Ecclesiastes 7:1
A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one's birth.
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(1) There is a play on words in the original (found also in Song of Solomon 1:3), which Plumptre represents by “a good name is better than good nard.” It was probably an older proverb, which the Preacher completes by the startling addition, “and so is the day of death better than that of birth.” For the use of perfumes, see Ruth 3:3; 2Samuel 12:20; Proverbs 7:17; Daniel 10:3.

Ecclesiastes 7:1. A good name — A good and well grounded report from wise and worthy persons; a name for wisdom and goodness with those that are wise and good; is better than precious ointment — Which was very fragrant, acceptable, and useful, and of great price in those countries. And the day of death, than the day of one’s birth — Namely, the death of a good man, or of one who hath left a good name behind him; for to a wicked man, the day of death is far worse, and most terrible. Or, if this clause be considered as spoken of this life only, abstracted from the future life, as many passages in this book are to be understood, then it may be true of all men, and is a consequence of all the former discourse. As if he had said, Seeing this life is so full of vanity and misery, it is a more desirable thing for a man to go out of it than to come into it: an observation that is the more worthy of regard, because it is contrary to the opinion and practice of almost all man kind, who celebrate their own, and their children’s birth-days, with solemn feasts and rejoicings, and their deaths with all expressions of sorrow.7:1-6 Reputation for piety and honesty is more desirable than all the wealth and pleasure in this world. It will do more good to go to a funeral than to a feast. 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. But, considering how apt we are to be vain and indulge the flesh, it is best to go to the house of mourning, to learn the end of man as to this world. Seriousness is better than mirth and jollity. That is best for us which is best for our souls, though it be unpleasing to sense. It is better to have our corruptions mortified by the rebuke of the wise, than to have them gratified by the song of fools. The laughter of a fool is soon gone, the end of his mirth is heaviness.Name ... ointment - The likeness between reputation and odor supplies a common metaphor: the contrast is between reputation, as an honorable attainment which only wise people win, and fragrant odor, as a gratification of the senses which all people enjoy.

The connection of this verse with the preceding verses is this: the man, who wants to know what is profitable for man and good in this life, is here told to act in such a way as ordinarily secures a good reputation (i. e., to act like a wise man), and to teach himself this hard lesson - to regard the day of death as preferable to the day of birth. Though Solomon seems in some places to feel strongly (Ecclesiastes 2:16; Ecclesiastes 3:19-20 ff) that natural fear of death which is, in a great measure, mistrust founded on the ignorance which Christ dispelled; yet he states the advantage of death over life in respect of its freedom from toil, oppression, restlessness Ecclesiastes 2:17; Ecclesiastes 4:2; Ecclesiastes 6:5, and in respect of its implying an immediate and a nearer approach to God Ecclesiastes 3:21; Ecclesiastes 12:7. While Solomon preferred the day of death, he might still (with Luther here) have regarded birth as a good thing, and as having its place in the creation of God.


Ec 7:1-29.

1. (See on [663]Ec 6:12).

name—character; a godly mind and life; not mere reputation with man, but what a man is in the eyes of God, with whom the name and reality are one thing (Isa 9:6). This alone is "good," while all else is "vanity" when made the chief end.

ointment—used lavishly at costly banquets and peculiarly refreshing in the sultry East. The Hebrew for "name" and for "ointment," have a happy paronomasia, Sheem and Shemen. "Ointment" is fragrant only in the place where the person is whose head and garment are scented, and only for a time. The "name" given by God to His child (Re 3:12) is for ever and in all lands. So in the case of the woman who received an everlasting name from Jesus Christ, in reward for her precious ointment (Isa 56:5; Mr 14:3-9). Jesus Christ Himself hath such a name, as the Messiah, equivalent to Anointed (So 1:3).

