by John W. Ritenbaugh
A major lesson we have learned from this study into Ecclesiastes is that the wisdom Solomon is promoting, especially in the last few chapters, is indeed sagacity, but a narrow, intensely practical, spiritual sagacity. We have a tendency to think of wisdom as a quality possessed by those of higher educational levels, that is, it belongs to people who have achieved multiple university degrees, written some books, and sport a string of distinguishing letters after their names.
That distinction may suggest itself, but Solomon has something else in mind. Though such people may have rightly earned respect from their fellows, Solomon is concerned about day-to-day living regardless of who one is or what his station in life is. This implies that a measure of biblical wisdom is achievable by anybody whom God calls. Why? The source of this wisdom is God, who gives it as a gift to those who have a relationship with Him. Here we find the most useful applications of the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. Though helpful to anyone, it is primarily intended for those already in a relationship with God.
The term sagacity, which entered English from Latin through French, suggests “quickness of perception,” “soundness in judgment,” and “farsightedness.” It pictures a mind that can cut through a situation’s unimportant fluff or misdirecting false flags to grasp the essentials of a problem’s solution. This is important for a Christian because Satan has filled the world with his clever deceptions.
A Christian must understand that the wise solution in life is always to submit humbly to God in faith. We are to do this despite the twisted reasoning the Devil can inject into our minds from a multitude of experiences in this Satan-devised, worldly system.
As we have seen in the last few chapters, Solomon gives us real-life examples of circumstances that arise in the world that present us with sometimes-difficult choices. To our carnality, the foolish choice may often appear more attractive on the surface, but Solomon has been showing us in bold strokes what godly wisdom is and is not. He always makes clear what is and is not wise, and he does this most clearly in those chapters in which he makes direct comparisons: “This is better than that.” However, what may not appear at first glance is why this is better than that. Godly wisdom does not always initially appear to be the wiser, practical way, but it is always wiser despite common human opinion.
Ecclesiastes 7 may be the book’s most controversial chapter because Solomon makes several declarations that run counter to common opinion. For example, he says that the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth (verse 1). He also claims it is better to go to the house of mourning than the house of feasting (verse 2), and the end of a thing is better than its beginning (verse 8). He raises an issue that seems opposite of what should be, reporting that he has seen the righteous die young and the evil prosper and live to old age (verse 15).
He also warns us of being overly righteous (verse 16), and conversely, not being overly wicked (verse 17)! Is he saying God is all right with us being a “little” wicked?
There are logical, true, and godly answers to all these seeming mysteries, but we may have to think deeply, do some research, and be willing to put aside a previously held opinion. In a previous article, we looked into the first three of these five comparisons. In this one, we will begin to study into one that contains an interesting paradox.
A Diffcult Paradox Appears
Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes 7:13-22:
Consider the work of God: for who can make straight what He has made crooked? In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider; surely God has appointed the one as well as the other, so that man can find nothing that will happen after him.
I have seen everything in my days of vanity: There is a just man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs life in his wickedness. Do not be overly righteous, nor be overly wise: Why should you destroy yourself? Do not be overly wicked, nor be foolish: Why should you die before your time? It is good that you grasp this, and also not remove your hand from the other; for he who fears God will escape from them all. Wisdom strengthens the wise more than ten rulers of the city. For there is not a just man on earth who does good and does not sin. Also do not take to heart everything people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. For many times, also, your own heart has known that even you have cursed others.
The situation stated in verse 15 is a paradox, an irregularity from the way one would expect: “There is a just man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his wickedness.” A paradox is an inconsistency in circumstance, statement, activity, or conduct contrary to what a person would consider normal. Here, the paradox is found within a relationship with God. The sinner prospers, but the righteous suffers all kinds of difficulty in life. Is it not more natural to think that the sinner would have difficulty and the righteous, a prosperous, smooth-running life?
A paradox, in turn, creates a conundrum, that is, a riddle or puzzle. A righteous individual may ask, “Why should such a situation exist?” “Where are the blessings God has promised?” “Where is God in this picture?” “Has God not promised prosperity and long life if we obey Him?” Yes, He has.
