In these verses Solomon lays down some great truths which seem paradoxes to the unthinking part, that is, the far greatest part, of mankind.
I. That the honour of virtue is really more valuable and desirable than all the wealth and pleasure in this world (Eccl. 7:1): A good name is before good ointment (so it may be read); it is preferable to it, and will be rather chosen by all that are wise. Good ointment is here put for all the profits of the earth (among the products of which oil was reckoned one of the most valuable), for all the delights of sense (for ointment and perfume which rejoice the heart, and it is called the oil of gladness), nay, and for the highest titles of honour with which men are dignified, for kings are anointed. A good name is better than all riches (Prov. 21:1), that is, a name for wisdom and goodness with those that are wise and good—the memory of the just; this is a good that will bring a more grateful pleasure to the mind, will give a man a larger opportunity of usefulness, and will go further, and last longer, than the most precious box of ointment; for Christ paid Mary for her ointment with a good name, a name in the gospels (Matt. 26:13), and we are sure he always pays with advantage.
II. That, all things considered, our going out of the world is a great kindness to us than our coming into the world was: The day of death is preferable to the birth-day; though, as to others, there was joy when a child was born into the world, and where there is death there is lamentation, yet, as to ourselves, if we have lived so as to merit a good name, the day of our death, which will put a period to our cares, and toils, and sorrows, and remove us to rest, and joy, and eternal satisfaction, is better than the day of our birth, which ushered us into a world of so much sin and trouble, vanity and vexation. We were born to uncertainty, but a good man does not die at uncertainty. The day of our birth clogged our souls with the burden of the flesh, but the day of our death will set them at liberty from that burden.
III. That it will do us more good to go to a funeral than to go to a festival (Eccl. 7:2): It is better to go to the house of mourning, and there weep with those that weep, than to go to the house of feasting, to a wedding, or a wake, there to rejoice with those that do rejoice. It will do us more good, and make better impressions upon us. We may lawfully go to both, as there is occasion. Our Saviour both feasted at the wedding of his friend in Cana and wept at the grave of his friend in Bethany; and we may possibly glorify God, and do good, and get good, in the house of feasting; but, considering how apt we are to be vain and frothy, proud and secure, and indulgent of the flesh, it is better for us to go to the house of mourning, not to see the pomp of the funeral, but to share in the sorrow of it, and to learn good lessons, both from the dead, who is going thence to his long home, and from the mourners, who go about the streets.
1. The uses to be gathered from the house of mourning are, (1.) By way of information: That is the end of all men. It is the end of man as to this world, a final period to his state here; he shall return no more to his house. It is the end of all men; all have sinned and therefore death passes upon all. We must thus be left by our friends, as the mourners are, and thus leave, as the dead do. What is the lot of others will be ours; the cup is going round, and it will come to our turn to pledge it shortly. (2.) By way of admonition: The living will lay it to his heart. Will they? It were well if they would. Those that are spiritually alive will lay it to heart, and, as for all the survivors, one would think they should; it is their own fault if they do not, for nothing is more easy and natural than by the death of others to be put in mind of our own. Some perhaps will lay that to heart, and consider their latter end, who would not lay a good sermon to heart.
2. For the further proof of this (Eccl. 7:4) he makes it the character, (1.) Of a wise man that his heart is in the house of mourning; he is much conversant with mournful subjects, and this is both an evidence and a furtherance of his wisdom. The house of mourning is the wise man’s school, where he has learned many a good lesson, and there, where he is serious, he is in his element. When he is in the house of mourning his heart is there to improve the spectacles of mortality that are presented to him; nay, when he is in the house of feasting, his heart is in the house of mourning, by way of sympathy with those that are in sorrow. (2.) It is the character of a fool that his heart is in the house of mirth; his heart is all upon it to be merry and jovial; his whole delight is in sport and gaiety, in merry stories, merry songs, and merry company, merry days and merry nights. If he be at any time in the house of mourning, he is under a restraint; his heart at the same time is in the house of mirth; this is his folly, and helps to make him more and more foolish.
IV. That gravity and seriousness better become us, and are better for us, than mirth and jollity, Eccl. 7:3. The common proverb says, “An ounce of mirth is worth a pound of sorrow;” but the preacher teaches us a contrary lesson: Sorrow is better than laughter, more agreeable to our present state, where we are daily sinning and suffering ourselves, more or less, and daily seeing the sins and sufferings of others. While we are in a vale of tears, we should conform to the temper of the climate. It is also more for our advantage; for, by the sadness that appears in the countenance, the heart is often made better. Note, 1. That is best for us which is best for our souls, by which the heart is made better, though it be unpleasing to sense. 2. Sadness is often a happy means of seriousness, and that affliction which is impairing to the health, estate, and family, may be improving to the mind, and make such impressions upon that as may alter its temper very much for the better, may make it humble and meek, loose from the world, penitent for sin, and careful of duty. Vexatio dat intellectum—Vexation sharpens the intellect. Periissem nisi periissem—I should have perished if I had not been made wretched. It will follow, on the contrary, that by the mirth and frolicsomeness of the countenance the heart is made worse, more vain, carnal, sensual, and secure, more in love with the world and more estranged from God and spiritual things (Job 21:12, 14), till it become utterly unconcerned in the afflictions of Joseph, as those Amos 6:5, 6, and the king and Haman, Est. 3:15.
V. That it is much better for us to have our corruptions mortified by the rebuke of the wise than to have them gratified by the song of fools, Eccl. 7:5. Many that would be very well pleased to hear the information of the wise, and much more to have their commendations and consolations, yet do not care for hearing their rebukes, that is, care not for being told of their faults, though ever so wisely; but therein they are no friends to themselves, for reproofs of instruction are the way of life (Prov. 6:23), and, though they be not so pleasant as the song of fools, they are more wholesome. To hear, not only with patience, but with pleasure, the rebuke of the wise, is a sign and means of wisdom; but to be fond of the song of fools is a sign that the mind is vain and is the way to make it more so. And what an absurd thing is it for a man to dote so much upon such a transient pleasure as the laughter of a fool is, which may fitly be compared to the burning of thorns under a pot, which makes a great noise and a great blaze, for a little while, but is gone presently, scatters its ashes, and contributes scarcely any thing to the production of a boiling heat, for that requires a constant fire! The laughter of a fool is noisy and flashy, and is not an instance of true joy. This is also vanity; it deceives men to their destruction, for the end of that mirth is heaviness. Our blessed Saviour has read us our doom: Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh; woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep, Luke 6:21, 25.