Saturday, September 16, 2023

"Ecclesiastes: Better than the Beginning" by David Chilton

The following was written by author David Chilton:

Ecclesiastes is often a puzzler, surprising us with statements that seem incongruous and even contradictory, bringing us up short with life’s uncomfortable and even brutal realities. The Preacher says, “A good name is better than precious ointment” (7:1). That makes sense, and is a worthwhile lesson. Indeed, we might think, anyone could have said it. Similar statements may be found among the writings of Plato and Confucius. Even criminals know the value of a good name. Every thoughtful person knows that a good reputation is a valuable treasure to be cherished, and one that we would be foolish to discard for the sake of the fleeting pleasures of perfume. But the Preacher couples that truism with a shock: “And the day of death (is better) than the day of one’s birth.” Why would he say something like that? And why imply that the two statements are even roughly equivalent? Is the blessing of a good reputation in any way comparable to the unquestionable tragedy of death?

Indeed, the Preacher possibly makes it even tougher for us: the verse can also be translated, “As a name is better than oil, so the day of death is better than the day of birth.” Stated that way, it is difficult for certain commentators to accept, and some even assert that the first half of the verse “has no relation to the context.” In all likelihood, the Preacher is probably coupling a well-known, proverbial saying with a somber punch line to make us reflect on the fact that all births end in death.

That is why he continues, “Better to go to the house of mourning than to go the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men; and the living will take it to heart” (7:2). Irresistibly, death forces us to think about life—its relentless mortality and transience coupled with its eternal significance, and its unfulfilled hopes and dreams (cf. Ps. 90:12). A funeral is an absolutely unique event: No other gathering has a similar effect. In every funeral, we see an image of our own certain death foreshadowed before us. The stark certainty of death irresistibly causes us—if only for a moment—to consider our latter end, to number our days, and to apply our hearts to wisdom (cf. Deut. 32:29). Despite the pain and unutterable grief, the house of mourning can prove to be a house of blessing, if we learn its lessons. By comparison, feasting is often frivolous.

The Preacher expands the lesson: “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by a sad countenance the heart is made better” (7:3). Much as we would prefer to think otherwise, we are not strengthened spiritually by a placid, problem-free existence. Trials, Saint James says, are strength-building exercises, tests of our faith (James 1:2–12). Gold is purified by fire, not by soap and water. The good gardener makes the vine more productive by pruning—and he knows that, for maximum fruitfulness, the pruning must be extensive (cf. John 15:1–8). There is no alternative for us, said our Lord, other than undergoing the discipline of the knife: “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away: and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” Sooner or later, everyone feels the blade: for Christians, it is a blessing, because the outcome is discipline, not destruction. God chastens us “for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness” (Heb. 12:10).

But this necessarily means that, for believers, the short-run outcome is often pain and even tragedy, rather than joy. Says the Preacher: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (7:4). So he counsels the discipline of patient waiting and submission to reproofs, rather than foolish haste: “It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise than for a man to hear the song of fools. For like the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool. This also is vanity” (7:5–6). The Preacher concludes with the final lesson: “The end of a thing is better than its beginning; the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit” (7:8). Why is the end necessarily better? Why is it always worthwhile to wait and see? Because only at the end are we able to know the certain results of an action and form a right judgment about the matter. Only at the end can we see whether its bright promises have been fulfilled and its purposes realized. Jesus said that a tree is known by it’s fruit (Matt. 7:16–20).

This is our hope, the goal of our patience: that through all our trials, the end will be better than the beginning. Long ago, we taught our children a fundamental lesson in life, and added it to their regular Shorter Catechism recitations: “What is the most important lesson in life?” They learned to respond—to the frequent confounding of their peers and watching adults alike—“The most important lesson in life is to learn to wait!” That simple repetition, day in and day out for over a decade and a half—covering everything from household chores to their social calendars—has spared us much needless grief, and short circuited countless problems before they had a chance to erupt.