Enjoy this Ecclesiastes 7 Commentary!
The value of difficult things over pleasant things
So, in Ecclesiastes 7:1-14, the Preacher talks to us about the value of difficult things over pleasant things.
We might notice that our life seems to be filled with difficult things – difficult people, difficult situations, problems that are over our head, etc. And it’s when life is filled with these kinds of things that we’re most likely to bitterly contend with God.
But, the Preacher wants us to think differently about difficult things. He asserts that they’re more valuable than the pleasant things that you and I prefer to experience.
So, let’s read Ecclesiastes 7:1…
7:1 A good name [reputation] is better than precious ointment [perfume];
Well, that’s not so bad. Who doesn’t want a good reputation? I’d want that. But would you agree that it’s hard to gain a good reputation and really easy to lose it? In that sense, it’s difficult. Whereas, perfume is pleasant and it’s a good thing – but the value of the difficult in this case is greater than the value of the pleasant.
And, so, I think that statement is easy to accept, but what do you think about the second part of Ecclesiastes 7:1?…
and the day of death [is better] than the day of one’s birth.
Now, when you think of it, both of these days are difficult. But at least you don’t remember the day of your birth. Plus, there’s so much hope when you’re born. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. Your parents are happy. Everyone’s happy. In those senses it’s a pleasant thing.
But then the day of your death. What’s pleasant about that? I mean, really, the only pleasantness that we can derive from it is if we’re believers and if death is simply our entrance into life. And yet, even then, can’t you wish for some other way to enter into glory? Isn’t this one reason we yearn for the rapture of the Church? We don’t want to experience death. The day of one’s death is difficult. And yet, the Preacher wants us to value this day above your birth day.
Why? Let’s keep reading…
2 It is better to go to the house of mourning [a funeral], than to go to the house of feasting: for that [death] is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart.
So, Ecclesiastes 7:2 sheds more light on why the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth. Death is the end of everyone. And therefore – don’t try to avoid it. Rather, take it to heart. Consider this truth and learn. Be ready for death. Be ready to face this God that the Preacher keeps talking about. And let your knowledge of death lead you to consider what comes after – not merely reality under the sun – but spiritual reality.
Sorrow vs. Laughter
Next, the Preacher compares another difficult thing with something pleasant…
3 Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better [in sadness of face (sober reflection) there is good for the heart].
The context here is the house of mourning – or a funeral. Sadness of face is good for the heart. There are things that God shows us through sorrow that teach us so much more than laughter ever can.
And that’s why Ecclesiastes 7:4 is true…
Mourning vs. Mirth
4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
If your heart is in the house of mourning – if you consider the end of your life and let that sober reality sink in and act on that reality – then you’re in good company. Because those thoughts are the exact ones that wise men have. It’s wise for you to consider your end and act based on what you learn.
On the other hand, the fool won’t go there. The fool doesn’t consider death. He’d rather be in the house of mirth. He’d rather just enjoy life and forget all about the reality of death. But whether he faces that reality now voluntarily or not – he will eventually meet his end. And he’s going to be completely unprepared.
Rebukes vs. Songs
Next, the Preacher moves from the value of the difficult task of considering one’s death to hearing rebuke…
5 It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools. 6 For as the crackling of [quick-burning] thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool: this also is vanity.
Songs are lovely. Who doesn’t like music? It’s pleasant.
And at the same time, who likes rebuke? No one.
And yet, you would do better to listen to the difficult rebuke of a wise man than to listen to the pleasant song of a fool.
Then the Preacher pictures the fool’s song-producing voice as something fleeting that will quickly vanish in light of eternity. Those thorns under a pot will burn and crackle quickly and will be no more. That laughter and mirth enjoyed by a fool is vanity. It’s fleeting. It will ultimately end. And he’ll be unprepared for what’s to come.
Oppression and Gifts
And then it seems like the next verse is a warning about the potential of a wise man becoming a fool…
7 Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad [into a fool]; and a gift destroyeth [bribe corrupts] the heart.
So, this is saying that either – 1) when a wise man oppresses someone else he will become a fool or 2) that the wise man can become a fool by witnessing oppression happening around him. And whichever of those is the case, it’s similar to the effect that a bribe has on a person – it corrupts that person’s heart. So, too, does oppression turn a wise man into a fool.
