Under The Sun

Ecclesiastes Chapter Seven

I

A look at the original language used to write of the book of Ecclesiastes identifies the author simply as Qoheleth, a word that carries the idea of someone who leads or speaks to a congregation of others. Today we might refer to such a person as a "communicator" or "teacher." The New Living Translation version of the Scriptures illustrates this idea by rendering the opening verses of chapter one, verse one as, "These are the words of the Teacher, King David’s son, who ruled in Jerusalem" (Ecclesiastes 1:1 NLT). This statement traditionally establishes Qoheleth's identity as Solomon, the son of King David who served as king over the nation of Israel from about 971 to 931 B.C.

Over the past six chapters, we've seen the Teacher use many different literary devices in his attempt to document his struggle to find meaning in life. But the next section of Ecclesiastes will find our author narrowing his focus to one particular literary form- a form that fast paced, 21st century readers are sure to appreciate. That literary form is known as a proverb.

We've already noted that one of Solomon's favorite teaching methods involved the use of proverbial statements. This method entails the use of short, memorable statements that are designed to communicate a spiritual truth, important observation, or moral lesson from everyday life. A proverb often makes use of tools like observation, comparison, personification (or the technique of giving human qualities to a place or thing), and other literary devices to help drive home an important truth. Some familiar non-Biblical examples of proverbial statements would include sayings such as "haste makes waste," "out of sight, out of mind" and, "actions speak louder than words."

Although those non-Biblical proverbs (and others like them) can often represent good advice, only the Proverbs found within the pages of the Scriptures are fully authorized by the ultimate Authority.

This also means that we'll find no long winded sermons or deep theological discussions over the next few chapters of Ecclesiastes. Instead, we'll discover a collection of timeless bits of practical advice and general statements concerning the way things usually turn out depending on our choices. These statements arrive like bullet points and they force the reader to consider their application quickly before the next one arrives. For the modern day reader in today's lightning fast age of information, this means that the next few chapters of Ecclesiastes will arrive in a form that is both familiar and highly practical. 

II

In Ecclesiastes 6:12, the Teacher asked, "...who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow?" (KJV). Of course, the unstated answer to this question is no one, except God. But even the most spiritually unconcerned person realizes that some things in life are better than others- and that's what the Teacher will attempt to identify for us here in chapter seven. In fact, the word "better" appears eight times within this chapter as our author attempts to determine what's good, what's bad, and what's best for us during our lives under the sun.

"A good reputation is more valuable than costly perfume. And the day you die is better than the day you are born" (Ecclesiastes 7:1).

Money is capable of providing many things, but one thing that money can’t buy is a good reputation among others. While its possible to hire a public relations consultant to improve our image or use whatever financial leverage we possess to influence the things that people say or do concerning us, money can't change the private thoughts and opinions of others. To paraphrase the Teacher, the most expensive cologne or costliest perfume can do nothing to cover the stench of a bad reputation.

However, this idea of "a good name" goes beyond what others may think of us. You see, our society and culture often places a great amount of value on the talents or other things we may possess. For example, a person of great athletic ability, physical attractiveness, or financial wealth often maintains a good name and reputation among others. But for all we know, the athlete may have achieved his or her success through the use of performance enhancing substances. The physically attractive may be self-centered and egotistical. And the financially wealthy may have achieved his or her wealth in an unethical fashion despite the good reputation that he or she may possess.

This is important because in God's economy, our true reputation is not on based what we may possess, but on who we really are as individuals. The New Testament book of 1 Peter explains it like this...

"Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight" (1 Peter 3:3-4 NIV).

III

A good reputation is better than expensive perfume; and the day you die is better than the day you are born" (Ecclesiastes 7:1 GW).

There are probably few people who don't appreciate a birthday party with family or friends. But hidden away behind the idea of a birthday celebration is an important but often unseen principle- a party to celebrate the day of one's entrance into the world helps provide us with a sense of worth and validation as individuals. It says that the day of our birth was important and worthy of recognition, even if it's only among a few friends.

Because of this, it may be difficult to understand why the Teacher would make a statement like the one we see quoted above: "The day of death is better than the day of birth." (NCV). One key to understanding this reference might be found in looking at what the author is attempting to accomplish in making this statement. In this instance, the Teacher has contrasted two important dates in the life of every human being -the date of birth and the date of death- in order to examine their differences and provoke thought among his readers.

Based on what we've seen throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, we could say that the Teacher holds this belief for one simple reason: the date of birth signifies the beginning of a futile life under the sun while the day of death signals an end to that meaningless existence. Of course, a Christian might also say that the day of one's death is better than the day of one's birth as well but for very different reasons...

"Our bodies are like tents that we live in here on earth. But when these tents are destroyed, we know that God will give each of us a place to live. These homes will not be buildings that someone has made, but they are in heaven and will last forever" (2 Corinthians 5:5 CEV).

"We are without fear, desiring to be free from the body, and to be with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5:8 BBE).

"If I live, it will be for Christ, and if I die, I will gain even more" (Philippians 1:21 CEV).

While these New Testament perspectives were difficult to comprehend in the B.C. world of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher did have a few other good reasons to support his premise- and we'll start to look some of those reasons next.

IV

The Teacher opened Ecclesiastes chapter seven with a bold and attention grabbing statement: "...the day you die is better than the day you are born." Since the Teacher was not in the habit of making unsubstantiated comments, he went on to provide the justification for that message next...

"Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties. After all, everyone dies— so the living should take this to heart" (Ecclesiastes 7:2).

Unless you've been attending a social gathering that has gotten seriously out of hand, most parties don't provide the kind of atmosphere that encourages people to think about the reality of death and the brevity of life under the sun. On the other hand, a funeral, a memorial service, or a burial procession does far more to focus someone's attention on his or her own mortality. In the words of one commentator, every funeral anticipates our own (1) and serves to illustrate the fate that awaits everyone who draws breath under the sun.

Of course, many people consider death to be something that's exceedingly remote, assuming they think about death at all. Yet how many of us actually stop and consider an important question: how much time do we really have? The reality is that life can pass very quickly and while we might have the expectation of long life, there are no guarantees....

"Show me, O LORD, my life's end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life" (Psalm 39:4 NIV)

"Man is like a breath; his days are like a fleeting shadow" (Psalm 144:4 NIV).

This reality is also touched on in the New Testament book of James where we read...

"...you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away" (James 4:14 NKJV).

While it's easy to mask the fragility of life in a variety of ways, the Teacher felt that it was better that "...the living should always remind themselves that death is waiting for us all" (GW). The person who takes that counsel seriously is someone who is most likely to make good decisions regarding the direction of his or her life. Those who put their faith in Christ have this promise from the Savior as well...

"(Jesus said) 'I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life'" (John 5:24 NIV).

(1) Eaton, Ecclesiastes, quoted in Barrrick http://www.drbarrick.org/Website%20Files/Ecclesiastes%2007A%20PBC.pdf

V

"Sorrow is better than laughter, for sadness has a refining influence on us. A wise person thinks a lot about death, while a fool thinks only about having a good time" (Ecclesiastes 7:3-4).

It's possible to look at these verses and find the stereotypical image of a sour, joyless person; a caricature of the church-going individual who doesn't know how to have fun and is both depressed and depressing to be around. However. a closer look at these verses indicates something very different- they remind us that sorrow has an advantage that laughter does not provide.

You see, people handle the futility of life under the sun in a variety of different ways. Some deal with the difficulties and pressures of life by turning to alcohol abuse or drug usage. In fact, Solomon documented his own personal experimentation in this area when he said, "After much thought, I decided to cheer myself with wine... In this way, I tried to experience the only happiness most people find during their brief life in this world" (Ecclesiastes 2:3). For Solomon, life became a non stop party but eventually he found that this “...also proved to be meaningless” (NIV).

Other people immerse themselves in work or a business that helps provide a feeling of meaning, purpose, and achievement in life. Solomon also tried this approach as well: "I also tried to find meaning by building huge homes for myself and by planting beautiful vineyards" (Ecclesiastes 2:4). But in the end, Solomon the Teacher was forced to this conclusion: "So what do people get in this life for all their hard work and anxiety? Their days of labor are filled with pain and grief; even at night their minds cannot rest. It is all meaningless" (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23).

Then there are those who attempt to cope with the pain and difficulty of life with jokes, wisecracks, or by making fun of all that transpires in life. For such people, life is a farce; a daily parody that is ripe with opportunity for satire, ridicule, and mockery. But Solomon attempted this and found it just as meaningless: "So I said, 'Laughter is silly. What good does it do to seek pleasure?'” (Ecclesiastes 2:2).

In this context, each example detailed above has something in common: they each represent an attempt to mask the reality of life's futility. Instead of trying to camouflage that reality, Solomon instead chose to face the issue head on and that led him to the conclusion that we see in the passage quoted above: "Sorrow is better than laughter; it may sadden your face, but it sharpens your understanding" (GNB).

VI

"Better to be criticized by a wise person than to be praised by a fool. A fool’s laughter is quickly gone, like thorns crackling in a fire. This also is meaningless" (Ecclesiastes 7:5-6). 

Whether it's at school, at work, on the field, or anywhere else, no one enjoys being criticized. Yet few would disagree that certain types of criticism can often be valuable. No matter how difficult it may be to hear, good, constructive criticism from the right source can often help someone become the very best that he or she can be. Unfortunately, those who refuse to accept any type of criticism may find it difficult to grow, mature, and improve. While it may be easier to listen to those who tell us what we want to hear, "easier" does not always mean "better."

For example, the Teacher provides us with vivid word picture in the passage quoted above when he says, "The laughter of a fool is like the crackling of thorns burning under a pot. Even this is pointless" (GW). If you've ever had the opportunity to start a campfire outdoors, then you may know that a thorn bush makes for a very poor fuel source. While the thorns may ignite quickly and produce lots of noise as they snap and pop, they actually create very little heat and are extinguished very quickly.

In a similar manner, the praise and laughter offered by a foolish person can be compared to a campfire fueled by a thorn bushes- there seems to be something initially but eventually you find that there's very little substance. In the words of one commentary, "...the “laughter of a fool” can be taken in both ways: (1) In comparison to the sober reflection of the wise, the laughter of fools is morally useless: the burning of thorns, like the laughter of fools, makes a lot of noise but accomplishes nothing; (2) the laughter of fools is fleeting due to the brevity of life and certainty of death" (1)

Another foolish characteristic is mentioned next...

"Extortion turns wise people into fools, and bribes corrupt the heart" (Ecclesiastes 7:7).