Solomon’s paradox could set up a situation that makes the carnal person assume that doing evil, because it can be profitable, is the better way. This especially seems so when the evil person lives to old age in relative peace, is honored in the world, and has more-than-enough wealth. In contrast, it is not rare for a righteous person to die early, perhaps following a time of difficult persecution.
This passage causes preachers and other researchers to pace in their studies, wringing their hands. What does it mean? How does one preach it? To the preacher, the temptation becomes great either to skip over it or just barely touch on it to avoid confusion or controversy.
Perhaps a few alternate translations of verse 18 will help explain some of the difficulty confronting those looking for deeper understanding:
» The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): “It is good that you should take hold of the one, without letting go of the other; for the one who fears God shall succeed with both.” (Emphasis ours throughout.)
» Today’s New International Version: “Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.” But it adds a footnote: “or will follow them both.”
» The New American Standard Bible: “For the one who fears God comes forth with both of them.”
It is unclear to what “the one” and “the other” in any translation refer. Is it the “righteous” of verse 16 and the “wicked” of verse 17? Does this mean a person is to follow both righteousness and wickedness? What is he to do when such substantial disagreement exists? Clearly, whether the reader is carnal or converted, this section raises questions. Can there be profit in being righteous if a paradox of this nature dominates the relationship with God?
Does God Promise Prosperity?
Regarding prosperity, a few commentators of prominence claim that God has not given promises of prosperity under the New Covenant, a claim that cannot be correct. Why? Because God’s promises about prosperity abide forever no matter where they appear in the Bible. God Himself lives forever, and it is impossible for God to lie (Titus 1:2). Both Old and New Testaments are part of God’s Word. Thus, if a promise is made in the Old Testament, unless God directly cancels it elsewhere in His Word, it remains valid for us.
The term “prosperity” is not only relative, but it also comes in several varieties. God’s promises in this case are merely a matter of emphasis. Economic prosperity is simply not stressed under the New Covenant as it is under the Old, but that does not nullify God’s faithfulness. God may prosper a person with good health despite not prospering him economically. To be given good health is a priceless blessing, qualifying as prosperity.
Commentators expound these verses in two different but related ways. Though the first is a possibility—and most certainly not false—it is nonetheless the weaker explanation, missing a rich trove of understanding that lies beyond the mere surface of the words.
This first way involves misjudging both God and the circumstance, and it generally results in expounding on what we might consider “normal” self-righteousness. As we are learning from Ecclesiastes, God is sovereign and rules His creation all the time. So thorough is His care of His creation that His eye is even on sparrows (Matthew 10:29). Therefore, God is fully aware of any circumstance like that described in verse 15. In fact, He may have directly created it and is using it for His purposes.
The challenge for us, then, is whether we find fault with Him in allowing or arranging this sort of circumstance. Do we even think that God overlooks what any of His children might be going through? It is likely that He is directly involved, having caused the circumstance.
Could we be calling God into account, deciding—without knowing all the facts—that what He is overseeing is unfair? Understand, however, that even though He may or may not be directly involved in causing such a circumstance, He is not indifferent to human conduct and attitudes whenever or wherever they are. Our judgment must begin with knowing that His governance contains no complacency at any time. Though the righteous may die young, who knows God’s entire judgment that lies beyond the grave for either the righteous or the wicked?
In addition, we ought to be wise enough to understand that in this world prosperity is frequently associated with some level of evil. God Himself says that He sometimes sets the basest of men on thrones of great power, but He does not mean He favors them in terms of economic prosperity. We should understand those persons are in that position for some good reason, and God is fully aware. The wise person grasps and accepts that God is never out of the picture. He rules!
There is therefore a primary lesson about judgment here: Things are not always as they might appear to our narrow perspective. This verse teaches us to be cautious when making judgments about a person’s spiritual standing before God and his morality as we might perceive them in his day-to-day surroundings. This supplies clear insight into why Jesus cautions us about judging.
