part 13 – living with the end in mind (Ecc 7:1-6)
Open your bibles to Ecc 7. We are about halfway through the book of Ecclesiastes.
One of the foci, if not the main focus, of the book of Ecclesiastes is the revelation of the good life. A huge component of the good life is a good name, having a good reputation.
Proverbs 22:1 A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.
Our passage today begins with an echo of this proverb.
Ecc 7:1-6 A good name is better than fine perfume,
and the day of death better than the day of birth.
2 It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
the living should take this to heart.
3 Frustration (sorrow – old NIV) is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart.
4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.
5 It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person
than to listen to the song of fools.
6 Like the crackling of thorns under the pot,
so is the laughter of fools.
This too is [hebel – fleeting, a vapor].
In this passage the Teacher unveils some paths that are better than others for achieving a good name and thus, achieving the good life. In fact, the term “better” is used five times in as many verses.
He begins with A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth. Note that he is not contrasting birth with death, nor is he saying that it is better to die than to be born. Rather, he is bringing to the table two significant days for an individual – the day he receives his name and the day that his name shows up in the obituary column. The life he lives between those two days determines the name by which he will be remembered, the fragrance he leaves behind. Prov 10:7The name of the righteous is used in blessings, but the name of the wicked will rot. When one’s life is over his reputation is settled; he cannot add to it or take away from it. That is the end of the matter and as he says in verse 8 the end of a matter is better than its beginning.
He continues in verse 2
2 It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
the living should take this to heart.
Just as a day of birth isn’t a bad thing, a house of feasting isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it is enjoyable, delightful, fun – a time to forget the stress of work and finances, but when it comes to attaining the good life, the development of a good name, it is better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting; it is better to go to a funeral than to a feast.
Why is that? Because death is the destiny of every man and the living will do well to take that to heart. We are all going to die someday and living in light of that reality will be more conducive to living the good life, developing a good name. To get right to the heart of this morning’s message with one sentence: The good life is one in which we live with the end in mind. Living in light of the reality of death will help us to live the kind of life that we won’t regret, the kind of life that earns a good reputation, the kind of life that will evoke a beautiful eulogy, a well-attended funeral where good things are said in remembrance.
Attending a funeral is a healthy exercise. It keeps death realistic for us. One day that will be me in a casket and my family in the front row. When it is me, when it does happen, what will be said of my life – of my name? Going to the house of mourning, a place characterized by solemnity and seriousness is better than going to a house of feasting with frivolity and foolishness. If death is our common destiny, and if leaving behind a fragrant memory of a good name is desirable, then we must consider which course is better for cultivating that good life? A night of partying or a night of serious and solemn contemplation in the quiet of your soul? Does one wake up after a night of partying better equipped to live the good life – a life worth remembering and replicating, or is one better equipped to do so after a night of solemn reflection and contemplation in the face of death? The living should take to heart the reality of death, embracing it with not only the mind, but the will and emotions; then we will recognize life’s brevity and preciousness and live accordingly. To put it another way: Facing our death will help to prevent us from wasting our life.
Jonathan Edwards wrote 70 resolutions he would read through every week to remind himself about what is important in life. Two of them:
Resolution 17: “Resolved that I will live so as I wish I had lived when I come to die.”
Resolution 52: “I frequently hear persons in old age say how they would live if they were to live their lives over again, so resolved: that I will live just so I can think I wish I will had done, supposing I live to old age.”
I will think about my death so that I don’t waste my life.
Feasting and fun are not condemned as bad, but there is a better path that leads to the good life and that is one that is lived with the end in mind.
The Teacher goes on in verse 3 to say 3 Frustration/sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.
The Teacher is not saying that laughter is bad. He is saying that sorrow is better than laughter when it comes to cultivating the good life. There is, as we saw in chapter 3 that there is a time to laugh and a time to weep.
The book of proverbs says on the one hand:
Proverbs 15:13 A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit.
Proverbs 17:22 A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.
