“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” (Ecclesiastes 7:1-2).
The statement that a good name is to be preferred above precious ointment repeats a truism stated elsewhere in Scripture: “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold” (Prov. 22:1). The Preacher in Ecclesiastes has reflected not only on the vanity of such things as wealth (5:10-20), but also on its inherent lack of goodness or satisfaction. Contentment is not brought about by wealth or even length of life; only the quality of life can give it meaning and validation (6:1-6). Life is transitory.
In this text (7:1), two comparisons are placed side by side. One’s reputation, when based on inner character, is more valuable than wealth—or in this case, precious ointment—because of its inherent worth, and because it is more lasting. In the same way, the day of death is better than the day of one’s birth. The “house of mourning” has more value to offer than the “house of feasting” (7:2). Lessons learned from attending a funeral are more instructive than the lessons of going to a birthday party. One may bring us to think more soberly about life—its brevity and its true purpose—while the other probably will not.
So it is that “the living will lay it to heart” (7:2). Experiences of adversity are often more valuable and instructive than times of ease and pleasure. It is in this sense that “sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad” (7:3). The sorrows brought on us by adversity may lead us to think more carefully and deeply about life and what it means.
Such experiences may ultimately expose the difference between wisdom and folly. “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (7:4). The wise man uses such times as opportunities to reflect and learn something about the inevitability of death, while the fool who is preoccupied with festivity and having a good time refuses to think on spiritual issues.
But we must be willing to learn these lessons if we are to know how best to live our lives. “It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools” (7:5). Expanding upon this saying, the Preacher compares the empty frivolity of the fool to the “crackling of thorns under a pot” (7:6). They catch fire quickly and furiously burn up just as quickly, not allowing the food in the pot to cook. The point is that we must be willing to listen to the wise and learn the lessons that life has to offer, especially those that come from adversity.
Moses’ meditation and prayer about human mortality states the importance of learning such lessons: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12).