Most readers seem to prefer the book of Proverbs to Ecclesiastes when it comes to Solomonic wisdom. Proverbs contains innumerable two-line insights on the observable rewards and consequences of wise and foolish behaviors. Follow the practical rules and all will usually go well; ignore them at your peril. "The house of the wicked will be destroyed, but the tent of the godly will flourish" (Prov. 14:11). So far, so good! Still, we might ask how it is the wicked sometimes get to live in a house when the godly are sometimes relegated to tents!
Ecclesiastes might be described as a lover's quarrel with an overly naive understanding of the Proverbs and their wisdom. The author wishes life were as simple as the Proverbs generalize, and indeed accepts the superiority of godly wisdom to wicked folly. But the writer relentlessly observes limits to the proverbial rules from everyday life: "When you dig a well, you might fall in. When you demolish an old wall you could be bitten by a snake" (Eccles. 10:8). Digging wells is a productive life-giving activity and demolishing tottering walls a thoughtful life-saving safety precaution. So far, so good! But life is complicated, and things can go sideways with projects undertaken with the best intentions. Sometimes we get the opposite of what we might generally expect.
So Ecclesiastes, like Job, keeps us "real" (as they say nowadays) about the claims we might want to make for proverbial wisdom. Moreover, even the conventional Proverbs often teach more complex truths than we sometimes recognize. Indeed, they are called riddles (Prov. 1:6), meant to tease out our careful thinking. They are not just obvious maxims to be carelessly cited, or they may do more harm than good. Proverbs 26:9 warns "A proverb in the mouth of a fool is like a thorny branch brandished by a drunk."
Perhaps to prevent this misuse, Ecclesiastes commonly serves up clever two-liners that sharpen the mind as well as direct the heart. "A good reputation is more valuable than costly perfume. And the day you die is better than the day you are born" (Eccles. 7:1). Few of us would deny the first line. One's reputation reflects the sum total of what he or she does in life, and is certainly more valuable than any material possession, no matter how rare and precious.
The second line may seem more debatable, especially since Ecclesiastes never explicitly recognizes the hope of resurrection. It seems to offer a very pessimistic view of life that culminates in judgment (Eccles. 11:9; see also Hebrews 9:27). And how valuable is a life well-spent if death is the best outcome? We need to dig beneath the surface and see the relationship between the two lines.
A newborn baby has no reputation even if it is given an impressive and hopeful name. That name takes on most of its meaning as the child actually grows and does things in life. Over time that name means more and more, for good or ill. Eventually the significance of the name is full of rich detail and nuance as the person lives a full and complex life. While that name may be wrongly flattered or slandered, nothing can really steal or destroy its meaning, at least so far as God is concerned.
Material possessions are subject to decay or theft. An expensive perfume may lose its savor or become rancid. Even our physical bodies decay and eventually die. That day is a sad day, but is also a day of great significance so far as the process of completing the building of a reputation that God will judge.
As Ecclesiastes reminds us time and time again, to understand the meaning of our life, we need to see the significance of our death. If you agree with the first line in Ecclesiastes 7:1, that your life is more valuable than material things, then you must also agree with the second, that your life has acquired more significance when you die than when you were born.
Really, it isn't that far from a saying of Jesus: "And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?" (Mark 8:36-37).
Pastor Jim Byrne
The faithful presence