A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one's birth.
When our author wrote these words he had, for a time at any rate, passed into a purer atmosphere; some gleams of light, if not the full dawn of day, had begun to shine upon him. Up to this he has been analyzing the evil conditions of human life, and has depicted all the moods of depression and sorrow and indignation they excited in him. Now he tells us of some things which he had found good, and which had cheered and strengthened him in his long agony. They were not, indeed, efficient to remove all his distress or to outweigh all the evils he had encountered in his protracted examination of the phenomena of human life; but to a certain extent they had great value and power. The first of these compensations of human misery is the beauty and attractiveness and lasting worth of a good character. The name won by one of honorable and unblemished character, who has striven against vice and followed after virtue, who has been pure and unselfish and zealous in the service of God and man, "is better than precious ointment." It is not unwarrantable thus-to expand the sentence; for though the epithet "good" is not in the original, but supplied by our translators (Revised Version), it is undoubtedly understood, and also it is taken for granted that the renown so highly praised is fully deserved by its possessor. "Dear," he says, "to the human senses " - speaking, remember, to an Eastern world - "is the odor of costly unguents, of sweet frankincense and fragrant spikenard; but dearer still, more precious still, an honored name, whose odor attracts the love, and penetrates and fills for a while the whole heart and memory of our friends" (Bradley). There is in the original a play upon words (shem, a name; shemen, ointment) which harmonizes with the brightness of the thought, and, gives a touch of gaiety to the sentence so strangely concluded with the reflection that for the owner of the good name the day of his death is better than the day of his birth. An exquisite illustration of the justness of our author's admiration for a good name is to be found in that incident in the Gospels of the deed of devotion to Christ, on the part of the woman who poured upon his head the precious ointment. Her name, Mary of Bethany (John 12:3), is now known throughout the whole world, and is associated with the ideas of pure affection and generous self-sacrifice. The second part of the verse, which at first sounds so out of harmony with what precedes it, is yet closely connected with it. The good name is thought of as not finally secured until death has removed the possibility of failure and shame. So many begin well and attain high fame in their earlier life which is sadly belied by their conduct and fate in the close. The words recall those of Solon to Croesus, if indeed they are not a reminiscence of them, "Call no man happy until he has closed his life happily" (Herod., 1:32); and are to the same effect as those in ver. 8, "Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof." It is not to be denied that there is, however, more in the words than a prudential warning against prematurely counting upon having secured the "good name" which is better than ointment. They betray an almost heathenish distaste for life, which is utterly out of harmony with the revelation both of the Old Testament and of the New; and are more appropriate in the mouth of one of that Thracian tribe mentioned by Herodotus, who actually celebrated their birthdays as days of sadness, and the day of death as a day of rejoicing, than of one who had any faith in God. The only parallel to them in Scripture is what is said of Judas by our Lord, "It had been good for that man if he had not been born" (Matthew 26:24). Ingenuity may devise explanations of the sentiment which bring it into harmony with religious sentiments. Thus it may be said, at death the box of precious ointment is broken and its odors spread abroad; prejudices that assailed the man of noble character during his lifetime are mitigated, envy and jealousy and detraction are subdued, and his title to fair fame acknowledged on all hands. It may be said life is a state of probation, death the beginning of a higher and happier existence. Life is a struggle, a contest, a voyage, a pilgrimage; and when victory has been won, the goal reached, the reward of labor is attained. We may borrow the words and. infuse a brighter significance into them; but no trace of any such inspiring, cheering thoughts are in the page before us. "The angel of death is there; no angel of resurrection sits within the sepulcher." - J.W.
Parallel VersesKJV: A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one's birth.