“A good name is better than precious ointment and the day of death than the day of one’s birth” (Ecclesiastes 7:1, NKJV).
There goes the cynical wise man of old again. Solomon’s discussion of the meaning of life (known as the book of Ecclesiastes) is filled with phrases like “all is vanity” (1:2), “no profit under the sun” (2:11), and “this also is vanity and grasping for the wind” (4:4). One who reads the book casually, especially for the first time, is likely to picture its author as an embittered old man who is disappointed with life. But is that a true description of Israel’s wise King?
One seemingly cynical statement which helps fill out that description is found in 7:1 where Solomon prefers death to birth. An easy interpretation of this verse concludes that life is nothing but a disappointment and those who are ready to leave it are “happier” than those just beginning. But is that really what Solomon is teaching?
The key to a proper understanding is found in the preliminary statement, “A good name is better than precious ointment.” Good reputations are earned by good actions and character. Good reputations take time to establish, and one’s final reputation can only be assessed at the end of life.
What distinguishes the day of death from the day of birth? Perhaps many things, but one is the difference between potential and accomplishment. At birth the newborn is fresh, new, unsoiled, with much potential ahead of him or her. But that is all it is – potential. He or she may become or do something great and wonderful. But equally possible is that the new baby will become a criminal or a fool. At birth, nothing is impossible, and nothing is certain.
Contrarily, at death one knows exactly what a life has meant. When we pay tribute to one who has lived righteously and productively we can be certain of the worth of that life. We can celebrate without hesitation. We can hope for their eternal reward without doubt. In that sense, death is “better” than birth, in that worthwhile accomplishment is always better than mere potential.
This same principle applies to all that we do. It is the idea that the end of a thing is better than its beginning. We have all had ideas which excited us, leading to plans for some project. But how often do those things die prematurely without any real accomplishment? Jesus warned about beginning to build a structure without proper analysis of the total cost (Luke 14:28-30). We learn from hard experience that it is better to celebrate after a thing is completed than when it is barely begun.
Every time I embark on a new missions campaign I am excited about the potential for good that trip holds. But genuine satisfaction waits until the work is well underway or finished. That is when results are seen and one can know that his efforts have been well directed.
Solomon was not cynical, but rather very wise. He counseled God’s people to be result oriented, not rushing to pronounce success based on a promising start. Let us apply that same principle as we evaluate ourselves and others.
Didn’t Jesus say “You will know them by their fruits” (i.e., results – Matthew 7:16)? Newborn babies don’t yet have fruit. Let us celebrate their potential but reserve our major tributes for the time when their lives have proven to be of genuine benefit. And let us seek to influence them so that their potential may be realized. Probably more to Solomon’s real point, let us judge by the end of our efforts rather than by their beginning. Good ideas are only profitable when they lead to positive results.