The book of Ecclesiastes is the most exhaustive investigation ever made of the value and profit of various lifestyles. Remember that the Searcher is King Solomon, who records for us a faithful, objective, and relevant report of what he found in an extensive search that took at least several years of his life. By the middle of the seventh chapter, to which we come now, he can say, “1 have seen everything.” In fact, he opens this section with those very words.
In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing (7:15, NRSV).
This central section of Ecclesiastes reveals how to evaluate life realistically. We have seen already that prosperity is not always good; to be wealthy and materially well off is by no means the answer to the hunger of the human heart. We have also seen the corollary truth, that adversity is not always bad. Some of our best times happen when we do not have much, when things are tough.
In this section we learn still another accompanying truth, that the “righteous” are not always righteous. This section declares two great things: that in the real world there is much phony righteousness; and that true wisdom is therefore hard to find.
In verse 15, the Searcher says that one cannot identify the righteous by the fact that they live a long time. In other words, as the proverb has it, “The good often die young.” The wicked can live to a ripe old age. There is such a thing as a dirty old man! He does exist, and the bumper sticker tells us that he needs love, just like the rest of us.
Verses 16 through 19, where this truth is developed, are greatly misunderstood.
Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise–why destroy yourself?
Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool–why die before your time?
It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.
Wisdom makes one wise man more powerful than ten rulers in a city.
That must be the favorite Scripture of many, because it seems to advocate moderation in both good and evil. The Searcher seems to be saying, “Do not be too righteous, and do not be too wicked either, but a little of both does not hurt.”
We have all heard people say, “Religion is all right in its place, but don’t let it interfere with your pleasure.” Moderation in all things is the popular way to go.
But in trying to understand this, we must notice very carefully what the Searcher is saying. It is this: “Do not be wise to yourself; do not be wise in your own eyes, in regard to your own righteousness.” This passage is a warning against self-righteousness, and properly so. Self-righteous people regard themselves as righteous because they do not do certain things. That, in my judgment, is the major curse of the church today. The New Testament calls it Pharisaism; the Searcher rightly labels it wickedness.
In the book of Job we learn that wickedness is expressed not only by murder, thievery, and sexual misconduct, but also by bigotry, racism, pompousness, cold disdain, by critical, judgmental attitudes, by harsh, sarcastic words, by vengeful and vindictive actions. The evangelical prig, male or female, is also a wicked person!
Not only is self-righteousness wicked, but the opposite extreme is wicked too, the Searcher says. The foolish casting-off of moral restraints, the abandonment of self-discipline and going in for wild and unrestrained living, is also wickedness.
Furthermore, each of these lifestyles is mutually self-destructive; they result in the same thing. “Why destroy yourself?” he asks the self-righteous; “Why die before your time?” he says to the self-indulgent. In either case they destroy something of their humanity. This may be true even physically. The self-indulgent may die in a drunken brawl or in a car accident, while the sell-righteous will probably die of ulcers, or a heart attack, or as a result of soft, indulgent living.
The proper attitude toward life is found in verse 18:
It is good to grasp the one [true righteousness] and not let go of the other [the wickedness of the world in which we live]. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.
That is the consistent position of the Scriptures, Old and New Testament alike. We are not to withhold from the world in an attempt to escape its evil; we are not to gather our robes of righteousness about ourselves and look down our noses with disdain at those who live morally unrighteous lives. It is good to take hold of true righteousness, but it is also good not to withhold oneself from the world. Be out in it, live in it, be in touch with it. Do not seek to avoid it, to hide in a spiritual cocoon, but neither go along with its unrighteous and hurtful attitudes and practices.
The godly way to live, of course, is this: “The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.” We have seen this phrase, “The man who fears God,” many times in this book. To fear God is a full-orbed truth. It means not only to respect God, but to acknowledge His presence in your life; acknowledge Him not merely at the end of your life someday, but now. To fear God is to know that He sees all that you do, and that it is His band that sends circumstances into your life.
The knowledge of God’s power, wisdom, and love; His willingness to accept you, to change you, to forgive you, to restore you, and to stand by you, are all part of fearing God. “To fear God” is to know how to live in the midst of the world and yet not be self-righteous, priggish, smug, and complacent. That kind of wisdom “makes one wise man more powerful than ten rulers in a city” It is better to learn to live that way than to have ten influential friends in high places who can bail you out when things go wrong!
Solomon now sets forth the truth that we live in a fallen world. There is no righteousness, apart from the gift of God. All have been infected by the virus of evil, he declares:
There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins (7:20).
Do not add “except me” to that statement. Scripture states this over and over. The Searcher goes on to tell us how we will know the truth of this:
Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you–for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others (7:21-22).
