THE SECOND AND THIRD ELEMENTS OF HAPPINESS: DEATH AND SORROW: ECCLESIASTES 7:1b-4
Sorrow and death as an element of true happiness may seem counter-intuitive. Yet, the understanding of trials as good to a Christian was not an uncommon understanding among Puritan divines. The following quotation from Richard Sibbes’ A Bruised Reed may provide some help to understand this element of happiness:
Hence we learn that we must not pass too harsh judgment upon ourselves or others when God exercises us with bruising upon bruising. There must be a conformity to our head, Christ, who `was bruised for us’ )Isa. 53:5( that we may know how much we are bound unto him. Ungodly spirits, ignorant of God’s ways in bringing his children to heaven, censure broken hearted Christians as miserable persons, whereas God is doing a gracious, good work with them. It is no easy matter to bring a man from nature to grace, and from grace to glory, so unyielding and intractable are our hearts.
ECCLESIASTES 7:1-5: 1 A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one’s birth. 2 It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart. 3 Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. 4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. 5 It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools.
Benefits of Death and Sorrow52:
Death, preferred above the day of a man’s birth, viz., life, and all the commodities thereof, which is to be understood of life, as it is accompanied with many miseries and vexations, whereunto death puts an end, otherwise it is worse to have no being than to be well, verse 1.
Sorrow and sadness of heart, preferred to mirth and pleasure: This is axomatically delivered, verse 3, Sorrow is better than laughter: Of godly sorrow, that is better than worldly joy, is most true and here meant in part. But even worldly sorrow, also, if it go not too far as to breed consuming grief, which eat]s[ up the heart, it is to be commended above continual jollity and merriment.
Proof of the Point that Sorrow and Death Produce Benefits:
This is exemplified and proved in two sorts of sadness following men’s death, the house of mourning, where opposite banquetings and merry-meetings made usually at men’s birth, or otherwise by those that abound in wealth, the house of feasting: The first causes sorrow, the latter joy, but yet it is better to resort thither than hither.
The first proof of this point is drawn from the effects of this sorrow and joy, ex anthesis, i.e., which here are two: The first antithetical product of sorrow is shown in the special in respect of the cause: funerals, graves, mourners, & c., breed in us a serious mediation of our mortal condition: The living lay it to his heart, advisedly consider of it, why? For it is the end of all men. He sees in others what must go the same way. This singular provocation to goodness and sobriety is not to be had in feasts and banquets, which usually make us forget both God and ourselves, verse 2.
The second antithetical product of sorrow is shown in general at all times, By the sadness of the countenance, by sorrow appearing in the face, the heart is bettered. All light, vain, lustful and foolish affections are checked, the desires and thoughts of the mind composed to a sad and sober temper, and made capable of all instruction and reprehension, & c. A sad look shewes and makes a sober mind; and that not only in regard of ourselves, but of others also, a severe, angry, and frowning countenance daunts and adulterous eye, a flattering tongue & c., and they are made better by it, verse 3.
The second proof that sorrow produces benefits is shown from the contrary to be understood of laughter, which dissolves the heart, and melts it into looseness and lewdness.
From the persons that delight in them, the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning. A wise man’s mind and affections are bent to sadness and sobriety, and make choice to be in such company as may bring him to it: The heart of fools is in the house of feasting. His desires are carried after unseasonable mirth and jollity, company keeping, and good fellowship, & c. Mirth and sadness shew who is wise, who is foolish; who good, who bad, & c. verse 4.
The Benefits of Reproof
Reproof, which causeth grief for the present and flattery which breeds some kind of joy. It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise: The just reprehension seasonably given by a wise and godly man; than to hear the song of fools, to be flattered by ungodly claw-backs, whose speeches are as a song and sweet music – very pleasing to a carnal and corrupt mind, verse 5. That it is better to be sharply reproved, than smoothly soothed, Solomon prooves by the different effects of both:
Flattery gives much contentment for the time, warms the heart with much joy in the conceit and admiration of itself, but it soon vanisheth and the grief of a bad conscience comes in its stead.
Reprehension is grevious for the time, but after it breeds the true fruit of righteousness, peace and perpetual comfort. This is understood by the antithesis, the former only expressed under a simile of thorns or brush wood under a pot, that crackle much, burn suddenly and brightly, heart vehemently for the present, but the flame scorcheth only the outside a little, and is quicly extinct: So is the laughter of fools, of wicked men that please others with their sins and flattteries, lewd jests, and filthy discourses; of wicked men that will be pleased and joyed in such things. He that makes this mirth and he that likes it, both are fools, and their pleasantness will soon have an end: So that such kind of delights is but vanity, verse 6.
52 Note that death and sorrow are connected by proximity to a “good name”. Scripture proves and experience demonstrates that times of ease often lead to sin, while times of difficulty have provoked many to holiness. In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian is safe while he goes up the Hill of Difficulty on his knees. It is when he rests in the arbor that Christian falls into sin. David’s virtue was certain while he was being chased by Saul. It was when David was safe and at ease in Jerusalem that he sinned in the matter of Uriah’s wife. Ed.