Question: "How is a good name better than precious ointment (Ecclesiastes 7:1)?"

Answer: In ancient times, an individual’s reputation and position in the community were closely tied to his name. In Ecclesiastes 7:1, Solomon asserts, “A good name is better than precious ointment” (ESV), stressing the priceless worth of preserving a good reputation.

“Precious ointment” refers to fine, expensive perfume. In the New Living Translation, Ecclesiastes 7:1 is worded thus: “A good reputation is more valuable than costly perfume.” Solomon teaches wisdom-seekers that some things in life are far more important than riches and material prosperity. The sentiment resonates in Proverbs 22:1: “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.”

A good name (or reputation) was highly regarded in ancient Israel (Job 18:17; Proverbs 10:7). Precious ointment was also greatly prized and used in Scripture to symbolize God’s anointing (Psalm 45:7; 133; Amos 6:6; Matthew 6:17; 26:7). But in Ecclesiastes 7:1, Solomon uses these two treasured things to contrast inward values with external appearances.

Why is a good name better than precious ointment? Let’s consider the properties of expensive perfume. One of the costliest perfumes on the market today, Jean Patou’s Joy, claims to incorporate more than ten thousand jasmine flowers and some 28 dozens of roses per bottle. The extravagant ointment smells rich, luxurious, and wonderful, but its fragrance is fleeting, temporary. A good name (or reputation) is better than precious ointment because it lasts.

Perfume can be used to cover up a foul scent, but a good reputation is readily evident and cannot be disguised. Expensive perfume is a status symbol concerned only with the superficial qualities of one’s outward image. But a good reputation is based on genuine integrity, right living, and internal character. Fine perfume may possess material, external, and worldly value, but the good reputation of a child of God is much better because its worth is eternal (Isaiah 56:5; Revelation 3:12).

A respectable reputation is developed through knowing and obeying God’s Word (Deuteronomy 4:1–14), living to please the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:9–10), and always striving to keep a clear conscience before God and people (Acts 24:16; Hebrews 13:18; 1 Thessalonians 4:1).

Jesus understood that a good name was better than precious ointment. He endeavored even as a boy to develop an honorable reputation by growing “in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and all the people” (Luke 2:52, NLT). In the early church, men of “good reputation” were chosen to serve as deacons (Acts 6:3, NKJV). One of these was Stephen, whom the Bible describes as “full of the Spirit and wisdom,” “full of faith” (Acts 6:5), and “full of grace and power” (Acts 6:8).

Millions of people cannot afford to buy expensive perfume, but a good name is available to rich and poor alike. Even better, a respectable reputation goes further, lasts longer, and counts for much more. In the Lord’s estimation, good character is more valuable than all the wealth in this world. As proof, when one woman poured out her alabaster flask of expensive ointment on Him, Jesus honored her, acknowledging that her good reputation would be remembered throughout the ages (Matthew 26:13).