Have you ever longed for a better world? 2020 is a good year to long for a better world, isn’t it? Or maybe I should say it is an easy year to long for a better world? But while it is easy to long for a better world, actually achieving that better world can seem impossible. Maybe “world” is too wide a scope. So let’s talk about achieving a better life or community. Those can seem more attainable.
Even at that smaller scope, fairly quickly our longing for a better life or community is put to a halt when we realize that there are many different opinions about what constitutes a better life. Who gets to decide what a better life would be? Where do we find wisdom about how to live a better life? As we continue our study through Ecclesiastes, we have arrived at chapter 7, and the Teacher discusses the concept of what a better life looks like, sharing with us practical wisdom about how to actually live a better life. Turn to Ecclesiastes 7:1-14.
Scholars tell us that this section of Ecclesiastes seems to be a matching section to 3:1-15. Remember that one? You can glance back at it, and it should be familiar. It’s the famous poem about how there is a season for everything. In the poem the Teacher illustrates this with a bunch of opposites, starting with “a time to be born, a time to die,” and finishing with “a time for war and a time for peace.” Is the Pete Seiger song, “Turn, Turn, Turn” playing in your minds right now?
Now turn back to Ecclesiastes 7:1-4. There is evidence that we have another poem here, and one that seems to match with that previous poem in chapter 3. What evidence?
First, both have 14 verses comprised of 7 couplets.
Second, both address opposites. We see both talk about Birth & Death, Laughter & Mourning, Good times & Bad times.
Obviously, though, what we read in 7:1-14 is different from the previous poem. Dorsey sees the poem in 7:1-14 as a practical application of wisdom, based on the poem in 3:1-15. For example he says, “Yes, there is ‘a time to be born and a time to die,” as we read in 3:2; but now the Teacher says, ‘The day of death is better than the day of birth’ (7:1). “Yes, there is ‘a time to be born and a time to die,” but now the Teacher says ‘it is better to go to a house of mourning that to go to a house of feasting; for death is the destiny of every person; the living should take this to heart’ (7:2).”
Do you see how the Teacher is discussing the same opposites, but he is expanding on them, talking about the real-world ramifications of the wisdom they discuss? He continues this approach in the next few verses.
“Yes, there is ‘a time to weep and a time to laugh’, and Yes there is ‘a time to mourn and a time to dance’ as he said in 3:4; but now the Teacher says, ‘sorrow is better than laughter’ (7:3), ‘the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning’ (7:4), and ‘like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools’ (7:6).” So where the previous poem in chapter 3 observes the truth about life, the poem here in chapter 7 helps us think about how to actually live life in light of that truth.
Notice that the seven parts of the poem each have a “better than.” In the NIV you can see most of them fairly easily. As we’ll see there are a couple that are hard to find! The Teacher uses this word to help us contrast what he believes is wise and what is not so wise. Check back to tomorrow’s post as we begin to try to find all seven “better thans” in this poem. What we will discover is the Teacher’s wisdom about how to live a life that is “better than.”
 Dorsey, David A. 1999. The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis—Malachi. Grand Rapids: Baker. Page 195.