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Some scholars see this chapter as an attempt to answer the question implied in Ecclesiastes 6:12, "Who knoweth what is good for man"? However that verse may be read as a declaration that, "No one knows what is good for man." Many of the assertions in this chapter reveal that Solomon himself, in spite of all his vaunted research, experience, and searching had by no means solved the problem with any degree of completeness.
God supernaturally endowed Solomon with great wisdom; but that cannot be a guarantee that everything Solomon either said or did was invariably correct. Like many another person, Solomon's experiences, at least many of them, were of a nature to confuse and deceive him; and, here and there in his writings, one finds unmistakable evidence of that truth. We do not proceed very far into this chapter before we encounter examples of it.
THE DAY OF DEATH BETTER THAN THE DAY OF ONE'S BIRTH
"A good name is better than precious oil; 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 heart. Sorrow is better than laughter; for by the sadness of the countenance, the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth."
This paragraph deals with that second clause of Ecclesiastes 7:1. It is true in a number of ways, but not in others. When some promising young person is the victim of some terrible accident and is thus cut down in the prime of life, the day of such a death is not better than the day of his birth.
However, the death of Christ was better than the day of his birth; because his Church celebrates his death, not his birth. Paul declared that, "It is better to depart and be with Christ (Philippians 1:21-23), Also; "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints" (Psalms 116:15). In spite of these scriptures, we find it very hard to believe that Solomon had anything like that in mind.
His viewpoint here seems to be like that of a tribe in Thrace mentioned by Herodotus, "Who bewailed the birth of a child because of its entry into the trials of life, and celebrated death as a joyful release from life's trials."
"A good name is better than precious oil" (Ecclesiastes 7:1a). This simply means, "Honor is better than vanity." Some renditions have attempted to duplicate the alliteration found in the Hebrew: "Better is name than nard;" and, "Fair fame is better than fine perfume." We might paraphrase it by saying, "A good reputation smells better than the most expensive perfume."
"It is better to go to the house of mourning" (Ecclesiastes 7:2). In Biblical times, funeral celebrations lasted several days; and the `house of mourning' here refers to such celebrations. Why should this be called 'better' than going to the house of feasting? As Psalms 90 eloquently states it: "So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom" (Psalms 90:12). "The solemn and necessary thoughts that come to one at a funeral are far more uplifting and beneficial than those that result from attending any kind of a feast." "Going to the house of mourning is useful because the living are confronted with the fact that death is also their own destiny; and it is certain." Every funeral is a prophecy of one's own death and burial.
"House of feasting" (Ecclesiastes 7:2). What is this? "One of the Qumran scrolls reads this as `house of joy,' `place of amusement,' as in Ecclesiastes 7:4."
"Sorrow is better than laughter" (Ecclesiastes 7:3). Solomon is still contrasting the house of mourning with the house of joy; but this does not mean that Christians should not attend such things as wedding feasts and other joyful celebrations. Christ attended a marriage feast in Cana and made eighty gallons of wine to aid the celebration! In this connection, it is good to remember that:
"We should not take Solomon's words either literally or absolutely. They are not laws of invariable truth. To treat them this way is to err in their application." "The warning here is for those who wanted only the parties and the good times, and who studiously avoided all sad and sorrowful occasions. The wise man partakes of both."
"The heart of fools is in the house of mirth" (Ecclesiastes 7:4). As noted above, the Qumran manuscript in this place makes the house of mirth here the same as the house of feasting in Ecclesiastes 7:2. Grieve was certain that the reference here is to something like a tavern with its, "Licentious and vulgar tavern songs (Amos 6:5; Ephesians 5:4)."
The "better ... than ... etc." pattern in the first half of this chapter is exactly the same as that followed by Solomon in his Proverbs (Proverbs 15:16; 8:11; and 3:14).
Many of the statements in this part of Ecclesiastes are very similar to sayings of Solomon in Proverbs. Proverbs 22:1 is like Ecclesiastes 7:1, here.
"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 look this also is vanity. Surely extortion maketh the wise man foolish, and a bribe destroyeth the understanding."
