A. Looking at life through better and worse.
1. (1-4) Better in life and death.
A good name is better than precious ointment,
And the day of death than the day of one’s birth;
Better to go to the house of mourning
Than to go to the house of feasting,
For that is the end of all men;
And the living will take it to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
For by a sad countenance the heart is made better.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
But the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
a. A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death better than the day of one’s birth: At the end of Ecclesiastes 6, the Preacher was in a mournful, discouraged mood as he considered the meaninglessness of life in a world without eternity and accountability in the world beyond. He continued that tone by coupling an obvious truth (a good name is better than precious ointment) with a more startling statement (the day of death better than the day of one’s birth).
i. This comes from the deep and pained sense of meaninglessness that the Preacher suffered under. It made him feel that death was better than life.
ii. “Nothing in the first half of Ecclesiastes 7:1 prepares us for the body-blow of the second half… Instead of reflecting and arguing, he will bombard us with proverbs, with their strong impact and varied angles of attack.” (Kidner)
iii. Even the day of one’s birth is ominous, despite all the hopes and potential in a baby’s birth. Children come into the world uttering the human sound – a scream. “Before ever a child speak, he prophesies, by his tears, of his ensuing sorrows.” (Trapp)
iv. From a New Testament perspective, we have mixed feelings about the Preacher’s outburst, “The day of death better than the day of one’s birth.” On the one hand, the day of death is glorious for the believer – our battle is over, our sorrow is over, our uncertainty is over – and all things are new. On the other hand, we rejoice in the meaning God has given us with this life on earth. We agree with the Apostle Paul in Philippians 1:23: For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.
v. “Death is the end of dying. On the day of the believer’s death dying is for ever done with. The saints who are with God shall never die any more. Life is wrestling, struggling; but death is the end of conflict: it is rest-victory.” (Spurgeon)
vi. “Hence all the ancient fathers called those days wherein the martyrs suffered their birthdays, because they began to live indeed.” (Trapp)
vii. “Consider it spiritually, and, dear brethren, what is a good name? A good name is a name that is written in the Lamb’s book of life, and that is better than the sweetest of all ointments.” (Spurgeon)
b. Better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting: Solomon knew our tendency to simply ignore or wish away death. It is better to be squarely confronted with the reality of death, and the house of mourning is a fine place to take it to heart.
i. It seems that the Preacher has rejected his previous hope of finding the meaning of life in pleasure, accomplishment, and wisdom. Now there is only death, and one should not ignore it. So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12)
ii. “Some of the old Romish monks always read their Bibles with a candle stuck in a skull. The light from a death’s head may be an awful one, but it is a very profitable one.” (Spurgeon)
c. Sorrow is better than laughter: The Preacher goes against all intuition; who among us would say this? Yet he is determined to sweep away our illusions and wishes about the nature of life in his under the sun premise.
i. Rejecting Solomon’s general premise, we do not believe that sorrow is always better than laughter. We do not reject it because we prefer an illusion or a wish; we do it out of firm confidence in a God to whom we answer in eternity, and who has promised to reward good and punish evil there. Even so – there is often more wisdom in the house of mourning than in the house of mirth.
2. (5-9) Better in wisdom and folly.
It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise
Than for a man to hear the song of fools.
For like the crackling of thorns under a pot,
So is the laughter of the fool.
This also is vanity.
Surely oppression destroys a wise man’s reason,
And a bribe debases the heart.
The end of a thing is better than its beginning;
The patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.
Do not hasten in your spirit to be angry,
For anger rests in the bosom of fools.
a. It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise than for a man to hear the song of fools: The Preacher continues his previous thought, that man finds wisdom in adversity and suffering rather than in ease and comfort. The laughter of the fool is nothing more than a momentary sound, leaving nothing of substance behind.
i. “The pun ‘Like the sound of sirim (thorns) under the sir (pot, cauldron)’ is caught by Moffatt’s Like nettles crackling under kettles. Thorns were a rapidly burning, easily extinguishable fuel in the ancient world.” (Eaton)
ii. “They make a great noise, a great blaze; and are extinguished in a few moments. Such indeed, comparatively, are the joys of life; they are noisy, flashy, and transitory.” (Clarke)
iii. “Their laughter is also fitly compared to thorns, because it chokes good motions, scratcheth the conscience, harbours the vermin of base and baggage lusts.” (Trapp)
b. Surely oppression destroys a wise man’s reason: For all of Solomon’s praise of the instructive role of adversity, he also understood that suffering also had its limit. It could destroy a wise man’s reason.
c. Do not hasten your spirit to be angry: After two proverbs celebrating patience, the Preacher warns us against impatience leading to anger. Living with an under the sun premise may easily make a person impatient and then angry, and anger rests in the bosom of fools.
