by John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes 7 is another chapter of comparisons, that is, it essentially states that this is better than that. Recall that we should not take these comparisons as absolutes, which is why Solomon uses the term “better” rather than giving a direct, dogmatic command. Why does he do this when we would normally expect a direct command from God? Sometimes conditions alter cases.
We can see a clear illustration of this in Solomon’s statement in verse 1 that the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth. It should be that way, but in real life, it is not always so. Some foolish people absolutely waste their precious gift of life from God, so their deaths leave no room for hope.
The implication of Solomon’s thought is that his statement reflects the way it should be, and those who believe God’s Word can take steps to ensure the conclusion of their lives will be that way. That better conclusion to life largely depends on the choices made in life.
Chapter 7 begins on the heels of the five questions that end chapter 6, as though what Solomon writes in chapter 7 contains some thoughts relative to those questions. However, we will not focus on that connection at this time. Even so, because wisdom is so frequently mentioned in the next three chapters, we will briefly review some points regarding it.
The ancient Hebrews associated wisdom with our modern term “skill,” even though “skill” is not a direct translation of the Hebrew term. “Skill” implies what wisdom is in actual practice: excellence in quality or expertise in the practice of one’s occupation, craft, or art. People may acquire many skills in life, but the Bible focuses on human life and its God-given purpose. Therefore, a practical definition of biblical wisdom is “skill in living according to God’s way of life.”
To refine it further, biblical wisdom is unique to those truly in a relationship with God. That biblical wisdom is a gift of God reinforces this fact, and according to James 1:1-8, we should ask for it and He will give it. James cautions that we must be patient because God gives it through the experiences of living within a relationship with God. Living requires time, and in some cases, a great deal of time because we are often slow to learn. God gives wisdom for us to make the best practical use of all the other gifts He gives, enabling us to glorify Him by our lives. As it is used, it displays a host of characteristics similar to the fruit of the Spirit (see James 3:17-18).
Proverbs 1:1-7 helps to clarify wisdom by showing that it consists of such other godly characteristics as knowledge of God Himself, the fear of God, understanding, discernment, discretion, prudence, justice, judgment, equity, etc., all of which, melded together and used, produce a skill in living that—this is important—is in alignment with God’s purpose and way of life.
Undoubtedly, some people are worldly-wise. However, biblical wisdom and worldly wisdom are not the same skillset. Biblical wisdom contains those spiritual qualities that are in alignment with and support God’s purposes. Though wisdom may provide a measure of worldly success, that is not its primary purpose.
Death and the Human Heart
Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes 7:1-4:
A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of one’s death than the day of one’s birth; 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 take it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by a sad countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
We revisit these verses because of their focus on the heart, death, mourning, sorrow, and mirth, all of which are involved in the comparison. In terms of wisdom, Solomon unmistakably comes down on the side of sorrow and mourning as the more important. They are to be preferred because mourning motivates a person toward sober contemplation of his own mortality, which tends to affect the wellspring of our thoughts, words, and conduct effectively and positively. The wellspring of conduct is the heart, which is why “heart” is mentioned four times in these verses.
The heart is truly the center of a human being. Recall that Jesus reminds us that our words and conduct spring from our hearts (Matthew 15:18-19). Therefore, we need to search out and reinforce some important truths regarding death and its direct connection to our hearts and thus our conduct in life.
A number of years ago, The Denial of Death won the Pulitzer Prize for the best of nonfiction in a certain category. In it, the author, Dr. Ernest Becker, made this telling comment, confirming what the Bible clearly states: “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is the mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man” (p. ix). Here in Ecclesiastes, Solomon is subtly urging us to take steps to confront the truth of death’s influence on our overall conduct in life.
Death was set in motion during the Creation Week. The way things now are in this world, it is an almost daily factor in life. It has become the curse of curses, the last enemy to be destroyed. As we will see shortly, it dogs our existence.
The specter of death is so dominant in some people’s minds that it virtually destroys their lives. Their actions are focused on avoiding death and overcoming it by somehow denying that it is the final destiny for man. These people are really downers in their effect upon others.
Conversely, many people, while living, do not prepare for the obvious reality of death. It and its accompanying sorrows are major events of life that everyone must deal with. Solomon exhorts us to face in a balanced way what this issue means in terms of God’s truth so we are prepared for its inevitability.
He does this partly because he understands, perhaps as well as anyone ever did, that pursuing laughter, as he shows in chapter 2, and relishing enjoyable situations are easy compared to experiencing sorrow. However, mirth is almost useless in terms of leading a profitable life. A person must almost be forced to seek out involvement in sorrowful circumstances. Paradoxically, death and its sorrowful circumstances have far more to teach us about what is valuable to a meaningful life compared to mirth and laughter, passing pleasures that are here today and gone tomorrow.
