Here’s a summary of the teaching of Ecclesiastes 7:1-6 which I will elaborate on Sunday morning.
Ecclesiastes 7:1-6 (NIV) reads, “A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth. It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure. It is better to heed a wise man’s rebuke than to listen to the song of fools. Like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools. This too is meaningless.“
“A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth.”
Firstly, it is as if the Teacher is saying: a crowd will welcome a fool if he is wearing a good perfume even if he stinks, but when the perfume wears off he’ll be nothing but a stinking fool. However, if a man with a good name (character/wise-hearted) joins a crowd, his welcome will not wear off even if he stinks. Another way of illuminating the analogy would be to say, just as a good character and reputation are more important to a successful life than the accessories you might carry with you in life. So too, reflecting upon and living in light of your own death will enrich your experience and success in life. Remember: ‘success’ has to do with wisdom and not material gain or comfort. Derek Kidner explains the passage this way, “In the same way, the day of death has more to teach us about life than the day of our birth. The lessons we learn from death are more factual and paradoxically more vital.”
“It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man;”
Secondly, the Teacher tells us, a character of wisdom (a good name) is grown in painful places and not at parties. I wonder how many college freshman moving onto campus’ this weekend believe this to be true?
“the living should take this to heart.“
Thirdly, he says, a heart of wisdom (a good name) is grown inside out not outside in. To take this into your heart means to meditate upon it, to work it in, and to receive it as a precious truth. Only in taking it in will you be able to live it out.
“Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.“
Fourthly, the teacher shows us that a heart of wisdom (a good name) is not acquired by the avoidance of suffering and sadness. The avoidance of suffering and sadness is the predominate malady of our age. C.S. Lewis went so far as to say that this is the enchantment to which we had succumbed in our age. In his sermon “The Weight of Glory”, he writes,
“Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.”
Alan Jacobs in his biography of Lewis, goes on to explain that that the evil enchanters of our age are the magicians and scientists who have told us and tell us that we can have heaven on earth. And what is the “strongest spell that can be found”? It is, of course, the God Spell or the gospel.
“It is better to heed a wise man’s rebuke than to listen to the song of fools.”
Fifthly, he teaches us that a character of wisdom (a good name) is acquired through discipline (wise man’s rebuke) and not diversion (song of fools) .
“Like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools. This too is meaningless.“
(As an aside: Derek Kidner references another commentator who attempts to capture the Hebrew literary device either a pun or alliteration between “thorns” and “pot” as “nettles under kettles”–I just think that’s cool.) And so finally, the Teacher is reminding us that a deep and abiding joy (wisdom) is not the fast igniting highly combustible fire of thorns, but it is a hard to ignite, slow burning, and long-lasting fire of an oak.
The point of these sayings as it relates to the larger theme of Ecclesiastes is not as one might initially reckon as a morose obsession with death, but rather he is addressing how one may acquire the deep, abiding joy that, as Paul says, “surpasses knowledge.” For the Teacher, a deep, abiding, and unshakable joy is just that only if it is able to face death.