and the day of [his] death, &c.—not a general censure upon God for creating man; but, connected with the previous clause, death is to him, who hath a godly name, "better" than the day of his birth; "far better," as Php 1:23 has it.A good name desirable; and the house of mourning and rebuke better than songs and laughter, Ecclesiastes 7:1-6. Exhortations to patience and perseverance, Ecclesiastes 7:7-10. Wisdom and money a defence, Ecclesiastes 7:11,12. God’s providence should render its contented: our duty both in prosperity and adversity, Ecclesiastes 7:13,14. Prudence and the fear of God necessary in this world, Ecclesiastes 7:15-18. The praise of wisdom, Ecclesiastes 7:19. All men are sinners, Ecclesiastes 7:20. Other men’s opinions of thee not too much to be minded: the motive thereto, Ecclesiastes 7:21,22. The Preacher’s experience thereof, Ecclesiastes 7:23-25. An evil woman more bitter than death, Ecclesiastes 7:26-28. God created man good, Ecclesiastes 7:29.

Having largely discoursed of the vanity of all worldly things, and now said in the foregoing verse that no man knew what was best for him, he now proceeds to prescribe some remedies against these vanities, and to direct men to the right method of obtaining that felicity which is not to be expected or found in this world.

A good name; a good and well-grounded report from wise and worthy persons. Heb. a name, which is put for a good name by a synecdoche, that only being worthy to be called a name, because evil and worthless men quickly lose their name and memory. Thus a wife is put for a good wife, Proverbs 18:22, and a day for a good day, Luke 19:42,44.

Precious ointment; which was very fragrant, and acceptable, and useful, and of great price, especially in those countries. See Deu 33:24 Psalm 92:10 133:2 Isaiah 39:2.

The day of death, to wit, of a good man, or one who hath left a good name behind him, which is easily understood both from the former clause, and from the nature of the thing; for to a wicked man this day is far worse, and most terrible. Yet if this passage be delivered with respect only to this life, and abstracting from the future life, as many other passages in this book are to be understood, then this may be true in general of all men, and is the consequent of all the former discourse. Seeing this life is so full of vanity, and vexation, and misery, it is a more desirable thing for a man to go out of it, than to come into it; which is the more considerable note, because it is contrary to the opinion and practice of almost all mankind, to celebrate their own or children’s birth-days with solemn feasts and rejoicings, and their deaths with all expressions of sorrow.

A good name is better than precious ointment,.... The word "good" is not in the text, but is rightly supplied, as it is by Jarchi; for of no other name can this be said; that which is not good cannot be better. Some understand this of the name of God, which is God himself, who is the "summum bonum", and chief happiness of men, and take it to be an answer to the question Ecclesiastes 6:12; this and this only is what is a man's good, and is preferable to all outward enjoyments whatever; interest in him as a covenant God; knowledge of him in Christ, which has eternal life annexed to it; communion with him; the discoveries of his lovingkindness, which is better than little; and the enjoyment of him to all eternity. This is true of the name of Christ, whose name Messiah which signifies anointed, is as ointment poured forth, and is preferable to it, Sol 1:3; so his other names, Jesus a Saviour; Jehovah, our righteousness; Immanuel, God with us; are exceeding precious to those who know the worth of him, and see their need of righteousness and salvation by him; his person, and the knowledge of him; his Gospel, and the fame and report it gives of him; infinitely exceed the most precious and fragrant ointment; see 2 Corinthians 2:14. So the name or names given to the people of God, the new names of Hephzibah and Beulah, the name of sons of God, better than that of sons and daughters; and of Christians, or anointed ones, having received that anointing from Christ which teacheth all things, and so preferable to the choicest ointment, Isaiah 56:5. Likewise to have a name written in heaven, in the Lamb's book of life, and to have one's name confessed by Christ hereafter before his Father and his holy angels; or even a good name among men, a name for a truly godly gracious person; for love to Christ, zeal for his cause, and faithfulness to his truths and ordinances; such as the woman got, better than the box of ointment poured on Christ's head; and which the brother had, whose praise in the Gospel was throughout the churches; and as Demetrius, who had good report of all then, and of the truth itself, Matthew 26:13, 3 John 1:12. Such a good name is better than precious ointment for the value of it, being better than all riches, for which this may be put; see Isaiah 39:2; and for the fragrancy of it, emitting a greater; and for the continuance of it, being more lasting, Psalm 112:6. The Targum is,

"better is a good name the righteous get in this world, thin the anointing oil which was poured upon the heads of kings and priests.''

