It takes a lifetime to build, but it can be destroyed in an instant by one bad decision. It enables even the least influential members of society to enjoy respect, but the lack of it causes us to see those who wield great power as fools and reprobates. We are talking, of course, about a good name, which today’s passage tells us “is better than precious ointment” (Eccl. 7:1).
When we speak of someone as having a good name, we are usually referring to a good reputation. This is not unlike the Preacher’s use of the term good name in Ecclesiastes 7:1. However, in Hebrew thought, the idea of a good name goes deeper. After all, a good reputation may be undeserved, which we see when people who appear to be morally upright are caught in marital infidelity, embezzlement, or some other scandal. While not condoning their conduct, the Bible sometimes portrays people who had a good name in public but whose private behavior invalidated their reputation. Nevertheless, in Hebrew thought, a name was usually regarded as expressing a vital truth about a person’s inner character. For example, the name Jacob signifies “supplanter” or “deceiver,” and the patriarch Jacob certainly began life as a trickster (Gen. 27). But God later renamed him Israel, for he had “striven with God and with men, and [had] prevailed” (Gen. 32:22–32). Over the course of his life, Jacob “strove” with God in the sense of fighting against Him, until the Lord literally wrestled the patriarch and Jacob confessed his dependence on his Creator. From that point, Jacob’s heart was changed.
If a name signifies one’s true character, a good name in Ecclesiastes 7:1 signifies a good reputation that is deserved. This name is better than the precious ointment applied to the outer person. Such ointment eventually wears off, but a true good name lasts forever. Precious ointment cannot produce deep relationships with others, but a good name that is deserved enables people to thrive on the personal level.
Just as a good name is better than precious ointment, the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth. This is not meant as a cynical reflection on the reality that a life of toil and struggle awaits a newborn baby; rather, the point is that death has a way of pointing out the most important things in life. The day of death provides the dying person with a chance to reflect on his own heart, and it causes loved ones to reflect on their final destiny and their need of heart transformation if they are to experience life with God forever.