This article can also be read in The Expository Files.
“Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” (Eccl 7:10)
I know you have said this. I’m only 27 and I have said it! “Why were the former days better than these?” It is a rhetorical question that is actually making an audacious statement about the state of world and the direction of human history. This sentiment lives on in several different forms. “Back in my day…” “Kids these days just don’t…” Yet the preacher gives a prohibition to all tempted to utter such things. Why? “For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” Wise people don’t say this!
Don’t say this because we tend to have narrow perspective. The good old days probably were not as good as we remembered and the present might not be as bad as we think. We tend to idealize the era of our childhoods, where we didn’t pay much attention to world events and were unfamiliar with societal problems. Yet we compare our ignorant and carefree childhood with today’s era of 24-hour news channels that tell me every bad thing that is happening on the face of the earth. We have enough difficulty gaining perspective and understanding about the present. How much more ignorant are we of past and future generations? We need more patience and perspective before boldly declaring that former days were better than these.
Don’t say this because it might not be true. Polls show that most Americans believe that crime rates have risen sharply over the past few decades. Yet crime statistics show a significant drop in crime over the last 30 years. And if we have decided to compare eras, why not compare our era with the world in Noah’s day? Why not compare our nation with Sodom, where not even 10 righteous people could be found? Is it absolutely true that the former days were uniformly better than these?
Don’t say this because we just might be impugning ourselves. Have you considered the fact that this was written about 3000 years ago? People have been saying, “kids these days…” for a long time. Our grandparents said it about our parents’ generation, our parents said it about ours, and we say it about our children’s. But who raised the “kids these days”? Parents these days did! You might protest, “but I’m not talking about my own kids.” Fair enough. But haven’t we already decided to condemn an entire generation of people when we say “kids these days…”? Why not at least pick the right generation to impugn like my own!
The worst offenders of the preacher’s prohibition were the wandering generation of Israelites. They were miraculously delivered from Egyptian slavery and beneficiaries of miraculous providence everyday. Yet they whined, “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” (Num 11:5). But did you remember that you were slaves?! We must exercise more wisdom before we make bold claims like, “Why were the former days better than these?” After all, “it is not from wisdom that you ask this.”