What is Better in Life?

1A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth. 2It 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.

3Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. 4The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.

5It is better to heed a wise man’s rebuke than to listen to the song of fools. 6Like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools. This too is meaningless.

7Extortion turns a wise man into a fool, and a bribe corrupts the heart. 8The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride.

9Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.

10Do not say, "Why were the old days better than these?" For it is not wise to ask such questions.

11Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun. 12Wisdom is a shelter as money is a shelter, but the advantage of knowledge is this: that wisdom preserves the life of its possessor.

At the end of the previous chapter, Solomon concluded his running discussion in which he sought (using human wisdom) meaning and fulfillment in life. He concluded the discussion with some rhetorical questions that highlighted the frustration he faced in searching for fulfillment in life. One of the questions was: "For who knows what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow?" (Eccl. 6:12). Beginning with this chapter, it is as if Solomon is setting out to answer that question. Much of the chapter consists of proverbs, many of which speak of what is "better" in life.

Solomon begins: "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" (vss. 1–2). The first verse starts off with a typical proverb, but ends surprisingly. We all can see how "a good name is better than fine perfume", but are we all ready to say "the day of death [is] better than the day of birth"? And then also, what do these two halves of the proverb have to do with each other? Moreover, I would not have been ready to admit, at first, that "it is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting." These sayings certainly are difficult to accept, even paradoxical. "But the paradoxes of the Bible open out valuable truths" [Bridges, 135].

Fortunately for us, at the end of verse 2, Solomon sheds some light on the reason for his observations: "For death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart." Ah! The "house of mourning" is more beneficial than "the house of feasting" because of what it can teach us, if we "take to heart" that "death is the destiny of every man." The "house of mourning", the mortuary, causes us to set our mind on the frailty of our lives, and our certain, eventual death. To ponder our frailty, to ponder our certain death, to ponder the possibility of existing after death forces us to ponder our relationship with the One who holds eternity in His hand: our Maker. David prayed, and we should: "Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain the heart of wisdom" (Ps. 90:12). Solomon is advising us to "look death in the face and learn from it" [Wiersbe, 85]. Learn that you must make peace with God. Learn that without God’s acceptance of you, the day of death will be horrible. Or, alternatively, learn that with God’s acceptance, "the day of death" indeed can be "better than the day of birth." For those who have made peace with God, this proverb of Solomon’s is literally true, in every way. And how does one make peace with God? There is but one way, and that is through acceptance of the sacrifice that His Son made for us. As Paul teaches, "We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand" (Rom. 5:1–2). And then, when we have peace with God, we have "a good name" before Him. Our name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, so it is certainly easy now to say, "A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth." The aroma of a fine perfume lasts for but a moment; a good name lasts forever. The pleasures of the house of feasting last for but a moment; the glories of life after death in the presence of our heavenly Father last for an eternity.

Now that we understand verses 1 and 2, we have more of a chance of understanding the next verses: "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" (vss. 3–4). Sorrow is better in that it causes one to ponder the crucial issues of life, causes us to look beyond this life for a better one. "But where is the heart of the fool?—where he can try to forget himself—gratify his corrupt taste—get rid of unwelcome thoughts—put away God and eternity—all reality blotted out of his mind…" [Bridges, 139]. In the Beatitudes, Jesus teaches essentially the same thing that Solomon is teaching: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted" (Matt. 5:3–4). We mourn in this life, so that we may get to the time and place where the "days of sorrow will end" (Isa. 60:20), where "there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things [will have] passed away" (Rev. 21:4).

Solomon continues proverbializing on the unpleasant things in life: "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" (vss. 5–6). There are few things that seem worse at the time than being rebuked by someone. One feels embarrassed; one is left speechless. One quickly, usually futilely, tries to defend oneself. But Solomon reminds us that the "rebuke" of a wise man is, indeed, a good thing. In order for it to be good, we must, of course, take it to heart, learn from it, try to change for the better. On the other hand, what makes us feel better than flattery thrown our direction? It makes our day. We go home and tell our spouses about it. But Solomon warns us to consider the source. We must make sure that we are not dancing to the "song of fools." Solomon points out that flattery from a fool is the worst sort of meaningless din: "Like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools. This too is meaningless." The loud "crackling of thorns under the pot" provide no nourishment whatsoever.

