Previous article in this series: April 1, 2015, p. 299.
A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one’s birth.
It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.
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 to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools.
For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool: this also is vanity.
“A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one’s birth” (). This verse begins a new section in Ecclesiastes. Solomon has considered the vanity of life under the sun, man’s works, and the terrible bondage to covetousness that subjects man’s life to vanity. While he continues to describe what is seen under the sun, he would also lead us to some conclusions concerning these things in the following chapter.
He introduces a point of comparison that may at first glance strike us as strange, since he declares that the day of one’s death is better than one’s birthday. In doing so, he is not, however, making a sweeping statement but rather is calling us to a certain spiritual reflection, to contemplate a sober reality. He does this by comparing first a good name and precious ointment and then, in what follows, explaining more fully his point.
A good name is a man’s reputation. It may be viewed both as it stands among men under the sun and as it stands before God. It is not something given at birth but is the fruit of one’s course of life, one’s speech and dealings among men. We are called as believers to “walk honestly toward them that are without” (). One, for example, who is to hold office in the church, is to be of “good report of them which are without” ( ). A good name is the fruit of a godly walk in integrity in this world, though we may suffer reproach for Christ’s sake.
Such integrity is the fruit of grace, for it is the fruit of a walk of faith, founded in Christ and His righteousness and manifested in the fear of God in an upright walk in the world. It is truly precious. The world may have an appearance of it, for a season, but the bondage of covetousness works its destruction.
This good name is compared to “precious ointment.” The word ointment today conveys the idea of a medicinal salve or lotion of some sort, which is not the idea here. The term refers to a fragrant spice, oil, or perfume, a heady, but temporary fragrance that belonged to celebration in the Middle Eastern context. It fills the senses with its power and energy, but is fleeting in character. Such spice is costly and precious. It is thus the beloved comes to his bride, “perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all the powders of the merchant” ().
The good name is “better” because it is something firm, of lasting worth, the fruit of a walk in integrity, while the perfume of an ointment is a passing thing, a fleeting joy. It is this comparison that is on the foreground here. The day of one’s death is a fundamental reality, a sobering one. It stands at the end of life’s journey. It is the “end of all men” (). The day of one’s birth, while a joyous occasion, is nevertheless a fleeting thing. By it we begin life’s pathway in the vanity of this world under the sun. It is a moment in time, a beginning, and we pass beyond it.
It is thus that Solomon further explains: “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart” (Eccl. 7:2). The feasting and rejoicing of men in this life is, again, a passing thing. He is not speaking here of excess and its evil, as in. There is a lawful rejoicing in which the beloved takes his bride to the banqueting house in love ( ). But his point here is that all such feasting, even in lawful celebration, is a transitory vanity. The fool does, in the lust of the flesh, seek it as a goal or end in itself, since his god is his belly. But even in its lawful use in celebration and rejoicing, feasting is like the day of one’s birth, a passing event. It is like the passing fragrance of an expensive perfume that does not abide.
The reality of death that comes upon all men, is that one enters an abiding, permanent, and eternal state. It is the end of our earthly sojourning and the destination of all men under the sun. Death is the sober reality of life in a fallen world. Entering the house of mourning, the living will learn wisdom. It gives one pause to reflect soberly on the meaning and end of one’s life and the pathway we are on. “The living will lay it to heart” (Eccl. 7:2). It works a spiritual good not found in the house of feasting.
Solomon adds therefore, “Sorrow of heart is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better” (). The issue is the heart, out of which are the issues of life and the spiritual state of that heart. Laughter is, again, a passing thing with little abiding value. Laughter does not instruct the heart, while sorrow, in the presence of grief, works a sober understanding. Sorrow that vexes the spirit works grief, but it also points to the character of this present life as subject to vanity, calls to mind its end, and questions the foundation on which that life is built. It leads a child of God to his Lord, to seek his Savior, and to seek the things that are above. Feasting and laughter are the world’s way of drowning out the reality of death and life’s end and the questions it occasions. Such reflection in the house of mourning, though in sadness of countenance and grief, makes the heart better. Solomon is speaking, therefore, of that which works wisdom.
Thus he says, “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (). The world with its laughter, its banqueting, and its entertainment seeks to evade the reality of life. The heart, the spiritual center of a man’s life, is also that which shapes his thoughts, desires, and affections. The heart dwells in the house in which it is shaped. The fool’s heart is in the house of mirth. He does not simply go there; his life is shaped by its passing foolishness, which does not consider the end of his way. The fool seeks to dwell in the house of mirth and feasting.
The heart of the wise frequents the house of mourning, not because it is morbid, but to learn wisdom, which the end of life teaches. For the same reason, “It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools” (). Instruction and rebuke teach wisdom. By the Word of God we learn the fear of God and true wisdom. The house of mourning is, in a way, a visible expression of that Word. It is a form of rebuke that speaks against that which is sin and folly in this life and drives folly away. Rebuke teaches wisdom. Better to hear that word from one who has understanding and learn spiritual wisdom and discernment than to listen to the song of fools.
The song of fools is the expression of the fool’s heart, “for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (). His song reveals the foolishness of his mind and heart before God and in the world. His song is the expression of his spiritual emptiness and foolishness; likewise his laughter. This is a sobering reflection on what passes for music and entertainment in our day, especially through all the forms such media is readily delivered in our digitally-connected, electronic world.
Solomon uses a concrete figure to further ground what he has just said about the song of fools. “For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool: this also is vanity” (). He is not speaking of true joy or rejoicing, but of the laughter of a fool. It is like the noise made by burning thorns in a fire. They crackle. They are loud in the noise they make. They flame up and burn quickly so that they are gone almost instantly. But they produce no heat that will warm the pot. As a means to heat a pot and to make it boil, thorns are useless. They accomplish nothing.
The point is, so is the laughter of the fool, of the world without God, and its song. “This also is vanity.” To then fill one’s life with such empty vanity is also folly. It will not teach wisdom in the fear of God. The cackling of the fool’s laughter is as empty as the crackling of thorns under a pot is of heat. It is useless and vain, serving nothing of any profit. The point of the text should raise the question, too: where do we turn our ear to hear? What is it we seek out that we may listen to it and make it our own? Do we seek “the rebuke of the wise,” or the “song of fools?”
Solomon’s implied warning to be sober and seek wisdom is particularly for those who are young, who are beginning their walk along life’s path. This life has an end to it, which comes to all men. “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth” ().