The "bribe" mentioned above refers to the inducement that's offered to prompt someone to say or do something that's favorable to another. In many instances, this can mean substituting the truth for something else. So while it's been said that "money talks," the language spoken by a bribe is often just a lie.


(1) Quotations designated (NET) are from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://bible.org All rights reserved. http://net.bible.org/#!bible/Ecclesiastes+7:2

VII

"Finishing is better than starting. Patience is better than pride" (Ecclesiastes 7:8).

It's hard to disagree with Solomon's observation in the verse quoted above. For example, the person who is beginning his or her secondary education can surely agree that graduating is better than the first day of classes as an incoming freshmen. For a hard working employee, the end of a workday is better than the moment when the alarm clock sounds to begin the day. A dedicated athlete doesn't look forward to beginning a grueling and demanding practice session but to finishing it.

Of course, anyone who has a half finished project or unachieved goal can also appreciate the wisdom of Ecclesiastes 7:8. To illustrate this, let's consider the example of a person with a vision or idea of something that he or she would like to accomplish. Even if the work on that idea, project, or goal begins with great enthusiasm, that person may eventually find that other priorities take precedent. Perhaps the work may be derailed by some unanticipated costs. He or she may discover that a greater time investment will be required or perhaps the job turned out to be much bigger than originally expected. Or it may be that he or she lacks the necessary skill to complete the goal. Any of these possibilities can eventually result in a half-finished project followed by this response: "I'll get around to finishing that someday."

That's why (in the words of the Teacher), "Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof" (KJV). To finish something often requires important skills like perseverance, dedication, hard work, discipline, and the ability to plan ahead. "Finishing" often requires another important quality as well: patience, or the ability to endure through a difficult situation. It's no coincidence that the New Testament book of Galatians identifies patience is one of the characteristics of a God-honoring lifestyle...

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law" (Galatians 5:22-23 NIV).

Finally, while we might normally identify humility as the opposite of pride, it's interesting to note that Ecclesiastes 7:7 chooses to contrast pride with the concept of patience instead. The implication seems to be that an impatient person's real issue is with an exaggerated sense of self-importance, or "pride." In any event, we would be well served by this reminder from the Scriptures: "Pride goes before destruction and haughtiness before a fall. Better poor and humble than proud and rich” (Proverbs 16:18-19 TLB).

VIII

"Control your temper, for anger labels you a fool" (Ecclesiastes 7:9).

In today's online media environment, an angry outburst, violent quarrel, or heated altercation can instantly turn into a "viral video" for hundreds of thousands of people to laugh at and ridicule. For this reason alone, the advice found in Ecclesiastes 7:9 carries great value for the 21st century reader: "Don't be quick-tempered- that is being a fool" (TLB).

But apart from this, things like injustice, wrongdoing, or the mistreatment of others can often result in legitimate feelings of anger. These feelings are not wrong in themselves but the Biblical book of Ephesians tells us that all anger -even justifiable anger- must be handled in a healthy, God-honoring way. Here's how it's done according to the Scriptures...

“When you are angry, don’t let that anger make you sin, and don’t stay angry all day. Don’t give the devil a way to defeat you" (Ephesians 4:26-27 ERV).

If you are angry over some circumstance or situation, the right way to handle it is to deal with it quickly. People who choose not to respond in this manner often allow some small injustice to simmer and continue until those feelings grow into an outburst of uncontrolled anger. For instance, people usually don't lose their temper all of a sudden unless they have chosen to allow small feelings of anger to build up inside them over time. Once that happens, it usually takes just a small offense to trigger a larger explosion of anger.

This is relevant because as Jesus once said during His famous Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God" (Matthew 5:9 NIV). Here is some more good advice from the Scriptures for dealing with feelings of anger...

"A wise man controls his temper. He knows that anger causes mistakes" (Proverbs 14:29 TLB).

"But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive you your sins too" (Mark 11:25 TLB).

"Stop being mean, bad-tempered, and angry. Quarreling, harsh words and dislike of others should have no place in your lives. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God has forgiven you because you belong to Christ" (Ephesians 4:31-32 TLB).

"My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires" (James 1:19-20 NIV).

IX

"Don’t long for 'the good old days.' This is not wise" (Ecclesiastes 7:10).

How is it that each new generation seems to feel that life was so much better at an earlier time? Even though Solomon reigned as king of Israel from about 971 B.C. to 931 B.C. (or about 3000 years ago), he was still familiar with something that people continue to say 300 centuries later: "Why were things better in the old days than they are now?" (GW).

It seems that many people find a great appeal in the idea of a return to a past where life was supposedly better. One reason to explain the allure of those "good old days" may be found within the natural rhythms of life. As the culture changes and new generations rise up to replace the older generations, it's common for people to feel as if they are living in a world that has become increasingly unfamiliar.

Perhaps these individuals have found that the music has changed, the language of the next generation is different, or that many of the familiar landmarks of their youth have been torn down or fallen into disrepair. In a world that is constantly changing, these realities may generate a desire to return to a familiar past that was supposedly "better."

But in Ecclesiastes 7:10, the Teacher travels to this dream world of the good old days, grabs his collective readers by the collar and drags them back to reality with this statement: "Never ask, 'Oh, why were things so much better in the old days?' It's not an intelligent question" (GNB). One reason to explain the foolishness of this question can be found within our tendency to be selective in our memories. You see, the "good old days" may not have been as good as we remember them to be. One commentator illustrates this idea by saying, "It has been said that “the good old days” are the combination of a bad memory and a good imagination, and often this is true."  (1) Of course, the irony for those who prefer to return to a past that never really existed is that today represents the "good old days" for future generations.  

