What are your endings revealing? For if we pay careful attention, they will reveal to us what we’ve truly placed our faith in, what is truly our ultimate source of hope, and what is truly our greatest treasure. They are important lessons to learn. For all we will carry with us beyond our death is our faith, our hope, and our love.
[Better is] the day of death than the day of birth.
I realize that’s an abrupt way to begin an article, but that’s how the Preacher begins Ecclesiastes 7. No easing in; he just pushes us into the deep end of the existential pool. So, here we are. What do you think about the Preacher’s statement? Do you agree with him?
The statement becomes more disturbing when we realize that the Preacher isn’t talking about our deaths, but about the deaths of people we know and love — deaths we experience as losses. He’s talking about the deaths of our grandparents, parents, siblings, spouses, children, extended family members, friends, colleagues, and neighbors.
Think about that for a moment. Is the Preacher — and God through the Preacher — really saying that the day we weep over a loved one’s death is better than the day we laugh for joy over a loved one’s newborn baby? Yes, he is. But he means it in a limited, specific sense.
What Death has to Say
We can see what the Preacher means by reading more of the context:
A good name is better than precious ointment,
and the day of death than the day of birth.
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.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
for by sadness of face 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. (Ecclesiastes 7:1–4)
This clarifies the Preacher’s point. The day of death is better than the day of birth in the sense that death speaks to us in ways birth does not. For death says,
You too are going to die, perhaps sooner than you think. And so will every other person you love and every mourner who pays his respects to this loved one whose final earthly end has come. If you are wise, you will take this to heart and live with your end in mind.
That’s not a message anyone hears at a baby shower.
Wisdom’s Counterintuitive Way
When we read through the wisdom literature of the Bible, we see this strange motif: we gain wisdom by paying careful attention to and learning to embrace things we would rather avoid.
- We would rather avoid the significant discomfort that discipline requires, yet we see that “whoever loves discipline loves knowledge” (Proverbs 12:1).
- We would rather avoid the unpleasant, humbling experience of being corrected, yet we see that “whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence” (Proverbs 15:32).
- We would certainly rather avoid the more painful correction of being rebuked, yet we hear a wise man say, “Let a righteous man strike me — it is a kindness; let him rebuke me — it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it” (Psalm 141:5).
- And we would really rather avoid afflictions of any kind, yet we hear another wise man say, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Psalm 119:71).
The way of wisdom is often counterintuitive.