Sit at the Feet of Loss

What Endings Teach the Living

[Better is] the day of death than the day of birth.

I realize that’s an abrupt way to begin an article, but that’s how the Preacher begins Ecclesiastes 7. No easing in; he just pushes us into the deep end of the existential pool. So, here we are. What do you think about the Preacher’s statement? Do you agree with him?

The statement becomes more disturbing when we realize that the Preacher isn’t talking about our deaths, but about the deaths of people we know and love — deaths we experience as losses. He’s talking about the deaths of our grandparents, parents, siblings, spouses, children, extended family members, friends, colleagues, and neighbors.

Think about that for a moment. Is the Preacher — and God through the Preacher — really saying that the day we weep over a loved one’s death is better than the day we laugh for joy over a loved one’s newborn baby? Yes, he is. But he means it in a limited, specific sense.

What Death Has to Say

We can see what the Preacher means by reading more of the context:

A good name is better than precious ointment,
     and the day of death than the day of birth.
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.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
     for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
     but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. (Ecclesiastes 7:1–4)

This clarifies the Preacher’s point. The day of death is better than the day of birth in the sense that death speaks to us in ways birth does not. For death says,

You too are going to die, perhaps sooner than you think. And so will every other person you love and every mourner who pays his respects to this loved one whose final earthly end has come. If you are wise, you will take this to heart and live with your end in mind.

That’s not a message anyone hears at a baby shower.

Wisdom’s Counterintuitive Way

When we read through the wisdom literature of the Bible, we see this strange motif: we gain wisdom by paying careful attention to and learning to embrace things we would rather avoid.

  • We would rather avoid the significant discomfort that discipline requires, yet we see that “whoever loves discipline loves knowledge” (Proverbs 12:1).
  • We would rather avoid the unpleasant, humbling experience of being corrected, yet we see that “whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence” (Proverbs 15:32).
  • We would certainly rather avoid the more painful correction of being rebuked, yet we hear a wise man say, “Let a righteous man strike me — it is a kindness; let him rebuke me — it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it” (Psalm 141:5).
  • And we would really rather avoid afflictions of any kind, yet we hear another wise man say, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Psalm 119:71).
“We gain wisdom by paying careful attention to and learning to embrace things we would rather avoid.”

The way of wisdom is often counterintuitive. We must learn to love instruction from teachers we intuitively fear because they have lessons we cannot live without. That’s why, when it comes to baby showers and funerals, the Preacher says, “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (Ecclesiastes 7:4).

But he doesn’t mean that we’re fools if we ever celebrate a baby’s birth. For the Preacher also says, “For everything there is a season,” including “a time to be born, and a time to die,” and God “has made everything beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:1–2, 11). There’s a time to enjoy the beauty of a new life. But the Preacher does mean that we’re fools if, because we fear death, we avoid listening to its depressing instruction by keeping ourselves distracted and entertained in houses of mirth. For the wise discover that essential springs of life flow from what we learn in houses of mourning.

What Endings Reveal

The Preacher also wants us to know that we’re wise to listen carefully not only to what a death has to teach us, but to what every significant ending has to teach us. That’s why he widens his focus from death to include endings in general: “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning” (Ecclesiastes 7:8).

“The end of a thing reveals what its beginning conceals.”

He says this not only because every significant ending in our lives carries the echo of death’s message, but also because the end of a thing reveals what its beginning conceals. Whereas a beginning makes us hopeful by promising a better future, we discover only in the end whether the promise, or the promise-maker, was truly worthy of the hope we had. And significant endings also often reveal the true spiritual state of our hearts — what we truly trust in, what truly gives us hope, and what we truly treasure.

Here’s one example of a revealing end.

Death of a Promise

One day, years ago, when my brother and I were washing windows to put ourselves through college (me) and seminary (my brother), we were working at the home of a well-to-do elderly couple. The husband had attained remarkable career success as the founder of a company that ran a large regional chain of supermarkets, which he then handed over to his children when he retired. He had achieved the American dream.

But he turned out to be a dour, depressed, angry, bitter man. At one point, after he’d said something needlessly harsh to us and trudged off, his wife came over and apologized. She turned out to be just the opposite: buoyant, joyful, gracious, and kind. As we talked, we discovered she was a sister in Christ and had an earnest, vibrant faith. She discreetly shared with us her deep heartache over her husband’s rejection of Christ and her concern over his severe depression, which had set in when his declining capacities and health forced him to relinquish his leadership and influence in his beloved company. When his career ended, so did any meaningful purpose to his life. When we finished the windows, we prayed with her and for him.

The following year, when the woman hired us again, she was alone. Her husband, having nothing more to live for, had died. She was grieving. But her hope in Christ was strong, and her peace surpassed mere human understanding.

No doubt, this man began his career with the hope-fueled energy of a promising future. But its end revealed that the expiration date on this promise was the same as the career’s. When it was over, his remaining prosperity and prestige were hollow, having been emptied of a future and a hope.

Are You Paying Attention?

The Preacher knows how attracted we are to the hopeful siren songs wafting from the houses of mirth, and how repulsed we are by the fearsome dirges emanating from the houses of mourning. But he also knows how deceptive those siren songs can be and how those dirges can lead us to the Source of the springs of life.

So, in Ecclesiastes 7, he pushes us into the deep end of the pool by declaring that the day of death is better than the day of birth, and the end of a thing is better than its beginning. In other words, “You would be wise to pay careful attention to what your endings are telling you, especially when you encounter a death. These fearsome instructors will make you wise if you listen to them, but you ignore them at your peril.”

The Preacher leaves each of us with an implicit question to answer: What are your endings revealing? For if we pay careful attention, they will reveal to us what we’ve truly placed our faith in, what is truly our ultimate source of hope, and what is truly our greatest treasure. They are important lessons to learn. For all we will carry with us beyond our death is our faith, our hope, and our love.