1 A good name is better than precious ointment,
and the day of death than the day of birth.
2 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.
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.
5 It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise
than to hear the song of fools.
6 For as the crackling of thorns under a pot,
so is the laughter of the fools;
this also is vanity.
7 Surely oppression drives the wise into madness,
and a bribe corrupts the heart.
8 Better is the end of a thing than its beginning,
and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.
9 Be not quick in your spirit to become angry,
for anger lodges in the heart of fools.
10 Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
11 Wisdom is good with an inheritance,
an advantage to those who see the sun.
12 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.
13 Consider the work of God:
who can make straight what he has made crooked?
14 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. – Ecclesiastes 7:1-14 ESV
Once again, using a steady, staccato stream of parables as his tool, Solomon provides us with yet more proof of the futility of life lived under the sun. Still maintaining his somewhat pessimistic outlook, he utilizes a series of stark contrasts in order to support his central theme that all is vanity: He juxtaposes birth and death, sorrow and laughter, wisdom and foolishness, the beginning and the end, the patient and the proud. In each case, Solomon draws a conclusion, deeming one better than the other, and what he decides is meant to shock and surprise us. He starts out comparing birth with death, and while we might logically conclude that the beginning of a life is preferable to its end, Solomon would disagree. And he uses a somewhat odd comparison to make his point. In verse one, Solomon utilizes a word play, using two similar sounding Hebrew words: shem and shemen, to make his point. Shem means “name” and refers to someone’s reputation. Shemen is the Hebrew word for “oil” and it typically refers to an oil used for anointing that had a strong fragrance associated with it. Solomon states that a good name or reputation is better than precious ointment. To put it another way, he seems to be saying that being good is better than smelling good. A man who hasn’t bathed may douse himself with cologne, but he only masks the stench. His life is a sham, marked by hypocrisy. And Solomon uses shem and shemen to make a point about birth and death. While the beginning of life is associated with feasting and celebration, it masks the reality that much hurt and heartache lie ahead. A baby is born without a reputation. It has had no time to establish a name for itself. And no one knows how that child’s life will turn out. Yet, we celebrate and rejoice the day of his birth. Solomon is not suggesting we cease from celebrating new birth, but that we recognize that it is the end of one’s life that truly matters. We all face the same fate. Death is inevitable and inescapable. And when it comes time to mourn the life of someone we knew and loved, those who have managed to achieve and maintain a good reputation will be missed most. When it comes time to mourn the loss of someone of good character, the sorrow will prove better than laughter, because the reflections on that individual’s life will bring sweet and lasting memories. It will remind the living of what is truly important, and the wise will glean invaluable lessons from a life lived well.
When a child is born, words of encouragement may be spoken, but they are all hypothetical in nature. No one knows the future, so no one can presume to know how that child’s life will turn out. We can and should be hopeful, but we cannot be certain that our hope will be fulfilled. Yet, at the time of one’s death, there is irrefutable evidence that proves the true outcome of that person’s life. A life lived well will be well documented and greatly celebrated. Even in the sorrow of the moment, there will be joy. Solomon puts it this way: “by sadness of face the heart is made glad” (Ecclesiastes 7:3 ESV). The memories of the one we have lost bring joy to our heart and put a smile on our face, and we experience the seeming dichotomy of sadness and gladness.
Solomon’s use of shem and shemen has ongoing application. He seems to be advocating a life that is lived beneath the surface – well beyond the shallow and pretentious trappings of materialism and hedonism. He refers to “the house of mirth,” the place that fools tend to gather. It is the place of joy and gladness, rejoicing and pleasure. The fool makes it his primary destination, believing that it is there his heart will find satisfaction and fulfillment. But Solomon recommends the house of mourning, where sadness and sorrow are found. Again, it is at the end of a life that the true character of that life is revealed in detail. The tears of sorrow may be for one who lived his life well and whose departure will leave a hole in the lives of those left behind. But, in far too many cases, the tears flow out of sadness over a life marked by sweet-smelling oil on the surface, but nothing of value on the inside. The “perfume” of life are the things we acquire and accumulate, none of which we can take with us. They represent the oil of achievement and visible success. Our homes, cars, clothes, portfolios, resumes, and 401ks may leave the impression that we had it all but, at death, we will leave it all behind. As Job so aptly put it, “I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be naked when I leave” (Job 1:21 NLT).
Solomon has learned that life should be accompanied by a certain thoughtfulness and soberness. It requires serious reflection and careful examination in order to learn all that life has to offer. But we are prone to live life with our hearts and eyes set on those things that bring us the greatest amount of pleasure and satisfaction, temporary though they may be. We prefer the sweet-smelling, short-lived perfume of a self-indulgent lifestyle. We want it all now. We prefer joy to sorrow, pleasure to pain, happiness to heartache, and a good time to a good name.
But Solomon knew from experience that living in the house of mirth never brought true happiness. He had learned the hard way that a life lived with pleasure as its primary focus rarely resulted in lasting satisfaction or true joy. Like perfume, its aroma faded with time. Which is why Solomon always reverted to wisdom.
11 Wisdom is even better when you have money.
Both are a benefit as you go through life.
12 Wisdom and money can get you almost anything,
but only wisdom can save your life. – Ecclesiastes 7:11-12 NLT
Money might improve your life, over the short-term, but only wisdom can save your life. And wisdom can’t be bought or acquired. It comes through observation and application of the life lessons, and that requires a willingness to look beneath the surface, beyond the pleasant-looking lies of the enemy. The apostle John gives us some sober-sounding, wisdom producing words to consider.
15 Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. 16 For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. 17 And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT
And Solomon reminds us to look at life more soberly and seriously, judging it not from our limited human vantage point, but through the eyes of God. “Accept the way God does things, for who can straighten what he has made crooked?” (Ecclesiastes 7:13 NLT). We see death as negative, the end of life. But God sees things differently. We view pleasure as preferable to pain, but God works in ways we can’t comprehend, using the seeming incongruities of life to teach us the greatest lessons. And as Solomon has done before, he boils his thoughts down to one simple suggestion: “Enjoy prosperity while you can, but when hard times strike, realize that both come from God” (Ecclesiastes 7:14 NLT). There is nothing wrong with enjoying the pleasures of life and the blessings that God bestows on us in this life. But we must recognize that God is found in the extremes of life. He is sovereign over all that we experience in this life: the good, the bad, the pleasant, the painful, death and life, wealth and poverty, joy and sorrow. A wise man will look for God in everything, and find Him. The fool will set his sights on finding joy, pleasure, satisfaction, significance and pleasure, but miss God in the process.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.