3. (10-12) Wisdom gives perspective.
Do not say,
“Why were the former days better than these?”
For you do not inquire wisely concerning this.
Wisdom is good with an inheritance,
And profitable to those who see the sun.
For wisdom is a defense as money is a defense,
But the excellence of knowledge is that wisdom gives life to those who have it.
a. Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these”: Solomon understood our tendency to romanticize the past and think that it was better than our current time. He cautioned against it, knowing that the meaninglessness of life with his under the sun premise is not a new phenomenon.
i. “The clear-eyed Qoheleth is the last person to be impressed by this golden haze around the past: he has already declared that one age is very much like another. ‘What has been is what will be… and there is nothing new under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes 1:9).” (Kidner)
ii. “Even Christians sometimes overestimate the early church, the Reformation, or periods of revival. Wise people certainly learn from the past, but they live in the present with all its opportunities.” (Wright)
iii. “In former days men were wicked as they are now, and religion was unfashionable: God also is the same now as he was then; as just, as merciful, as ready to help: and there is no depravity in the age that will excuse your crimes, your follies, and your carelessness.” (Clarke)
b. Wisdom is good with an inheritance, and profitable to those who see the sun: With the Preacher’s premise, the best kind of life is found with wisdom and money (an inheritance). This wisdom – called also excellence of knowledge – gives whatever life can be had in an under the sun world.
4. (13-14) Wisdom in considering God.
Consider the work of God;
For who can make straight what He has made crooked?
In the day of prosperity be joyful,
But in the day of adversity consider:
Surely God has appointed the one as well as the other,
So that man can find out nothing that will come after him.
a. Consider the work of God; for who can make straight what He has made crooked: Understanding the relative place of man to God is important in peaceful acceptance with life under the sun. From the Preacher’s perspective, this has the sense of fatalism.
i. “There is no standing before a lion, no hoisting up a sail in a tempest, no contending with the Almighty.” (Trapp)
b. In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: Solomon counsels us how to take the good and the bad of life into perspective. “Take what life gives you and get along the best you can.”
c. Surely God has appointed the one as well as the other, so that man can find out nothing that will come after him: The Preacher here drifts again toward despair. Considering God’s control of all things leads him to believe that the system is set so that we can know nothing of what is beyond us, of what will come after him.
B. Living a better life under the sun.
1. (15-18) Dangers along the way.
I have seen everything in my days of vanity:
There is a just man who perishes in his righteousness,
And there is a wicked man who prolongs life in his wickedness.
Do not be overly righteous,
Nor be overly wise:
Why should you destroy yourself?
Do not be overly wicked,
Nor be foolish:
Why should you die before your time?
It is good that you grasp this,
And also not remove your hand from the other;
For he who fears God will escape them all.
a. I have seen everything in my days of vanity: Solomon complained that in his meaningless life he has seen the good suffer (a just man who perishes in his righteousness) and the wicked prosper (prolongs his life in his wickedness). Solomon mourns, it isn’t fair.
i. “The first man that died, died for religion. How early did martyrdom come into the world!” (Trapp)
b. Do not be overly righteous, nor be overly wise… do not be overly wicked, nor be foolish: In light of the apparent vanity of life, Solomon here recommended a balanced approach to living. Be righteous, but not too much; be wise, but not too much; be wicked, but not too much; be foolish, but not too much.
i. “Righteousness does not always pay. Wickedness sometimes does. Therefore morality is to be a thing of calculation.” (Morgan)
ii. This is a common approach to life, thinking that everything is good in moderation. This has some truth to it but does not define a wise or good life. We should remember that both Jesus and Paul (as well as many others) were not considered balanced individuals in their day. Their understanding of eternity and accountability made them – in the view of many – unbalanced.
2. (19-22) The need of wisdom.
Wisdom strengthens the wise
More than ten rulers of the city.
For there is not a just man on earth who does good
And does not sin.
Also do not take to heart everything people say,
Lest you hear your servant cursing you.
