Better Is…, part 1 (Ecclesiastes 7:1-4)

At the end of Ecclesiastes 6 the Preacher wondered how we can live well during our few and passing days on this earth.  He answers that question in chapter 7 by making a series of “better than” comparisons.  The Preacher is teaching us how to exercise discernment in choosing the way that we will live.

In Ecclesiastes 7-8 the theme is that God rules history and grants wisdom.  It contains five statements about God surrounded by wisdom statements akin to those in Proverbs.

In 7:13-14 the Teacher claims that God rules both good and bad times (cf. Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28; Isaiah 45:7) but does not explain to us what the future holds, and in 7:15-18 he counsels the fear of God as the means of taking a balanced approach to life (cf. 12:13).  The proverbs and observations in 7:1-12 and 7:19-8:1 suggest caution in thought and in relationships.  The Teacher’s conclusions about the sinfulness of human beings particularly urge caution (7:26-29), so one must be careful in all dealings with others.

The other references to God come after observations about kings and oppression (8:2-10), subjects quite common to Job and Proverbs.  Though the Teacher does not claim that the righteous will always prosper, he does state that those who fear God do fare better in life, in general, than those who do not (8:11-13).

At times injustice is pervasive (8:14), so people must enjoy life offered by the God who governs history (8:15).  Anyone who claims further wisdom than this claims more than is possible (8:16-17). 

This last statement may target Wisdom adherents who indeed believe that they know more.  God has the wisdom the Teacher lists in Ecclesiastes 7-8, but full knowledge still does not emerge.  The secret things belong to God.

So in Ecclesiastes 7 Solomon begins…

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 bosom 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. 

You will notice the change in the book of Ecclesiastes here.  While the early chapters contained extended argumentation, these verses have a variety of proverbs.  Some of them have related themes (like 7:1-4) but others are quite disparate.

Solomon begins with practical proverbs about the meaning of life and death (Ecclesiastes 7:1–4), about the difference between wise rebuke and foolish laughter (Ecclesiastes 7:5–6), and about waiting patiently as we look ahead to see what God will do (Ecclesiastes 7:7–10), followed by a statement summarizing the value of wisdom (Ecclesiastes 7:11–12).

Here in these early verses Solomon is dealing with our lot in life—either prosperity or adversity.  Both of these conditions, he noted, can have good and bad effects—depending on how a person responds to them.  Prosperity is not always or necessarily good (cf. 6:1-12), and adversity, or affliction, is not always or necessarily evil (cf. 7:1-15).  Actually, adversity is often a greater good than prosperity.

The Preacher begins by offering us wisdom for understanding the great matters of life and death. He begins with a double comparison:  “A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth” (Ecclesiastes 7:1).

The first part of this proverb is similar to something that Solomon said elsewhere: “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches” (Proverbs 22:1).

Here in Ecclesiastes the Preacher compares a good reputation to the rich aroma of an exotic fragrance (see also Song 1:3).  He does this by making a Hebrew wordplay that is hard to capture in English, but perhaps this paraphrase comes close: “Fair fame is better than fine perfume.” 

This proverb may have been a popular saying in those days.  In the dusty communities of Biblical times, scented oils and other fragrances were valuable commodities.  Without perfumes, people would literally stink.  The mother rubbed the “good ointment” on her baby and supposedly got it off to a good start in life by doing so

Yet having a name that people admire for integrity is even more valuable.  With every comment we make and every action we take, we either build up or tear down our reputation.

There is a difference between character and reputation which we do well to pay attention to.

John Wooden, the most successful basketball coach in the NCAA with the UCLA Bruins, would tell his young men ““Be more concerned with your character than your reputation. Character is what you really are.  Reputation is what people say you are. Reputation is often based on character – but not always.”

Dwight L. Moody said that character is “what you are in the dark,” when no one but God sees you.  We build character in private, gaining little victories over self.

Reputation is concerned with image.  Saul was an image manager.  He wanted to look good in front of the people even after not obeying God in 1 Samuel 15.

While we should want to have a good name before people, it is more important that we have a good character before the eyes of God.

Should we be concerned about our image, our reputation?  Yes, but we should be more concerned about our character.  For example, elders in the church are supposed to have a good reputation with those outside the church (1 Timothy 3:7).

Qoheleth calls us to wear the cologne of good character. Consider, therefore, what kind of name you are making for yourself. 

When people think about you (or talk about you), what character traits come to mind?  Are you cheerful, or critical?  Are you stingy or generous?  Kind or harsh?