In verse 2, Solomon mentions a “house of mourning.” In those days, and in fact right up to the time of my childhood, people often displayed dead family members in their homes, holding the funeral service there or at the grave site, whereas today, it is routinely held at a funeral home. My first memory of seeing a dead person in a casket was in the deceased’s home. It was my first grade teacher, who had died during the school term.
Author Susan Sontag wrote, “Death is the obscene mystery, the ultimate affront, the thing that cannot be controlled. It can only be denied.” Our language of death clearly shows society’s attempts to soften, hide, or even deny it by using euphemisms, such as calling the dead person “the departed” or by saying that he “passed away” or “is not with us anymore.” This is done to avoid saying the words “death” or “dead.”
God deals with it in His Word by showing that it is best for us to deal with it directly. This allows us to understand more fully that death is indeed the way of all flesh and to lay it to heart, shifting the balance of our thoughts about its reality toward more serious thinking on it.
God wastes no time confronting the issue. He mentions death as early as halfway through Genesis 2, as if to emphasize its meaning and importance to us. In addition, before Genesis 4 ends, the first literal death occurs as the result of a murder.
Helping to Reshape the Heart
By asking God for help regarding its reality, Moses makes a vital statement about preparing for death: “So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). The phrase, “number our days,” suggests that we put our use of time in order. Death and its reality play an important role in Christian life, for God fully intends that it have an overall positive effect on the lives of His children. Everybody dies. It cannot be avoided, but not everybody prepares for death.
Martin Luther also made an insightful observation on preparing for death: “It is good for us to invite death into our presence when it is still at a distance and not on the move.” The time to learn about rock climbing is not when hanging from the edge of a precipice but well before starting up the side of the cliff. It seems, though, that many do most things on the spur of the moment, a practice that is not good, especially concerning something like death that absolutely no one escapes.
God gives some insight and counsel in Ecclesiastes 7:3-4. Death, He says, is good for the heart. The heart beats at our core. Attending one good funeral can shape a person’s worldview more positively than a whole year’s worth of parties. Verse 3 may be better understood if translated as, “By sadness, the heart is made better.”His point is aimed at the soundness of the heart, which results from the honest thoughtfulness that sorrow causes a person to engage in. God is saying that sorrow tends to make us better people.
A specific and important sorrow is one Paul names in II Corinthians 7:8-11. In this brief passage, he uses “sorry,” “sorrow,” or “sorrowed” seven times. Why is it important? Because godly sorrow produces repentance, a change of mind and conduct.
In Ecclesiastes, Solomon is clearly implying that, because we love to laugh, worldly mirth is attractive on the surface and momentarily focuses our attention. However, in terms of conduct, it frequently leaves an individual essentially unchanged. When this is combined with the godly truths of II Corinthians 7:8-11, it becomes clear that, by God’s design, the discipline of sorrow tends to lead to improvement of conduct. Thus, God Himself sometimes afflicts us to produce sorrow in the hope that the pains and their accompanying sorrow make our hearts tender so that we change.
The result of a parent disciplining a child in a timely manner and in appropriate measure is a good illustration. Is not some measure of pain and its accompanying sorrow inflicted? Proverbs frequently tells us to spank our children. Why? Is not it to produce the sorrow of separation from one who is loved to accomplish a change in attitude and behavior?
God is saying through Solomon, then, that sorrow—in a morally and ethically beneficial way in which laughter cannot—penetrates and influences the heart, the very center of our being and from which conduct flows. So important is godly sorrow that II Corinthians 7:10 states, “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.”
A knowledge of death includes essential truths that we must know and believe if we are serious about not sinning and thus glorifying God. The book of Hebrews contains a passage that seriously affects our understanding of this issue. Knowing and believing these truths is essential to our lives of faith and salvation. A clear explanation of them will help us appreciate how seriously God wants us to be prepared for death. It will entail a rather long digression, but these statements regarding death in Ecclesiastes are so meaningful to our lives that such a detour is warranted.
Covering Some Pangs of Death
Scripture deals with the subject of death in several different ways. First, the Bible treats it as the normal end of life. It is as if a life has reached its full maturity, and when that point is reached, the person is plucked like a ripe stalk at harvest time. A second way the Bible deals with death is that it is simply the opposite of life. Life is respectfully associated as a gift of God, and with life, an individual is capable of relations with others, even God. However, it also suggests that when the individual dies, and life and God are gone, the body becomes impure and contact with it should be avoided.