For many times, also, your own heart has known
That even you have cursed others.
a. Wisdom strengthens the wise: A wise man – even with an under the sun premise – will see and appreciate the value of wisdom, that it gives more strength than ten rulers of the city.
b. There is not a just man on earth who does good and does not sin: A wise man understands the sinfulness of man – and his own sinfulness.
c. Do not take to heart everything people say… even you have cursed others: Wisely, the Preacher knew that we tend to take the words of others about us too seriously. People often say unguarded things that are not deeply felt; we say such things about others and would not want them to take to heart what we said.
i. In his book Lectures to My Students, Charles Spurgeon gave a chapter to this verse, which he titled “The Blind Eye and the Deaf Ear.” In that chapter he gave wise advice to pastors and Christian workers that they should sometimes (if not often) simply overlook unkind and thoughtless things others say and do. We would not want to be judged by our worst moments; we should not judge others by theirs.
ii. “The fact that we often speak ill of others should make us less open to take offence at what is said of ourselves, and prepared to expect unfavorable comments.” (Deane)
3. (23-25) Frustration in seeking wisdom.
All this I have proved by wisdom.
I said, “I will be wise”;
But it was far from me.
As for that which is far off and exceedingly deep,
Who can find it out?
I applied my heart to know,
To search and seek out wisdom and the reason of things,
To know the wickedness of folly,
Even of foolishness and madness.
a. All this I have proved by wisdom. I said, “I will be wise”; but it was far from me: As the Preacher gives wise advice for living, he understood that his desire to be wise was not always fulfilled with true wisdom.
i. “The honest admission of failure to find wisdom – of watching it in fact recede with every step one takes, discovering that none of our soundings ever gets to the bottom of things – this is, if not the beginning of wisdom, a good path to that beginning.” (Kidner)
b. I applied my heart to know, to search and seek out wisdom and the reason of things: Given his under the sun premise, his meaningless life could not be made meaningful by the attainment of wisdom.
4. (26-29) Searching for wisdom, the Preacher sees man’s sinfulness.
And I find more bitter than death
The woman whose heart is snares and nets,
Whose hands are fetters.
He who pleases God shall escape from her,
But the sinner shall be trapped by her.
“Here is what I have found,” says the Preacher,
“Adding one thing to the other to find out the reason,
Which my soul still seeks but I cannot find:
One man among a thousand I have found,
But a woman among all these I have not found.
Truly, this only I have found:
That God made man upright,
But they have sought out many schemes.”
a. I find more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are fetters: In his unsatisfying search for wisdom, Solomon understood that a woman could be a danger and a trap. It was important to not let that happen; he who pleases God shall escape from her.
i. But the sinner shall be trapped by her: “‘In her,’ in the snare which is herself.” (Deane) “The wanton woman, that shame of her sex. A [dog], Moses calls her (Deuteronomy 23:18).” (Trapp)
ii. Knowing Solomon wrote this, it makes us wish we knew more about when Solomon wrote this; at what point in his life. We know from 1 Kings 11:4: For it was so, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the LORD his God. Surely, Solomon himself was caught in these snares and nets and fetters.
iii. Those who think that Ecclesiastes is the statement of Solomon’s repentance and evidence that he turned his heart back to the LORD his God, this section is Solomon’s way of saying, “I understood my error and turned from it.” Those who are unsure of Solomon’s repentance will place the writing of Ecclesiastes earlier in his life.
iv. All in all it is a fascinating question, and one (in the mind of this writer) that has no definitive answer: Was Solomon one who pleased God in escaping from this trap, or was he the sinner trapped by her?
b. I cannot find: One man among a thousand I have found. But a woman among all these I have not found: Solomon could find a rare man in a thousand with wisdom; but not even one woman. This speaks more about Solomon’s choice of female companionship than it does about the relative wisdom of men and women.
i. “His fruitless search for a woman he could trust may tell us as much about him and his approach, as about any of his acquaintances.” (Kidner)
ii. “Such as he knew her to be in Oriental courts and homes, denied her proper position, degraded, uneducated, all natural affections crushed or underdeveloped, the plaything of her lord, to be flung aside at any moment. It is not surprising that Koheleth’s impression of the female sex should be unfavorable.” (Deane)
iii. “He found that a harem did not provide the appropriate companion for man. How much better he would have been with one good wife, such as he speaks of in Ecclesiastes 9:9 and Proverbs 31!” (Wright)
c. This only I have found: That God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes: Solomon understood that God made man without sin, but man has – since the time of Adam – sought out many schemes of sin and rebellion against God.
i. We take Solomon’s statement “God made man upright” not to refer to each individual, but to man as he was originally made, to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. “He was created neither sinful, nor neutral, but upright, a word used of the state of the heart which is disposed to faithfulness or obedience.” (Eaton)
ii. “Since futility was not the first word about our world, it no longer has to be the last.” (Kidner)
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission