Title & Text: "No Regrets" Ecclesiastes 7:1-14
By: Nate Wilson
The Preacher's basic theme is that when we live with the end in mind, instead of for the present moment, we will have no regrets at the end of our life. Put in other words, if we keep the big picture in mind, we won't get bent out of shape over current situations and fall into foolishness. The author urges us to consider the day of our death, to be patient and listen to wisdom, and to consider the work of God rather than party with fools, act impetuously, or even be overly pious.
Author & Context:
Because the author of Ecclesiastes never identifies himself by name, there is some controversy over who actually wrote the book. Some people say that it was some late king of Israel and others that it was a ghost writer for King Solomon, but I prefer to take it at face value and believe that it was written by Solomon himself because 1) he says he is son of David, 2) he says he was king over Israel in Jerusalem, 3) he was extremely wealthy, 4) he was concerned with wisdom and composed collections of proverbs beyond just what is collected in Ecclesiastes, and 5) the classic Hebrew style matches Solomon's work in Proverbs and the Song of Songs.
The book of Ecclesiastes appears to be the work of Solomon later in his life because 1) he has seen enough of life to be somewhat jaded 2) he has an understanding of what old age is like, and 3) he is advocating moderation--the enthusiasm of youth is not present. Solomon appears to be teaching his son, speaking generally in first person ("I saw...") and using a didactic form of teaching lessons about all sorts of things in life. A book like this would be valuable material for the education of a future king.
Lexical & Poetic Structure:
This passage is a beautiful example of the proverb form of Hebrew poetry. The basic structure is that of comparatives using "Better this than that," followed by some explanation. There are eight of these "Better...than" comparisons ending with a pause to "Consider the work of God." In the "Better...than" formula, generally, long-term values are pitted against instant gratification:
In v.1, a name is better than good ointment, and the day of death is better than (we supply the "is better than" by ellipsis to complete the synonymous parallel) the day of birth. The word "name" conveys all that a person is; hence, your reputation is more important than your cosmetics. Two chapters later, Ecclesiastes will affirm the cosmetic use of oil, and Bullock, in our textbook, comments that scented oil was important as a deodorant (p.199), but the point is that, while both may have value, one must be prioritized.
There is also more value realized in a person at their time of death than at their birth, when they have done nothing yet. The writer is not so much saying it is better to be dead, for in Chapter 9, he says "better a live dog than a dead lion," rather he is saying that considering what your reputation will be like at your death is more worthwhile than dreaming of your potential as people would at a birth. It is a contrast of long-range values with immediate ones.
v.2 It is interesting to note throughout the passage how the writer picks up on a key word from the previous comparison and builds a new comparison off of it. The contrast made between death and birth in v.1 easily transfers to the contrast between an atmosphere of mourning and an atmosphere of celebration. The next colon gives the reason that it is better to go to a funeral than to a birthday: "because that is the end of every man, and the living will lay it to his heart."
v.3 This same theme of pondering sorrowful things rather than living for the moment is reiterated here, and again a reason is given: it brings goodness to the heart. "Wisdom...causes a stern face to beam," says the preacher a little later, but without having pondered the serious issues of what will make your life count for eternity, there will be no substance in your heart behind the laugh.
v.4 The writer picks up on the word "heart" which ends v.3 and makes it the first word in this new antithetical parallel. The contrast of mourning and celebration from v. 2 is repeated, this time with an interesting root play. Two consonants in the word "heart" are switched and the word turns into "mourning!"
v.5 The contrast between the wise and the fool is carried on through the next three verses. Wise men will often give criticism that is truly constructive whereas fools will either flatter you with insincere compliments or cut you down with harsh words which are untrue. (There is, I believe a little bit of alliteration here with the "sh" in the phrase "hearing the song" [ayish shemeh sheer]. ) Two reasons are given in the next two verses for prioritizing the words of the wise over the words of fools. Verse six gives the first reason in the form of a simile:
v.6 What fools say is like the crackle of thorns under a pot. The word for "crackle" appears to be onomatopoeia, as the Hebrew word sounds about like our English word "crackle." We also have a pun here, for "thorn" and "pot" are the same word [ciyr]. According to Strong's dictionary, they share a common root meaning "to boil up" referring to the boiling of liquid in a pot and the quick growth of a weed. So how do we unpack this poetic simile? I believe it goes back to short-term vs. long-term values. Thorn bushes probably won't burn long enough to cook you a good meal, and in the same manner, a few jokes won't provide the lasting meaning to life that you need.
v.7 Here we have a second reason why the words of a wise man are better than those of a fool: fools will involve you in their foolishness and thus turn you into a fool! The two colons in this verse are synonymous parallels; if you were to put them together, it would look like this: extortion/bribes maddens/destroys a wise man/the heart.
v.8 Better the end than the beginning. This phrase hearkens back to the house of mourning in v.2, which is the end of every man, but it is applied in a slightly new sense which is brought out in the other half of this bicolon: a patient spirit is better than a proud spirit. The patience it takes to work with the end in mind excels the pride and impatience that comes with living for the moment.
