Finding Wisdom in an Unlikely Place

Finding Wisdom in an Unlikely Place

Ecclesiastes 7:1-5

“It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting.”

 

            Solomon again confronts us with what seems absurd, for he praises the house of mourning over the house of feasting.  This contradicts our own experience.  We love to go to celebrations, a birthday party, a retirement party, or some other event where we celebrate.  We are excited when we can enjoy a wedding but dread going to a funeral.  Yet, in our search for meaning and purpose in life, Solomon encourages us to go to the place of mourning rather than feasting.  Then, in verse three, he makes a statement that seems more in line with the ascetic monks and even the psychological disorder of self-destruction: “Sorrow is better than laughter, for when a face is sad, a heart may be happy.”  This seems contradictory: Happiness is found through the path of sorrow.   However, Solomon is not trying to point us down the road of a joyless life filled only with sorrow.  He is confronting us with the reality of a broken world so that we might learn life's true meaning and purpose.  

            To understand the point of Solomon, we need to begin in the first part of verse 1, in which Solomon gives us the overarching theme, “A good name is better than a good ointment” (or literally, “better than good oil”).  In the time of Solomon, olive oil was a prized possession and valued for its versatility and use.  It was used for cooking, as a fuel for lamps, beautification, and healing.  Religiously, it was used to denote consecration to God. This proverbial statement points out that inner character is more important than nourishment and outer perfumes and pleasures.  This is a theme that is repeated throughout the book of Proverbs. For example, in Proverbs 22:1, the sage writes, “A good name is to be more desired than great wealth, Favor is better than silver and gold.”  The key to meaning in life is found in the pursuit of character rather than pleasure.  This brings us to the critical question, “What builds character in our life?” Indeed, it is not in the pursuit of pleasure.  Feasting and laughter, more often than not, serve to conceal the turmoil within us.  It becomes the fa├žade that we use to hide our inward struggles.  The wealthy vainly try to conceal their inward unhappiness with outward parties on luxurious yachts.  

            Death is the great equalizer.  It strips away all the facades and reveals the genuine person.  When we lie in the coffin, the only thing that we have is our character; everything else becomes meaningless.  Our culture states, eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow, we die.  Solomon reminds us that in death, we face what is essential head-on.  As the Old Testament Commentators Keil and Delitsch point out, “When man looks death in the face, the two things occur to him, that he should make use of his brief life, but make use of it in view of the end, thus in the manner for which he is responsible before God.”  The Psalmist reminds us of this theme when he states, “So teach us to number our days, That we may present to You a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).  In death, our only possession will be our character and our faith.  This is why we should embrace sorrow and adversity, for our character is developed in life's struggles.  Paul affirms this same truth in Romans 5:3-5, “We also exalt in our tribulation, knowing that tribute nation brings ance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope.” Adversity is God’s tutor that develops character within us, for it turns our focus from the present to the eternal.  It reminds us that the pursuit of the things of this world is a pursuit of what is empty and valueless.  Instead, we are to pursue what is eternal: Christ's righteousness.  As Paul also summarizes, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” Philippians 1:21. 

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