theirs was the good life; theirs was a life characterized by "the house of feasting".
In that culture, in that prosperity, Solomon gathered an audience together in order to instruct. Solomon, whose wisdom excelled the wisdom of all before or after him (1 Kings 3:12), saw need to put the feasting of his day in proper perspective. "Better," he insisted to a prosperous and partying people, "better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting."
How incredible that instruction! After all, if anybody in Israel had lived a life of partying and celebration, it was Solomon! I remind you again of the passage we read last week from 1 Kings 4. "Solomon’s provisions for one day was thirty kors of fine flour, sixty kors of meal, ten fatted oxen, 20 oxen from the pastures, and 100 sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fatted fowl" (vs 22f). Thirty kors of fine flour – that’s some 660 litres of flour a day; and sixty kors of meal computes to over 1300 litres! On top of that: 30 oxen per day and 100 sheep for his household – talk about a banquet! And make no mistake: that kind of food did not go down dry; there was plenty to drink.
In fact, in Ecclesiastes 2 Solomon gives more detail of the kind of life he led. He says in vs 4 that he built himself houses, palaces known as the "House of the Forest of Lebanon" (which was some 2250 square meters in size) and "the Hall of Pillars" (475 square meters) and "the Hall of Judgment", as well as a house for his wife, Pharaoh’s daughter (cf 1 K 7:1ff). Around these houses he built orchards and gardens and vineyards for his evening walks and his relaxation, complete with water pools and reticulation systems. He acquired numerous male and female servants to do his work for him, people who would make his bed and cook his tea, people who would organize his wardrobe and plan his itinerary. He was at the top of the ladder, and his every wish was a servant’s command. He brought music into his houses, singers and dancers and musicians; live bands whenever he desired some entertainment. He characterizes his own life with these words: "whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure" (2:10). He felt like a boat cruise? He took a boat cruise. He felt like a party? He threw a party. He wanted another woman? He took another woman. Truly, if anybody lived the high life it was Solomon; his description in Ecclesiastes 2 puts him beyond the likes of Dalkeith society today….
This is the man, congregation, who with all his prosperity tells the prospering Israelites around him that the house of mourning beats the house of feasting any day. Truly, how astounding! Again the question presses itself upon us: why does Solomon say this? It doesn’t sound so wise to us…
That brings us to our second point:
2. The meaning of this wisdom.
Why is the house of mourning better than the house of feasting? There are two aspects to the answer.
In the first place, Solomon has already made plain in chap 2 that the house of feasting is senseless. Solomon sought to find out what the purpose of all things might be, what it took to find again the pleasures and peace of Paradise. He’d investigated in chap 1 whether man through wisdom or even through intellect and discoveries could regain Paradise, and his conclusion was dismal: "vanity of vanities", all is a breath in the wind – futile. So in chap 2 Solomon had turned to pleasure, to laughter, to fulfilling your heart’s desires, and investigated whether that might be the recipe to regain Paradise. He examined his own life, investigated whether his own prosperity and riches could make him truly happy. Day in, day out he feasted and he holidayed and he partied, lived the high life, did whatever his heart desired. And his conclusion?? Vs 11: "indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind."
At the end of day, he says, does partying and laughter and pleasure really amount to anything? Does the high life really restore the peace of Paradise, settle the heart with true contentment, take all the rough edges out of life, remove life’s brokenness? No, he says, it doesn’t! All is vanity and grasping for the wind…. Including the house of feasting…. Even prosperity is vanity….
There’s a second aspect to the answer. Solomon expresses it in the second part of our text. Concerning that "house of mourning", Solomon says that it "is the end of all men." His point: every person ends up in the house of mourning. Each gets his turn in that house, not only amongst the mourners, but also as the object of mourning! That is: each person dies.
Solomon –and every Israelite with him- saw that bitter reality all around them. More, Solomon –and every Israelite with him- learned that bitter reality from their Bibles. They knew what God had said before the fall into sin, how that every transgressor of God’s law would die (Gen 2:18). They knew what God had said to Adam and Eve when He sent them out of the Garden: they would eat their bread in the sweat of their faces, life would be characterized by toil and tears, "till you return to the ground, for out it you were taken" (Gen 3:19). They knew of that terrible refrain of Gen 5, how it was that each generation lived a certain number of years, "and he died" – a refrain repeated no less than eight times in that one chapter: "and he died." It is the lot of all people, and Solomon and every Israelite saw it repeatedly: all shall die. One can resist the house of mourning, one can ignore the house of mourning, one can live in denial of the house of mourning, but the hard fact is unchangeable: death comes to all.
Solomon, and every Israelite with him, knew also that death was not natural. The house of mourning did not exist in Paradise. The house of mourning was the bitter fruit of the fall into sin. More: the house of mourning was God’s judgment on sin. With death, then, one’s face was rubbed into the hard reality of sin, was rubbed into the hard reality of the seriousness of sin, was rubbed into the hard reality of God’s hatred of sin, of God’s holiness. The house of mourning: there one came face to face with God! Death: this was His judgment on sin; death underlined His holiness!
Is that, we wonder, not a negative thing, something that ought not to be mentioned much? No, beloved, it’s not. That’s instead reality. One can pretend there is no God, one can pretend death has got nothing to do with God, one can pretend that death is simply something characterizing all life, but that’s an ostrich policy. Death comes from sin, death is God’s judgment on sin, through death one comes face to face with holy God! And here the saying holds true: being forewarned is being forearmed. Death comes to all, all must meet God, and therefore all must prepare themselves to meet God. It’s Solomon’s point at the end of our text: "the living will take it to heart." Or, in the words of vs 4: "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning." That is: the living, at least the wise amongst the living, will see to it that they learn the lesson of the funeral parlor, and be ready to meet God.
