There is a passage in the book of Ecclesiastes that has always fascinated me. It is Ecclesiastes 7:8, which says, “The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride.” Specifically, the first clause has always struck me. Why is the end of a matter better than its beginning? Why is finishing better than starting? My quest for a better understanding of this idea naturally prompted me to consult biblical commentaries on the passage, but I found that in most cases the commentators skirt past this clause to focus on the second clause which is far easier to understand and explain, however strange it might be to contrast patience with pride (as opposed to impatience).
So I’ve essentially been left to my own devices to understand why the end of a matter is better than its beginning. Fortunately, personal experience has proven to be an effective interpretive tool in this case. As the years have passed, I have been struck by the vivid truth of this passage as it applies to various events in my life and in human experience generally. It hit me again two weeks ago as we celebrated the graduating class of Lighthouse Christian Academy where I serve as head of school. And it hit me a week before that when our oldest son, Bailey, graduated from Taylor University. In both cases, there was a celebration of completion, the attainment of long sought goals, the realization of the telos for which the students strived for so many years. And that is most definitely a very good thing, even better than the beginning of the journey for each of the graduates, however fun or exciting that might have been for them.
Graduations are positive outcomes, of course. But many human experiences are quite negative, even horrifically so. Here again Ecclesiastes 7:8a is clearly applicable. Whether we are talking about a painful trip to the dentist, an unhealthy dating relationship, or any number of other negative experiences, it is certainly good when such things come to an end. After some such event, it is not uncommon to hear people say, “Man, I’m glad that’s over with!” This seems to be a tacit affirmation of the negative pole of the Ecclesiastes 7:8a principle.
So I would sum up my analysis like this. The end of a matter is better than its beginning because any particular “matter” (experience/event/project) is either good or bad. If the matter is bad, then it is good to have it over with. And if the matter is good, then you still benefit from and even enjoy and celebrate the achievement. Either way, then, the end is better than the beginning.
One might object, however, that it is sad when good things end, such as when a virtuous person dies or when a good friend moves away. How could the end of wonderful things like this be better than their beginning? One of Aristotle’s observations about happiness is useful here. He notes that you cannot know you have had a happy life until it is over. This is because until a life is actually completed it is always possible that it can go awry in some way. Only when a person is dead can it be truly said with confidence that that person had an overall good life. And what is true of an entire lifetime is true of particular events (e.g., a good game or a good evening with friends). So for all of the sadness of saying goodbye to a loved one or to a sweet phase in one’s life, it is nonetheless a blessed thing to be able to say with confidence, “Old Joe was a tremendous guy” or “Didn’t we have wonderful times together!”
All of this thinking about “ends” naturally prompts me to think about the ultimate end of things—the culmination of human history as promised in Scripture. Numerous times in the Bible we are reminded that the end of the matter when it comes to the course of history will be marked by the return of Jesus Christ in power and glory. And that will be goodness on a colossal scale. The writer of Genesis says that when God created the heavens and the earth and everything in them, he repeatedly declared them “good.” But as great as that was, it doesn’t compare to what will be achieved in the end—a glory that we are told, often cryptically, is beyond our ability to fathom (cf. Rom. 8:18, 1 Cor. 2:9), a time when “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” A time when Christ will rule with perfect justice and righteousness, and perfect joy and fellowship among his people will be established forevermore (Isa. 9:6-7). Now that is an end that is truly better than its beginning!