While there may be a place for nostalgia and a reminiscence of "days gone by," there's a big difference between learning from the past and living in the past. The person who has lived his or her life without an acknowledgment of the Creator has very little to look forward to- and that may sometimes account for a desire to return to the good old days of a past that is more illusion than reality.

(1) Rob Salvato True North Part 7 http://media.calvaryvista.com/salvato-rob/studies-books/21-ECC-2010/21-ECC-007-001.htm

X

"Wisdom is even better when you have money. Both are a benefit as you go through life. Wisdom and money can get you almost anything, but only wisdom can save your life" (Ecclesiastes 7:11-12).

A brief visit to an internet search engine will quickly reveal dozens of stories of people who overcame seemingly impossible odds to claim a large monetary prize in a lottery or other game of chance. These winners have come from all walks of life but a number of them have at least one thing in common: many of these men and women eventually lost all the money they had won through unwise financial management.

These modern-day accounts help to illustrate the ancient truth found within the passage quoted above. From the Teacher's point of view, wisdom was the engine that powered the best use of one's financial resources. But if he had to choose between the two, he would select wisdom over money. That's because wisdom is something that will always retain it's value no matter how bad the economy may be. 

You see, financial resources can be lost or stolen. Assets and investments may depreciate. Money might lose its value or disappear in a bad business deal. These realities provide wisdom with a benefit that other resources simply do not possess. In fact, Solomon expanded on this idea in the book of Proverbs when he wrote, "How much better to get wisdom than gold! And to get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver" (Proverbs 16:16 NIV).

A combination of wisdom and money often helps to providethe ability to manage the most productive life possible under the sun. For example, money provides for our physical and material needs while wisdom helps ensure that we make the right choices at the right time with our resources. In fact, wisdom might even help protect someone from potentially life threatening situations. This is another truth that Solomon identifies within the book of Proverbs when he says, "Fools start fights everywhere while wise men try to keep peace. There's no use arguing with a fool. He only rages and scoffs, and tempers flare" (Proverbs 29:8-9 TLB).

While there may be many who are eager to proclaim their wisdom in the area of financial management, those who follow Christ have access to the greatest wisdom available. That's because the New Testament book of Colossians tells us, "In (Christ) lie hidden all the mighty, untapped treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Colossians 2:2 TLB).

XI

"Accept the way God does things, for who can straighten what he has made crooked?" (Ecclesiastes 7:13).

This passage contains another subject that Solomon has drifted into on more than one occasion throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. You see, once he had exhausted every other option in his attempt to find meaning in life, Solomon had no other alternative but to acknowledge and accept God's sovereignty over the affairs of humanity. So having come to this reluctant conclusion, the Teacher employed a rhetorical question to exhibit what he had discovered- humanity's inability to alter God's ultimate purposes:"If God makes something crooked, can you make it straight?" (CEV).

Perhaps the greatest illustration of this truth can be found in the Old Testament story of Isaac and his sons Esau and Jacob. Late in Isaac's life, he decided to pronounce a blessing upon his eldest son Esau. That blessing included the firstborn's share of Isaac's money and property and the rights to the promises that Isaac had received from God through his father Abraham: "Look up at the heavens and count the stars--if indeed you can count them. Then he said to him, 'So shall your offspring be'" (Genesis 15:4-5).

The problem was that Isaac was determined to give this inheritance to Esau even though God had earlier told his wife Rebekah that his younger son (Jacob) would have authority over his oldest son (see Genesis 25:23). Since Esau was Isaac's favorite son (Genesis 25:28), transferring his inheritance to Jacob probably wasn't something that Isaac really wanted to do. Later on in Genesis chapter 27 we read how Jacob eventually managed to deceive his elderly, blind father into giving him the inheritance that his father had originally planned to give to his older brother Esau.

When Isaac realized that he had been deceived, the Scriptures tell us that ”Isaac trembled violently..." (Genesis 27:33). So why would Isaac respond to this act of deception in such a traumatic fashion? Well, Isaac tried to implement a specific course of action and ignore God's intent for this situation, but he was eventually caught and exposed in a trap of his own design. Even though Isaac tried to manipulate these circumstances to suit his personal preference, God easily worked around him to accomplish His purposes. 

In this way, Isaac lived out the truth of Ecclesiastes 7:13 centuries before the Teacher ever wrote it: "Consider the work of God; for who can make straight what He has made crooked?" (MKJV).

XII

"Enjoy prosperity while you can, but when hard times strike, realize that both come from God. Remember that nothing is certain in this life" (Ecclesiastes 7:14).

Its been half-jokingly said that there is nothing certain in life except death and taxes. While that old saying certainly recognizes the reality of life under the sun, there are some more serious insights hidden away within the passage quoted above for those who are willing to uncover them.

For example, the problems, inconveniences, and difficulties of life can often make it difficult for us to enjoy the good things that God has given us. We fix one problem only to be presented with another. We devise "work arounds" to do what needs to be done in order to complete a task. We finish unraveling one of life's complications only to be presented with another one. As Jesus Himself once said, "Each day has enough trouble of its own" (Matthew 6:34 NIV) and for some, this reality can dampen their appreciation for the blessings that we have received and can be thankful for.

