Here the Preacher turns from the argumentative strain of what precedes to hortative maxims of a practical kind, however paradoxical in form. They are wise words in the midst of vanity and sorrow, to guard the man when the evil cannot yet, be judged in power or redressed.
"A [good] name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one's birth. [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 heart. Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools in the house of mirth. [It is] better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise, than to hear the song of fools. For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so [is] the laughter of the fool. This also [is] vanity. Surely oppression maketh a wise man foolish; and a gift destroyeth the understanding. Better [is] the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit [is] better than the proud in spirit. Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools. Say not thou, How is it that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this. Wisdom [is] good with an inheritance: yea, more excellent [is it] for them that see the sun. For wisdom is a defence, [even as] money [is] a defence: but the excellency of knowledge [is, that] wisdom preserveth the life of him that hath it. Consider the work of God: for who can make straight [that] which he hath made crooked? In the day of prosperity enjoy good, and in the day of adversity consider: God hath even made the one side by side with the other, to the end that man should not find out any thing that shall be after him" (vers. 1-14).
Prov. 22 opens with a kindred sentiment: "A name is rather to be chosen than great riches, favour is better than silver and gold." Men do not think so, still less so act; but thus it is; and the loss is irreparable. The day of death closes the sorrow of the world, into which birth ushers fallen man. No doubt, Christ changes all; but this is not the truth discussed here, but the present scene. Hence the profit of going to the house of mourning over that of feasting, and of rebuke from the wise over the song of fools: which is mere noise and blaze for a moment. Again, the affliction of life, or oppression, is apt to daze a wise man, as a gift to destroy the heart's purpose; so that the end of a matter is better than its beginning, and longsuffering than highmindedness. And as it is well to guard against hasty anger, so especially against retaining it. Nor do they enquire wisely who assume that the former days were better than these. Wisdom with an inheritance is good and profitable here below. It is a shadow or shelter, as is money, yet how differently! For the excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to him that has it. Hence the folly of fighting against the goads, of lack of sympathy with what God orders of joy or sorrow. Our true wisdom is in dependence on Him.
"All [this] have I seen in the days of my vanity: there is a righteous one that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked one that prolongeth [his life] in his evil-doing. Be not righteous overmuch; neither make thyself overwise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself? Be not overmuch wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time? [It is] good that thou shouldest take hold of this; yea, also from that withdraw not thine hand: for he that feareth God shall come forth of them all. Wisdom is a strength to the wise man more than ten rulers that are in a city. Surely [there is] not a righteous man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not. Also take not heed unto all words that are spoken, lest thou hear thy servant curse thee; for oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth that thou thyself likewise hast cursed others.
"All this have I proved in wisdom: I said, I will be wise; but it [was] far from me. That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who will find it out? I turned about, I and my heart, to know and to search out, and to seek wisdom and the reason [of things], and to know [that] wickedness [is] folly, and [that] foolishness [is] madness: and I find a thing more bitter than death, even the woman whose heart [is] snares and nets, whose hands [are] bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape from her; but the sinner shall be taken by her. Behold, this have I found, saith the Preacher, [laying] one thing to another, to find out the account; which my soul still seeketh, but I have not found: one man among a thousand have I found; but a woman among all those have I not found. Behold, this only have I found, that God made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions" (vers. 15-29).
The Preacher notices like Job a just man suffering to the utmost thereby, and a wicked prolonging his days by his wickedness, and lays down a caution against pushing even good to excess. There is such a thing as being righteous and wise overmuch. Exaggeration is never of God in truth or anything else. It sacrifices other relationships. and exposes to ruin. But righteousness binds, as spurious wisdom must be shunned: the fear of God guides one safely. Wisdom then strengthens more than mighty allies, bearing in mind too the failure of even a just man, and guarding against sensitiveness to detraction the resources of the mean, as the report of it is of the impudent. Besides, have you never been guilty of it? Lastly, a most touching confession follows (from ver. 28) of the wise man's conscious lack of wisdom. Christ is made wisdom unto us. In Him we find and have what Solomon found altogether beyond him - beyond him how far! a double depth: how could any find it out? He turned, he and his heart, to know and to investigate, to seek wisdom and device, and to know wickedness as folly, and he found a bitterness beyond death in woman when ensnaring with a seductive heart and with hands that keep fast hold. How deeply the king had drunk of this fatal cup! By God's good hand alone could come deliverance: the erring one is taken captive. He that had sought his pleasure there was miserably disappointed: one man in a thousand had he found to his mind, but not a woman. Others have looked to God for one as a helpmate, and not in vain; but not the king who trusted his wisdom and had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines. It was the old, old story: God made man upright, but they have sought out many devices. Life is only a failure where God and His way are forgotten; and the wise made his folly in departing from it more conspicuous. Here he tells the tale sadly for universal profit.