Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes 7:1-15

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Ecclesiastes 7:1-15

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“In the Day of Adversity Consider”

We now read the last part of the first subsection of the third major section. Despite the book’s several recommendations of enjoying the pleasures of everyday living, including fun and good times with others within the boundaries of God’s law, there are times when we need to get serious—particularly in facing the hard times of life as we see in this section. Remarkably, as bad as many of the negative circumstances here are, bringing suffering, they can be beneficial.

Recall that the last chapter ended with the question of who knows what is really good for man—the unstated answer being God. That question of what is good “becomes the hook on which a series of proverbs giving us some ‘good’ or ‘better’ things is hung . . . things that will prove to be more salutary than prosperity” (Walter Kaiser, Ecclesiastes: Total Life, p. 82). In fact, this is “the longest sequence of better than sayings in the Bible” (James Limburg, Encountering Ecclesiastes, p. 92).

In Ecclesiastes 7:1 we’re first told that “a good name is better than precious ointment”—the latter being “literally ‘good oil,’ meaning the highest grade of olive oil, used for medicines, perfumes, and religious anointing” (ESV Archaeology Study Bible, note on verse 1). There is poetic alliteration here in the Hebrew for “name” and “ointment” or “perfume”—shem and shemen respectively (as noted by Kaiser, p. 83). Some contend that this line does not fit the context that follows of sadness and hardship being better than laughter and celebration. But indeed it does. A good name is a reference to a good reputation established through the development of good character—which comes through trials and tests of character. Precious oils and scents were valuable commodities—luxuries for those of means to enjoy. Recall that Ecclesiastes 5:19 said it was right for the wealthy to enjoy the wealth God blessed them with. But while that is true, godly life is not all fun. It’s also hard work and building character and faith or trust in God through the hard times. And this is by far the more valuable treasure (see Romans 5:3-4; 1 Peter 1:6-7). It should be mentioned that another saying concerning perfuming ointment in Ecclesiastes 10:1 will head up another list of proverbs. In that case dead flies fouling the ointment is compared to reputation being sullied through folly.

Now note next the second part of Ecclesiastes 7:1: “And the day of death [is better than] the day of one’s birth.” Just what is meant here? Possibly, as many think, that the day an individual dies is better than the day that individual was born. Some who accept that reading see it as wholly pessimistic—in line with thoughts that one is better off dead than alive (though Ecclesiastes 9:4 says the opposite). Yet we might consider this latter part of Ecclesiastes 7:1 in the context of the first part—so that the day of death would parallel a good name. At the day of one’s birth there is no established reputation—only a clean slate. But at the day of death one has an established reputation. This could go with verse 8, “The end of a thing is better than its beginning”—as there is an accomplishment. If one has gained a good name by the end of his life, that juncture is better than birth because of what has been achieved—and the one who dies then rests from trials in unconscious death (Ecclesiastes 9:5, Ecclesiastes 9:10) and will be rewarded in the future resurrection. On the other hand, if one has done evil and incurred a bad name, then the point of death can also be seen as better than the day of birth since this fruitless, futile life is brought to a close and the person will be raised up in a better world to face judgment and have the opportunity to make better choices. And for those who have ultimately rejected God in utter refusal to ever repent, it is better that their misery and the misery they cause others be brought to an end, with a brief final sentencing to oblivion awaiting in the future.

Yet some read this latter part of verse 1 quite differently, as referring not to the experience of one’s own birth and death but to social observances of the birth and death of others. That is, what one experiences when someone else dies, a time of mourning and a funeral, is better than what he or she experiences at someone’s initial day of birth or annual birthday, a time of celebration. This is quite reasonable, as the line would then parallel the lines that follow: “Better to go to the house of mourning [either literally a house where someone has died or figuratively a funeral or mourning period] than to go to the house of feasting [a party or celebration], for that [the former] is the end of all men; and the living will take it to heart” (verse 2). That is to say, a funeral or mourning period has the benefit of making other people think about their own mortality. The Contemporary English Version renders the last phrase, “Funerals remind us that we all must die.” We see the same thought in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: “Every funeral anticipates our own” (Eaton, note on verse 2). This is a valuable reminder for everyone. In Psalm 90:12, Moses prays to God, saying, “So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Thinking about our mortality—not unduly so, as mentioned in Ecclesiastes 5:20, but in balance—can motivate us to get right with God and make the best use of our time in this life.

