Better Is…, part 2 (Ecclesiastes 7:5-6)

According to Proverbs, one of the key skills in developing wisdom is the act of discernment, being able to obtain sharp perceptions for the sake of judging well.  As we judge well, we choose the path that leads to satisfaction and flourishing; when we don’t judge well, we choose paths that lead to sorrow and diminishing.  Discernment involves choosing between alternatives.  It is a skill we all must learn.

There are several steps to discernment.

First, we must realize that there are absolute truths—truths that remain true for all people at all times in every culture.  God’s Word is truth and gives us clear examples of truth and error, right and wrong, good and evil.  From this, we can discern which path to take.

Jesus said it clearly, “Judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24).  In other words, judge on the basis of recognized standards of truth and justice.

Second, we need to ask God for help.  Not every situation is clear-cut between good and evil.

Early in his reign King Solomon said: “Now O LORD my God, You have made Your servant king instead of my father David, but I am a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.… Therefore give to Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:7, 9).

And the psalmist requested of God: “Teach me good judgment and knowledge, for I believe Your commandments” (Psalm 119:66).

Third, we need to practice hating what is evil and loving what is good.  A detached stance towards either will soon lead us to not care enough to make good decisions.

Fourth, seek counsel.  We need the perspective of others to see things we cannot see.

Wise King Solomon emphasized this point in several of his proverbs.

“Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14).

“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise” (Proverbs 12:15).

Even though Solomon was granted so much wisdom and knowledge by God that rulers of other nations came to hear him (1 Kings 4:34; 10:4), he still recognized the value of seeking counsel from others.

Fifth, practice making good judgments.  Athletes and artists know that if they want to become good they have to practice, practice, practice.

The author of the book of Hebrews illustrates this point: “But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14).

Sixth, choose your friends carefully.  Your friends will hold a lot of influence in your life.  Generally we listen to our friends without discernment.  We might suspect the words of others, but embrace the words of our friends without really thinking it through.

Addressing this concept, Solomon wrote: “The righteous should choose his friends carefully, for the way of the wicked leads them astray” (Proverbs 12:26).

In the first century, Paul reiterated this timeless principle: “Do not be deceived: ‘Evil company corrupts good habits’” (1 Corinthians 15:33). He also wrote that we should “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness” (Ephesians 5:11).

Seventh, learn from your mistakes.  You will make mistakes; we all do.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, he similarly said: “For there is not a just man on earth who does good and does not sin” (Ecclesiastes 7:20).  Later, Paul explained, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

The question is not whether we will sin.  That is a given.  What is important is what we will do after we sin.

Will we confess our sin?  Will we learn from your sin?

Solomon begins Ecclesiastes 7 with a series of “better than” statements.  These statements help us distinguish between two paths, one of which is better than the other.  These statements help us develop the ability to discern between two options and make the wise choice.

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).

We looked last week at the “better than” statements relating to life and death.  Today we want to look at the statement which distinguish between wise rebuke and foolish laughter (vv. 5-6).

Verses 1-12 is the context:

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. 

The main thesis of vv. 5-6 is “All things considered it is wiser to live a life of thoughtful self-restraint than to pursue a life of hedonism” (Tom Constable).  These two options come from listening to two different sources with two different messages.

As he talked about the houses of mirth and mourning (Ecclesiastes 7:4), the Preacher drew a contrast between wise and foolish hearts.  The same contrast recurs when Qoheleth introduces a new topic with another comparison:

It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.

Verse 6 says that we have two options, two ways we can spend our time, “to hear the rebuke of the wise” or “to hear the song of fools.”  Some translations render this offering from fools as not a simple, non-directed song, but rather praise, flattery.

Thus the Good News Translation reads, “It is better to have wise people reprimand you than to have stupid people sing your praises.”

Thus, the message seems to focus on pumping us up, making us feel good about ourselves.

In the context of vv. 1-4, it would seem that this is coming from those in “the house of feasting” rather than the “house of mourning” (v. 2) and the “house of mirth” where the “heart of fools” resides.

In other words, you can more likely avoid the “song of fools” by staying away from the parties.

The more serious problem with regard to this option is that it is the “song of fools.”

As you read through Proverbs, you come to realize that Solomon distinguishes between several types of fools.  The most innocent type is the naïve.  We all start out as naïve.  The most serious type, the one we want to avoid becoming at all costs, is the scorner, those that rail against and laugh at God.  These have lost all touch with reality.

In between there are three more types of fools.  The Hebrew word used here is kesil, which literally means “fat.”  The word denotes the type of person who makes the wrong choices because of their sensual appetites. 

As a result, he glories in that which he should be ashamed.  So Proverbs 10:23 says “doing wrong is like a joke to a fool, a kesil.”  His mouth will continually get him in trouble.  Proverbs 18:6-7 describes:

6 A fool’s lips walk into a fight, and his mouth invites a beating. 7 A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul.

Here in Ecclesiastes 7, the mouth of this fool will be a snare to your soul, if you choose to listen to him, or her.

The reason why the “song of the fool” is a trap for you and me is found in Ecclesiastes 7:6:

6 For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity.

The laughter, the gaiety, the joking around, the flattery of fools, does us no good.  Its vanity is illustrated from nature.  It is like “the crackling of thorns under a pot.”

Unless you’ve been camping this simile doesn’t mean much to you, but two things are at play.  First, there is a wordplay; and second, the illustration.

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.  They pop and fizzle, but they soon fizzle out.  Thus, they symbolize the brevity and shallowness of the “song of fools.”

Thus, Adam Clarke relates, “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.”