Here are denounced songs of fools (Ecclesiastes 7:5), the laughter of fools (Ecclesiastes 7:6) and the behavior of fools (Ecclesiastes 7:7).
"Songs of fools" (Ecclesiastes 7:5). "These are probably mirthful drinking songs such as are mentioned in Amos 6:5." These are the same as those sung in the house of mirth (Ecclesiastes 7:4).
"Crackling of thorns under a pot" (Ecclesiastes 7:6). Here again, there is a play on words in the Hebrew text, and this English rendition catches the spirit of it: "For like nettles crackling under kettles is the cackle of a fool." "In the East, charcoal is commonly used for fires, but thorns (nettles) or stubble might be burned by the hasty, but the result was noise not heat." This is an excellent simile for the noisy and worthless meaning of a fool's laughter.
"Extortion maketh the wise man foolish" (Ecclesiastes 7:7). It does not appear in our translation whether the extortion is the practice of one who was wise, but fell into sin, or if it was the extortion against the wise man by an oppressor. We believe the key is in the second clause (Ecclesiastes 7:7b). A bribe destroyeth the understanding (Ecclesiastes 7:7b). The parallelism of these two clauses in Ecclesiastes 7:7 indicates emphatically that extortion whether endured or practiced can cause even a wise man to lose his head and do foolish things; and that, "Whether he is either giving or receiving a bribe, either or both are foolish and sinful deeds."; Isaiah 33:15 denounces the taking of a bribe as sinful; and it is just as sinful to give one. Again, the evil of bribes here reflects the teaching in one of Solomon's proverbs (Proverbs 15:27).
"Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof,, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry; for anger resteth in the bosom of fools. Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these; for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this."
"Better is the end ... than the beginning." (Ecclesiastes 7:8). Here again, the truth of this hinges upon the question of whether or not the "thing" spoken of was good or bad, wise or foolish. The end of a wicked ruler's reign is, of course, better than the beginning of it. Apparently the burden of the meaning is that the completion of some great project is better than the beginning of it.
"The statement here is not a repetition of Ecclesiastes 7:1, but states a truth generally applicable to certain situations. The end is better, because at that time we can form a right judgment about a matter." "Of course, this proverb is too pessimistic to be true without qualifications." In fact Solomon gave two proverbs in which this is not true, namely, in Proverbs 5:4 and in Proverbs 23:32.
"Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry" (Ecclesiastes 7:9). Here once more Solomon virtually repeats a proverb he gave in Proverbs 14:17, "He that is soon angry will deal foolishly."
"What is the cause that the former days were better ...?" (Ecclesiastes 7:10). This, of course, is exactly the kind of question that may be expected of nearly any old man. "This is always the plaint of an old man." However, something else may also be true of such questions. The downward spiral of human wickedness in many situations is radical enough to justify such an old man's question, because, as an apostle said, "Wickedness shall wax worse and worse" (2 Timothy 2:13).
Also, there is a quality in human life that romanticizes and glorifies the days of one's youth, conveniently forgetting its hardships and disasters, dwelling only upon those memories which are delightful and pleasant; and this very human trait frequently leads old people to glorify "the former days" with a halo of desirability to which those days are in no wise entitled. The ancient poet Horace has this:
Morose and querulous, praising former days
When he was boy, now ever blaming youth ....
All that is most distant and removed
From his own time and place, he loathes and scorns.
Thus, Solomon's proverb here fingers an action on the part of old people that is very generally foolish, although, of course, exceptions undoubtedly exist also. Paul also gave us the good example that included, "Forgetting the things which are behind" (Philippians 3:13).
THE SUPERIORITY OF WISDOM
"Wisdom is as good as an inheritance; yea, more excellent is it for them that see the sun. For wisdom is a defense, even as money is a defense; but the excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom preserveth the life of him that hath it."
The proposition stated here is that wisdom is more precious than (better than, or more excellent than) money. The weakness of this passage was cited by Kidner. "Wisdom here is being treated on much the same footing as money, for its utility. However, the true worth of wisdom is incalculable." In fact, Proverbs 8:11 declares that wisdom is so valuable that nothing on earth may be compared with it.