Ecclesiastes 7:3-4 in stating that sorrow is better than laughter and that sadness makes the heart better—transitioning into wisdom versus foolishness—goes beyond the observance of a funeral or mourning period. While the passage includes this, it’s speaking of life more generally. This is not to say that laughter is bad. Ecclesiastes 9:7 later encourages us to have a “merry heart,” which Proverbs 17:22 tells us “does good, like medicine,” and laughter is part of that. But laughter in the wrong context is not helpful. Remember that Ecclesiastes 3:4 said there is a time to laugh and a time to weep. There are many mournful things in the world and in our own lives that should move us to sadness. We are not to stoically bottle up or stuff down our feelings in this regard. God expects us to “sigh and cry over all the abominations” we see in society (Ezekiel 9:4)—to cry out over the pain all must go through and for relief. We are to be remorseful and repentant over our own sins. And we are to be sorrowful over sufferings— our own and those of others. This will actually help us to feel better, as long as we do not become despondent. Being sad over problems can help us to face them, to heal and to move forward in life. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). That will ultimately come in the Kingdom of God, but God gives us comfort today as well.

The heart of the wise being in the house of mourning (Ecclesiastes 7:4) concerns the appropriate response to life’s sorrows or trials—“the day of adversity,” as we see in verse 14. This is in contrast to the heart of fools being in the house of mirth (verse 4). Here again is something undesirable that is actually beneficial—while what we’d prefer at that time is not really good for us. This is true of trials in general that God lets us go through. They should not be viewed as some kind of proof that God is not ruling the universe and has no plan being worked out or that He does not care about us. Rather, they should be kept in proper perspective—as being within God’s wise and loving purpose.

Tommy Nelson comments on Ecclesiastes 7 in A Life Well Lived: “Trials always have a very beneficial purpose. Trials show you what you are…. [and] that you can’t make it on your own. Trials perfect you. Trials bring you to the end of your physical, intellectual rope. Trials make you pray. Trials make you go to the Word. Trials make you trust…. Trials also prove you [testing your character]…. Trials also humanize you [making you sympathetic to the sufferings of others]…. They do good things in us. The only problem is that these trials are things we don’t necessarily want to experience” (pp. 94-95).

Looking back to verse 1, he points out: “Solomon says that God wants to give you a good name, not just a good time. Pain is an integral part of that process. Why? Because good times can fool you” (p. 96).

The “house of mirth” in verse 4 could refer to just good times with friends, to parties and entertaining guests or to visiting people in celebrating happy occasions—when serious matters need attending to instead. It could even refer to a tavern and going there to drink and laugh and ignore the pain. Yet this just masks it temporarily. So the mirth or laughter here is a kind of denial of reality—not facing up to problems, engaging in escapism and drowning sorrows. As Nelson writes: “Plenty of people in America are having a good time, but they are deceived. They use pleasure to dull the pain so they don’t have to acknowledge the deep needs of their souls [—of their hearts and minds]…. Why is sorrow better than laughter? Because, the text says, a person who is laughing is not really facing reality. He’s not learning anything about the nature of life; he’s just pretending that happiness will make him whole. But man’s highest purpose is not simply to enjoy life, but rather to know God” (pp. 97-98).

Of course, none of this is to say we should not laugh and have fun in life—that we should just avoid feasting and pleasure. The repeated refrain of Ecclesiastes is that we eat and drink with companionship in enjoyment of the fruit of our labor as God’s good gifts. This definitely has its place—and not just a little, for we need it often and regularly. But this life is not—nor was it meant to be—one long party. That would not serve us well. We often need to get serious—to have life punctuated with sober reflection. Consider that we routinely eat and drink but that we should have times of fasting to draw near to God and contemplate what’s most important. And we should have far more times of serious meditation.

In verses 5-6 we see two proverbs that draw further contrast between wisdom and foolishness in reacting to life’s difficulties. The first, in verse 5, says it’s better to hear the rebuke of the wise than the song of fools. Solomon’s father David had written of the strike or rebuke of the righteous as a kindness and valuable oil not to be refused (Psalm 141:5). Solomon laid out other proverbs about the value in accepting rebuke and the harm in disdaining correction (Proverbs 13:18; Proverbs 15:31-32; Proverbs 27:5-6). Regarding the song of fools, Amos 6:3-7 would later decry the Israelites who were living it up, including with idle singing, while the nation was about to be invaded and the people deported. This was a distraction—a way to keep people from facing up to the real problems.