The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man contains a clear biblical example of the pitfalls contained in making these kinds of judgments. The rich man was well off and could easily have been judged as favored by God. But which man was the one truly favored by Him? It was Lazarus, the beggar, who was the better spiritually.
A major lesson to draw from this is that we should not allow ourselves to jump to self-righteous conclusions about people and to misjudgments about God’s involvement. In either case, we are fully capable of raising ourselves spiritually above them. Thus, learning to be cautious about accusations that may arise within us is an overall lesson contained in these verses.
Dealing with Spiritual Irregularities
There is considerably more that, if we are not careful, could prove to be spiritually damaging to a converted person. However, to realize the danger and consider this fully, we must add more of the context. We need to realize that, if we do not understand a paradoxical situation in which we are involved and then handle it improperly, the quality of our relationship with God—and therefore the quality of our lives—may suffer. Such a circumstance is much more difficult to discern if one is personally involved.
The danger does not always have to be one involving a paradox. It can be any exceptionally difficult, personal trial, one that never seems to end. When involved in such a trial, we are not merely observing it but are deeply enmeshed in it.
Despite any seeming irregularities in the situation, we can be certain that the great purposes of God are being accomplished. But more direct involvement makes our choices and judgment more difficult and damaging because of our emotional ties to both God and the paradox. Therefore, because his faith is in God, the righteous will wisely and humbly accept that the irregularities will pass, and all the vanities of this world will also pass with them. The wise will patiently endure the irregularities of this world as a momentary glitch in comparison to eternity. He can do this if he fully understands some important factors a person might fear.
Thus, wisdom says, “This is a situation I cannot truly change. I will not let this seeming injustice dominate my life because there is more going on here than meets my eye.” He will ask himself, “Is there anything I can do to help my judgment so this doesn’t destroy my attitude and with it my faith and fear of God?”
There is, so we will look further! But doing this is sometimes not all that easy.
A Helpful Subtheme
We can make clearer sense of this passage if we fit it into a sub-theme present in much of the book. Solomon states at its beginning, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Reflect that at the opening of chapter 7, he presents several unusual and mystifying statements about some of life’s experiences. He writes that the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth and that it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting.
These statements are true within Solomon’s theme, but they remain unusual ones, and answers are not immediately available. What he says in verse 15 and in his ensuing explanation are a parallel situation for which no easy answer exists. It, too, may be simply so much vanity. Throughout Ecclesiastes, Solomon is explaining matters that we vaguely grasp but need support to understand more completely.
We must come to grips with the fact that ultimately, God is the Author of Ecclesiastes, and He intends it should be understood this way. Supported by our faith in God, we must deal with our lack of complete knowledge and accept it. Some truths God intends us to grasp we must dig out, requiring hard intellectual labor of us. He allows this sub-theme of not fully knowing what is going on in our lives to exist because it helps to create tests to fulfill His purpose, that we live by faith, trusting Him (Hebrews 10:38).
Ecclesiastes 3:10-11 confirms this sub-theme:
I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.
Solomon repeats a form of it in Ecclesiastes 7:23-25, 29:
All this I have proved by wisdom. I said, “I will be wise.” But it was far from me. As for that which is far off and exceedingly deep, who can find it out? I applied my heart to know, to search and seek out wisdom and the reason of things, to know the wickedness of folly, even of foolishness and madness. Truly, this only I have found; that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.
He is still searching for reasons for these confounding circumstances, but he admits a dissatisfying failure. In Ecclesiastes 8:16-17, we can clearly see that he still has no personally satisfying answer to his search:
When I applied my heart to know wisdom and to see the business that is done on earth, even though one sees no sleep day or night, then I saw all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. For though a man labors to discover it, yet he will not find it; moreover, though a wise man attempts to know it, he will not be able to find it.
In Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, he concludes the book:
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether it is good or whether it is evil.
Solomon admits to finding no fully satisfying answer to every paradox, conundrum, or irregularity in life of even the faithful person in his relationship with God. The conclusion? By faith and without disrupting our obedience to God, we must accept and live with some events of life. The wise know that God will work things out.