Solomon next turns to the value of patience: "Extortion turns a wise man into a fool, and a bribe corrupts the heart. The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride" (vss. 7–8). Many people go for the get-rich-quick scheme, often compromising their integrity through "extortion" and "bribery". They do this because they are too impatient to let God work out His perfect will for them. For the one who trusts in God, "the end of a matter is better than its beginning", for "we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose" (Rom. 8:28). "Let the Lord take His own course, as certainly He will. Trust Him for the end in His own time and way" [Bridges, 145]. A sign of the foolish impatience that trusts not in the Lord is a quick temper. So Solomon admonishes: "Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools" (vs. 9). Another sign of such foolish impatience is to blame one’s problems on external circumstances: "Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions" (vs. 10). Longing for the "good old days" is almost always accompanied by "giving up". To blame one’s problems on the times one is living in is a substitute for action. One says, in effect, "There’s nothing I can do about it anyway. I don’t live in the good old days."

Next, in recounting what is "better", Solomon returns once again to the value of wisdom: "Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun. Wisdom is a shelter as money is a shelter, but the advantage of knowledge is this: that wisdom preserves the life of its possessor" (vss. 11–12). Those who expect a large "inheritance" value it with great anticipation. Solomon says that we should value "wisdom" in the same way, for "wisdom" helps us here and now, it "benefits those who see the sun." And true wisdom and knowledge does not only benefit us in this life, but it also "preserves the life of its possessor" beyond this life. John speaks of such a knowledge: "We know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding, so that we may know Him who is true. And we are in Him who is true—even in His Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God, and eternal life." (I John 5:20). The knowledge of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was sacrificed for our sins, can bring us eternal life, for "He is the true God, and eternal life." Amen.

Help us, Oh Lord, to grow in the knowledge of You. May we value knowing You more than any material possession, and even more than any worldly wisdom that we may acquire. We thank You and praise You for sending Your Son into this world so that we may know You, and that we may spend eternity with You in Your glorious presence. In the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, we pray these things, Amen.

The Thread of Life


1.

The irresponsive silence of the land,
The irresponsive sounding of the sea,
Speak both one message of one sense to me:--
Aloof, aloof, we stand aloof, so stand
Thou too aloof bound with the flawless band
Of inner solitude; we bind not thee;
But who from thy self-chain shall set thee free?
What heart shall touch thy heart? what hand thy hand?--
And I am sometimes proud and sometimes meek,
And sometimes I remember days of old
When fellowship seemed not so far to seek
And all the world and I seemed much less cold,
And at the rainbow's foot lay surely gold,
And hope felt strong and life itself not weak.

2.

Thus am I mine own prison.  Everything
Around me free and sunny and at ease;
Or if in shadow, in a shade of trees
Which the sun kisses, where the gay birds sing
And where all winds make various murmuring;
Where bees are found, with honey for the bees;
Where sounds are music, and where silences
Are music of an unlike fashioning.
Then gaze I at the merrymaking crew,
And smile a moment and a moment sigh
Thinking:  Why can I not rejoice with you?
But soon I put the foolish fancy by:
I am not what I have nor what I do;
But what I was I am, I am even I.

3.

Therefore myself is that one only thing
I hold to use or waste, to keep or give;
My sole possession every day I live,
And still mine own despite Time's winnowing.
Ever mine own, while moons and seasons bring
From crudeness ripeness mellow and sanative;
Ever mine own, till Death shall ply his sieve;
And still mine own, when saints break grave and sing.
And this myself as king unto my King
I give, to Him Who gave Himself for me;
Who gives Himself to me, and bids me sing
A sweet new song of His redeemed set free;
He bids me sing:  O death, where is thy sting?
And sing:  O grave, where is thy victory?


                                               
-- Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

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