Nelson writes: “You’ve probably had someone you respect approach you and say, ‘We need to talk.’… Then he drops the bomb on you about some blind spot or area of sin in your life. Is that an enjoyable thing? Of course not…. Wouldn’t you rather listen to some random guy in a piano bar? Then you wouldn’t have to deal with it. Wouldn’t that be better than having some wise man tell you of sin in your life and direct you to change? Nobody enjoys an experience like that…. But we won’t ever be truly happy if we don’t have some wise folks who’ll come alongside us and give us a good rebuke. If we can’t take that rebuke, we’ll be failures” (p. 100). Again, what seems objectionable can be helpful, while that which seems pleasant can detract from fulfilling life’s purposes.

Verse 6 compares the laughter of the fool to the crackling of burning thorns under a pot. There is alliterative poetry in verses 5-6—with the Hebrew words for “song,” “pot” and “thorns” being shir, sir and sirim respectively (Kaiser, p. 83). The Moffatt Translation attempts to reflect this in English in verse 6: “For like nettles crackling under kettles is the cackle of a fool.” What is this meant to show? As the NKJV Study Bible points out, “Burning thorns will provide quick flames, little heat, and a lot of noise, just like the sudden outbursts of laughter among fools; there is more noise than substance” (note on verses 5- 6). It might be that in context “the smirking laughter of fools is their response to the advice of the wise…: they laugh because in their eyes the wise man’s rebuke is empty—they think he has no idea what he is talking about” (Garrett, The New American Commentary, note on verses 5-6). Or the verse might just be a more general statement about a fool trying to laugh off some problem—where he won’t be laughing for long. “The simile portrays the fool as both worthless (like thorns) and about to be destroyed (burning under a pot)” (same note). So the burning thorns are also a symbol of judgment—and swift judgment, as the thorns’ flare-up is short-lived (see Psalm 58:9). As Jesus said, “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:25).

The next verse—“Surely oppression destroys a wise man’s reason, and a bribe [or gift] debases the heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:7)—might seem out of place amid the surrounding proverbs. How does it fit in context? Let’s first note that other forms of this maxim occur elsewhere. God said through Moses, “You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show partiality, nor take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous” (Deuteronomy 16:19; compare Exodus 23:8). Here is a way that people can have their resolve broken and be turned off the right track—and that does relate to what’s being said in Ecclesiastes 7. Recall that verse 4 mentioned the heart of the wise being in the house of mourning while the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. The mourning involves trials and learning from them. But verse 7 may be warning that if the pressure—or oppression by circumstances—is too great, a person might crack. The wise man’s reason being destroyed could refer to a wise person’s thinking being twisted or to wise advice that’s been given being abandoned. The person accepting a bribe surrenders to what is desired. And it seems likely here that this is to be equated with the escapism and denial provided by the foolish laughter and fun in the house of mirth.

Matthew Henry’s Commentary presents a different analysis of verse 7, seeing here not corruption through receiving bribes but a giving heart destroyed: “Surely it is often too true that oppression makes a wise man mad. If a wise man be much and long oppressed, he is very apt to speak and act unlike himself, to lay the reins on the neck of his passions, and break out into indecent complaints against God and man, or to make use of unlawful dishonourable means of relieving himself. The righteous, when the rod of the wicked rests long on their lot, are in danger of putting forth their hands to iniquity, Psa[lm]_125:3. When even wise men have unreasonable hardships put upon them they have much ado to keep their temper and to keep their place. It destroys the heart of a gift (so the latter clause may be read); even the generous heart that is ready to give gifts, and a gracious heart that is endowed with many excellent gifts, is destroyed by being oppressed.” Yet the bribery imagery seems more likely, given the similar expressions in the law.

Either way, Ecclesiastes 7:7 serves as encouragement to stay the course against the pressure and enticement to give in and go along with the foolishness of the world.