Even in Ecclesiastes the infinite superiority of wisdom is apparent. Here it states that wisdom may save a man's life; but in Ecclesiastes 9:18, it is revealed that wisdom saved an entire city.
WHY GOOD TIMES AND BAD TIMES ARE INTERMINGLED
"Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight which he hath made crooked? In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; yea, God hath made the one side by side with the other, to the end that man should not find out anything that shall be after him."
"Consider the work of God" (Ecclesiastes 7:13). "The author (Solomon) here has not given up belief in God, although he is a pessimist."
"Who can make that straight which he (God) hath made crooked" (Ecclesiastes 7:13b)? This means that, "No one can change, with a view to improving it, what God has determined shall be."
"Man shall not find out anything that shall be after him" (Ecclesiastes 7:14b) The underlined words here are not in the Hebrew; and we have often observed when the translators add that many words, even including verbs expressing the future tense, it is very probable that there is uncertainty of the meaning. This is true here.
Franz Delitzsch stated unequivocally that the literal translation here is, "That man may find nothing behind him," but added, "That is meaningless." Most modern translators have concurred in this; but this writer finds it impossible to believe that the literal translation is meaningless. In fact, it is our version (American Standard Version) and the whole crop of current translations (which are not translations at all, but are the words of the translators) - it is these current renditions that are meaningless. Read our version here. What does it say? That God has set the days of prosperity and adversity side by side so that man cannot predict the future; but, of course, HE CAN PREDICT THE FUTURE. He can be absolutely certain that in the future the good days and bad days will continue to be side by side exactly as God has ordained it! The true rendition of this place is:
"God hath also set the one over against the other, to the end that man should find nothing AFTER him" (KJV).
This translation uses the word "after", which is a synonym for "behind". If the family of a deceased person follows behind the hearse on the way to the cemetery, then they most certainly follow after it. This verse (Ecclesiastes 7:14b) simply means that God has mingled the good days and the bad days in such a manner that man's estate shall be exhausted by the time of his death; and the experience of millions of people corroborates this. For the vast majority of mankind, when the medical expenses of the terminal illness and the funeral expenses are all paid, nothing is left.
EXCEPTIONS TO THE GENERAL RULE
As a general principle, it is certain that God blesses the righteous and judges the wicked; but Solomon here deals with exceptions that he has seen in the operation of this law.
"All this have I seen in my days of vanity; there is a righteous man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his evil doing. Be not righteous overmuch; neither make thyself overwise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself? Be not overmuch wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time? It is good that thou shouldest take hold of this; yea, also from that withdraw not thy hand: for he that feareth God shall come forth from them all."
"There is a righteous man that perisheth in his righteousness" (Ecclesiastes 7:15). Solomon did not need to gather such information as this from what he had seen in his `days of vanity.' He should have known this from the Mosaic account of what happened to Abel at the hands of Cain (Genesis 4:8). There would be many other `exceptions' in the subsequent days of the Jewish monarchy. Naboth, the sons of Gideon, Josiah, and many other `good people' would die untimely deaths. Also an evil man like Manasseh enjoyed one of the longest reigns in Israel's history.
Rankin wrote that, "Experience does not support the view that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked." However, he overlooked the fact that this very passage confirms the general law, while citing exceptions to it. Exceptions to any valid principle do not negate it.
The friends of Job who held the false view that there were no exceptions to the general rule of God's rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked were rebuked by God Himself for teaching, with reference to God, "Things that were not right" (Job 42:8); but it is an equally false affirmation that God does not reward the righteous nor punish the wicked. This truth is freely admitted in the words that the wicked "die before their time" (generally) (Ecclesiastes 7:17) and in the tremendous affirmation of Ecclesiastes 7:18 (See comment below).