It can be easy to get so caught up in anticipating the problems of tomorrow that we miss out on the good things happening today. It's also easy to become so accustomed to the blessings we already enjoy that we begin to take those things for granted. Knowing this, the Teacher provides us with some wise counsel: "In the day of prosperity be joyful..." (KJV). In other words, we shouldn't fail to appreciate the good things we've received and can be thankful for. Those good things provide pleasure and satisfaction for those who take the time to recognize them. They also help to preserve us "in the day of adversity" (KJV).

While we can't always explain why things happen the way they do in life, one thing we can say is that God definitely has a purpose behind the events and circumstances of our lives, even if we don't know what those purposes may be. Even when the circumstances of our lives may appear otherwise, God is able to make all things work together for our ultimate benefit. As Jesus once said in a teaching He shared with his followers...

“'So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need" (Matthew 6:31-33).

XIII

"I have seen everything in this meaningless life, including the death of good young people and the long life of wicked people" (Ecclesiastes 7:15).

When a guilty person is punished, it's not unusual to hear someone remark that he or she "got what they deserved." Yet one of the great paradoxes of human existence is that people don't always get what they deserve, at least as far as we can tell. For instance, you might expect that a kind, generous, God-honoring individual would be honored with a long, healthy, and prosperous life while the cruel, mean-spirited, and immoral person would receive punishment for his or her ungodly actions. But this is not always the case. Sometimes the honorable perish while the wicked prosper, a reality that the Teacher found senseless, (CEV), useless (GNB), and pointless (GW).

Yet Solomon wasn't the only Biblical personality to make this observation...

"... I almost stumbled and fell, because it made me jealous to see proud and evil people and to watch them prosper. They never have to suffer, they stay healthy, and they don't have troubles like everyone else...Yet all goes well for them, and they live in peace. What good did it do me to keep my thoughts pure and refuse to do wrong?" (Psalm 73:2-5, 12-13 CEV).

Like the Teacher, the Psalmist also struggled with this seeming contradiction- until he had a change of perspective...

"It was hard for me to understand all this! Then I went to your temple,and there I understood what will happen to my enemies. You will make them stumble, never to get up again. They will be terrified, suddenly swept away and no longer there. They will disappear, Lord, despised like a bad dream the morning after" (Psalm 73:16-20 CEV).

As the Psalmist began to seek his answers from God's viewpoint, the truth became clear. While it may sometimes seem as if people will never have to answer for the wrong things they have done, no one can escape the justice of his or her Creator forever. The Scriptures tell us that God "will give to each person according to what he has done" (Romans 2:6). The Biblical book of 1 Timothy also touches on this idea when it says,

"The sins of some men are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them. In the same way, good deeds are obvious, and even those that are not cannot be hidden" (1 Timothy 5:24-25 NIV).

Unlike the Psalmist however, Solomon chose to maintain an "under the sun" frame of reference- and we'll take a closer look at that difficult perspective next.

XIV

"So don’t be too good or too wise! Why destroy yourself? On the other hand, don’t be too wicked either. Don’t be a fool! Why die before your time? Pay attention to these instructions, for anyone who fears God will avoid both extremes" (Ecclesiastes 7:15-18).

One Biblical translation renders Ecclesiastes 7:18 by simply saying, "Keep to the middle of the road..." (CEV). Of course, the problem for anyone who tries to keep to the middle of the road is that he or she is always in danger of being run over.

So does Solomon mean to imply that a little wickedness is OK as long as we're not too wicked? Or that there is such a thing as too much wisdom? Well, here's how one scholar deals with this perplexing question...

"How is it possible to be too righteous? ...Jesus commanded His followers to be “perfect just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). God said, “You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:45). But, Solomon instructs us not to be “overly righteous” (Ecclesiastes. 7:16). How can someone be too righteous? Surely one cannot be too just or too loving? 

(The solution is that a) person cannot be too righteous, but he can be overly righteous. The Pharisees were a good case in point. They were so righteous that they were self-righteous. For, “being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, [they] have not submitted to the righteousness of God (Romans 10:3)." (1)

For example, being "overly righteous" doesn't necessarily permit someone to escape the problems and difficulties associated with life under the sun. If it did, then people would pursue righteousness simply to maintain a life of ease and comfort. Since wicked people sometimes prosper and virtuous people sometimes perish, a life of righteousness won't provide an automatic exemption from the trials of life.

Another way to look at this idea is to say that just because wicked people sometimes fail to receive immediate punishment for their wickedness doesn't necessarily mean that it's OK. People sometimes seem to think that they can act in the most vicious, unethical, and inhumane ways imaginable because they assume that God doesn't exist, or if He does exist, then He doesn't really care. In fact, Solomon will talk a little more about this kind of attitude in the next chapter of Ecclesiastes when he says, "Because God does not punish sinners instantly, people feel it is safe to do wrong" (Ecclesiastes 8:11 TLB).

For people who feel that way, the Teacher had one important word of advice: "Don’t be a fool! Why die before your time?"

(1) Geisler, N. L., & Howe, T. A. (1992). When Critics Ask : A popular handbook on Bible difficulties (258). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.

XV

"One wise person is stronger than ten leading citizens of a town! Not a single person on earth is always good and never sins" (Ecclesiastes 7:19-20).