So Alshech,

"a good name is better than the greatness of a king, though anointed with oil;''

and the day of death than the day of one's birth; some render it, in connection with the preceding clause, "as a good name is better, &c. so the day of death than the day of one's birth" (f); that is, the day of a man's death than the day of his birth. This is to be understood not of death simply considered; for that in itself, abstracted from its connections and consequences, is not better than to be born into the world, or come into life, or than life itself; it is not preferable to it, nor desirable; for it is contrary to nature, being a dissolution of it; a real evil, as life, and long life, are blessings; an enemy to mankind, and a terrible one: nor of ether persons, with whom men have a connection, their friends and relations; for with them the day of birth is a time of rejoicing, and the day of death is a time of mourning, as appears from Scripture and all experience; see John 16:21. It is indeed reported (g) of some Heathenish and barbarous people in Thrace, and who inhabited Mount Caucasus, that they mourned at the birth of their children, reckoning up the calamities they are entering into, and rejoiced at the death of their friends, being delivered from their troubles: but this is to be understood of the persons themselves that are born and die; not of all mankind, unless as abstracted from the consideration of a future state, and so it is more happy to be freed from trouble than to enter into it; nor of wicked men, it would have been better indeed if they had never been born, or had died as soon as born, that their damnation might not have been aggravated by the multitude of their sins; but after all, to die cannot be best for them, since at death they are cast into hell, into everlasting fire, and endless punishment: this is only true of good men, that have a good name living and dying; have a good work of grace upon them, and so are meet for heaven; the righteousness of Christ on them, and so have a title to it; they are such who have hope in their death, and die in faith and in the Lord: their death is better than their birth; at their birth they come into the world under the imputation and guilt of sin, with a corrupt nature; are defiled with sin, and under the power of it, liable in themselves to condemnation and death for it: at the time of their death they go out justified from sin through the righteousness of Christ, all being expiated by his sacrifice, and pardoned for his sake; they are washed from the faith of sin by the blood of Christ, and are delivered from the power and being of it by the Spirit and grace of God; and are secured from condemnation and the second death: at their coming into the world they are liable to sin yet more and more; at their going out they are wholly freed from it; at the time of their birth they are born to trouble, and are all their days exercised with it, incident to various diseases of the body, have many troubles in the world, and from the men of it; many conflicts with a body of sin and death, and harassed with the temptations of Satan; but at death they are delivered from all these, enter into perfect peace and unspeakable joy; rest from all their labours and toils, and enjoy uninterrupted communion with God, Father, Son, and Spirit, angels, and glorified saints. The Targum is,

"the day in which a man dies and departs to the house of the grave, with a good name and with righteousness, is better than the day in which a wicked man is born into the world.''

So the Midrash interprets it of one that goes out of the world with a good name, considering this clause in connection with the preceding, as many do.

(f) So Schmidt, and some in Vatablus. (g) Herodot. Terpsichore, sive l. 5. c. 4. Valer. Maxim. l. 2. c. 6. s. 12. Alexander ab Alex. Genial. Dier. l. 2. c. 25.

A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of {b} death than the day of one's birth.

(b) He speaks thus after the judgment of the flesh, which thinks death is the end of all evils, or else because this corporal death is the entering into everlasting life.

