Saturday, March 14, 2020

Time and Chance (27)

If we took the first thirteen verses of Ecclesiastes 7 on their own, we might initially think they belong in the book of Proverbs. They are fairly standard Hebrew proverbial couplets (with the occasional interjection).

This is not the first time the form is used in Ecclesiastes. There are a few couplets sprinkled through chapters 1, 4 and 5, and we will encounter more in chapters 8, 10 and 11.

What is different about the proverbs we find in Ecclesiastes in that they do not skip around from subject to subject with anything like their usual apparent randomness, but instead serve the book’s larger treatise. They are thematically linked to one another, to what comes before them, and to what follows them.

Here, they continue the Preacher’s thoughts on mortality developed in chapter 6.

Ecclesiastes 7:1 — In Praise of the Day of Death
“A good name is better than precious ointment,
and the day of death than the day of birth.”
That last line’s a bit dark. We might well ask, “In what way?” After all, with almost every birth we have hope, promise, potential and all that good stuff. Why would anyone prefer a tearful eulogy to the announcement that a child has entered this world?

We must remember that many of these sayings may sound like sweeping generalizations to modern ears, but are actually intended to be much more limited in scope. There are several ways in which birth is preferable to death, but there is at least one way in which death can be better, and it is very much connected to the first line of the couplet, which speaks of the value of “a good name”.

Good names take years to develop. You don’t acquire one in days or weeks or months. A good name is the product of a lifetime of predictable, reliably moral, socially-acceptable behavior. It is the near-universal recognition of personal excellence. A good name is better than precious ointment because acquiring it costs just as much and maybe more, not in dollars or shekels but in sweat, commitment and sacrifice.

A day of death is better than a day of birth when it commemorates a life well lived. Sin is such a constant temptation that a man or woman who makes it to the grave with his or her name intact and fondly remembered is always in the most enviable position. Hey, there’s zero chance of him messing it all up now! In the alternative, that child full of hope and possibility may end up world’s greatest disappointment. All that potential is just that: potential. All that hope is mostly imaginary.

What matters in the end are not endless possibilities but confirmed certainties.

Ecclesiastes 7:2 — The End of All Mankind
“It is better to go to the house of mourning
than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.”
Our second, slightly lengthier couplet continues the Preacher’s established theme. We are all going to the grave. No exceptions. Best to be realistic about it and keep the inevitable in view. Those who do not are living in denial.

We find this idea picked up in our New Testaments. Paul speaks of “making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” Perhaps the apostle anticipated the coming fall of Jerusalem, or perhaps he was simply looking at the Gentiles around him and acknowledging the systemic hopelessness that characterized their lives, resulting in sexual immorality, covetousness and impurity. Either way, he saw the Christian life as the first century equivalent of a clock ticking down to midnight. Those who know this and use time well will live productively. Those who imagine they will live forever, and that every good deed may be put off until tomorrow, will find one day that tomorrow does not come.

But this teaching is not merely the product of NT Christian faith. Moses said something similar in a familiar psalm, and perhaps the Preacher remembered it: “[T]each us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

Everybody dies. Satan and the world would both like us to forget this and live for today without regard for long-term consequences. Those who keep our real situation squarely in view will do better than those who do not. Matthew Henry says, “It will do us more good to go to a funeral than a festival.”

Ecclesiastes 7:3 — Fixing the Problem
“Sorrow is better than laughter,
for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.”
When do people stop to try to cheer you up? When you are looking most obviously bleak. The man who conceals his grief is his own worst enemy. He may never shake it off. However inadvertently, he prevents others from coming to his aid in time of need. Ironically, it is only when we display our sorrow that others make the effort to help us manage it. How can they know otherwise?

Perhaps for this reason, the NT encourages Christians to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” The need and opportunity for empathy in our world is always present with us.

John Gill points out that the mere appearance of sadness is not true sadness. The first century Pharisees made a great show of fasting and appearing gloomy, but demonstrably had no long-lasting concern about their own sins. The most compelling object of care and love is the man or woman who unabashedly and unaffectedly mourns the evils of the world. Those who mourn shall be comforted, as the Lord himself taught.

Ecclesiastes 7:4 — The House of Mirth
“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”
Here the contrast with “house of mourning” is not “house of feasting” but “house of mirth”. Perhaps the Preacher is thinking of the sort of person who characteristically takes refuge in humor or other distractions in order to escape dealing with reality.

We live in a fallen world. Is laughter really the best medicine in our current condition? Maybe not. If we are hearing Solomon correctly, it is the medicine of fools.

That does not mean that all godly men and women ought to be unrelentingly severe. The Preacher is speaking of general conduct, not the occasional exception. It is the “heart of the wise” and the “heart of fools” — the way they do business under ordinary circumstances. It is a question of the technique one most reliably resorts to when things get tough. Fools are characterized by a persistent and logically-indefensible positivity; the belief that things will somehow work out in favorably in the short term despite every sign pointing the other way.

As Matthew Poole puts it, “[T]heir minds and affections are wholly set upon feasting and jollity, because, like fools and brutish creatures, they regard only their present delight, and mind not how dearly they must pay for them.”

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