Ecclesiastes 7:1-5 – Becoming Wise
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.
It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.
One morning the newly hired president of the bank made an appointment with his predecessor to seek some advice. He began:
“Sir, as you know, I lack a great deal of the knowledge you already possess. You have been very successful as president of this bank, and I wondered if you would be so kind as to share with me some of the insights you have gained from your years here that have been key to your success?”
The older gentleman looked at him with a steely glare and replied:
“Young man, TWO WORDS: good decisions.”
“Thank you very much sir, but may I be so bold as to ask ‘how does one come to know which is the good decision?’”
“One word, young man – Experience.”
“Yes… but how does one gain this experience?”
“Two words, young man – Bad Decisions.”
Bad decisions… boy I've made my share. That’s why my NUMBER 1 prayer request these days is that God would grant me wisdom. Why? I need discernment. I need to see people the way God does. I need objectivity – stability - maturity. And those things come with wisdom.
According to the book of James, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it WILL be given him.”
How about you? Would you like to be wise???
The Bible is full of wisdom – particularly the writings of Solomon, whom the Bible describes as the wisest man to ever live. Solomon didn’t get there on his own… no. At the beginning of his reign, the Lord told Solomon He would give him whatever he wanted. His request??? ⇒ That God would make him wise.
Later, as a young father and king, we see that wisdom on display as he sat down to write the Book of Proverbs that would guide his young son and help him avoid the consequences of bad decisions.
But as we study his life, we learn that Solomon didn’t always act in wisdom. In FACT, He made many terrible decisions despite his incredible wisdom. And because of those years of foolishness, his last days were filled with bitterness.
You could say - the bitter thoughts of an elderly wise-man gave birth to the book of Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes is a book that wrestles with the meaning of life. Its major theme is:
‘The emptiness of life WITHOUT God.’
After looking back at his reign as king and reflecting over all that he had accomplished and acquired – he came to THIS bitter conclusion:
“All of it is vanity.”
“My life has been wasted in pursuit of the wrong things!”
Can you imagine reaching the end of a privileged life FILLED with great opportunities, and coming to the terrible conclusion that it was all a waste??
I guess you could say - “After climbing the ladder of success, Solomon found it to be leaning on the wrong building.”
He doesn’t want his readers to make the same mistakes and end up bitter old people filled with regret. So in our text, Solomon offers four characteristics of wisdom.
If YOU would be wise, there are four things you must do:
1. First, you must value Character ABOVE temporary pleasure. True wisdom is more than knowing right from wrong – wisdom gives us the ability to see beyond what is good to what is best. Notice verse 1,
“A good name is better than precious ointment.”
Think about that. Precious ointment - costly perfume - is good, but its effects are only temporary. A good name - CHARACTER - is lasting.
As a younger man, I was so wrapped up in myself, my goals, my ambitions, that I really didn’t consider the importance of character. My pride made me short-sighted. Since I was so concerned with my own goals, I hurt the people close to me. I didn’t think about how my stress and my preoccupation actions might be viewed negatively. As a result, I spent several years squandering influence.
Now that I am more experienced, I see the value of character… that what a man IS when no one is watching IS JUST AS IMPORTANT - if not MORE SO than all the accolades I might receive for my achievements. I realize that my opportunities to impact people for Christ are slipping away. If I damage my witness chasing after the temporal things of THIS life, I will not leave a positive legacy for those I love.
If YOU would be wise, you must see the importance of character ABOVE temporary pleasure - whether that pleasure is sexual immorality or blind ambition. In the end, when our bodies are cold and buried, people will remember us for our character.
2. Secondly, if you would be wise you must place higher value on the future THAN the past or present. Notice the remainder of verse 1, “the day of death (is better) than the day of birth.”
I know that Solomon’s words seem to contradict our experience. Think about the contrast – the happiness that surrounds a birth and the sadness we feel at death. We celebrate birthdays, not death-days.
So WHY would Solomon say that DEATH is better than birth? I can think of a few reasons:
First, death is better because it removes uncertainty. How many people have started out living for the Lord, only to turn away from Him later in life? How many people have we known who were raised to follow Jesus, but later chose to leave God completely OUT of their lives?
At birth, we celebrate one’s potential. At death, our decisions AND our destinies are forever fixed. I dare say, even in the short history of THIS church, that there are those who once seemed so ‘on-fire for the Lord’ who never even darken the doors of a church today.
Second, wisdom values death above birth because it puts a higher premium on eternal things than it does earthly things. How often have we seen a Christian pass away and thought, “They are in the presence of the Lord right now.” We say that with a tear because, in our selfishness we want them back. But I can think of no greater realization for a grieving family than to know that their deceased loved one is in heaven.
Third, wisdom looks toward the future because reliving the past and longing for the way things use to be is unproductive. I can’t change the past. I can’t bring it back. I can LEARN from the past, but no matter how much I wish for the way things were, those days are gone. Rather than longing for the return of the “good ole days,” I need to make the most of my remaining opportunities.