Without any distinctions, we will approach the subject without any reference to either idea. Our focus will be on how important it is that we prepare for death because God has made it possible for us to live everlastingly.
Hebrews 2:14-15 states:
Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.
It is true that in all of us exists a measure of apprehensive awareness of death that influences our attitudes and conduct. This fear affects everyone to some degree, whether intensely or feebly, because this particular fear has a spiritual source.
Notice that verse 15 says that through the fear of death we are held in bondage all our lifetime. It does not suggest a never-ending dread, but instead a vague influence on conduct, an uncertainty wrapped within a measure of hopelessness, because we do not fully believe God-given truths about death.
God does not put people in the kind of bondage implied by this context. What is being referred to here is bondage to sin. Thus, with a bit of understanding, we know that the source of this fear is Satan. Most of the world believes his many horrible lies regarding death: The living fear the thought of people shrieking in an ever-burning place that allows no spot of respite from fearsome pains. Some think of death as endless unawareness and others of wandering, always detached, in the vast emptiness of space.
Though humanity is certainly aware of death, it does not stop people from sinning, largely because most do not make a thoughtful, believing connection between their own sins being the direct cause of death and of Satan being their spiritual father, even as Jesus told the Jews (John 8:44). Thus, they are held in bondage to this deceptive, Satan-induced ignorance. As long as death seems far in the future, people generally do not pay it much attention. However, the fear still resides in their minds and influences their conduct because of not believing God’s truth. Thus, most people do not fear to sin except for some social embarrassment because they do not make a clear, knowledgeable, believing connection between their personal sins and their own deaths.
In addition, Hebrews 2:14 tells us that Satan has the power of death. Again, people do not fear Satan very much either. In fact, many do not even believe that he exists. Nevertheless, their ignorance does not negate the fact of their bondage. They are not aware who their slave master is, but he is a person and has a name. Other foundational scriptures will help us make clearer sense of these verses.
The purpose in this section of Hebrews is to provide us with a foundation of truth regarding how we are freed from the condition we were in before we were called, converted, and made Christians and part of God’s Family. Hebrews 2:9-11 adds key information to clarify our understanding:
But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He by the grace of God might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting for Him for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren.
These verses introduce the solution. Jesus is the means by which we, the many sons, are made perfect, that is, brought to completion and made free from this bondage imposed on us. Our Creator had to first become completely identified with us: human. This is important because Jesus is the means by which we are not only made free and holy at the beginning of our conversion, but this same One also keeps us free throughout our conversion. Those who are truly holy by God’s standard are those who will escape death.
Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him. “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can You say, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever, therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”
We Have a Responsibility
The Son sets us free. However, a key element pinpointing our responsibility in this relationship is the word “abide.” It means “to live,” “to continue,” “to go on.” Thus, we must recall Romans 5:10 and be very thankful: “For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.” This truth confirms that we are saved by His life, that is, He is our living High Priest. “I will never leave nor forsake you,” He declares (Hebrews 13:5).
Thus, our responsibility is to continue being faithful to Christ, striving to overcome sin, and as this occurs, He, as our High Priest, continues to keep us free from backsliding into Satan’s bondage. Thus, the work of Christ makes us one with Him and keeps us one with Him.
The author of Hebrews is stating that Jesus, our Savior, and His brothers and sisters all now belong to the same Family. Remember that Jesus, in order to be identified completely with us, became a mortal man, but He, by living a sinless life, escaped the mandatory death penalty. Because of God’s calling and faith, we are now linked with Him spiritually and can look forward to everlasting life.
Hebrews 2:14 is saying, then, that in order for us to be freed from bondage to Satan and the fear of death, Christ had to become human and able to die because “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Thus, nothing less than the death of our sinless Creator, living as a man, could suffice for us to be freed from the death penalty by means of His substitutionary death on the cross. God paid a huge price for our freedom from the fear of death.
This was not His only great accomplishment. He also lived sinlessly, and in doing so defeated Satan, who has the power of death, as he lost the struggle to induce Jesus, the second Adam, the beginning of the new creation, to sin. The Adversary had won this struggle over Adam and Eve and all their children, but Jesus took the weapon of death from Satan’s hands. Because we are one with Christ, that weapon no longer hangs over us.
We need to further clarify Satan’s possession of this weapon. Genesis 2:15-17 informs us of the beginning of Satan’s power:
Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Notice especially that God originally pronounced the curse of death should sin be committed. However, Jesus says in John 8:44 that Satan was a murderer from the beginning. When was the beginning? It had to be when God created beings whose life was in their blood, that is, humans, subject to death if they sinned. This did not occur until Adam and Eve were created. Thus, when they sinned, death had its beginning.
