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.
It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise
than to hear the song of fools.
For as the crackling of thorns under a pot,
so is the laughter of the fools;
this also is vanity.
Surely oppression drives the wise into madness,
and a bribe corrupts the heart.
Better is the end of a thing than its beginning,
and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.
Be not quick in your spirit to become angry,
for anger lodges in the heart of fools.
Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
Wisdom is good with an inheritance,
an advantage to those who see the sun.
For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money,
and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it.
Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?
In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.
In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them.
Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city.
Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.
Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others.
All this I have tested by wisdom. I said, “I will be wise,” but it was far from me. That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?
I turned my heart to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the scheme of things, and to know the wickedness of folly and the foolishness that is madness. And I find something more bitter than death: the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and whose hands are fetters. He who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. Behold, this is what I found, says the Preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things— which my soul has sought repeatedly, but I have not found. One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.
Who is like the wise?
And who knows the interpretation of a thing?
A man’s wisdom makes his face shine,
and the hardness of his face is changed. (Ecclesiastes 7:1-8:1)
Once again, I want to put the image of an older, broken Solomon in your mind. I want you to picture the man to whom God gave great wealth and wisdom before he eventually fell into adultery and idolatry. First Kings chapter 11 tells us, “He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father” (1Ki 11:3-4).
As a result of his sin, “the Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods. But he did not keep what the Lord commanded” (1Ki 11:9-10).
So God said to Solomon, “I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant” (1Ki 11:11). In the end, Solomon spent his final days fighting enemies whom God raised up against him and thinking about the inevitable collapse of his prosperous kingdom. And I have to believe that The Book of Ecclesiastes came into existence during those latter years of Solomon’s life. As he reflected on his successful past, and thought about Israel’s dismal future, and considered his present hardships, he couldn’t help but wonder, What does it all mean? Is there any meaning at all?
Now before we look at the text, I want to point out something about Solomon’s legacy. If I’m right about this book being created near the end of Solomon’s life, it would seem as though he learned his lesson and probably turned back to God before his death. But nowhere in Scripture is that actually affirmed. The God-inspired account of Solomon ends with his fall from grace. In fact, Solomon’s last recorded act is his attempt to kill one of his successors, Jeroboam.
So whether Solomon finally repented or not, God intentionally left future readers to have doubts. Solomon’s biography serves as a warning to us. Maybe his guilt was taken away, but his reproach, his sinful reputation will remain throughout all of human history. It’s a sad and weighty thought, isn’t it?
So, what does Solomon, or the Preacher, have on his mind in chapter 7? In a word, he was thinking about suffering. He was thinking about those circumstances in life that make us prone to anger and frustration. Though he realized that faith in God is the only cure for the problems of secularism, he then pondered whether or not faith can survive the hard times. What happens when the good, easy days of life have passed and adversity comes? Faith seems to be the answer, but can faith even endure the troubles we face?
We Learn From Suffering
Let’s see what the Preacher discovered, starting with verse 1: “A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth” (Ecc 7:1).
It may not seem as though the first half of this verse has any connection to the second half, but it does. What we read here is a conventional proverb followed by an unconventional deduction. As unique as it may be, this verse is a typical Hebrew comparison where two statements are put together for the purpose of showing how one is like the other. In fact, this verse could and probably should read this way: “As a good name is better than precious ointment, so is the day of death better than the day of birth.” At least that’s how we’d say it if we made the same comparison using contemporary English.
“A good name is better—” What does it mean to have a good name? It means you have a good reputation. You have an exceptional character of which people are aware. For example, when God displayed his power as he rescued the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt, the Bible says that God “made a name” for himself (Ne 9:10). People from all over the world knew of God and his reputation. Well, the Preacher says a person’s character is better than precious ointment or perfume. In other words, being a decent person is better than merely smelling like one. As the adage goes, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.