As for the reasons why there are exceptions, we discussed this thoroughly in the Book of Job; but the summary of them is: (1) the activity of Satan, (2) freedom of the human will, (3) the primeval curse upon the earth for Adam's sake, (4) the element of `time and chance' happening to all men. (5) the lack of wisdom, sometimes, on the part of the righteous (Luke 16:8). and (6) the impartiality of natural disasters such as floods, tornadoes, etc. (these are related to (3).
Therefore, we reject the conclusion of Barton that, "Ecclesiastes here takes issue with two orthodox Old Testament doctrines: (1) that the righteous have a long life (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 4:40; Psalms 91:16; Proverbs 3:2,16; and 4:10), and (2) that the wicked shall not live out half their days (Psalms 37:10; 55:23; 58:3-9; and Psalms 73:18)." This doctrine is true; it is not contradicted by the exceptions cited here; and it is gloriously confirmed in the New Testament. (Matthew 28:18:20; Mark 10:30-31; Ephesians 6:3; etc.). Solomon's own wicked life was cut short; and Ecclesiastes 7:18 here emphasizes the same doctrine.
"Be not righteous overmuch ... be not overmuch wicked" (Ecclesiastes 7:16,17). The first clause here probably refers to the hypocritical `righteousness' like that of the Pharisees who were so severely condemned by Jesus. Their fault was that of `specializing in trifles,' and neglecting the `weightier matters of the law' (Matthew 23:23). Eaton agreed that, "The emphasis here is upon legalistic righteousness, not any excess of true righteousness (there is no such thing), but self-righteousness."
"The suggestion that Ecclesiastes 7:17 is intended to advocate a middle course between sin and virtue is at variance with the tenor of the whole Book (the Bible)." Of course, that is exactly what some radical scholars say that the passage means. Barton wrote, "That one may sin to a moderate degree is what he (the author) undoubtedly implies." No! A statement that `overmuch wickedness' leads to an untimely death cannot be intelligently understood as any kind of an endorsement of a so-called moderate wickedness. It was the moderate wickedness of Adam and Eve (What's the harm in eating a little fruit?) that plunged all mankind into disease, misery, violence, construction and death.
There is a warning in this passage against going to extremes in anything. The same thought also appears in Proverbs 25:16. "One must not even eat too much honey." "Especially, The end result of wickedness-run-riot is an untimely death." It is absolutely amazing what some teachers of God's Word have written about this passage. Note:
"The view is that, in certain situations in life, it is advisable and right for a man to compromise in his actions and decisions. He should conform when circumstances make conformity the only safe (for him) and wise course." This is exactly what the servants of Adolph Hitler pleaded as their excuse for operating the death camps for Jews during World War II. A million times NO! If one compromises his conviction to preserve his own safety, ease or comfort, his guilt is not diminished in any degree whatsoever.
"He that feareth God shall come forth from them all" (Ecclesiastes 7:18). Here again we have a disputed verse. The current wisdom interprets this as meaning that, "He that feareth God will set himself free of all, the extremes just mentioned, and will acquit himself of one as well as the other." This is only another way of saying that the fear of God, which is the beginning of all wisdom, will give ultimate victory, not only from the extremes mentioned here, but from sin and death, thus endowing the servant of God with eternal life.
As the words stand, they also suggest that there shall at last emerge from earth's boundless populations those who are truly triumphant: "There shall come forth (emerge) from earth's incredible multitudes (from them all) those who fear the Lord." Whether or not that is what was intended by the Hebrew, this is what the English translation says to this writer.
"Wisdom is a strength to the wise man more than ten rulers that are in a city. Surely there is not a righteous man upon earth, that doeth good and sinneth not. Also take not heed to all words that are spoken, lest thou hear thy servant curse thee; for oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth that thou thyself likewise hast cursed others."
"Wisdom is a strength ... more than ten rulers" (Ecclesiastes 7:19). The statement here is a variation of what Solomon wrote in Proverbs 21:22. The story of Job's capture of the ancient stronghold of Salem (Jerusalem) is an illustration of this truth.
"There is not a righteous man ... that sinneth not" (Ecclesiastes 7:20). New Testament writers echo this same conviction (Romans 3:10-12; 1 John 1:10). This is also exactly the same thing that Solomon said in 1 Kings 8:46. Eaton pointed out that this charge of man's sinfulness, "Includes both sins of commission (doeth good), and sins of omission (sinneth not)."