We come to our last point:
3. The application of this wisdom.
Can you imagine, brothers and sisters, the effect of this instruction upon the prosperous and feasting Israelites of Solomon’s day? We know it from experience ourselves: prosperity and the carefree-ness that comes with prosperity directs people’s attention to this life. That’s the reason why the Lord God warned Israel before they entered the Promised Land with these words: "Beware …, when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them; and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold are multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied; [that] your heart is [not] lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage" (Dt 8:11ff). Solomon was so very aware of the danger of prosperity. That’s why he prayed in Proverbs 30 like this: "Give me neither poverty nor riches – Lest I be full and deny You, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or lest I be poor and steal, and profane the name of my God" (30:8f). Truly, the temptation of prosperity is to become focused on this life, it’s pleasures and comforts.
Please hear Solomon well. He does not condemn prosperity, does not condemn feasting, partying, laughter and bantering. Chap 3:4: there’s "a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance." But the question is: which is better? Which ‘house’ confronts us the better with the realities the naked eye does not see? Which of the two confront us more sharply with God: the house of feasting or the house of mourning? Adversity or prosperity? Solomon is insistent: the house of mourning confronts us with the deep and critical questions of life, sets us face to face with the reality of God. And the need to take God seriously: that’s so healthy.
Here, then, congregation, was profound instruction for the feasting Israelites of Solomon’s day. Solomon would instruct people sitting comfortably under their fig tree –with fruit of the vine in hand- that they may not forget God, may not forget what prosperity so easily makes us forget: in this life is a God who we do not see yet; but He has an appointment with each one of us, and then we’ll see Him face to face. That appointment is on the day of death, and then each will have to give account for the sins he’s committed. Solomon knows from his own experience that the house of feasting glosses over that reality, and so this wise teacher would impress on his subjects that prosperity is not everything, yes, that a funeral is more wholesome than a feast. The death of a neighbor, the death of a relative, any death drives home the stark reality that I too must die - and therefore I must prepare today to meet my Maker.
So the reality of death presses upon us the question that feasting ignores, and that’s this: are you ready to meet God? You will recall how Job offered sacrifices to atone for the sins his children committed in their feasting (Job 1:4f); he was well aware of the depravity of the human heart, well aware that a drink can loosen a tongue to say sinful things, can even move hands to grope where they may not be, can break down one’s self-control to look where one may not look, go where one may not go. So it was in Solomon’s day too; in the midst of all the prosperity and feasting that characterized Israel’s life in Solomon’s day, sin covered the people like a blanket. In that situation the message of the temple of Jerusalem was so wonderfully rich! In that temple, with the daily slaughter of so many sheep, blood was shed to atone for sin, and so the gospel of reconciliation with God so powerfully proclaimed for all Israel. The thing is now: did the Israelites take it seriously? Or were they too caught up in the prosperity they enjoyed, to give much time to such questions? The prophet Hosea gives the answer: "When they had pastures, they were filled; They were filled and their heart was exalted; Therefore they forgot Me" (13:6).
But God, beloved, did not forget His people! In due time, the gospel of the temple was fulfilled in God’s only Son. For thirty years the Son of God breathed the same air as anybody else breathed, and so He enjoyed too the feasts and the food and the drink and the parties of His day. But there was this fundamental difference between the manner of His feasting and the manner of our feasting: Jesus did not get caught up in the feasting such that His thoughts were only on the feast, the pleasure, this life. Always His eye was on His God alone, and so He did not hesitate, when His Father asked it of Him, to go the house of mourning. As a sheep led to the slaughter, so He went to His own death. That’s to say: He did not hesitate to undergo the curse God brought into this world in response to our sin. Though Himself sinless, He accepted the curse that we deserve on account of our sins. He went to the cross, and there He died; how the women and so many others lamented and wailed and mourned His death!
But that ‘house of mourning’, beloved, is our salvation! He died, He confronted the curse of God on sin, and rose again! He arose, because He had satisfied the holy anger of God; He arose, and so opened the way for us also to die in peace! For His sake many are made righteousness, so that in turn they can stand before God without fear. These many: that’s those who believe in Him, who treasure His house of mourning more than any house of feasting this earth can produce. Faith: that, that is so vitally important!
We enjoy prosperity and comforts today virtually unseen since the days of Solomon. Today is Thanksgiving Day, and that fact causes us to reflect on the prosperity we have and how fitting it is to be so very thankful to God for this abundance.
In the Bibles the Lord gives us is also the instruction Solomon gave His prosperous people, instruction that gives us much to think about. We appreciate our prosperity, and are truly thankful for it. But the Lord tells us that a funeral is more wholesome than a feast. After all, a funeral makes one think, a funeral confronts us with the fact that we must meet God.
So there’s the question that needs our individual attention: does the prosperity you enjoy distract you from the bigger questions of life? Do the comforts of this life make you think less of the day of death, when you will meet God? Do the pleasures of this life take your attention away from Bible reading, from discussion of God’s word, from club or even church?
That’s the question. And I would be remiss if I did not help with an answer. Our hearts remain so depraved that material abundance very easily leads to materialism. That’s to say that the pleasures of this life are by nature more attractive to us than the service of God. Here we need to put our faith to work, here we need to show while we enjoy the prosperity God gives us that understand the instruction of our text: good as the house of feasting is, and thankful as we are for the prosperity God gives, the house of mourning is better.
Prosperity is vanity, the house of feasting is short-sighted. The heart of
fools, says Solomon, is content in such places. But the wise recall Solomon’s
instruction, they delight in Christ’s work, and so God is their
happiness, their all. Amen.