Similarly, “the day of death is better than the day of birth.” But why? Think about this statement in the context of Solomon’s life. What could possibly make him think that the end of life was better than the beginning? He started out as a promising young man with vast wisdom and a heart to serve God. But as I’ve already pointed out, his life didn’t end that way. So how could the Preacher claim that death is better than birth?
Well, what happens when a person comes face to face with mortality? Sometimes we talk about near-death experiences causing our lives to flash before our eyes. What does that do to us? In most cases, it forces people to reevaluate their lives and priorities. They begin to think deeper about the things that really matter. In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge was transported into the future where he witnessed his own funeral and it profoundly changed him. Once he returned to the present, he became a new man with a new outlook on life.
The Preacher realized there is value in facing death. You don’t learn anything from your birthday. When you’re born, you just passively enter into this world without a thought. Death, on the other hand, makes you think, especially when it’s your own death on the horizon. But even the death of someone else can stir our minds and prompt us to ask some of the same questions raised in The Book of Ecclesiastes. It follows a principle given to us in Psalm 90 where Moses wrote, “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90:12).
About a week ago, I preached the funeral of someone I had never met. I guess the family couldn’t decide on a preacher, so the funeral home called me. Well, after the funeral, I mingled for awhile and spoke to several people who attended. And it was interesting to hear what people were thinking about.
Of course, most people talked about the deceased person, her life, and some of the memories they had of her. But her husband couldn’t bring himself to talk about anything but the disease that killed her. In fact, he spoke up during the funeral, cussing and cursing this disease. But what I heard through his frustration was a heartbroken man begging to know why. Why did she have to suffer? Why do these things happen?
Those are the kinds of questions that death motivates us to ask. When people are young, they don’t think about mortality. They don’t ponder the bigger questions of life. They don’t ask, “What’s the meaning of it all?” As far as they’re concerned, they’ll live forever, so why bother asking questions that seem to have no answers. Well, the Preacher had come to feel differently about it. Presumably, in his old age, he began to think deeper about these things. Life had suddenly thrown him lemons and time was running short. If he was going to discover the grand purpose of life, it was now or never.
So the Preacher concluded, “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” (Ecc 7:2).
Times of celebration just don’t have the same effect, do they? If everyone is happy and having a good time, there’s no reason to look beyond the hebel, the vanity, the vapor that is time and life. When we’re having fun and enjoying ourselves, who wants to think about what lies beyond our limited time here on earth? But when we enter “the house of mourning,” we have no choice but to think about what the Preacher calls “the end of all mankind.”
He continues: “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad” (Ecc 7:3).
We’ve already seen why sorrow is better than laughter. The Preacher was not a masochist, by the way. He’s not suggesting that we should enjoy sorrow. He just knew that without it, we’re not likely to pause long enough to think about the things that really matter. There would be no incentive to transform ourselves and our thinking for the better. The word “glad” in this verse could be translated “put right.” In other words, the heart is better situated for positive change when we suffer sorrow than when our lives are smooth and easy, free from any and all adversity.
Charles Spurgeon once said, “I am certain that I never did grow in grace one-half so much anywhere as I have upon the bed of pain.” On another occasion, he confessed that he suffered from severe depression at times. But amazingly, he thanked God for his depression because he saw blessing in it. He developed the attitude of Paul who said, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2Co 12:9).
Both Spurgeon and Paul realized that God used their sufferings to keep them humble, at the very least. Paul said, “A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited” (2Co 12:7).
And that is the point the Preacher is making to us in the first six verses of this chapter. We learn more, grow more, and become a better people through suffering than constant pleasure and happiness. In particular, the person who has looked death in the face is in a much better position to understand the meaning and purpose of life than the guy who is enjoying the hebel too much to give it any serious thought.
Verse 4: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (Ecc 7:4).
By “mirth,” he means amusement or pleasure. The comparison here is the same as it was in the previous verses. However, the Preacher hones in on the heart of man which is to say, his center. The heart represents the center of our attention, our thoughts, our understanding, our memory, and our feelings.