1. A good name is better than precious ointment] The sequence of thought is interrupted, and the writer, instead of carrying on the induction which is to prove that all is vanity, moralizes on the other results of his experience. He has learnt to take a relative estimate of what men count good or evil, truer than that which commonly prevails among them. It lies almost in the nature of the case, that these moralizings should take a somewhat discontinuous form, like that, e.g. of the Pensées of Pascal or the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the entries, let us say, which the thinker entered, day by day, in his tablets or on his codex. They are marked, however, by a sufficient unity of tone. The same pensive cast of thought is found in all, and it raises the thinker out of a mere self-seeking, self-indulgent Epicureanism into a wider and nobler sympathy. He rises as on the “stepping-stones” of his “dead self” to higher things. Nor are the maxims indeed without a certain unity of form, and the three words “it is better” in Ecclesiastes 7:1; Ecclesiastes 7:5; Ecclesiastes 7:8 serve as a connecting link. The words and the maxims that follow in Ecclesiastes 7:2-5 have naturally been a stumblingblock to those who saw in Koheleth nothing but the advocate of a sensual voluptuousness, and with the desperate courage of men maintaining a theory, they argue (I take Grätz as the representative of a school) that these are not the thoughts of the Debater himself, but of some imaginary opponent of the ascetic Essene type, against whom he afterwards enters his protest. The view is, it is believed, just as untenable as that of the interpreters of the opposite school, who see in the oft-repeated precepts counselling moderate enjoyment nothing but the utterances of an ideal Epicurean, set up for the purpose of being knocked down.

In the maxim which opens the series there is an alliterative emphasis, which is fairly represented by the German translation (Knobel) “Besser gut Gerücht als güte Gerüche. The good name (shem) is better than good ointment (shemen), echoing in this respect the words of Song Song of Solomon 1:3, “A good name is better than good nard,” is perhaps the nearest English approximation in this respect. The maxim itself indicates a craving for something higher than the perfumed oil, which was the crowning luxury of Eastern life (Psalm 45:8; Amos 6:6; Luke 7:37; Matthew 26:7), even the praise and admiration of our fellow-men. To live in their memories, our name as a sweet odour that fills the house, is better than the most refined enjoyment. The student of the Gospel history will recall the contrast between the rich man who fared sumptuously every day (Luke 16:19), whose very name is forgotten, and who is remembered only as a type of evil, and the woman whose lavish gift of the ointment of spikenard is told through the whole world as a memorial of her (Mark 14:9), and who is identified by John, John 12:3, with Mary of Bethany.

and the day of death than the day of one’s birth] The two parts of the thought hang closely together. If the “good name” has been earned in life, death removes the chance of failure and of shame. In the language of Solon (Herod. i. 32) only he who crowns a prosperous life by a peaceful death can be called truly happy. The thought presents, however, a strange contrast to the craving for life which was so strong an element, as in Hezekiah’s elegy (Isaiah 38:9-20), of Hebrew feeling, and is, like similar thoughts in ch. Ecclesiastes 6:3-4, essentially ethnic in its character. So Herodotus (Ecclesiastes 7:4) relates that the Trausi, a Thracian tribe, met on the birth of a child and bewailed the woes and sorrows which were its inevitable portion, while they buried their dead with joy and gladness, as believing that they were set free from evils and had entered on happiness, or at least on the unbroken rest of the eternal sleep. So Euripides, apparently with reference to this practice, of which he may well have heard at the court of Archelaus, writes in his Cresphontes,

ἐδεῖ γὰρ ἡμᾶς σύλλογον ποιουμένους

τὸν φύντα θρηνεῖν, εἰς ὅσʼ ἔρχεται κακά

τὸν δʼ αὖ θανόντα καὶ πόνων πεπαυμένον

χαίροντας εὐφημοῦντας ἐκπέμπειν δόμων.

“It were well done, comparing things aright,

To wail the new-born child for all the ills

On which he enters; and for him who dies

And so has rest from labour, to rejoice

And with glad words to bear him from his home.”