That fits well with the perseverance spoken of in verse 8. It states, “The end of a thing is better than its beginning; the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.” This does not mean that it’s better for something to be over and done because it was bad. This is talking about the end of anything being better because of results—what has been achieved. The beginning has nothing to really show for it, being mainly talk and perhaps boasting. But the end reveals the outcome. Just so, in our lives before God with its hardships we need to persevere to the finish. Jesus said that “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22; Matthew 24:13). In the face of life’s difficulties, we need to patiently hold out for the final outcome. We need to consider that the trials will eventually conclude and that there will be some accomplishment. In fact, we should recognize that the plan of God is progressing toward something—in each life and in the world at large. To endure we need to be patient, not proud—not self-focused on getting our own way against consideration of God and others, thinking we know best and laughing at wisdom as in verse 6. We need to trust that God knows best.

Verse 9 tells us not to go the opposite route from patience and lash out at life’s difficulties in anger. It could be anger at the world and even anger at God for things being bad. Yet we must never rush to anger, allowing ourselves to be vexed or exasperated, in which case we’ll act foolishly (Proverbs 14:17). We must wait it out. James 1:19-20 sums up, “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”

The next verse, Ecclesiastes 7:10, instructs us, “Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For you do not inquire wisely concerning this.” Some take this to mean that we should not be glorifying the past or imagining “the good old days” when corruption was not so common—as such never existed. Yet some times in history are indeed better than later times in various respects, and certain past times in a person’s life may have been better than later times. And it could well prove instructive to explore why the shifts happened. (Solomon’s own life is a case in point.) What of the verse, then? Consider the context of going through trials and hard times. The questioner is reflecting back to before the difficulties and is really asking: “Why can’t things be the same as they were? Why do these hard times have to come along?” This is actually an accusation against God’s wise rule, asking ultimately why God wouldn’t keep life the way it was. This kind of thinking is what Solomon calls unwise. For God is doing something of vast benefit. He is working out a great plan that, as just mentioned, is progressing toward an end result. We can’t know all it entails. But we should trust the work that God is doing in our lives and in the lives of others. Keeping things the same, sparing us from all trials, would be to our great detriment and, ultimately, destruction.

Verses 11-12 continue the discussion of reacting to life’s difficulties with wisdom and also return to the matter of wealth by way of comparison. The first part of verse 11 is probably better rendered, “Wisdom is good in common with an inheritance” (see Tyndale, note on verses 11-12). That is, it’s good to have wisdom as it’s good to have an inheritance, both being “profitable” (verse 11b). The first part of verse 12 literally reads, with interpolated words in brackets, “[To be] in the shadow of wisdom [is like being] in the shadow of silver” (or money)—that is, behind a shield or protective wall, thus “defense” in the NKJV. Wisdom and money both give help and protection in life. But where knowledge or wisdom excels, or is profitable, above money is in giving life—preserving life, giving direction in how to live, and showing the way to eternal life. Money, though helpful while we have it, can dry up and disappear (compare Ecclesiastes 5:14; Proverbs 23:4-5). Those with wealth often trust in it as a fortress (Proverbs 18:11), when true security lies in God (verse 10). Solomon will later give more on wisdom as defense, surpassing strength (see Ecclesiastes 7:19; Ecclesiastes 9:16, Ecclesiastes 9:18). Of course, wisdom has its limits too, as we will see—except for the ultimate wisdom that trusts in God.

Verses 13-15 of Ecclesiastes 7 appear to conclude the current subsection. In looking back over what’s been stated so far in regard to the troubles of this life, we’re told, “Consider the work of God; for who can make straight what He has made crooked?” (verse 13). It was stated in Ecclesiastes 1:15 that “What is crooked cannot be made straight.” Things are so bent out of shape in the world at large and in our personal lives that they can’t be put back humanly—we need God’s intervention. Moreover, as part of judgment and teaching man lessons for a hopeful outcome, God is actually the One who has subjected the world to frustration for the time being, just as we’re told in Romans 8:20. We must understand that the hard times we experience are ultimately from God’s hand as well as the good times. This does not mean that God causes all the bad circumstances, but He allows us to go through them for His all-wise reasons. This is also another caution against human arrogance in thinking we know better than God how He should have the world be at present, harking back to the foolish question in verse 10 of why things can’t be as they once were and the idea of a man contending with God in Ecclesiastes 6:10-12 when only He knows what is best and what the future holds.