A wise person or perhaps a person who seeks wisdom will go to the house of mourning before he or she goes to the house of pleasure. If you want to ground the center of your being in the realities of this world, you won’t go to a club with loud music, dancing, and laughter where people are only thinking about their fleeting moment of fun. No, you’ll take a cup of coffee out to the cemetery and sit for awhile. It may sound strange and possibly morbid, but there’s value in it.
Just look at the dates on the tombstones. You’ll see one year followed by a dash followed by another year. That dash, of course, represents the entire span of one’s life. But that dash is always short. Whether it represents 50 years or 100 years, that dash is tiny. And the older you get, the smaller that dash will look to you.
Then, as you continue wandering through the cemetery, let your eyes drift over the whole landscape. Notice the sheer volume of people buried in that place. Despite their best efforts, no one buried in that cemetery could escape their fate, and neither can we. And only a fool will attempt to avoid these facts. Proverbs 18 says, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding” (Pr 18:2). Earlier in Ecclesiastes, the Preacher said, “The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness” (Ecc 2:14). The fool doesn’t want to think about the realities of secularism, so he preoccupies himself with fun indulgence.
Now if you don’t like what I’m saying, then look at verse 5: “It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools” (Ecc 7:5).
What is the “song of fools?” Well, it can be worthless praise or flattery, but here I think the Preacher is being quite literal. He’s talking about songs of jubilation. He’s talking about the music of parties that we turn up to eleven as we throw caution to the wind, lower our inhibitions, and live for the moment.
But what happens when we allow ourselves to be consumed by the superficial pleasures of life, giving no thought to the limited nature of time, or death, or God, or the possibility of eternity? Verse 6 says, “For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity” (Ecc 7:6).
Thorns may be good for getting a fire started, but they can’t keep a fire going. They burn too quickly. They produce a substantial flame, but it doesn’t last very long. Psalm 58 says, “Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns, whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away” (Ps 58:9). Soon after they begin burning, the fire goes out and the thorns turn to ashes.
The fool’s laughter is very similar. It’s a sudden flame, bright and stunning with sparks and lots of noise, but it’s soon gone. It’s vanity. It’s a brief vapor that disappears. Ultimately, the fool has wasted his time on the kinds of pleasure that can’t take him any further than the cemetery.
The Potential Dangers of Suffering
Now the next few verses highlight the potential problems of suffering. The thing is, not everyone learns from suffering as they could. Some people will continue to pursue secularism through their troubles which only puts them in a sad, perpetual cycle of misery.
Verse 7: “Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart” (Ecc 7:7).
First of all, trials can cause a man to lose his head. The Preacher refers specifically to oppression or extortion, but I suppose we could apply this proverb to any trial we might face. And second, trials can lead us into sin. For some people, hardship refines the heart. For others, it makes the heart grow hard. So the first man says, “I can’t figure out why I’m suffering. It’s making me crazy.” The second man says, “If I’m going to suffer, I might as well do whatever pleases me. Apparently, the universe is ruled by random chance anyhow.”
Verse 8: “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit” (Ecc 7:8).
You see, the Preacher inserts an important reminder here. If you’re suffering, don’t throw up your hands in despair too soon. Don’t give up. Don’t make yourself crazy. Don’t be tempted to sin. Why? You need to see the matter through to the end. Your trials have a purpose, but you may not see that purpose until the very end.
Along these lines, James wrote, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jas 1:2-4).
If you give up too soon, you’ll surrender the benefits of your suffering. Be patient. Don’t allow your pride to get the best of you. You know, man’s pride quickly becomes irritated at God’s methods. We arrogantly think he should do things another way. He certainly shouldn’t make us suffer. But the Preacher responds, “Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools” (Ecc 7:9).
We might even try to excuse our anger by calling it righteous indignation. “I have a right to be angry. I’m being mistreated. I’m the victim of oppression and injustice.” But be careful because your exasperation, your resentment and bitterness could easily take deep root in your heart. It doesn’t take long for pride and anger to make a permanent home.