Character is as character does, and sooner or later you will be known for the character you keep. Make a good name — not for yourself but for Jesus.

So Solomon begins with an obvious truth—a good name is better than fine perfume—and couples that with a more startling statement—the day of death is better than the day of birth.  This introduces the first of three shocking statements.  Verse 2 says its better to attend funerals than parties and verse 3 adds that sorrow is better than laughter.

What in the world is Solomon saying?

By the way, we especially need this in these days when COVID-19 and all its variants have us attending more funerals than we would like these days.  Instinctively we want to hide from this and numb of our pains.  Solomon is telling us, wisdom is telling us, not to do that.  Instead, we are to engage in the sobering realities of death, funerals and sorrow.

However, Solomon is not succumbing to a negative view of life full of doom.

Matt McCullough suggests two clarifications:

First, the Preacher has a specific kind of feasting and laughter in mind.  He’s not against having fun or appreciating the goodness and beauty in the world.  For all its moments of bleakness this book also celebrates joy in the good gifts of God (Eccles. 3:4; 5:18–20). Parties have their place.

But there’s a sort of feasting and laughter that’s deceptive and counterproductive.  It’s the sort that Derek Kidner describes as the “hectic, empty gaity of fools, quick to catch alight, quick to fade.”  This sort of levity is a substitute for careful reflection and honest emotional response to life.  It’s a strategy, willful or not, for avoiding whatever might weigh us down or spoil our good time.

Second, when the Preacher says that mourning is better than feasting or death better than birth, it’s not because sorrow and death are good in themselves.  This isn’t simply resignation, some nihilistic acceptance of the power of darkness.  It is rather that, as Kidner puts it, “the day of death has more to teach us than the day of birth.”

It’s not that death is better than life.  It’s that we have more to learn from the sheer fact that our lives will end than from the fact that we’re alive in the first place.

We need to “number our days,” (Psalm 90:12), realizing that our lives will end and we need to make the most of it instead of wasting it.

We learn these lessons not in the house of feasting, where quick-hitting pleasures keep our minds out of gear, but in the house of mourning, where we look long and hard at the truths that rightly break our hearts. “This is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Eccles. 7:2).

When the Preacher tells us it’s better to go to the house of mourning, he’s warning us not to numb ourselves with one diversion after another, living our lives like one long Netflix binge, hoping for happiness in that next episode.

But he doesn’t aim to depress us, either.  Perhaps the most surprising statement in these verses comes in verse 3: “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.”  The reward of sorrow is something better than laughter: genuine gladness.

Both the first day of life and the last day of life have something to offer.  There is great gladness in birth and yes, there is sadness in death.  However, as believers we have a wonderful hope, in which “to die is gain” and leaving this life is “better by far” (Philippians 1:21, 23).

When Didymus the Blind studied this verse, he commented that a believer’s dying day is best because it is “the end and termination of evil” “Commentary on Ecclesiastes,” in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon , ed. J. Robert Wright, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, OT 9 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005), p. 249).

This is why the day of a believer’s death is the best day of all. “In the day of his birth he was born to die,” wrote Thomas Boston, but “in the day of his death he dies to live” (Boston, The Complete Works , 5:484).

Boston further described our dying day as the day we enter a better world, with higher perfection, greater purity, deeper rest, better company, higher perfection, and better employment than the world we entered on the day we were born (Ibid., 5:486ff).

Death is our entrance into glory — what Charles Spurgeon described as the day believers “reach their port, all danger over, and come to their desired haven” (Charles H. Spurgeon, “The Believer’s Deathday Better than His Birthday,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit , Vol. 27 (1882; repr. London: Banner of Truth, 1971), p. 149).

In another place Spurgeon says: “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.” 

We rejoice over Christ’s birth, but we rejoice even more over His death, and ultimately His resurrection.

We look beyond Bethlehem to Calvary, where the Savior in the manger died upon the cross.  It is not the birth of Jesus that saves us, although of course he had to be born before he could die.  Rather it is the death of Jesus that delivers — the shedding of his blood for the atonement of our sins.  It is only because the day of his death was so good — Good Friday, we usually call it — that we can have any hope of life after our own death.

The house of mourning is the best place to take these truths to heart.

The “heart,” mentioned in all three verses, is where we make moral decisions (cf. Prov. 4:23). Thoughtful rather than thoughtless living is wise (cf. Ps. 90:12).

Why choose sorrow over joy?  That is certainly counter-intuitive.  In fact, it sounds foolish.

How do sad faces bring glad hearts?