"Take not heed unto all the words that are spoken" (Ecclesiastes 7:21) "... thine own heart knoweth" (Ecclesiastes 7:22). These verses are an appeal to man's conscience. "The Hebrews had no word for conscience, and they used heart as an equivalent. One knows how little meaning attaches to many of one's own idle words, and should not therefore pay any attention to the idle words of others."
SOLOMON'S DESIRE TO PROVE WHAT GOD HAD SAID
"All this have I proved in wisdom; I said, I will be wise; but it was far from me. That which is, is far off and exceeding deep; who can find it out? I turned about, and my heart was set to know and to search out, and to seek wisdom and the reason of things, and to know that wickedness is folly, and that foolishness is madness."
"But it was far from me" (Ecclesiastes 7:23). Why would the wisest man of his day have failed to find wisdom? He was searching for it by 'experience,' rather than trusting God for the truth. "This line is an honest confession of Solomon's failure to find wisdom," and the failure was due to his method of seeking it. "He found out here that wisdom (derived from earthly experience) cannot answer the ultimate questions."
"My heart was set to search out ... and to know (find out) that wickedness is folly, etc." (Ecclesiastes 7:24). Instead of taking God's Word for it that the multiplication of wives to himself and the acquisition of horses from Egypt, and all such things, were both wickedness and folly, Solomon here announced his purpose of `proving' whether or not all this was the truth. He found out, all right; but in doing so he lost his relationship with God, was seduced into paganism, and laid the foundation for the destruction of Israel. Today, there are men who take this same approach. They will try everything out for themselves; they will discover their own religion; they will choose what is wise, etc., etc. Barton, in these verses, credited the author of having actually found out that, "Wickedness is folly, and that folly is madness"; but that information came from God, not from Solomon's experience."
WHAT SOLOMON CLAIMED THAT HE LEARNED
"And I find more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets and whose hands are bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape from her; but the sinner shall be taken by her. Behold, this have I found, saith the Preacher, laying one thing to another, to find out the account; which my soul still seeketh, but I have not found: one man among a thousand have I found; but a woman among all those have I not found. Behold, this only have I found: that God made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions."
"I have found more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets" (Ecclesiastes 7:26). This is fully in harmony with what Solomon had written in Proverbs 2:14; 5:3,4, etc. "Solomon himself had experienced much bitterness from the sin and misery into which women can lead their victims." In this verse, however, he is speaking particularly of the wicked woman described repeatedly in the first seven chapters of Proverbs. Nevertheless, as Barton charged, what Solomon wrote here is sufficient grounds for assuming that, "He was a misogynist." After all, it was not Solomon, but Lemuel, who wrote that magnificent 31chapter of Proverbs in praise of women. Such thoughts as are written there seem never to have entered into Solomon's heart. The bitter words Solomon wrote here should be understood as Waddey said, "They are the words of a man speaking purely from his own distorted, sinful reason and experience. It would be sinful to quote what Solomon said here as God's assessment of women." After all, "By woman came the Christ and salvation for mankind."
"God made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions" (Ecclesiastes 7:29). At least, this was one valid discovery that Solomon actually made. Moreover, his experience had nothing to do with it. All men can read it in Genesis 1:26.
"Many inventions" (Ecclesiastes 7:29). What are these? Scholars are in agreement that scientific and industrial inventions are not mentioned here. "These verses reflect the writing of Genesis 4:21ff, and Genesis 6:1ff. Perhaps they were intended to suggest that the harem was one of man's wicked contrivances." Waddey also, a very dependable scholar accepted this interpretation. "Man has corrupted himself by seeking out evil things and doing them. Modern man is still busily engaged in a frenzied attempt to out-sin his progenitors." Solomon's bitterness in the final paragraph of this chapter was explained by Grieve, "Either as the result of some bitter personal experience, or from the intrigues of the harem."
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 7". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20