v.9 Solomon picks up on the "proud spirit" from the previous verse and expands on the folly of an impatient spirit with an imperative: "Do not hurry in your spirit to be angry." And he gives the reason with a synthetic parallel beginning with a synonym for the word "angry" that ended the first line: "vexation rests in the bosom of fools." Note the alliteration of "k's," "s's," and "l's" [likaos kiysaam bihiyk kesiyliym] The word for "angry" is really from the same root as "vexation" which is also used in v.3 to describe a positive virtue. It is the word [kaas], "to trouble." In this context, it is expanding on the concept of impatience and pride from the previous two verses, whereas the context of verse three was that of mourning in death. Impatience and anger are rooted in the momentary frustration of immediate gratification. Solomon says that we must reject this mindset and put on a mind that considers the big picture.
v.10 The seventh "better than" statement is found here, but it is a little different because here the phrase "better than" is found at the end of the line rather than at the beginning like all the others. This could indicate that it is not a new "Better...than" comparison, but rather a parallel to v.9, expanding on the inferiority of the pride and impatience of verse 8. It would fit the following pattern:
The 5th "Better...than," (v.8)
"do not" (v.9)
"do not " (v.10)
The 6th "Better...than..." (v.11)
Bullock , in our textbook, goes for this arrangement, commenting that, "impatience with the present may express itself in the form of glorifying the past" (p.200). At any rate, the comparison of the "former days" with "these" is itself condemned. This may have been a catchy phrase which the author didn't make up himself--note the repetition of the "ha" syllable (I hope I've transliterated this halfway decently; I haven't had any Hebrew teaching yet!) [mah hayah shahiymiym harasheniym hayow]. This is NOT a wise saying!
v.11 This verse picks up on the word "wise" and makes a comparison with inheritance money. Although it starts out with the same word [tov] that all the other "better...than" statements do, the structure isn't really "Better than"--it's more like "it's good to have both." But in the next verses, it comes out that wisdom is really better.
Good is wisdom with inheritance
and [wisdom with inheritance] is an advantage
Laid out in this form with the ellipsis stated, you can see the chiasm here. Solomon obviously has great wealth which he will pass along as an inheritance, but in writing the book of Ecclesiastes, he is hoping to also pass along wisdom to his son along with that inheritance. (A task in which he apparently failed...)
v.12 Knowledge and money are first compared, then contrasted. First, they are compared not only by using similar-sounding words (wisdom="hakemah," money="hakemeph") but also by using the same descriptor "tzel." According to Strong, the root meaning is "hover," hence we get "shade" or "shadow," and from that, "shelter" or "protection." According to our professor, Dr. Skip Blackburn, both the concept of protection and that of ephemera can be found in the use of this word. There is a measure of shelter and protection in both wisdom and money, but neither will give ultimate safety. The next distich compares the two unfavorably:
but the advantage of knowledge:
wisdom preserves life to its possessors.
Another chiasm which brings out the fact that wisdom is really better than money because of the fact that it can lead you to have a life with no regrets. It can help you see the big picture and keep you out of the trouble that instant gratification can lead you into.
v.13 Finally, after all the comparisons, we have a pause to consider the work of God, and the author drives home his point. Rather than considering the particulars of everyday life and getting caught up in them and their folly, we must see the big picture--the universal of a God who has made all things. If He made something crooked, we are wasting our time trying to straighten it. Unless we can see the big picture, we will waste our time doing vain things.
v.14 If we are living for the moment, we will be tossed around by every vicissitude of life--on good days, we'll feel good, and on bad days we'll feel bad, and there will not be consistency to our life. We have to lift our heads up out of our immediate circumstances to see the God Who is there and see what He is doing. He made both the good and the evil day to a single purpose. We can't guess what the future will be, but we can live our lives wisely so that we will not waste our lives on vanity and we will not have regrets when we die.
A Christian High School chapel or Commencement ceremony.
Do not live for the pleasure of the moment; consider the long-term work of God and you will have no regrets.
OPENING ILLUSTRATION of the missionary who said "No reserve, no retreat, no regret."
QUESTION: How do we know how to live a life that we can look back on with satisfaction?
ANSWER & INTRO TO TEXT: By following the advice of King Solomon to his son in Ecc.7 (See Author & Context)
BRIEFLY NOTE STRUCTURE (See "Lexical & Poetic Structure" para.1) (6 comparisons, big-picture wisdom vs. short-term gratification)
STEP THROUGH 8 COMPARISONS (Use material from "Lexical & Poetic Structure" ¶2-13 focusing on explanation--not poetic devices, perhaps also use the handout quiz attached)
"CONSIDER THE WORK OF GOD" (Illustration: try straightening out a coat-hanger.) Use material from "Lexical & Poetic Structure" ¶14-15.
SUMMARY: As you grow up and launch out onto your own, you will often be faced with decisions which pit short-term gratification against long-term wisdom. (Examples: spending more time hanging out with friends than you do studying, playing vs. developing marketable skills, watching T.V. vs. Bible study, campus activities vs. developing relationships in a local church) Live your life on purpose, consider the big picture--you are going to die one day and there is a God governing this world--and avoid what will cause you regrets in the long run. At the end of your life, I want you to be able to say with C.T. Studd, "No reserve, no retreat, no regret."
Which is better?
(Circle the best thing in each line)