The Beginning and End of Things
A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth. 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. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity. Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart. Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.
Jesus said, Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.
In reality, the beginning and end of things is that the end of a thing is always the beginning of the next. God sits outside of both the beginning and the end - He waits for us to end our foolishness so we can begin again in wisdom.
Solomon's opening line from chapter seven, "A good name is better than precious ointment” is similar to Proverbs 22:1, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches.” Right or wrong, someone’s name links to his or her reputation (in our world immediately viral). Just like the fragrance of an expensive ointment fills the room, so can one’s good reputation be a blessing to those around him. The insight of ancient Hebrew scribe and allegorist Ben Sira is profound,
“Take care of your name, for it will remain for you longer than a thousand stores of gold. The goodness of life lasts only for a few days, but the goodness of a name lasts forever.”
While the first part of Solomon's saying is fairly simple to understand, the second part is more difficult - "and the day of death than the day of birth."
Why would someone’s death-day be better than his or her birth-day? We typically celebrate one’s birthday, but grieve and mourn one’s death day. Maybe Solomon praises the day of death for someone one who found no meaning or satisfaction in a God-fearing, meaningful life. If so, that's pretty harsh - even for Solomon. He does not say why the end of one’s life was better than the beginning, but I personally believe his intention is to actually force the point of the process. The process of life's beginning to end and how we will navigate wisely or foolishly. He calls for an honest reflection and evaluation on how one should live beginning to end - good times and bad times. This of course relates to the lasting impact and influence of a person's good name and reputation which is important. Reputations are built and torn down in many ways. Having built a reputation of a good and generous life of loving, serving and honoring God the day one dies would not be grievous or sad but grateful and joyous. Something to welcome not to fear, the person without that reputation does not have that.
If we look at verses 2-4 he connects the two ideas by saying...“there is much to be gained by an honest reflection of death.” While verse 1 does not tell why a good name is better than precious ointment, or why the death day is better than the birthday, it is probably because verse 2 gives us the reason that mourning is better than laughter and feasting: because “the living will take it to heart.” While food at a feast goes through the stomach, honest reflection goes through the heart, and death reminds us that we are mortal and finite, our earthly journey will eventually come to an end (verse 2). If one’s death day is “better than one’s birthday, Solomon concludes that “sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.” The Hebrew text sets the contrast between good and bad: “For in sadness of face the heart is made good.” Following that thinking subsequently, he says that the wise will seek to be at a memorial rather than a celebration. The wise and the fool are compared and contrasted in a very no-nonsense way. Both have a heart, but one seeks a place where the heart will contemplate while the other seeks a place where the heart seeks enjoyment. “The wise, knowing life’s futility, are melancholy, while fools have a good time.”
In verse 5, Solomon says, “It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.” In King David's book of Psalms, God is always the one who corrects and rebukes. Here, Solomon suggests that the wise serve as God’s agents to correct the ones who need it. No matter how humbling or difficult it is sometimes to hear correction from another person is better than listening to the demeaning and deceptive droning of a foolish and shallow person.
The saying in verse 6 is, "The laughter of fools is as irritating as the crackling of thorns on fire." The laughter of fools provides no instruction or edification, just like thorns on fire produce no heat. They are both useless.
Finally, verse 7. The word translated “oppression” can also be translated “cheating,” or “dishonest.” Neither cheating nor receiving bribes should be part of the wise lifestyle. If cheating and dishonesty finds its way into one’s life, the wise one becomes a fool and the fool a dishonest cheat. The teaching against taking bribes doesn't originate with Solomon. In the Torah, Moses wrote, “You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous.” Solomon's conclusion probably came from the personal experience of his own disobedience. Alarmingly, even wisdom is not foolproof when the foolishness of disobedience is allowed to continue.
“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
- C. S. Lewis
In this mystery Solomon pushes us to wrestle with concepts such as death, reputation, balanced living, the pursuit of wisdom, and reverent humility. Our current trends on those concepts are interesting: don't talk about death so reputations don't matter, live out of the box not in balance, information is more important than wisdom, and humility is boring and won't get many "likes." But from the beginning of this chapter we can see the value of reputation and its importance as one eventually considers death. In the house of mourning we learn to value this life and gain a perspective that our time on earth is short lived. The realization of our own death calls our current decisions thinking into question. We must also acknowledge that we will be held accountable for our actions (12:14). Furthermore, we must also acknowledge that the pursuit of wisdom is far better than the lifestyle and the outcome of a fool.
Although one cannot rely on secular literature and ideology to determine what is considered wise in the world’s eyes, there are still some fascinating links. The qualified and those interested studying such things found that wisdom was most frequently linked with social intelligence, emotional maturity, fewer mental health problems and breakdowns, sociability, open-mindedness, and even-temperedness. In other similar studies, researchers found that wisdom resulted in better transition for men and women through mid-life crisis and hormonal changes. Interestingly, the research on wisdom found no connection between life’s problems (bad days) and life satisfaction (good days). In fact, top psychologists found that those who experienced troubles and life difficulty actually showed increased wisdom compared with those who did not experience hardship and struggle. This would suggest that to the wise person circumstances are opportunities for growth and not necessarily barriers and obstacles to life. One variable that appears very important in developing wisdom in the psychological community is called ego resilience: how one finds meaning and purpose during stressful times. Sound familiar?
The point of this mystery is this: We will not successfully navigate the beginning and end of things if we choose foolishness over wisdom in those most critical moments. There must be meaning and there absolutely must be purpose to both the beginning and the end of all things. Solomon shows us the possibility of constructive life lessons in the suffering and difficulty. Enduring hardship using this template creates the opportunity for wisdom to be gained while all but eliminating the foolish outcome of senseless and useless suffering.
"The greatest danger of trials, compromise, impatience, anger, tragedy, discontent and difficulty is not always the experience itself, but foolishly having the experience without gaining any wisdom."
- steve isaac
In this life we will all face various degrees of adversity and trouble - it is those who determine to find wisdom who learn how to overcome what comes next. Wisdom is indispensable; all of life is under the hand of God. So the first 6 verses of chapter 7 follow the overall theme of Ecclesiastes with the question: Will the life of faith survive hard and troublesome times when the ‘good old days’ have gone and the ‘days of adversity’ come?
This is the mystery of wisdom and foolishness - the beginning and the end of things.