Fourth, wisdom helps us understand that seldom is the past as good as we remember it. We have selective memory. We have the tendency of not remembering things clearly. We forget a lot of the problems we faced “back in the day.” We forget about the pain and conflicts we experienced, and only remember the BETTER parts. If that wasn’t TRUE - the human race would go extinct because mothers would stop having babies!
And the fifth reason wisdom puts a premium on the future is because if I allow my life to be ruled by the immediate, I will make a lot of dumb decisions. If I let temporary emotion or passion dictate my actions, then I am going to forfeit a lot of things that matter in the long run. I’ve got to look beyond the “now” - to the long term ramifications of my decisions.
3. But not only does wisdom value character above temporary pleasures, and not only does it place a higher premium on the future than on the past or present, third, wisdom learns through life’s losses rather than becoming embittered by them. Listen to vv. 2-4, “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.”
Times of loss ⇒ give us perspective. When you go through an event that threatens everything you've got, you realize MOST of what you’ve got ISN’T important.
After a deadly tornado ripped through Will County, Illinois, a young father was shown on the news cradling his infant child, born just 3 weeks before. When the fierce, howling winds finally subsided, the man's house and all his earthly possessions, were gone.
When asked by the reporter if he was angry that he had lost everything, he replied, "No, I just thank God I have my family. Some people don't have that. Nothing else matters."
Often it takes times of tragedy to remind us of the things that really matter in life. When life is easy, we get preoccupied with so many unimportant things. But when we suffer loss, we remember the things that are most important.
Sorrow is a good teacher – and Solomon talks about three important lessons we learn in times of loss:
First we learn that our Joy is not dependent upon our circumstances. Joy comes from our relationship with the Lord. If your happiness comes from anything else, then whenever that thing is threatened, whenever that thing is lost, you will experience irreparable devastation.
Second, sorrow, pain, and loss remind us of the things that matter most. They act as sifting agents in our lives, cleaning out wrong priorities, removing all the perishable STUFF we spend so much of our energies collecting. It is during times of loss that our misplaced values are clearly seen.
A few years ago, we were on vacation in the Gulf when hurricane Ike made landfall. We had two days of terrible winds and rain. After the storm had subsided, we walked along the beach and found all kinds of junk that had washed ashore. Trash, old tires, a 55 gallon drum, rotten lumber, shoes, sunglasses. The beach was littered with all kinds of STUFF that people had lost in the Gulf.
That storm taught me something about life – when the life’s storms rage against US, it will purge us of all the unimportant stuff that so often preoccupies our thoughts. It will help us rearrange our priorities… keep us grounded.
Solomon talks about how a wise man takes it to heart when he loses a friend or family member to death. He becomes reflective:
- “What if I was in that casket?”
- “Do the people in my life know how much they mean to me?”
- “Did I spend too much of my time building my retirement instead of my relationships?”
- “Are there any unresolved conflicts in my life that I need to address before I meet my Lord?”
We may not like that kind of reflection, but in the end, it is wise - it leads us to make changes that will make us better people.
And third, we learn the importance of showing compassion during times of loss. Of the many things that can be said of Jesus, He was the epitome of compassion. He wept for those who were suffering. He hurt for those who had made bad decisions. He was compassionate towards the broken-hearted.
We learn the importance of empathy when we suffer loss. We learn that BEING THERE to offer support to our suffering friends is important. We learn the value of thoughtfulness and kindness when people are hurting. I can’t learn this stuff during times of celebration.
The wise man learns from his losses.
4. And finally, if you would be wise you must learn the value of constructive criticism. Listen to verse 5, “It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.”
In Proverbs, Solomon said, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.”
A lot of times we go through life surrounding ourselves with people who tell us what we want to hear. And because of this, we will often turn to people whose counsel is empty – people who always agree with us and make us feel good about our actions and attitudes – even when that advice goes against God’s Word.
But that’s not wisdom – wisdom causes us to seek Godly counsel, because in the end, even IF the criticism stings, it will make us better people.
Here’s my advice to you – learn to listen to the people who love you and have your best interests at heart. Humble yourself when people offer advice that stings. Surround yourself with people who will make you better – rather than make you FEEL better.
There are going to be times when people shrink back from telling you the truth because they are afraid of upsetting you. But a REAL friend is one who tries to keep you from making costly decisions, even IF they know you will not like hearing what they have to say.
Instead of growing defensive, instead of trying to set the record straight, ask God to help you process criticism in a way that would bring Him glory. If what they say is UNtrue – pray that God would help you humbly disregard it and move on. But IF TRUE ⇒ CHANGE.
THAT, my friend, is wisdom.
Have you got it? Do you NEED it?
Right now, maybe you are:
- facing some challenging circumstances and you want God’s help as you make important decisions. You need His wisdom.
- Maybe there is a conflict in the family…
- or a financial issue
- maybe it’s a problem at work
- Maybe you are thinking that God is calling you to something bigger than you feel suited for.
If you need wisdom for something in particular or in general, then why not bring your need to the Lord?
THIS is how you become wise…