End vs. Beginning
And then in Ecclesiastes 7:8 the Preacher goes back to comparing difficult things with pleasant things…
8 Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.
Again, the beginning of something is naturally more exciting and hopeful. But the Preacher sees that the value of the end of that thing is higher. And the second part of that verse holds the key to understanding this. You need to be patient to accept this. It’s hard to wait for the end of a matter. The beginning of a thing is right there immediately. You don’t need to wait for it. But waiting for the end of it takes patience. And in the Preacher’s mind, that’s a good thing. It’s good to patiently wait for the end of something. Patience is a good thing.
Haste and Anger
And as long as the Preacher is talking about patience and pride in one’s spirit, he continues in Ecclesiastes 7:9 talking about other potential problems within one’s spirit…
9 Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools.
Be patient. And don’t be hasty – the opposite of patient – to be angry. Only fools do that. And you want to be wise, don’t you? So, don’t be quick to anger. Be slow to anger, slow to speak, and quick to hear – as James says in the New Testament.
Moving on, I’m thinking that most of us who are a little farther along in life have been caught thinking the way that the Preacher criticizes next in Ecclesiastes 7:10…
10 Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this [asking this question is not wise].
So, you and I might want to value the former days when things were easier and more pleasant for us. I assume that many things were easier and more pleasant for most of us when we were children than they are now. Now you have responsibilities. Now, when you make a mistake it can really cost you. You’re in the real world now. When you were a child, you were taken care of – or you should have been, at least. Your responsibilities were probably relatively few in comparison to what you face now. And sometimes you just don’t remember problems in the world back then – whereas maybe now you’re keenly aware of them, and even worried about them.
But the Preacher wants you to estimate the value of the easy days of old as far less than what you’re experiencing now. It’s not wise for you to say “Why were the old days better than what I have now?” And this admonition aligns well with all that we’ve seen so far. Hard and difficult things are good for you and me. They’re ultimately much better than easy and pleasant things. They sober you up and get you searching for God in the midst of the difficulty. Or at least, they should.
Wisdom vs. Money
Next, the Preacher goes on to consider the relative value of wisdom and money…
11 Wisdom is good with [like] an inheritance: and by it there is profit to them that see the sun. 12 For wisdom is a defence [protection], and [like] money is a defence: but the excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth [preserves] life to them that have it.
So, both wisdom and money can provide some protection in various ways. But money won’t save your life. Wisdom has the potential to do just that. And again, we have money here – which is pleasant and wisdom which is difficult to obtain. And again, the difficult wins over the pleasant.
Prosperity vs. Adversity
And lastly in this section, we’re directed to the relative value of adversity, which is difficult, and prosperity, which is pleasant…
13 Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked? 14 ¶ In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: God also hath set [made] the one over against [as well as] the other, to the end that man should find nothing after him [can’t know what the future holds].
God has made both the day of adversity and the day of prosperity. Rejoice when things are pleasant and abundant. But also when you’re experiencing difficulty – just remember that God has made both.
And the reason he has made both is so that no one really knows what’s coming next – it could be prosperity or adversity. And I think the idea is that since you don’t know what’s next you need to get out of your mindset of life lived merely under the sun and start trusting the God who knows what’s coming next – indeed, who has foreordained what’s coming next and who can help you through it and whose work is unchangeable – you can’t straighten what he’s made crooked and vice versa.
So, now, the Preacher is going to move on – because he believes that you got the point of valuing difficult things over pleasant things.
Next, the Preacher considers contradictions to the law of retribution…
Contradiction to the law of retribution
15 ¶ All [the following two] things have I seen in the days of my vanity: there is a just man that perisheth in [despite] his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in [despite] his wickedness.
It would seem that in a perfect world, a man who does right would have a prolonged life and one who is evil would have a very short life. And sometimes that is the case, but the Preacher has seen in his life instances where that is not the case. The man who does right dies young and the man who is evil lives a long time.
Long Life by Doing Right
And so, for the person who is going to try to achieve long life by doing right, the Preacher has a message in Ecclesiastes 7:16 and following…
16 Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise [do not depend upon your righteousness or wisdom FOR YOURSELF (reflexive) to obtain long life]: why shouldest thou destroy thyself [be disappointed when you die early]?
