Deliberations in Light of Uncertainties of Life (7:1-11:6)

We do not know the future, whether the future within or beyond our own lifetime. As the previous passage highlights, we therefore do not know what we decide or choose to do in our lifetime is in the long run good or not. But then, even in the face of the uncertainties of the future, we still have to decide and choose what to do in life. How do we decide? What do we choose?

Qoheleth has actually answered this question. He has said that because human beings will not know the future, “there is nothing good for them except to have enjoyment and to do good in their lifetime” (3:11-12). In that context, “to do good” was presented as the prerequisite to enjoyment (cf. 2:24-26). Since enjoyment is good regardless of what happens in the future, “to do good” is therefore also good. But also in that context Qoheleth said, “God so works,” including making us face an uncertain future, “that men should fear Him” (3:14b). This means, to fear God and thus do good is not merely so that we can enjoy life. As Qoheleth will further clarify at the end of the speech, this is the very purpose of life and so exhorts his audience to observe it (12:13-14).

For the next five chapters (7:1-11:6) he deliberates on how this purpose is workable in light of the uncertainties of life. He also deliberates on why it is sensible even in the face of the most baffling experiences in this world, such as when the righteous suffers while the wicked prospers.

Proverbial Wisdom in Light of Uncertainties of Life (7:1-14)

Qoheleth begins his deliberations with a series of proverbs. The choice of this genre to begin his deliberations on how to live in light of the uncertainties of the future is significant.

The truthfulness of proverbial wisdom is not prescriptive but descriptive. Take for example the contemporary proverb, “Honesty is the best policy.” It is “true” not in the sense that it prescribes, as though making a promise, that if we are honest we will have no set-backs. But rather, it describes the usual outcome of a certain disposition or action under normal circumstances, especially in the long run. In this case, it means that it has been widely observed that honest people, despite possible set-backs in the short term, usually prosper in the long run.

Proverbial wisdom assumes a created order that covers the physical, moral and social dimensions of life. When we violate this order we will suffer in the long run if not also in the short term. For instance, if we live as if gravity does not exist sooner or later we will have to pay for it. Similarly if we live as if greed is good or practice injustice, sooner or later we will reap what we sow. Since life is full of uncertainties and we do not know the future, the wisest thing to do in making decisions and choices is to observe time-tested principles such as those embodied in sound proverbial wisdom.

As for Qoheleth, since he believes that the purpose of life is to fear God and keep His commandments (12:13-14), the proverbial wisdom that he shares are based on the Ten Commandments and are thus similar to that in the biblical book of Proverbs, which is based on the theme, “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov 9:10).

7:1 A good name is better than good ointment,
And the day of one’s death is better than the day of his birth.

In light of biblical proverbial wisdom (see for example, Prov 22:1-5) and what Qoheleth has been saying, the first half of this verse means, if we have to choose between the two, it is better to live a God-fearing and thus blameless life, and so maintain a “good name,” than to live in luxury (“good ointment”). He has just shown that on the whole this is true even in the short term (5:10-6:9). Its truthfulness for the long run is widely attested even in our newspapers today.

Since “one’s reputation is not complete until one dies” (Crenshaw 1987: 133), in this sense, one’s death is better than one’s birth. This is particularly true in light of the uncertainties of life. For there have been people, including those born into reputable families, who began so well but only to fall into utter disrepute. This preference for lamentation over celebration takes a different nuance and serves a different purpose when read in light of the next few verses.

7:2 It is better to go to the house of mourning
Than to the house of feasting,
Because this is the end of every man,
And the living will take it to heart.
7:3 Sorrow is better than laughter,
For when the face is sad the heart may be glad.
7:4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
While the heart of the fool is in the house of pleasure.

When viewed in terms of its possible effects on others, the idea that one’s death is better than one’s birth is also true in a different sense. For in a funeral, one is graphically reminded of the certainty of death and is prodded to come to terms with one’s own mortality. As Crenshaw puts it eloquently,

The reason for preferring grief to revelry resembles the thought in Ps 90:12 (“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom,” RSV). By pondering the implications of life’s brevity and death’s inevitability, we may acquire insight or even real wisdom. Qohelet advises one to face death squarely, without drowning awareness of mortality in endless drinking bouts and parties.... Since everyone eventually dies, a realist prepares for that moment. In considering that unwelcome event one encounters an astonishing paradox: suffering can instruct, purge the spirit, and offer increased learning. An astute observer of life makes a path for the house of mourning, anticipating an encounter with the essence of human existence. The fool takes up residence in the place of mirth. (1987: 134-5).

In fact, through confronting his audience repeatedly with the sense of vanity, Qoheleth has been goading his audience to come to terms with their own mortality up until the last passage. This set of proverbs in effect helps them to accept what he has been saying by showing that otherwise they are not equipped to face the uncertainties of life and an unknown future with proper confidence.

7:5 It is better to listen to the rebuke of the wise
Than for one to listen to the song of fools.
7:6 For as the crackling of thorns under a pot,
So is the laughter of the fool,
And this also is vanity.