While the cheerful heart, the happy heart is good, so also is sorrow like nourishing food for the soul which strengthens the inner man. It takes both for a balanced life, which is the good life. We tend to prefer one to the other, though. If we had it our way, we would have only happy times and do away with the sorrow and frustration. But the Teacher encourages his readers to swing the pendulum in the other direction and also welcome sorrow and frustration because it is good for the heart.
Happy times usually teach us less than tough times. Consider the difficult times you have been through and the strength with which you emerged, how much stronger you are now because of those tough times. Consider all of the life lessons and monumental breakthroughs you had as the result of strife and difficulty. Now consider the same for all of the happy times. We usually learn more in the midst of sorrow and frustration than happy times.
My personal hero and one who serves as a shining example of one who faced much sorrow in this world is C.H. Spurgeon.
On October 19, 1856 he preached for the first time in the Music Hall of the Royal Surrey Gardens because his own church would not hold the people. The 10,000 seating capacity was far exceeded as the crowds pressed in. Someone shouted, “Fire!” and there was great panic in parts of the building. Seven people were killed in the stampede and scores were injured. Spurgeon was 22 years old and was overcome by this calamity. He said later, “Perhaps never soul went so near the burning furnace of insanity, and yet came away unharmed.”
He had married Susannah Thomson January 8 in the same year of the calamity at Surrey Gardens. His only two children, twin sons were born the day after the calamity on October 20. Susannah was never able to have more children. In 1865 (nine years later), when she was 33 years old she became a virtual invalid and seldom heard her husband preach for the next 27 years till his death. Some kind of rare cervical operations was attempted in 1869 by James Simpson, the father of modern gynecology, but to no avail (A Marvelous Ministry, p. 38-9). So to Spurgeon’s other burdens was added a sickly wife and the inability to have more children, though his own mother had given birth to seventeen children.
He suffered from gout, rheumatism and Bright’s disease (inflammation of the kidneys). His first attack of gout came in 1869 at the age of 35. It became progressively worse so that “approximately one third of the last twenty-two years of his ministry was spent out of the Tabernacle pulpit, either suffering, or convalescing, or taking precautions against the return of illness” (Letters of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, p. 166). In a letter to a friend he wrote, “Lucian says, ‘I thought a cobra had bitten me, and filled my veins with poison; but it was worse,—it was gout.’ That was written from experience, I know” (Letters of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, p. 165).
On top of the physical suffering, Spurgeon had to endure a lifetime of public ridicule and slander, sometimes of the most vicious kind.
In April, 1855 the Essex Standard carried an article with these words:
His style is that of the vulgar colloquial, varied by rant … All the most solemn mysteries of our holy religion are by him rudely, roughly and impiously handled. Common sense is outraged and decency disgusted. His rantings are interspersed with coarse anecdotes” (A Marvelous Ministry, p. 35).
In 1857 he wrote:
“Down on my knees have I often fallen, with the hot sweat rising from my brow under some fresh slander poured upon me; in an agony of grief my heart has been well-nigh broken” The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon, p. 23).
I wonder who Spurgeon may have been apart from these frustrations and sorrows. Considering all of the work he did and the fact that he earned the title “the Prince of Preachers” I would venture to say that he would not have been quite the same man and I would speculate that he would have had quite the battle with pride.
Sorrow teaches us more than happiness does. It is good for the heart and helps us to live a balanced life, which is characteristic of the good life.
The teacher now returns to the concept of the house of mourning in verse 4, but he now reinforces it with the contrast of the wise and the foolish.
One rendition of vv 4-6 reads:
4 A wise person thinks about death, but a fool thinks only about having a good time.
5 It is better to be criticized by a wise person than to be praised by a fool.
6 The laughter of fools is like the crackling of thorns in a cooking fire. Both are useless
Now again, this is a call to balance. This is not an encouragement to be preoccupied with death or consumed by death, but to consider the reality of death in a healthy way that brings balance to our tendency to forget about it.
