Wisdom is not the same as cleverness. Knowing the answer to something doesn’t necessarily require wisdom; having an appropriate response to something that has no answer does. Because of this, wisdom writing can be frustrating for some, because it tends to delight in everything ambiguous. It likes paradoxes, contradictions, satire, sarcasm, shock value.
Ecclesiastes 7 starts with a pleasant piece of Hebrew poetry: “A good name is better than precious ointment,” and while you might not have gone for that comparison personally, Athas (The Story of God Bible Commentary) points out that it has been chosen because it’s pretty in Hebrew. It reads, “Tob shem mishemen tob”. See? Beautiful.
The next line, though, more or less says “But it’s better to be dead!”
See? Shock value.
It probably intends a little more ambiguity than that. It reads, “The day of death is better 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.” Given the horrible circumstances in which Israelites were no doubt living at that time, it most straightforwardly means that to die is better than to be born and to have all this toil ahead of one (“Better is the end of a thing than its beginning,” 7:8). But it can also mean funeral services are better than birthday parties, if the house of mourning and the house of feasting are taken to be direct parallels.
As Calvin and Hobbes say, life is fragile and death is nearby, but it would be debilitating to always have this in mind. And so even though death ought to dominate our vision, we rather pretend it doesn’t exist, take the world for granted and act thoughtlessly. At worst, we act selfishly to the point of bringing evil upon others.
We would ordinarily strongly disagree with the idea that funerals are good (7:2) or that sorrow is better than laughter (7:3), but death is a reorientation and funerals confront us with the unavoidable fact of life that we would rather not face. We live as though our life is all that matters.
Death will no doubt motivate the fool to live even more for his own pleasure. However, even leaving eternity out of the equation, our lives are connected to networks of people and to the world itself. Self-serving behaviour pulls on threads that unravel relationships and add to the chaos and pain in the world that makes life so frustrating and futile. “Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart.”
Our mortality should rather remind us of what is fragile and precious, what exists outside of ourselves, and what we can do with our short time to protect and preserve, rather than to hoard and exploit. Lockdown has meant for most of us a slowdown too. Many have seen in it a time for creation itself to exhale as it gets a rest from us. Perhaps we can consider how we will restart, rebuild, and make positive change when the doors reopen.
* * * * *
A note about misogyny
Ecclesiastes 7:26-29 says things that seem at first glance somewhat misogynistic. The comment about a certain kind of woman proving to be a snare is a warning that toxic relationships can be a fate worse than death, which is true, and as long as it is not meant as a strictly gendered comment (i.e. presumably the wise woman is able to see through toxic men), there’s nothing especially troubling about that.
The comment about there being one upright man among a thousand and no women in that number is harder to see positively, but it should be noticed that 7:20 and 29 affirm that no one is righteous. One suggestion is that the writer here is quoting the conventional wisdom of his day that women are worse than men, and disputing it. Whatever the reason for this verse, it is clear that the main idea is that corruption is horrifically widespread and righteousness far too thin on the ground.
Observational wisdom is in any case different from law or divine command. Even if this writer were implying that women are more blameworthy than men, it is in the nature of wisdom literature to train our own powers of observation, not to tell them what to see. We are free to disagree.
Crime statistics during lockdown suggest that violent people are now expressing themselves at home; most crime is obviously down, but gender-based violence is spiking. Whether or not one sees misogyny in this text, it remains a problem in our society. Let’s encourage such attitudes to be rooted out, starting with ourselves.