These two verses extend from the previous ones. For just as the sorrowful experience of the death of a friend or family member is beneficial, so is the sorrowful experience of being rebuked by the wise. For in light of the uncertainties of life we need the rebuke of the wise so that we would not stray from the path of wisdom. The relative worthlessness of the nice feeling or even the foolish laughter that we get from listening to “the song of fools” is comparable to using thorns as fuel: “Thistles provide quick flames, little heat, and a lot of unpleasant noise” (Crenshaw 1987: 135). This is indeed vanity.

7:7 Surely extortion makes the wise foolish,
And a bribe corrupts the heart.
7:8 The end of a matter is better than its beginning,
A patient spirit is better than a haughty spirit.
7:9 Do not be quick in your spirit to be angry,
For anger resides in the bosom of fools.
7:10 Do not say, “Why is it that the former days were better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this.

Qoheleth now picks up again on the wisdom of maintaining “a good name” by living a God-fearing and blameless life. The wise are hereby warned that when under the pressure of extortion even they may make foolish decisions and choices. And needless to say, a bribe corrupts the heart.

The advice Qoheleth gives is to look at “the end of the matter” and not “its beginning.” For “there is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Prov 14:12). In other words, consider the consequences of our decisions and actions. Is it a case of short-term gain but long-term loss? Are we willing to suffer short-term loss for long-term gain? If we have to violate sound proverbial wisdom we can expect long-term loss, no matter how promising the short-term gain may seem to be. To do the wise thing often requires patience, which in this case is to endure the short-term loss. To do otherwise is in this sense “haughty,” as it implies that one presumes he is able go against the odds stacked against him and win.

An obvious but often ignored application of being patient is to avoid getting angry easily. Its foolishness is obvious to anyone when he is not angry. But too many people have suffered the consequences of reacting to the slightest provocation in anger, out of the “haughtiness” that they are able to get away with it. To help us cultivate the right spirit so that we react correctly to different kinds of unpleasant circumstances, Qoheleth says it is not wise to ask, “Why are the former days better than these?” For to do so reveals an impatient spirit and a habit of not looking at the long term (“the end of the matter”), but instead focusing on the current situation (“its beginning”). This predisposes us to act or react foolishly.

7:11 Wisdom is good like an inheritance,
And a profit to those who see the sun.
7:12 For the protection of wisdom is the protection of money,
But the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of its possessor.

Without saying so, by reciting proverbs that are so similar to those in the wisdom book of Proverbs, Qoheleth has been affirming the value of wisdom. He has shown that wisdom is vanity in light of the certainty of death and the uncertainties of life, in the sense that the things we gained through laboring with wisdom are transitory (2:12-17). And also, wisdom is not able to solve this basic problem of life (1:12-18). But here he explicitly recognizes that, in a different sense, wisdom has profit in light of this very basic problem: its ability to protect against avoidable harm and loss, and even untimely death.

He compares wisdom with money because this is what people tend to trust in. Though money can offer protection, but the love of it is a root of all sorts of evil, and leads to destruction. He has just reminded us of this in his warning concerning extortion and bribery. In biblical proverbial wisdom, the reward of the fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom, “are riches, honor ['a good name'] and life” (Prov 22:4; cf. Prov 3:13-18). For a God-fearing and thus wise person is trustworthy, hardworking, prudent with money, and avoids getting into legal, moral or social problems. Under normal circumstances he will usually do well materially (“riches”), be respected (“honor”), and is not likely to suffer an untimely death related to criminal or immoral activities (“life”). Since wisdom brings not just riches but also honor and life, it provides not just the kind of protection money offers, but also what money by itself cannot offer. It thus has a distinct advantage over money.

Since Qoheleth broached this subject by comparing wisdom with an inheritance, he is saying something to parents concerning what they really want to leave behind for their children. He had himself done some serious thinking on this matter (2:18-23).

In verse 12b knowledge is not to be understood as the same as wisdom. In biblical wisdom thinking, knowledge refers to the correct understanding of how the created order works in all its dimensions. Wisdom then is the correct application of this knowledge in daily living. Hence though knowledge and wisdom are not the same they come in the same package. Confusion arises when people mistake information for knowledge. One may have gained information. But until and unless he has understood it adequately and so could use it profitably (wisdom), the information has not yet become knowledge.

7:13 Consider the work of God. For who is able to make straight what He has made crooked? 7:14 In the day of prosperity be glad, but in the day of adversity consider--indeed God has made the one as well as the other, so that man will not find out anything after him.

Qoheleth now concludes what amounts to a series of proverbial admonitions with a call to “consider” or reflect on reality as ordained by God. The imagery of “what is made crooked cannot be straightened” was used earlier in the context of the inability of wisdom to solve the basic problem of life (1:14-15). Here he spells out that this “crooked” world is the result of “the work of God,” and specifies one aspect of it: God gives prosperity but also allows adversity (cf. 3:1-9). And just as we saw in the previous passage, we cannot argue with God to straighten what is crooked. Qoheleth then gives an admonition on how to respond to this “crookedness”: in times of prosperity, make the most of it and be glad, for times of adversity will come; but in times of adversity reflect on God’s purpose in allowing them, namely “so that man will not find out anything after him.” This means, because there are times of prosperity as well as adversity, no one is able to predict what the future is like after his death. So no one “knows what is good for man (to do) in his lifetime” (6:12). Since Qoheleth’s proverbial admonitions are given in light of this situation, the call here to reflect on the inevitability of adversity and its purpose has the effect of persuading his audience to take the admonitions seriously.


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