If a good name is desirable and living the good life is the goal, where is one equipped for such a life? Not in the company of fools, whose superficial talk is like the crackling of the fire, a lot of empty noise; it may make one feel good for a moment but in reality it doesn’t benefit one’s character. Rather, one’s character is sharpened as iron sharpens iron, when he heeds the rebuke of a wise person.
The rebuke of the wise person will go so much farther in cultivating the character of the good life than the flattery of fools.
The teacher is calling his readers to bring balance life by swinging the pendulum away from our preferences. We prefer a feast to a funeral. We prefer amusement to musing. We prefer laughter to sorrow, good times to tough times. We prefer the flattery of fools to rebuke. But most of these things that we prefer are not better for us; the things we like to avoid are better for us. It is better for us to welcome the rebukes that will help shape our character.
Pleasure in balance:
Again, balance is a necessary component of the good life and this is true with regard to pleasure.
The teacher reminds the audience that while the good life is one that is enjoyed, it is not bound up in the pursuit of pleasure through the abandonment of ourselves to folly and hedonism, lasciviousness, and wild parties. For such a pursuit is a chasing after the wind. Rather, the good life is one characterized by the thankful and sober enjoyment in the everyday experiences of life, the common things in life (eating, drinking, working, home life, family, etc).
Warren Weirsbe: If you devote your life only to the pursuit of happiness you will be miserable; however, if you devote your life to doing God’s will you will find happiness as well.
The good life is one that is characterized by a good name, which is achieved by the balanced life, one that enjoys his lot in life, but also includes serious and solemn contemplation, a life that is lived with an eye on the reality of death, a life lived with the end in mind.
For those of us in Christ, we have a good name because we bear the name of Christ. We bear the name Christian. For us, the day of death is better than the day of birth. We come into the world in Adam the first man, but we depart from the world in the last Adam, the last man, in Christ. We come into life condemned in Adam, but for those of us in Christ, we are justified and depart from the world blessed in the righteousness of Christ.
Beyond that, as a Christian, we can look death in the face and know that because Christ defeated death, we have victory over death. We have life in Christ on this side of the grave and when we do die a physical death and go to the grave, that is not the end for us. We have eternal life both here on this side of the grave and beyond.
Paul writes to the Philippians in Phil 1:20-26 20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.
Paul considers death and life. And while those who don’t know Christ might think that to live is gain and to die is loss, Paul says the prospect of my approaching death is for me a win-win situation. To live is Christ, to die is gain. Either way, I win. I live and it’s for Christ. I die and it’s to depart and be with Christ, which is actually better. So as a Christian, for us, Ecc 7:1 rings true on a different level. The day of death for us, like it was for Paul is better than the day of birth because we simply go on to be with Christ in a different sense, which Paul declares is better by far.
But in the meantime, we still have a life to live here and now. And while we live, what kind of fragrance do we leave in our trail as we go about our days? And on the day of our death, what kind of aroma will we leave behind in our absence? What kind of name will we leave upon our departure?
Imagine with me that sometime between now and next Sunday something were to happen to you – something unfortunate. A drunk driver or a freak accident or something otherwise brought your life to an end unexpectedly, so next Sunday morning rather than attending a sermon on the next passage in the Scriptures, we are all attending your funeral.
What would the preacher say?
Or, perhaps another question: What would you like the preacher to say?
Or, an even better question, how do the two answers compare?
Our text in Ecc 7:1-6, I believe, is designed to enlighten readers to the reality that one day there will be a funeral and we have the power between now and then to write or rewrite the script that will be said on that day.
The good life is one that lives with the end in mind.
My challenge to you. Go home today and think through this. Transport yourself in your mind to the house of mourning in which people gather to remember your life. Go to your own funeral. What would you like to be said of you? Write your own eulogy. Write out what is said of your life. Write out what you want to be said at your funeral and make it your ambition to live that life. Let’s begin today living with the end in mind.