Again, I quote from Matt McCullough’s online article ”Why Funerals are Better Than Feasts,” where he sees at least two ways, one from within the perspective of Ecclesiastes, and another for which Ecclesiastes prepares us.

First, it puts God’s good gifts in their proper place.

Ecclesiastes helps us enjoy the good gifts of life by preventing us from worshiping or trusting them.  Under the sun no good gift is ours to keep.  That’s what we learn in the house of mourning, and it’s a hard lesson.

If we fail to learn this lesson—if we aim for security in reputations or fortunes or careers or whatever else we build for ourselves—we’ll eventually deal with crippling futility and frustration.  As permanent safeguards even the best gifts of life are vanity.  To trust ourselves to them is to ruin any chance of truly enjoying them.

But if we accept the grief that comes with loss that comes with time, these gifts of God, like manna in the wilderness, don’t have to spoil.  They can instead be what they are, what he intends them to be—not his competition, but tokens of his love for his children.

Consider encouraging passages like Ecclesiastes 2:24: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God” (cf. 3:12–13; 5:18).  These are the Preacher’s sermon applications.  The book’s brutal honesty about what time does to everything aims at joy in God’s good gifts. Mourning helps us accept their limitations.  Accepting their limitations helps us see them for what they are, not for what they aren’t.

Second, the sorrow that Ecclesiastes calls wisdom helps us set our hearts on the only source of true, resilient joy.  Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

If Christ isn’t raised, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, faith in him is as vain and futile as everything else.  May as well eat, drink and be merry (1 Cor. 15:32).  Let’s everybody meet up at the house of feasting after all!  But in fact Christ has been raised, the firstfruits who will bring many sons to glory, beyond the sun, where God himself will be our light (Rev. 21:23).

The house of mourning, where we tell the truth about the fragility of all that we love in this world, helps to lift our eyes and our hopes beyond this world, to the only true comfort in life and in death.

And in this way, ironically, the house of mourning stands in solidarity with another house of feasting.  We skip some parties now not because feasting is wrong, but because not all feasts are equal.  We’re saving our appetites for the banquet Christ has prepared for us, our endless feast in the house of Zion (Isa. 25:6).

Isn’t that great?  I love that last paragraph!

Now, Jesus himself was known to feast on occasion, and the banqueting table is one of the Bible’s most positive images of divine blessing (e.g., Song 2:4; Luke 15:22–23).  Yet even the happiest celebrations can tend to be superficial.

As Derek Kidner wisely observes, “At a birth (and on all festive and gay occasions) the general mood is excited and expansive.  It is no time for dwelling on life’s brevity or on human limitations: we let our fancies and our hopes run high.  At the house of mourning, on the other hand, the mood is thoughtful and the facts are plain.  If we shrug them off, it is our fault: we shall have no better chance of facing them.”

Going to a good funeral helps us think wisely about death.  It causes us to mourn, which enables us to receive the comfort that Jesus promised to those who mourn (Matthew 5:4).  Going to a funeral encourages sober contemplation of our own mortality, and this in turn teaches us how to live. 

Going to a funeral is better in this sense: it teaches us to be wise in the way we live and prepare to die.  May you and I learn how to live and die for God’s glory.

A good funeral also helps us prepare to die. Many people are not prepared to die at all, to their own folly. In his novel The Second Coming , Walker Percy writes:

The present-day unbeliever is crazy because he finds himself born into a world of endless wonders, having no notion how he got here, a world in which he eats, sleeps . . . works, grows old, gets sick, and dies . . . takes his comfort and ease, plays along with the game, watches TV, drinks his drink, laughs . . . for all the world as if his prostate were not growing cancerous, his arteries turning to chalk, his brain cells dying by the millions, as if the worms were not going to have him in no time at all (Walker Percy, quoted in Marvin Olasky, “Wanting both: Looking for love in the right places,” World (December 22, 2004), p. 96).

The believer in Christ, by contrast, is ready to die.  One of the solemn duties of every believer is to die well, and this takes a lifetime of preparation:

Hanging on the edge of a precipice, engulfed by terror, is not the time or place to learn about emergency rock-climbing procedures; you have to learn about them before you start the expedition. Likewise, we have to start learning about death now, while we are still healthy . . . before we are blinded by denial and fighting valiantly for hope (Virginia Morris, Talking About Death Won’t Kill You , quoted in Olasky, “Whistling past the graveyard,” pp. 55–56).

One of the best ways to learn about death, and how to live our lives, is by helping people bury their dead, and reminding ourselves how to live and die for God’s glory.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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