Genesis 3:13 adds, “And the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate.’” Thus, from what Jesus says in John 8:44 regarding Satan’s part in this episode, we find that God held Satan guilty of murder. His weapon was the deceit that encouraged her to commit sin. She did not completely overlook her respect for God but discounted it enough to give into Satan’s persuasion. She did this on the strength of her desire, fueled by her lust for the pleasure of eating the forbidden fruit—but even more so to fulfill her desire to become wise. Then, Adam, though not deceived as Eve was, also discounted God’s counsel in order to make sure he did not displease Eve. He was guilty of idolatry.
What does knowing these things accomplish? It shows that, even though their deaths did not occur immediately, at the very least God had delivered the power of death into Satan’s hands by means of deceit just before he induced her to sin. Satan used this means to murder them, and he uses this means to this very day. Incidentally, Jesus clearly indicates in the Olivet Prophecy, as well as in Revelation, that we will witness a rise in the intensity of deceit just prior to His return.
God did not intervene to stop either Satan or Adam and Eve from following their desires. Adam and Eve had a test to pass. They failed, as did all their progeny. Only Christ has succeeded. Unless one is converted and under Christ’s blood, Satan continues to hold this power even to this very day. But we are not defenseless; we have Christ to help us in this battle.
Satan’s Power Is Modified
Zechariah 3:1-4 provides further insight:
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the Angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to oppose him. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, and was standing before the Angel. Then He answered and spoke to those who stood before Him, saying, “Take away the filthy garments, from him.” And to him He said, “See, I have removed your iniquity from you, and I will clothe you with rich robes.”
What is going on here? Because of a valid accusation against Joshua, Satan stands ready to take his life due to his sins, symbolized by the filthy robes. This scene confirms that Satan still has the power to take life, but the story does not end there.
Job 2:5-6 adds more to our understanding. The cynical Satan asks: “‘But stretch out Your hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will surely curse You to Your face!’ And the Lord said to Satan, ‘Behold, he is in your hand, but spare his life.’” This example confirms that, even though Satan still has this power, he is nonetheless also subject to God. Satan can execute that power only on those whom God gives him permission to kill.
Nevertheless, his and his fellow demons’ very presence surcharges this earth with a sense of death that creates a fear (Ephesians 2:1-3). Thus, we have the assurance that God is overseeing our lives, ensuring that we do not get in over our heads. I Corinthians 10:13 assures us that, if we believe and act on it in submissive obedience to God, He will not test us above our abilities.
Hebrews 9:27 takes us another step toward unfolding this truth: “And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.” Everybody dies this death, including believers. At first, a person may think this says that Satan has supreme rule, and every human loses. However, we cannot forget Christ’s death on the cross. His death wiped out the curse of death hanging over us due to our sins similar to Adam and Eve, and He remains our faithful High Priest. Thus, more remains to be understood about this verse.
How does this verse affect us? Paul writes in Colossians 2:11-14:
In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.
The apostle explains that a Christian is free from the bondage of death because Christ’s death has removed the charges of sin against us. Jesus, in Revelation 1:18, adds another factor in our favor: “I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death.”
Christ, because He paid the penalty for our sins and simultaneously defeated Satan, now holds the power of life and death for the converted. At this point, matters become clear. For Hebrews 9:27 to be true, Christ’s blood does not cover the first death, which everybody faces, but it indeed covers the second death, eternal death of the Lake of Fire. Revelation 20:14 confirms a second death: “Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.” Revelation 21:8 adds detail: “But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
Paul offers us assurance in Romans 8:37-39:
Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
At this time, the unconverted face both the first and second deaths. They are still held eternally in Satan’s slavery unless converted between now and the igniting of the Lake of Fire.
Hebrews 2:14-15 and its associated verses tell us that Christ died for us to break the hold Satan had on us and any that he still has on us through fear of eternal death that might remain within us. We do not die the hopeless second death that the unconverted are still held to. We are free to turn voluntarily to God, choosing to submit in obedience to Him.
To summarize, we do not have to sin in the face of Satan’s powers. We still occasionally will, but we do not have to submit to the spiritual power that Satan uses against us. The enslavement is broken. Satan is no longer our father and master.
We can look forward to an ever-growing liberty to obey God with all our heart, soul, and mind. Solomon is encouraging us to fill our minds soberly and yet joyfully with these kinds of thoughts—even in the house of mourning—because these realities and promises are our hope! This reveals to us the lengths to which God willingly went: all the way to giving His own Son to pay the ransom for our liberty and to giving us freedom to use our free moral agency rightly.