Death is certainly the most unavoidable reality in this life. One does not have to live long to experience the death of someone who is close in relation. This is why questions the living must grapple with consist of death, dying, and how death influences the way they live.
Of course, many naturally cringe at the thought of death; many do not want to think about it at all. Perhaps the fear of it drives them away from the thought of it. Nevertheless, wisdom demands the contemplation of it. And so Solomon, the wise preacher of Ecclesiastes, often directs his attention to the subject.
The purpose of the book of Ecclesiastes is not to cause a dour attitude in the reader, but to cause the reader to ponder their own life. Certainly this is much needed in a time as ours. We live in a world similar to the one Solomon created with his wealth; we may not have the same wealth but we have a similar amount of choices. And we are coming to the same sort of conclusions as Solomon about life. Just look at some of the studies on teenagers and the internet and you find that many are already bored by it. We can all too easily become engrossed in the mundane routine of life. We can even become bored of the dizzying heights of exciting and exhilarating activities and moments. This is why, as the Medieval Latin phrase, Momento Mori, concisely states, we do well to remember death.
What is the benefit of thinking about our death, particularly in our modern world? I find four reasons in Solomon’s wisdom.
1. To think of the eternal
As Solomon expounds on his initial finding that all things are meaningless, he writes,
“A generation goes and a generation comes, But the earth remains forever” (Ecclesiastes 1:4).
Not long after, we find these words,
“There is no remembrance of earlier things; And also of the later things which will occur, There will be for them no remembrance Among those who will come later still” (Ecclesiastes 1:11).
The essential point of all this is to awaken the reader to the reality of life, namely that it goes on after you die. Not only that, but everyone and everything will be forgotten. After the death of a generation, the next generation takes its place, and this cycle continues. What is worse, the following generations forget the previous generations.
Solomon does not explicitly tell us to think on eternal things, but he expects us to set out in search of eternity in light of this woeful reality of life (Eccl. 3:11). Where do you turn when you see the your life as finite? Will you not turn to what comes after? Why wallow in the things that will surely end when you can hope in that which will never end?
2. To think of the immaterial
Solomon often speaks of death alongside the labor of our hands, which he summarizes with these words: “Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me” (Ecclesiastes 2:18).
Essentially, the trouble with labor in the face of death is that we will give the fruit of our labour to another. If we are certain we know that the recipients will honor our legacy, the trouble is lessened. But Solomon observed otherwise: “And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored by acting wisely under the sun. This too is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 2:19).
To truly appreciate the material world and our labor in it, we must look to God who has given it. We must look to something immaterial to appreciate the material world, as Solomon writes, “There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen that it is from the hand of God. For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?” (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25)
3. To appreciate the moment
The two previous points work their way into this point. If our eyes are only on this world and the things within, we will not enjoy our use of them; but if our eyes are on God, meaning and enjoyment are infused into each moment. Solomon expounds on this:
“For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun. Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works. Let your clothes be white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:5-9).
4. To gain humility
After considering death in this manner, what is the result? It is summarized in the last verse of the last chapter: Fear God and keep His commands. If our eyes are lifted to the eternal and the immaterial, we will see just how small and weak we are. We will see that God is greatly to be feared and worshipped with all our being. This means we will not place our hope in ourselves, our possessions, or anything else on this earth. We will lose sight of ourselves, and that is the essence of humility.
Momento Mori is more than a Latin catch-phrase, it is the pathway to a meaningful and enriched life. May we always remember death.