There is "strength in numbers" as the old saying goes, but from the Teacher's vantage point, wisdom was even better. That's because wisdom (or the knowledge and ability to make the right choices at the opportune time (1)) offers an advantage in every situation. A wise person who knows what to do with the facts is someone who has the ability to use good judgment in application of knowledge.

A look at some of Solomon's other Old Testament writings tells us exactly where to find true wisdom...

"Every young man who listens to me and obeys my instructions will be given wisdom and good sense. Yes, if you want better insight and discernment, and are searching for them as you would for lost money or hidden treasure, then wisdom will be given you and knowledge of God himself; you will soon learn the importance of reverence for the Lord and of trusting him.

For the Lord grants wisdom! His every word is a treasure of knowledge and understanding. He grants good sense to the godly-his saints. He is their shield, protecting them and guarding their pathway. He shows how to distinguish right from wrong, how to find the right decision every time. For wisdom and truth will enter the very center of your being, filling your life with joy" (Proverbs 2:1-10 TLB).

Earlier in the Scriptures, the Teacher said, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding" (Proverbs 9:10 NIV). The Scriptures also tell us that God (who is the source of all true wisdom) is willing to generously share His wisdom as well: "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him" (James 1:5 NIV).

This reality led the Teacher to make a further acknowledgment: "There is no one on earth who does what is right all the time and never makes a mistake" (GNB). This Old Testament observation has a similar parallel in the New Testament where we read, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1John 1:8 KJV). So a truly wise person is someone who recognizes his or her shortcomings and is willing to turn to God for help in overcoming them.

(1) OT:2451 Chokmah Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Copyright © 1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers.

XVI

"Don’t eavesdrop on others—you may hear your servant curse you" (Ecclesiastes 7:21).

Sometimes, the less we know about what others say and think, the better off we are. That seems to be the main idea behind the passage quoted above. While access to the information that others possess can often be a good thing, access to the opinions that others hold can sometimes hurt more than help. Perhaps this is one reason why some other Biblical translations render Ecclesiastes 7:21 as,“Don't listen to everything that everyone says...” (CEV) and,“Don't take everything that people say to heart...” (GW).

This is important because people sometimes hold thoughts and opinions that are based in ignorance. Others may possess a viewpoint that has been colored by envy or jealousy. There are some who intentionally make negative, inflammatory, or hurtful statements that are deliberately calculated to injure someone else. Then there are those with opinions that have been adversely affected by pain, emotional stress, or other factors. A person with good judgment is someone who will take those potential influences into consideration when evaluating the opinions of others.

Whenever we learn that others have said something regarding us that is less than accurate, the best response is to ask God to provide the wisdom to respond in an appropriate manner. Our example should always be Jesus Himself who "...never answered back when insulted; when he suffered he did not threaten to get even; he left his case in the hands of God who always judges fairly" (1 Peter 2:23).

But there's something else to take into consideration as well...

"For you know how often you yourself have cursed others" (Ecclesiastes 7:22).

Here the Teacher offers a brief warning to those with a tendency towards self righteousness or anyone who may be tempted to establish one set of personal standards and another set of standards for everyone else. The person who is aware of his or her shortcomings in this area is also someone who is best able to deal graciously with the foolish, ignorant, or insensitive remarks of others. One commentator from another generation sums it up like this...

"Be not desirous to know what people say; if they speak well of thee, it will feed thy pride, if ill, it will stir up thy passion. See that thou approve thyself to God and thine own conscience, and then heed not what men say of thee; it is easier to pass by twenty affronts than to avenge one. When any harm is done to us, examine whether we have not done as bad to others." (1)

(1) Matthew Henry Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible

XVII

"I have always tried my best to let wisdom guide my thoughts and actions. I said to myself, 'I am determined to be wise.' But it didn’t work. Wisdom is always distant and difficult to find" (Ecclesiastes 7:23-24). 

As is true with many things, what you find will often depend on where you look. For example, the New Testament book of Colossians offers some important advice to anyone (like the Teacher) who is searching for real wisdom...

"See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ" (Colossians 2:8 NIV).

Although you might not realize it, everyone has philosophies about things. The problem is that any philosophy can be good or bad depending on the wisdom that it's based on. For example, Colossians 2:8 tells us that there are certain philosophies that are not only empty but also deceptive. The Scriptures tell us that such philosophies are built on human tradition and the basic principles of this world. For example, ideas like "if it feels good, do it," and "if it feels right, it can't be wrong" represent some common philosophies that are based on human tradition and the basic principles of this world.

You see, each of these ideas makes an unjustified implication. They each imply that "feelings" are the ultimate arbiter of what is good or right. These philosophies effectively serve to suppress any notion of an objective, God-given standard of right and wrong and help to relieve those who would prefer to live without God of the nagging suspicion that they might eventually have to give an account for their choices. 

This also explains how the Teacher began to get off track in his search for wisdom. At one point in his life, Solomon knew where to find access to true wisdom. We can verify this through his other writings in Ecclesiastes and the book of Proverbs. But as we said earlier, what you find often depends on where you look and when the Teacher decided to eliminate God from the equation of his life and assume an "under the sun" philosophy, he found himself facing a philosophical dead end: "I cannot understand why things are as they are. It is too hard for anyone to understand" (ERV).

If our search for knowledge and wisdom begins with the presumption that God does not exist and that Jesus is irrelevant to our world today, then we are in danger of disregarding something that the Bible warns us of in Colossians 2:4...