Richard De Hann explains:

People in Palestine burned dried thorn bushes when they wanted a small amount of quick heat, but they knew they could not use such fuel to cook everything that required a high temperature over a sustained period of time.

Similarly, the merriment of the worldly crowd gives only temporary relief.  It does not solve any problems or bring about a change for the better in a person’s life-style.  The rebuke of a godly man or woman is far more valuable.  (Richard W. De Haan, The Art of Staying Off Dead-end Streets, 105)

Philip Ryken says

Whenever we encounter a metaphor like this, we need to look for the point of comparison.  In what way is foolish laughter like an open fire fueled by branches from a thorn bush?  To begin with, they sound somewhat similar.  The noise made by the crackling of a fire is like the cackling of fools.  More importantly perhaps, a fire made of thorns is very short-lived.  Although it will flame up very quickly (another point of comparison — the fool is ready to laugh at anything), it will not keep burning for long, the way a fire does when it is fueled by logs or burning coals.  As a result, a thorny burning does not give off very much heat — “more flame than fire.”

Although laughter may come easily to the fool, it dies out quickly.  He who laughs the loudest will not necessarily laugh the longest.  Indeed, Jesus said, “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:25).  Our Savior was thinking of the fires of the final judgment, when foolish laughter will perish forever.

Those who know not the gospel even try to laugh in the face of death.  Consider the well-known epitaph of the English poet John Gay: “Life’s a jest, and all things show it. / I thought so once, and now I know it.”

The alternative is to listen to the rebuke of a wise person.  That, according to Solomon, is better.  Of course, this is what most people don’t want to hear.  Their lives are left undisturbed, and maybe even temporarily lightened, by the “songs of the fool,” but rebukes may wound us and certainly are not designed to leave us undisturbed.  Most of us, however, would rather be comfortable than convicted, and changed.

So Solomon encourages us to listen to the rebuke of the wise.

One of the most loving things a person can do for you is to tell you that what you are doing is wrong.  Really. 

It might hurt.  That’s why Solomon says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6).  The “songs of fools” (Eccl. 7:5) are likely the very same thing as the “kisses of an enemy.”

Of course, we don’t see them as an enemy.  Those who flatter us, who approve of us even when we are sinning, seem like friends.  In reality, they are not.  They are enemies in league with Satan.

But to be rebuked is definitely for your good.  Especially when it is done by a friend who truly loves you.  And, as Solomon says here, a wise friend.

Reproof is a fork in the road for a sinful soul. Will we cringe at correction like a curse, or embrace rebuke as a blessing? One of the great themes in Proverbs is that those who embrace rebuke are wise and walk the path of life, while those who despise reproof find themselves to be fools careening toward death.

The Proverbial warnings against dismissing brotherly correction are staggering.  The one who rejects reproof leads others astray (Proverbs 10:17), is stupid (Proverbs 12:1) and a fool (Proverbs 15:5), and despises himself (Proverbs 15:32).  “Whoever hates reproof will die” (Proverbs 15:10), and “poverty and disgrace come to him” (Proverbs 13:18).

But just as astounding are the promises of blessing to those who embrace rebuke.  “Whoever heeds reproof is honored” (Proverbs 13:18) and prudent (Proverbs 15:5).  “He who listens to reproof gains intelligence” (Proverbs 15:32), loves knowledge (Proverbs 12:1), will dwell among the wise (Proverbs 15:31), and is on the path of life (Proverbs 10:17) — because “the rod and reproof give wisdom” (Proverbs 29:15) and “the reproofs of discipline are the way of life” (Proverbs 6:23).

To the one who embraces rebuke, God says, “I will pour out my spirit to you” (Proverbs 1:23), but to the one who despises it, “I will laugh at your calamity” (Proverbs 1:25–26).  

Ironically, Solomon is saying in Ecclesiastes 7:5, “If you listen only to the laughter of fools, ultimate you will experience the laughter of God in times of trouble.”

It will be said of those who reject correction, “They shall eat the fruit of their way, and have their fill of their own devices” (Proverbs 1:30–31), and it’s only a matter of time until they themselves will say, “I am at the brink of utter ruin” (Proverbs 5:12–14).

And when ruin comes for the fool who resists reproof, it will be sudden and devastating: “He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing” (Proverbs 29:1).

The wise recognize rebuke as a gift of gold (Proverbs 25:12).  It is kindness, and a token of love. “Let a righteous man strike me — it is a kindness; let him rebuke me — it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it” (Psalm 141:5).

It is pride that keeps us from receiving a rebuke.  Oh, the person may deliver it, but we won’t hear it unless we humble ourselves and truly listen with an openness to learn and repent.

Kerry Nakatsu offers these helpful steps to receiving a rebuke (summary):

First, develop a positive attitude towards the possibility of being rebuked.  Second, listen to the entire rebuke without interrupting, or preparing a defense or arguing back.  Don’t go on the offensive.

Then, thank the rebuker for loving you enough to rebuke you.  Thank God for the rebuke.

Then confess your sin or fault on the spot and ask for forgiveness.

If you don’t agree with the rebuke, at least give time to think and pray about it.  Then go back and explain how their rebuke helped you (if it did).

Having someone in your life who has the courage to rebuke you is truly a blessing, one we should pray for and cultivate.  Invite someone you know and trust to be that person for you.

In Eccl 7:2-6, Solomon appears to censor laughter and happiness.  However, he is actually rejecting the senseless merriment that characterizes those who ignore life’s realities.  Solomon uses the phrases the heart of fools (v. 4), the song of fools (v. 5), and the laughter of the fool (v. 6) to describe those who mask their empty lives with mirth and folly.  (John A. Stewart, Lamplighters Self-Study: Ecclesiastes, 23)

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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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