Strabo, who quotes the lines (xi. c. 12, p. 144), attributes the practice to Asiatic nations, possibly to those who had come under the influence of that Buddhist teaching as to the vanity and misery of life of which even the partial pessimism of Koheleth may be as a far-off echo.Verse 1 - Ecclesiastes 12:8. - Division II. DEDUCTIONS FROM THE ABOVE-MENTIONED EXPERIENCES IN THE WAY OF WARNINGS AND RULES OF LIFE. Verses 1-7. - Section 1. Though no man knows for certain what is best, yet there are some practical rules for the conduct of life which wisdom gives. Some of these Koheleth sets forward in the proverbial form, recommending a serious, earnest life in preference to one of gaiety and frivolity. Verse 1. - A good name is better than precious ointment. The paronomasia here is to be remarked, rob ahem mishemen tob. There is a similar assonance in Song of Solomon 1:3, which the German translator reproduces by the sentence, "Besser gut Gerucht als Wohlgeruch," or," gute Geruche," and which may perhaps be rendered in English, "Better is good favor than good flavor." It is a proverbial saying, running literally, Better is a name than good oil. Shem, "name," is sometimes used unqualified to signify a celebrated name, good name, reputation (comp. Genesis 11:4; Proverbs 22:1). Septuagint, Ἀγαθὸν ὄνομα ὑπὲρ ἔλαιον ἀγαθόν. Vulgate, Melius eat nomen bonum quam unguenta pre-tiosa. Odorous unguents were very precious in the mind of an Oriental, and formed one of the luxuries lavished at feasts and costly entertainments, or social visits (see Ecclesiastes 9:8; Ruth 3:3; Psalm 45:8; Amos 6:6; Wisd. 2:7; Luke 7:37, 46). It was a man's most cherished ambition to leave a good reputation, and to hand down an honorable remembrance to distant posterity, and this all the more as the hope of the life beyond the grave was dim and vague (see on Ecclesiastes 2:16, and comp. Ecclesiastes 9:5). The complaint of the sensualists in Wisd. 2:4 is embittered by the thought," Our name shall be forgotten in time, and no man shall have our works in remembrance." We employ a metaphor like that in the clause when we speak of a man's reputation having a good or ill odor; and the Hebrews said of ill fame that it stank in the nostrils (Genesis 34:30; Exodus 5:21; see, on the opposite side, Ecclus. 24:15; 2 Corinthians 2:15). And the day of death than the day of one's birth. The thought in this clause is closely connected with the preceding. If a man's life is such that he leaves a good name behind him, then the day of his departure is better than that of his birth, because in the latter he had nothing before him but labor, and trouble, and fear, and uncertainty; and in the former all these anxieties are past, the storms are successfully battled with, the haven is won (see on Ecclesiastes 4:3). According to Solon's well-known maxim, no one can be called happy till he has crowned a prosperous life by a peaceful death (Herod., 1:32; Soph., 'Trachin.,' 1-3; ('Ed. Tyr.,' 1528, sqq.); as the Greek gnome runs -

Μήπω μέγαν εἴπῃς πρὶν τελευτήσαντ ἴδῃς

"Call no man great till thou hast seen him dead." So Ben-Sira, "Judge none blessed (μὴ μακάριζε μηδένα) before his death; for a man shall be known in his children" (Ecclus. 11:28). "All the labour of man is for his mouth, and yet his soul has never enough;" or, properly, it is not filled, so that it desires nothing further and nothing more; נמלא used as appropriately of the soul as of the ear, Ecclesiastes 1:8; for that the mouth and the soul are here placed opposite to one another as "organs of the purely sensual and therefore transitory enjoyment, and of the deeper and more spiritual and therefore more lasting kind of joys" (Zck.), is an assertion which brings out of the text what it wishes to be in it, - נפשׁ and פּה stand here so little in contrast, that, as at Proverbs 16:26; Isaiah 5:14; Isaiah 29:8, instead of the soul the stomach could also be named; for it is the soul longing, and that after the means from without of self-preservation, that is here meant; נפשׁ היפה, "beautiful soul," Chullin iv. 7, is an appetite which is not fastidious, but is contented. גּמו, καὶ ὃμως ὃμως δέ, as at Ecclesiastes 3:13; Psalm 129:2. All labour, the author means to say, is in the service of the impulse after self-preservation; and yet, although it concentrates all its efforts after this end, it does not bring full satisfaction to the longing soul. This is grounded in the fact that, however in other respects most unlike, men are the same in their unsatisfied longing.
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