The wisdom of ancient Israel—like all common sense—is full of paradoxes. Think, for example, of two well-known English proverbs: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” and “Out of sight, out of mind.” Well, which is it? Are your fonder for or forgetful of an absent loved one?
In our study of Ecclesiastes, we have seen that the Preacher’s main theme is the vanity of human existence. Things go “Poof!” Everything under the sun is here today and gone tomorrow. Nevertheless, the Preacher counsels us to find joy in our transient labors and lives: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil” (2:24). Indeed, such pleasures are “God’s gift to man” (3:13).
And yet, in Ecclesiastes 7:1–6, the Preacher seems to be saying something nearly opposite to his counsel of joy. “It is better,” he writes, “to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting.” He also writes, “Sorrow is better than laughter,” and “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”
Well, which is it? Eat, drink, and be merry, or spend your time at a funeral home?
The answer is, I think, both—and each one because of the other. We ought to be joyful during our comparatively short time on earth, always knowing that we will die. In other words, we ought to make the most of the time God gives us. By the same token, knowing that we will die, we should not let our momentary pleasures so consume us that we live foolishly. According to Steven Covey, one of the seven habits of highly effective people is beginning with the end in mind. I think that is a fair summary of the Preacher’s message: Live with life’s end in mind.
How do we do so?
The first key is moral character: “A good name is better than precious ointment.” As we age, our powers and passions wax and wane. But one thing can grow constantly: our moral character and the reputation (“name”) that results from it. Is it good to enjoy life’s pleasures? Yes. Is it better to seek integrity and honor? Absolutely. A person who seeks character can enjoy life’s pleasures, but a person who seeks only life’s pleasures cuts himself off from the roots of moral development.
The second key is to pay attention to death. Death is “the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” John Donne once wrote: “No man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” The death of others should remind us of our own mortality and cause us to be more compassionate and generous in life to those less fortunate than we are.
The third key is wisdom. “It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.” In our journey through life, we often need to make mid-course corrections. Sometimes we have the character to know we need to change and to do it without prompting. Often we do not. We need people wiser than ourselves to point out the error of our ways and to prod us in the right direction. Sometimes, such pointing and prodding are painful, but they are necessary pains.
In the end, then, we ought to be joyful of life and mindful of death—both at the same time, and each one because of the other.