Some Understanding Is Available
The more meaningful answers are contained in other parts of the Bible. Some answers, though, are nearby and can provide understanding. Ecclesiastes 7:16-22 can help to solve the riddle of verse 15. To begin with, “Do not be overly righteousness” does not warn against aiming for excellence in obedience to God. Rather, it is a further caution not to find fault with God for allowing situations like those in verse 15 to exist, for such circumstances hold vital teaching for those directly involved.
Thus, this passage is first an appeal for humility, a caution against arrogant self-righteousness that guides a person to assert that he “knows it all,” that he fully grasps what is going on, and that his judgment is correct. Thus, the wisdom Solomon teaches here is that the goodness of the righteous must be accompanied by humility. Without the presence of humility, a person’s goodness and righteousness run the risk of producing intellectual and moral pride. This can be learned from the bad experiences of others whose examples are given in Scripture.
The Pharisees became involved in such moral pride hundreds of years later. Jesus charged them with hypocrisy. In their self-righteousness, they were calling God into account because they believed His law was not enough. The Pharisees added their self-righteousness to God’s written law by means of the spoken or oral law, a set of rules framed by the minds of men through the centuries. What a lack of humility! Their trashing of the written law was not wisdom, as Mark 7:6-9 shows.
Blinded by their proud self-righteousness, they could not see that, in their blind attempts to make up for what they perceived as God’s deficiencies and the people’s failures, they were adding despair to people’s lives. Their judgment severely lacked a proper sense of proportion about what God requires. An interesting sidelight is that the Bible shows that most Pharisees appear to have been well off. According to Jesus’ judgment, they were far from righteous, so they actually fit the description of prosperous evil people given in Ecclesiastes 7:15.
But what the Pharisees were involved in is not the real lesson for a converted person, as the Pharisees were unconverted.
An Example of One Deeply Involved
Psalm 73:1-17 vividly describes the emotional and spiritual involvement of a person caught in the web of a situation like the one Solomon cautions us about. This psalm depicts a righteous man for a time severely misjudging the reality of his situation until God reveals the truth. Any of us could be guilty of the same. The wicked appear to prosper only if we, in our judgment, consider only what appears on the surface:
Truly God is good to Israel, to such as are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the boastful, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no pangs in their death, but their strength is firm, they are not in trouble as other men, nor are they plagued like other men. Therefore pride serves as their necklace; violence covers them like a garment. Their eyes bulge with abundance; they have more than heart could wish. They scoff and speak wickedly concerning oppression; they speak loftily. They set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue walks through the earth. Therefore his people return, and waters of a full cup are drained by them. And they say, “How does God know? And is there knowledge in the Most High?” Behold, these are the ungodly, who are always at ease; they increase in riches. Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocence. For all day long I have been plagued, and chastened every morning. If I had said, “I will speak thus,” behold, I would have been untrue to the generation of Your children. When I thought how to understand this, it was too painful for me—until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood their end.
What God reveals to the psalmist is that these people may appear to gain the whole world, but in reality, they are losing something of far greater value. The psalmist grasps this through prayer and meditation, and his emotional and spiritual state return to an even keel through God’s revelation.
At one point, through a bad attitude toward God fueled by his envy of the worldly, the psalmist appears to have been rapidly sliding into despair and perhaps even, as we might say today, “sliding right out of the church.” This presents a grave danger in such a paradoxical situation. How can we recognize this so we do not fall into a destructive attitude? We must dig for the answers.
Assuming the psalmist was a converted man, what would have happened to him if he had not done the right thing and appealed to God, or if he appealed, but God did not respond as quickly as he expected? What if the trial had gone on and on without relief? From the psalmist’s own testimony, as he went into the sanctuary, he was at the point that his feet had almost slipped. However, an answer on recognizing the issue appears within the psalm. Despite his envious attitude, the psalmist did not stop praying to God for understanding and relief. God has the answers.