"I am telling you this so that no one will be able to deceive you with persuasive arguments" (NLT).`

XVIII

"I searched everywhere, determined to find wisdom and to understand the reason for things. I was determined to prove to myself that wickedness is stupid and that foolishness is madness" (Ecclesiastes 7:25).

In one sense, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes was not unlike the type of fictional investigator that might be found within the pages of a detective novel. Like a good detective, the Teacher also searched for clues, examined the evidence, and studied the facts of the case at hand. But this investigation was far from a simple murder mystery. This was a case of the human condition under the sun- and like some detective novel investigators, the Teacher also met some shady characters along the way...

"I discovered that a seductive woman is a trap more bitter than death. Her passion is a snare, and her soft hands are chains. Those who are pleasing to God will escape her, but sinners will be caught in her snare" (Ecclesiastes 7:26).

Over the course of his investigation, Solomon began to acquaint himself with some women of questionable character. Unfortunately, the Biblical record shows that Solomon had an unfortunate habit of getting involved in personal relationships that were very bad for him. As Solomon turned away from God as he grew older, those choices led to serious consequences...

"But King Solomon loved many foreign women, as well as the daughter of Pharaoh: women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Hittites — from the nations of whom the Lord had said to the children of Israel,'You shall not intermarry with them, nor they with you. Surely they will turn away your hearts after their gods.' Solomon clung to these in love. And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart. 

For it was so, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. Solomon did evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not fully follow the Lord, as did his father David" (1 Kings 11:1-6 NKJV).

Because Solomon made the choice to get involved in personal relationships with women who did not share his faith, a series of events were set into motion that would affect Solomon and untold others as well. We'll look at the impact of those choices next.

XIX

"I found something more bitter than death---the woman who is like a trap. The love she offers you will catch you like a net, and her arms around you will hold you like a chain. A man who pleases God can get away, but she will catch the sinner" (Ecclesiastes 7:26 GNB).

Given what we know about Solomon's relationship choices, it shouldn't surprise us to read his lament in the passage quoted above. Because Solomon chose to get involved in relationships with women who didn't share his faith, here's what eventually took place...

"So the Lord became angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned from the Lord God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice, and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods; but he did not keep what the Lord had commanded. Therefore the Lord said to Solomon, 'Because you have done this, and have not kept My covenant and My statutes, which I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to your servant'" (1 Kings 11:9-11 NKJV).

This unfortunate reality may help to account for Solomon's conclusion in the passage quoted earlier:"I found that some women are worse than death and are as dangerous as traps. Their love is like a net, and their arms hold men like chains. A man who pleases God will be saved from them,but a sinner will be caught by them" (NCV). Perhaps it was Solomon himself who fell into the trap of such women and experienced a fate (to use his words) "worse than death."

These observations help remind us of the need for wisdom in our personal relationships. For example, a Christian who is involved in a personal relationship with a non-Christian may feel confident that his or her dating partner will eventually get serious about a relationship with Christ. While this is always a possibility, the unfortunate reality is that the non-Christian partner is the one will often have a greater influence in these types of relationships. 

The man or woman who chooses to enter a relationship with another solidly committed Christian is someone who is (or should be) be moving in the same spiritual direction as his or her partner. On the other hand, a person (like Solomon) who chooses to enter a relationship with someone whose priority is something other than Christ will find him or herself moving in an opposite direction. That doesn't work well for relationships as Solomon discovered to his great regret.

XX

“'This is my conclusion,' says the Teacher. 'I discovered this after looking at the matter from every possible angle. Though I have searched repeatedly, I have not found what I was looking for. Only one out of a thousand men is virtuous, but not one woman!'” (Ecclesiastes 7:27-28).

No matter what your occupation, there seems to be a familiar criticism that is common to many different walks of life: "I don't like dealing with people." This may seem to be an unusual complaint in a social networking age where the average person can often boast of hundreds of friends, but its really not so absurd when you actually stop to think about it. 

For instance, a professional athlete, movie star, or popular recording artist may have to deal with a large number of adoring (and occasionally unbalanced) fans. He or she may become a target for scammers, groupies, or other hangers-on who are eager to help a famous person spend his or her money. It often becomes difficult for such people to lead "normal" lives without engaging professional security to protect against the demands of those who are total strangers. The irony is that once someone's popularity increases, the more inaccessible he or she must often become.

But the rich and famous are not the only ones who experience the problems that often arise in dealing with others. For example, a customer service representative may have to respond to the harangue of an irate consumer. A technician may have to deal with the unreasonable requirements of a particularly demanding client. A manager, salesperson, or administrative assistant may become the focal point of a business owner's inability to control his or her emotions. 

Everyone knows what it's like to be treated rudely, discourteously, or impolitely by others. Everyone is familiar with the disillusionment that comes when we discover that others are not what we expected them to be. Everyone has experienced the communication issues, misinterpretations, or misunderstandings that often add to the stress of interacting with others. Like the professional boxer who "covers up" to protect against the blows of an opponent, its common for people to retreat to a position of isolation to avoid the injuries that often arise from our involvement in human relationships.

This reality seems to be at the heart of Solomon's lament in verse 28: "I found one man in a thousand that I could respect..." (GNB). The good news is that this depressing reality doesn't need to represent the normal state of affairs for God's people today- and we'll see why next.

XXI

"(W)hile I was still searching but not finding— I found one upright man among a thousand..." (Ecclesiastes 7:28 NIV).