The unchanging position of Scripture is, as the apostle Paul declares in Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). Isaiah puts it this way: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way” (53:6). In the honesty of our hearts we know that is true. We can hear it in others if we listen to what people say when they are angry, frustrated, or upset about something. Listen to what Christians mutter under their breath when they are caught in traffic! The Searcher says, “Don’t take it too seriously; it is not a personal reaction so much as a revelation of universal evil.”
All of us live in a fallen world. We all struggle with a fallen nature that will show itself at any possible moment of weakness, frustration, or anger. That is why, if you hear your servant cursing you, you must realize that he is suffering from the same problem as you. Do not take it so seriously that you get upset and threaten to fire him, but remember that you are in the same boat. In fact, the Searcher invites you to remember that in your own heart you have done the same thing many times. How refreshingly honest the Scriptures are! They confront us with reality about life.
Because there is none righteous on the earth, the Searcher concludes, true, godly wisdom is very hard to find. He looked for it:
All this I tested by wisdom and I said, “I am determined to be wise”–but this was beyond me.
Whatever wisdom may be, it is far off and most profound–who can discover it?
So I turned my mind to understand, to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things and to understand the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly (7:23-25).
We have seen before how he described the long search that he undertook to investigate all philosophies, seeking to discover the secret of life. He says here that he sought it in himself first of all. Remember that this was written by King Solomon, who was noted in his own time as the wisest man in the world. With that reputation for wisdom he sought in his own life to find the secret. As he puts it here, “1 said, ‘I am determined to be wise’ but this was beyond me,” What an honest confession! He found himself shortchanged, unable to understand himself.
There is probably no one thing that we are more confident of than this notion that we know ourselves. How many times have you heard someone say, “No one understands me”? The clear implication is, “I alone understand me.” The revelation of Scripture, however, is that if there is one person in this world you do not know, it is you. You do not understand yourself.
We will be puzzled and confused if we try to solve the riddles of life by thinking we understand ourselves. Solomon says, “Whatever wisdom may be, it is far off and most profound–who can discover it?” He realizes that the issue lies deep within himself. To try to understand yourself is very difficult. It is like a man trying to look at his own face without using a mirror. The Searcher found it impossible to solve the riddles of his feelings because he did not understand himself.
He goes on to tell us that as he sought, he realized that what he was looking for was the explanation of the mystery of evil. Have you ever wrestled with that? Have you ever asked yourself after you had done something, “Why did I do that? I knew it was wrong. I knew it would hurt somebody; why did I say that?” You were wrestling with the same problem the Searcher faced, that great question of the mystery of evil. The Searcher says he did not find the answer by wisdom, by trying to reason it out.
What he did find was very revealing. The first thing he discovered was what most of us find when we seek the key to our life apart from God–bitterness and death:
I found more bitter than death the woman who is a trap, whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are fetters; one who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. See, this is what I found, says the Teacher, adding one thing to another to find the sum, which my mind has sought repeatedly, but I have not found. One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. See, this alone I found, that God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes (7:26-29, NRSV).
This is a remarkable revelation of what a keenly intelligent and very resourceful man found out about life. Solomon is honestly recording his own experience.
He found two things. First, he found that he was easily trapped by sexual seduction. He went looking for love. Many a man or woman can echo what he is saying. He went looking for love, and thought he would find it in a relationship with a woman. He went looking for that which would support him, strengthen him, and make him feel life was worth the living, but what he found was nothing but a fleeting sexual thrill. He found himself involved with a woman who did not give him what he was looking for at all; he still felt the same empty loneliness as before.
A young woman told me that she sought the answer to the hungers of her life in one relationship after another with men. She said she woke up one morning lying in bed with a man she had met the night before. As she looked at this male sleeping beside her, she felt the most intense loneliness she had ever experienced. She realized then that sex was compounding, not relieving, the emptiness and loneliness of her life! She went on to tell of finding a relationship with God through the Lord Jesus and testified to the fullness she found in that relationship.
The Searcher also honestly records the way of escape: “One who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her.” We must remember that this is the man who had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines; he was involved sexually with one thousand women! In all that experience, sexual athlete that he was, he found nothing to satisfy the searchings of his heart.
But he did come to realize that the man who fears God, who understands God, whose eyes are opened and whose heart is taught by the Word of God, will escape this. In the first nine chapters of Proverbs, which Solomon also wrote, he passes on his experience along this line to young men to show them how to escape this emptiness.
Not only did he find himself trapped by sexual seductiveness, but he says he was also puzzled by a strange observation, recorded in verse 28: “One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found.”
