A good name is better than precious oil; and the day of death, than the day of one’s birth (Ecclesiastes 7:1).
The Preacher has always been notable for his “different” views about life. He likes to overturn “conventional wisdom” to force his audience into thinking more deeply about the mysteries of life.
We see this tendency illustrated in Ecclesiastes 7:1 regarding life and death. We tend to favor the day of birth over the day of death, appreciating the hope and possibility of new life. The Preacher is not denying the value of new life; he instead focuses on the “merits” of the day of death. Death means the end of the futility, the vanity/absurdity of life; there will be no more physical pain, suffering, or any of the other miseries described as “under the sun.” Furthermore, for those who have lived well, and who have a good name, the day of death seals their reputation. Most people would easily accept the idea that one’s reputation is of more value than luxury goods; how many would accept the idea that the day of death is better than the day of birth?
All of chapter 7, as well as much of the rest of the book of Ecclesiastes, maintains a similar theme. Jesus Himself spoke in terms completely contrary to received wisdom (cf. Matthew 5:3-12, Luke 6:20-26). There are many times when it is good to overthrow conventional wisdom: it often is based in presuppositions and perspectives that are limited and distorted.
Such is certainly true in the twenty-first century. Our society has developed a lot of assumptions, perspectives, and ideas that many recently have described, among other things, as “first world problems.”
When we hear about a child being diagnosed with a fatal condition or is dying, we are understandably distressed and sad. Nevertheless, the truly surprising thing is not that some children get ill and/or die, as many seem to think, but that so many more children are alive and healthy.
A lot of us, to some degree or another, have challenges with weight gain. The amazing thing is not that we so easily gain weight, but that most all of us have the resources allowing us to consume far more calories than any of us need on account of the amount of food produced annually. Many people in the world to this very day may be starving, and yet we have a superabundance of food.
Many people read the Bible these days and are horrified at the pictures of violence in the Old Testament and are disturbed at the prospect of hell for the disobedient and the unbelievers in the New Testament (e.g. 1 Samuel 15:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10). Yet the fact that people today can read those stories and be horrified is what is really astounding: for most people in the past, and sadly even for many to this very day, those pictures of violence were and are normal. The fact that so many take offense at the concept of divine justice or retribution says as much about those taking offense as it does about the concept itself: if one has never been oppressed, wronged, or persecuted in a meaningful and substantive way, it is pretty easy to think of divine justice as some form of injustice. Yet, for the majority of human history, the vast majority of people have understood, to some degree, what it meant to be wronged, mistreated, and/or oppressed, and the idea that God would make all wrongs right one day allowed life to maintain some form of meaning.
For that matter, our society seems to take as gospel truth the premise that we are developing and “progressing” as a culture, and often will point to some of these differences between our lives and the lives of our ancestors as signs of the “evolution” of our sensibilities. While it is true that life is different than it was in previous generations, and many aspects of life today are better than in times past, there are many problems we experience today that were not as prevalent in days past: social isolation, recognition of the value of others, honoring of commitments, and so on and so forth. Things are not inherently better or worse (Ecclesiastes 1:9, 7:10); they are just different.
These and many other forms of “conventional wisdom” must be overturned if we will keep a healthy perspective about life: many of the things we find problematic are not really “problems” in the grand scheme of things, and we must come to grips with the fact that on the whole, our lives are fairly charmed in comparison with the experience of most of humanity in its existence. It is good to be thankful for our blessings; it is quite another to become as spoiled brats on account of our blessings. Let us praise and honor God, mindful of how reality really works, understanding that many times we must not go along with what passes for conventional wisdom!
Ethan R. Longhenry