Day 171: Trouble in the Third (Ecclesiastes 7:3-4)

3 Sorrow is better than laughter,
for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.
4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
Ecclesiastes 7:3-4

One of the most powerful sermons I have ever heard was from Dr. Eugene Lowry. He was a professor of preaching at Saint Paul School of Theology for over 30 years, and around 1992 preached the spring revival at my alma mater, the Southern Baptist Theological Semnary.

That was a long time ago, but I still remember Dr. Lowry’s sermon, “Trouble in the Third.” I remember it because not only was Lowry a brilliant preacher, he was also a brilliant jazz pianist, and he preached this sermon from the piano.

Lowry talked about how, throughout the Baptist hymnal, there are countless hymns that follow a similar plotline: the first verse establishes the character of God. The second our relationship to Him.

Then, in a significant number of hymns, the third verse introduces trouble, doubt, uncertainty, sorrow, or sadness. Some examples:

  • Amazing Grace: Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come…
  • How Great Thou Art: And when I think that God, His Son not sparing; sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in…
  • Holy, Holy Holy: Holy, Holy Holy, though the darkness hide thee; though the eye of sinful man, thy glory may not see…
  • A Mighty Fortress Is Our God: And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us…
  • When I Survey The Wondrous Cross: See, from His head, His hands, His feet; Sorrow and love flow mingled down. Did e’er such love and sorrow meet? Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Gene Lowry played all these, and more, to make his point that so often, there is trouble in the third verse.

And then, the best hymns resolve the trouble in the third stanza with triumph in the fourth stanza. Take the same examples from above, and consider the fourth stanzas:

  • When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun…
  • When Christ shall come, with shouts of acclamation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart
  • All thy works shall praise thy name in earth, and sky, and sea…
  • His kingdom is forever…

And, my personal favorite, the fourth stanza of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross:”

Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small.

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my soul, my life, my all.

The problem in so many churches is that our ministers of music almost always skip the third verse. It’s almost a cliche: “Let’s all stand and sing the first and last stanzas of_________.” We’ve all been in churches like that, haven’t we?

The problem is, if you bypass the trouble in the third, the triumph in the fourth loses much of its impact. It’s hard to really appreciate that “the Lord has promised good to me/ His Word my hope secures” if we haven’t really pondered the “many dangers, toils and snares” through which we have already come.

This is the brilliance of the book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes reads like the third verse of a hymn. And it seems to have been written by someone in the third verse of his life–late middle age, when cynicism sets in, and you wonder what your life has amounted to, and what you will do with the days you have left.

The teacher invites us to ponder the trouble in the third verse. Ecclesiastes tells us that the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning. God is a good God. There is nothing better than to enjoy the good gifts He has given us on this earth (Ecclesiastes 2:24). Remember your creator in the days of your youth, because there will come a day, according to the stunning imagery of chapter 12, when:

3 ...the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, 4 and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low— 5 they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along,[a] and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets— 6 before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, 7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. 
Ecclesiastes 12:3-7

Like so many old school ministers of music, we’d love to skip Ecclesiastes and go straight to the triumph of the victorious Christian life. But that would be like bypassing Gethsemane and Calvary in order to get to the Empty Tomb. You can’t skip the trouble and go straight to the triumph. There’s trouble in the third verse, but there is triumph just around the corner.

5 responses to “Day 171: Trouble in the Third (Ecclesiastes 7:3-4)”

  1. Donna Avatar

    I love this. As a church pianist and piano teacher, I have often realized the “3rd” had a message of the troubles in life, but somehow missed how OFTEN it incurs in hymns and THEN the triumphant 4th verse. I hope I get the opportunity to use this thought with both students and programs that I’m asked to speak at.

    1. James Avatar

      I would love to hear you teach this. I wish I could take piano from you. Your playing has been a blessing to me in SO MANY worship services!

      1. Dona Avatar

        I’ve just retired from teaching but May be able to do a program on hymnology… just not on Sunday .

  2. Jamie Robison Avatar
    Jamie Robison

    So enjoyed seeing you at the polls yesterday. I’m glad you mentioned this post and that I took time to find it. We truly are missing out when we don’t sing hymns in their entirety! This post really enhanced my appreciation for Ecclesiastes! Thank you!

    1. James Avatar

      Thanks, Jamie! It was good seeing you too. What you and Donna Wilson and MItch did to lead me in worship Sunday after Sunday, I will always be grateful for. And not just me. Generations of worshipers at FBC.

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