When involved in such a scenario, we have in reality only three alternatives: One, we can continue as is, faithfully enduring with much prayer and steadfast submission to God’s will. Two, we can give up in despair and slide right out of the church. Three, we can strive all the harder to impress God by becoming super-righteous to attract His attention and receive blessings for our righteousness, relieving the stress. As we will see, Solomon is addressing the third alternative in these eight verses.
Super-Righteousness and the Paradox
A review will provide a platform to build on as we move forward. First, Ecclesiastes is written chiefly for the benefit of the converted, for those striving to live an “above the sun” life. The Pharisees were not converted, thus Pharisaical self-righteousness is but a small part of what matters here. This helps us understand why Psalm 73 is so important for our understanding on this subject, as it provides us the experience of a converted person.
Second, what God promises about long life and prosperity will help us see the paradox clearly. Exodus 20:12 says, “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.” Deuteronomy 5:33 adds, “You shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you shall possess.”
“Well with you” points to prosperity. In a relationship with God, it is “normal” to expect these two promises to be fulfilled. Thus, Ecclesiastes 7:15 presents us with a paradox: The obedient neither live long nor are considered prosperous, yet the disobedient live long and are prospered. So, the question arises, why obey God?
Recall the complaint of the godly man in Psalm 73:12-14. More-modern translations bring out the intensity of his feelings:
» NRSV:“Such are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches, all in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all day long I have been plagued, and am punished every morning.”
» The Revised English Bible: “Such are the wicked; unshakably secure, they pile up wealth. Indeed it was all for nothing I kept my heart pure and washed my hands free from guilt! For all day long I suffer affliction and every morning brings new punishment.”
» The Living Bible (a free paraphrase): “Look at these men of arrogance; they never have to lift a finger—theirs is a life of ease; and all the time their riches multiply. Have I been wasting my time? Why take the trouble to be pure? All I get out of it is trouble and woe—every day and all day long.”
The psalmist was indeed very upset.
The paradox does not always concern money. All that is necessary is a situation in which the Christian feels he is being mistreated while the unconverted are being blessed. When this upside-down circumstance continues for some time, the Christian becomes impatient and compares his state with the unconverted.
Christians today are not inoculated against the kind of trial the psalmist endured. We do not always live to a ripe old age; we are not immune to cancer. Sometimes Christians suffer violent accidents. Sometimes their homes are wiped away by a tornado or earthquake, and perhaps they lose a family member. In such times, it is easy to ask, “Where was God?”
A modern commentator, Sidney Greidanus, in his commentary titled Preaching Christ Through Ecclesiastes, uses the term “super-righteousness” based on technical reasons as well as on the flow of the chapter. It helps to clarify Solomon’s teaching. To convey the sense of the context as well as the usage of the Hebrew, the King James Version translates the term in verse 16 as “righteous over much.” The New King James Version translates it as “overly righteous.” These translations are vague at best, wherein lies the danger. Greidanus feels that “super-righteousness” more clearly conveys Solomon’s thought in our modern lingo.
Super-righteousness is a strange and dangerous state because it is a deceptive form of evil. In the next verse, Solomon asks, “Why destroy yourself?” and “Why should you die before your time?” In addition, he states that those who fear God will escape. Each of those phrases indicates some danger exists in the paradox.
How does this super-righteousness arise within a converted person? On the surface, it seems to be a natural effect of the circumstance. Super-righteousness is indeed a form of self-righteousness but not the kind we are familiar with. A major abnormality that leads to it is a misguided response to the paradox motivating it. The danger arises in the subtle-but-risky fruit the response often produces.
In such a paradoxical situation, as it continues unabated, we would probably react by assuming that God is punishing us. We would reason that, if we were not sinning, we would not be going through this ordeal. Thus, to relieve the stress, we are likely to recall a scripture like Matthew 5:48 that tells us, “Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
At that moment, we stand at a fork in the road, and the desire to rid ourselves of the sore trial sometimes motivates us to choose the wrong path. We will pursue this more closely next time.