Ecclesiastes 7:3 says, “Sorrow is better than laughter, / for by sadness of face the heart is made glad” (ESV). There are many puzzling statements in the book of Ecclesiastes, and this is one of them. What does it mean that “sorrow is better than laughter”? Most people would much rather laugh than cry.
The second half of the verse states why sorrow is better than laughter: “By sadness of face the heart is made glad.” Sorrow can have a positive spiritual impact on the heart and soul of man. Through sorrow we can consider the seriousness of life, evaluate our situation, and make changes to improve our lives.
Sorrow is better than laughter in that it provides a different perspective. Laughter is a wonderful tool God has designed to help us express delight and enjoy life. However, life is not all delight and joy. In laughter we rarely consider the difficult areas of our lives and how to improve. It is during difficult times of struggle—sorrowful times—that we are often forced to make adjustments. Further, we tend to look more seriously to God in times of need, relying on His strength in our weakness.
The context of Ecclesiastes 7:3 provides further insight: “It is better to go to a house of mourning / than to go to a house of feasting, / for death is the destiny of everyone; / the living should take this to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2). Few people would claim a funeral is better than a party, yet Solomon claims this is the case. Why? He explains that the “house of mourning” causes the living to consider their ways. More people come to faith in Christ at funerals than at bacchanals.
In the same way, sorrow is better than laughter because it causes us to reflect on our lives and make personal improvements. Those who constantly seek comedy or fun to escape from problems may be working to avoid a serious look at areas in life that need to be addressed. Laughing through life can be a means to avoid appropriate change.
However, those who endure times of sorrow and contemplate ways to change can truly find sorrow is better than laughter. The actual sorrow is not enjoyable, but it can lead to a new way of life or a new perspective that improves life more than laughter ever could.
Sorrow can point an open learner toward greater wisdom. Ecclesiastes 7:19 says, “Wisdom makes one wise person more powerful / than ten rulers in a city.” While laughter can offer many positives, it does not have the same impact as sorrow to cause a person to consider life and grow in wisdom. Sorrow can therefore be better than laughter. The eternal benefits are greater. Sorrow, though painful, leads to reflective thinking, wisdom, and changed actions that improve one’s life and the lives of others.