Ecclesiastes 7:14 tells us even more directly that both good and bad times come from God—that we should be joyful over prosperity but in adversity consider and recognize that it’s from God too, as whatever happens is ultimately because He allows it and sometimes directly brings it to pass. Recall what Job said to his wife in the midst of his trial: “Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?” (Job 2:10). Think about what happened to Job. He endured terrible things from Satan because God allowed it. In fact, God even prodded Satan into this. But it was for a transcendent purpose. Realize that God is shaping all of us to be part of His Kingdom forever. And He knows what is truly needed and best for all of us.

Notice further that Ecclesiastes 7:14 is another instance, albeit an abbreviated form, of the book’s refrain telling us to be joyful in prosperity. God wants us to enjoy the prosperity He blesses us with. But this encouragement is here presented with another focus—that God is in charge of the bad times too: “Surely God has appointed the one as well as the other.” Jeremiah would later write in Lamentations 3:38, “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that woe and well-being proceed?” God has His reasons, but they are often inscrutable. Man can’t know all that God is working out, especially in an overall sense, as we saw in Ecclesiastes 3:11. “Therefore,” as the NIV renders the end of Ecclesiastes 7:14, “no one can discover anything about their future.” Life’s happenings are not just formulaic—just do good and be blessed or do bad and suffer. Life is unpredictable—by design.

Nelson comments: “If you’re in a time of pain and adversity right now, be patient. A day of prosperity is coming. And if you’re in a time of prosperity in which everything is great, start preparing. A day of pain and adversity is just around the corner” (p. 108). But God is working things out for the best (Romans 8:28). Nelson goes on to mention Moses, who was miraculously rescued as a child to grow up amid wealth and splendor only to lose it all when he killed an Egyptian abusing his people and had to hide in the desert for 40 years. “Why would God allow this to happen to him? Because God used all of it—even the consequences of his sin and the forty years in the desert—to prepare Moses to set His people free” (p. 110). Realize that God is preparing all of us for the future.

Ecclesiastes 7:15 is thought by some to go thematically with verses that follow, and it may, but it does naturally go with what was just stated—being the extreme example of not being able to predict what this life will bring even in terms of moral choices. Solomon says he’s seen it all in his frustrating life— reflecting here on a just man perishing and a wicked man’s life being prolonged. This goes against what we might assume would happen. But we don’t know what God is doing here or in which cases this will happen and why. We just have to trust Him, not relying on simple “this leads to that” reasoning that will be confounded. Recall that this was the wrong reasoning of Job’s friends in assuming the worst of Job to explain his suffering. Life is just not as simple as that. As the Tyndale commentary notes on verses 15-18, the believer must “face life in this world as it really is. Forewarned is forearmed (cf. 1 Peter 4:12).”

However, Solomon still has more to say on all this. He will point out in the next subsection that no one is really innocent (Ecclesiastes 7:20). And near the end of the current major section of the book he states that even though the life of the wicked may be prolonged, things will ultimately be well with those who live life with a proper fear of God and will not be well with the wicked (see Ecclesiastes 8:12-13). The psalmist and seer Asaph, a music leader during the reign of Solomon’s father David, had earlier lamented over the prosperity of the wicked before gaining proper perspective (see Psalm 73).

Concerning the death of the righteous, Isaiah would later write that people failed to consider that this was a way to spare them and bring them peace (Isaiah 57:1-2)—their future resurrection being in view. Of course, that can be a trial for others still living. But as this section shows, adversity is not always the worst thing. God uses trials to better us—for the great goal He is working toward. Think about the fact that the foremost just man died young in perfect righteousness and total innocence—Jesus Christ—while the wicked, the rest of the world at large, live on in sin. But Christ’s adversity, horrific as it was, was for the best—the ultimate best. Amazingly, both God the Father and Jesus Christ went through the greatest trial of all time for the benefit that would result for Them and all. The wicked are prolonged sometimes to give them opportunity to repent but more often in this age to serve as lessons to themselves and others, including the righteous. Yet the wicked are not always prolonged. And the righteous do not always perish early. It is often the other way around. We just can’t find out what God is working out—not yet while we are in this life under the sun.