This is obviously not talking about the righteousness that’s imputed or credited to a person when he believes God’s promise – like Abraham did regarding God’s promise of a descendant or like New Testament Christians do regarding God’s promise of forgiveness and eternal life in Christ. I think this is more like right and wise living. And the emphasis I think is on having a long life. That’s what we saw in the previous verse – that emphasis on prolonging one’s life.
So, in light of that, If you try really, really hard to make yourself righteous and wise so that you have a long life – you’re going to be disappointed when you happen to die early. So, don’t waste your time trying to prolong your life by those means. It might not work.
Short Life by Doing Evil
And the flip side of that is also true…
17 Be not over much wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time?
So, don’t be evil and foolish either. Those actions might actually end your life prematurely. Yes, you might prolong your life even though you’re wicked and foolish. The Preacher said that he’s seen that happen. But there’s a really good chance that you’ll die earlier than usual if you live that kind of lifestyle.
So, there’s a balance to be achieved here…
18 It is good that thou shouldest take hold of this [one warning]; yea, also from this [other warning] withdraw not thine hand: for he that feareth God shall come forth of them all [go forth in both, obey both].
So, pay attention to both of these warnings. Don’t make great efforts to prolong your life through super-right living. You might be disappointed and there won’t be much to show for your extraordinary efforts. And don’t be a fool or you might die prematurely. Obey both commands. And – above all – fear God.
And lastly, the Preacher turns his attention to the need for wisdom in dealing with the unjust…
Wisdom needed in dealing with the unjust
19 ¶ Wisdom strengtheneth the wise more than ten mighty men which are in the city. 20 ¶ For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not. 21 ¶ Also take no heed unto [do not give your heart to] all words that are spoken; lest thou hear thy servant curse thee: 22 For oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth that thou thyself likewise hast cursed others.
You need wisdom precisely because of the absence of just men who do right and don’t sin. And because of that, don’t listen too carefully to people or you’ll likely hear your servant or your friend or whomever else curse you!
And you might think – what?! How can my servant or buddy or whatever curse me?! That’s where the Preacher comes back with this convicting thought – you, too, have cursed others, haven’t you?
What offense we take at people speaking poorly of us. But do we ever consider how we’ve spoken of others?
So, here’s the first piece of wisdom in dealing with the unjust – realize that no one is totally just and without sin under the sun. Not even you.
More Need of Wisdom
And the Preacher’s not done with this theme of needing wisdom in dealing with the unjust…
23 ¶ All this have I proved by wisdom: I said, I will be wise; but it was far from me. 24 That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who can find it out? 25 I applied mine heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom, and the reason of things, and to know the wickedness of folly, even of foolishness and madness:
Now, we’ve heard this kind of statement before. It seems to be the Preacher’s attempt to communicate his efforts to understand the way things are under the sun.
But it’s in Ecclesiastes 7:26 that he gets to his latest findings regarding life under the sun…
26 And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape from her; but the sinner shall be taken by her.
So, this is speaking of the evil, adulterous, seductive woman. This is another instance where we need wisdom in dealing with the unjust.
And the Preacher continues…
27 Behold, this have I found, saith the preacher, counting one by one, to find out the account: 28 Which yet my soul seeketh, but I find not: one [righteous] man among a thousand have I found [which isn’t saying much]; but a woman among all those have I not found [which is saying even less].
And I’m sure this kind of statement is very offensive to the broader culture in which we live. But this is what the Preacher says. He’s found maybe one righteous man in a thousand. He hasn’t found any righteous women. That’s not to say that there were no righteous women in the Preacher’s day. But he is saying that he couldn’t find any. And again since behind the Preacher is Solomon, it’s not hard to see why he might not have found any righteous women – since he got married to all those pagan wives.
God Made Us Good
But, whatever the case, this is what the Preacher ultimately arrives at –whether speaking of men or women…
29 Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions [evil schemes, devices].
And this unfortunately is why you and I need wisdom in dealing with unjust people. And sadly almost everyone is this way. And this is the case in spite of God originally creating man upright. But we’ve all sought out many evil schemes.
Summary of Ecclesiastes 6-7
So, enjoy the good things that God has given, submit to his sovereignty in your life, value difficult things over pleasant things, remember these contradictions to the law of retribution, and deal wisely with the unjust. That’s Ecclesiastes 6-7.