Although Solomon clearly seemed disillusioned by his relationships with others under the sun, Scriptures such as John 13:34-35 and I John 4:20-5:1 help to remind God's people that every Christian is a member of the same family no matter what other differences may exist. However, its been said that you can choose your friends but you can't choose your family- and the same types of interactions that can take place between the members of your personal family also have the potential to occur within your church family as well. 

For instance, do you have another family member who annoys you? That can happen within your church family as well. Do you have someone within your personal family who encourages you, supports you, and makes you feel loved? That can take place at church too. Have you ever had a disagreement with someone in authority within your family? That's also a possibility within your church family too.

While many of the good things that can occur within your personal family can also can take place at church, the opposite is also true as well. In fact, there are probably members of your church family who are really not like you at all. In other words, there are some who may respond differently in a particular situation. They may not process information or communicate in a similar way. They may be more or less mature than you and they may not hold the same attitudes and opinions either. But these realities shouldn't affect our basic responsibility to love one another and find a way to get along in Christ. 

Romans 12:10 says, "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves" (NIV). This doesn't necessarily mean that we will always be best friends with one another and there may be times when wisdom requires us to minimize our interaction with others in order to maintain the best possible relationship (see Acts 15:36-41 for an example). However, it helps to remember that love always seeks another person's highest good and rather than give in to the type of disillusionment that Solomon obviously felt towards others, we can use those relationships with the other members of God's family to edify them and grow in our own relationship with Jesus. 

As Jesus said in Matthew 18:20, "…where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them."

XXII

"I do know there is one good man in a thousand, but never have I found a good woman" (Ecclesiastes 7:28 CEV).

For some, Ecclesiastes 7:28 contains nothing more than a sexist and chauvinistic statement that helps serve to invalidate the Scriptures as an outdated remnant of an patriarchal society. But how many people fail to pursue one critical question regarding this verse: How did the Teacher come to this conclusion? 

You see, it's important to first identify what this passage does and doesn't say. For example, Ecclesiastes 7:28 doesn't say that good women are non existent; it simply tells us that Solomon hadn't found any. This probably says a lot more about Solomon's attitude towards the women of his acquaintance than the relative worth of males vs. females.  

So what might have occurred in Solomon's life to shape and influence a statement like this? Well, remember that Solomon had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines (a sort of secondary wife or legal, live-in girlfriend). It's also probable that Solomon acquired many of these wives through various political or trade alliances (see 1 Kings 3:1 and 1 Kings 11:1-3). Since its unlikely that Solomon sought these women for who they really were, it shouldn't be surprising to learn that he failed to value them very highly.

Then there were Solomon's concubines. These were the women who generally made up the king's harem, or the group of women who were exclusively available to the king to meet his physical needs. Every woman who had been chosen to serve as the king's concubine knew that she had been chosen specifically for one reason: her physical appearance. Her personality, her intelligence, or her value as a person mattered very little, if at all. Deep down, each concubine knew that she served as little more than an object with one purpose- meeting the king's physical needs. These realities surely must have had an effect on the attitudes of these women towards Solomon and that certainly must have affected the way that he perceived them as well.

In Mark 10:6-9, Jesus was quoted as saying, "at the beginning of creation God 'made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate" (NIV). If Solomon had chosen instead to follow God's original plan for marriage relationships rather than marrying for political or business purposes, its unlikely that he would have maintained the attitude he displayed in Ecclesiastes 7:28. 

XXIII

"But I did find this: God created people to be virtuous, but they have each turned to follow their own downward path” (Ecclesiastes 7:29).

It seems that people are often taught to believe that human beings are basically good and that "bad" behavior is simply a result of various social or environmental influences. Of course, most people probably are "good people" in the sense that they aren't intentionally cruel, sadistic, or merciless. And it's also true that social and environmental factors may have a big effect on someone's behavior for better or worse. But as much as we might like to think of ourselves as "good people," the truth is that the Scriptures tell us that people are not "basically good."

Romans 3:10-12 explains that concept in this manner: "As the Scriptures say, 'No one is good-no one in all the world is innocent. No one has ever really followed God's paths or even truly wanted to. Every one has turned away; all have gone wrong. No one anywhere has kept on doing what is right; not one'" (TLB). A few verses later in Romans we're told that, "...all have sinned; all fall short of God's glorious standard" (Romans 3:23 NLT). This means that everyone, everywhere has fallen short of what they could and should be before God. It also means that all human beings (even the "good" ones) have done wrong- sometimes purposely and sometimes without realizing it. 

If this is the case, then how are we to understand the Teacher's statement that "...God has made man upright" (MKJV)? Well, easiest way to reconcile these concepts is to think in terms of human nature as opposed to human individuality. You see, the issue started when the very first human couple made a conscious decision to disobey God and do something that He had specifically warned them not to do (you can read that account in Genesis chapter 3). Unfortunately, everyone since that time has followed this same ill fated example as well. In the resulting pursuit of this futile attempt to navigate a path away from the Creator and circumvent His original plan, humanity has "sought out many schemes" (ESV), "many inventions" (KJV), "many complications" (CEB), and "many devices [for evil]" (AMP).

So whenever we experience the emptiness, futility, and banality of life under the sun, we should stop to remember who is actually responsible:"God made men and women true and upright; we're the ones who've made a mess of things" (MSG).

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