Now I love this next verse. If only I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone use this line: “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this” (Ecc 7:10).
“I miss the good ol’ days.” Haven’t you heard people say that? How many times have you heard someone talk about how much better things used to be? “Oh, the country’s going downhill fast. It wasn’t like this when I was a kid.” And on and on it goes.
The fact is, every age and every generation of human history has had its distinct problems. Every age has distinct opportunities as well. For instance, I’ve heard people lament the problems of computers and technology. Well, computers have created new problems. Perhaps most notable among them is the accessibility of pornography and other forms of ungodly filth.
On the other hand, not a day goes by when I don’t thank God for the vast biblical resources at my fingertips. I mean, the church has no excuse for not digging into God’s Word and studying. I had a preacher once say to me, “I don’t know Hebrew or Greek, and I’m not interested in learning. Whatever the English version of the Bible tells me is good enough.” Well, that’s just the epitome of lazy.
With the help of technology, I can learn fifteen or more possible translations of a Greek word, its usages throughout the Bible, and its usages throughout ancient history in a matter of minutes. Furthermore, I can instantly share the gospel with someone on the other side of the world without leaving my living room. My point is, technology has both pros and cons.
It’s always helpful to evaluate the times in which we live, but longing for the past is simply foolish. You can’t face your current difficulties if you’re always pining for another. Maybe you think the past was better, but was it really? Israel thought their days as slaves in Egypt were better than their days of freedom in the wilderness. That’s foolishness.
Let me try to pick up the pace here.
God’s Purpose In Suffering
Verses 11 and 12: “Wisdom is good with an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun. For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it” (Ecc 7:11-12).
“Wisdom is good with an inheritance,” or we might say, “Wisdom is as good as an inheritance.” It’s better, in fact. You see, the secular mind believes we can find security in temporal things such as money. But the Preacher refutes that notion by saying it is actually wisdom that provides us security. Verse 12 could read, “Having wisdom is like having silver. Knowledge is an advantage. Wisdom preserves life.” In other words, wisdom, the kind of wisdom that the Preacher is pursuing while he sips his tea out in the graveyard, protects us at a much deeper level than money ever could.
In verses 13 and 14, we are reminded yet again what we are really hoping to find through all of these observations about the secular world. Yes, we’re looking for meaning, but ultimately, we’re seeking after God because he’s the one who provides meaning.
“Consider the work of God,” the Preacher says, “who can make straight what he has made crooked? In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him” (Ecc 7:13-14).
Maybe you notice that life is crooked, so to speak, so you’d like to make it straight. Well, that’s not going to happen. Why? Because what you see is what God has given us. It is his work. He provides our days of prosperity, and he provides our days of adversity. And maybe you don’t understand why, but remember this: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Ro 8:28).
Much of life will remain a mystery to us which is why the Preacher implores us throughout his speech to trust in the Sovereign God of heaven. He’s not trapped in the vapor of time like us. He sees all, knows all, and controls all. He holds the key to the unknown. So we must trust him.
You know, I think I’ll stop right here.
My primary concern is not time, but overwhelming you with too much to think about all at once. Last week, I mentioned to a few of you that Ecclesiastes is what we call wisdom literature. In many respects, we don’t study the wisdom literature of the Bible like we do other books.
Books like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, or Job require that we read them, study their words, seek to understand the meaning of those words, and then we walk away to think about them for awhile. We ruminate on them. We chew the cud if you will. We just let the words and principles roll around in our heads for awhile until the lessons and potential applications begin to emerge.
I encourage to re-read these passages, to continue thinking about them. And I’ll share with you a principle theme that leaps out to me in what I’ve read this morning. I suppose if we learn anything from the first half of chapter 7, it is this: To learn the fulness of life’s meaning we must (1) embrace our times of suffering and (2) acknowledge death.
So when I drive by the cemetery this week and see you guys sitting out there, I won’t think anything of it.
Preached at Joy Christian Church (Benson, NC) on February 26, 2017