“a good name.” In the biblical culture, and in most Middle Eastern and Asiatic cultures, a “good name” was very important. As used in this context, a person’s name included their reputation (cp. Prov. 22:1). God promised to make Abraham’s name “great” (Gen. 12:2). Joshua was concerned that if Israel was destroyed by the Canaanites that God’s “great name” would be ruined (Josh. 7:9). In the future Millennial Kingdom, God’s people will have a “name” in the world (Zeph. 3:19-20).
“good perfume.” The comparison between a good name and good perfume was chosen in part because the two words, “name” and “perfume” are very similar in Hebrew, “name” being shem, and “perfume” (or ointment) being shemen. The Hebrew is short and punchy: tov shem mashemen. It is easy to remember and a true and important lesson. In the Hebrew, the sentence is an epanadiplosis because the word “good” both begins and ends the sentence. The word “good” is also important because often people think of things as being good, when to God there are a lot of “good” things that are much better than “good” material things.
“better.” The concept of one thing being “better” than another runs through this section of Ecclesiastes (Ecc. 7:1, 2, 3, 5, 8 (2x), Ecc 7:10). The word “better” also plays a major role in the book of Hebrews in showing that Jesus Christ brought “better” things to believers than they had before he came.
“the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.” At first glance Ecclesiastes 7:1 seems strange and even contra-logical. Life is usually considered preferable to death in Ecclesiastes, and a living dog is better than a dead lion (Ecc. 9:4). But Ecclesiastes presents life as being difficult, oppressive, and often seemingly meaningless or futile (Ecc. 1:2, 18; 2:11, 17, 23; 4:1-2; 5:15-16). Thus, the day of a person’s birth is the start of a journey that is full of hard work and pain, whereas the end of a good life is, in the experience of the person, a time of everlasting joy (cp. Isa. 35:10; 51:11).
The unspoken assumption in Ecclesiastes 7:1 that comes from the context and that makes the day of death better than the day of birth is that the person has lived a godly life and has a “good name,” and is looking forward to everlasting life. There will be a Day of Judgment (Ecc. 8:13; 11:9; 12:13-14), and those people who are righteous in the sight of God will experience everlasting joy and not the “second death” (Rev. 20:14-15). At the end of his life, the Apostle Paul wrote about what he accomplished in spite of all he went through: “For I am already being offered, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. In the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day…” (2 Tim. 4:6-8). At a person’s death we often say, “Rest in peace,” and that is true. The hard work and pain of life is over.