We must read this carefully. As he went through life he occasionally found a loyal, trustworthy, godly, wise man who could be a true friend, a man of integrity; but he never found a woman like that. Out of the thousand women he was involved with, he never found one whom he could trust. Why? Surely it was not because Solomon was a contemptible male chauvinist, as some may be tempted to think. In Proverbs 8 he uses a woman to symbolize true, godly wisdom, and in Proverbs 31 he holds up a woman as the supreme example of one who lives a life pleasing to God; that chapter is known around the earth for its exaltation of godly womanhood. Solomon was not a woman-hater–that was not his problem.
We can understand his honest remarks here when we remember what was going on in his search. His problem was that when he sought to relate to a woman, he was stymied by immediate sexual involvement, That canceled out discovering who the woman really was. That is the explanation for his words here.
Solomon had no such problem with men. He was not gay. When he sought to relate to a man, he could understand him, hear him, and realize what was going on inside since he was unhindered by any sexual barriers. But not so with a woman.
One of the most important lessons we must learn about life is that sex outside of marriage arrests the mutual process of discovery. You cannot discover who you are or who another person is when you are involved together in wrongful sex. I have seen this happen many times with young couples who were obviously growing in the Lord. They began to know one another, to love one another, to discover things they liked and disliked–and then suddenly the relationship soured, a weirdness set in. Things went wrong and they began to quarrel and fight. Often it turned out that they had given way to their temptations and had become sexually involved with one another, thus canceling out every attempt to discover who the other one was.
The Scriptures warn us carefully about premarital sex. In marriage, good sex will enhance the discovery process; but without marriage, without its commitment and intimacy, sex derails discovery This is why the Searcher has to record, “One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found” (7:28). I am sure there were women like that among those he knew, but he could never find one. Finally, he sums this all up:
See, this alone I found, that God made human beings [that is, both male and female] straightforward, but they have devised many schemes (7:29, NRSV).
The trouble of this world is not with God, but with man. Because we will not heed the wisdom of God in the Word of God, we seek to circumvent what He is telling us and try to find the richness of life despite (or apart from) the rules of life that He has set forth. It cannot be done. The inevitable discovery of an honest search is that true life can never be found except where God says it is found-in a relationship with Him.
So the Searcher concludes this section, in verse 1 of chapter 8, with a statement of the value of true, godly wisdom. Here is another of those misplaced chapter divisions. We should read this as the conclusion of chapter 7:
Who is like the wise man? And who knows the interpretation of a thing? Wisdom makes one’ s face shine, and the hardness of one countenance is changed (8:1, NRSV).
That is a marvelous, fourfold description of what happens to one who discovers the true wisdom of righteousness as a gift from God, one who walks with God in the fear of God.
First, it will make that person a unique human being: “Who is like the wise man?” One of the follies of life is to try to imitate somebody else. The media constantly bombard us with subtle invitations to look like, dress like, or talk like some popular idol. If you succeed in that, of course, you will be nothing but a cheap imitation of another person. The glory of the good news is that when you become a new creature in Jesus Christ, you will be unique. There will be no one else like you. You will become more and more like Christ, but unlike everyone else in personality. You will be uniquely yourself. You will not be a copy, a cheap imitation, but an original from the Spirit of God. That is the first and most wonderful thing about the wisdom of redemption.
Second, the Searcher says, godly wisdom will give you a secret knowledge: “Who knows the interpretation of a thing?” The implication of that is that the wise man knows. This is what Paul declares in 1 Corinthians: “The spiritual man makes judgments about all things” (2:15). The spiritual man is in a position to pass moral judgment on the value of everything, not because he is so smart, but because the God who teaches him is wise.
Third, such a man will have visible joy: “Wisdom makes one’s face shine.” Grace, not grease, is what makes the face shine. Grease is what is put into cosmetics to make the face shine or to take away the shine (as the case may be), but it is grace that does it from within. Grace makes the face shine because it is joy visibly expressed on the human face.
Finally, it changes the very inner disposition of a person: “The hardness of one’s countenance is changed.” Have you ever watched somebody under the impact of the Spirit of God soften, mellow, and grow easier to live with? That is the work of the Spirit of God.
I could illustrate that with a thousand lives, but I choose to do so with a famous Christian of some generations ago. All of us, whether we know it or not, have sung the hymns of John Newton. One of our favorite hymns was written by him, “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound–that saved a wretch like me!” That is John Newton’s story.
He was raised by a godly mother who prayed for him all his life. As soon as he came of age, he joined the slave trade, running slaves from Africa to England. He fell into wild, unbridled living, and participated in drunken brawls. At last he ended up, as he himself confesses, “a slave of slaves.” He actually served some escaped slaves on the African coast; wretched, miserable, and hardly alive. Then he found voyage on a ship back to England. In the midst of a terrible storm in the Atlantic, fearing for his life, he was converted; he remembered his mother’s prayers, and he came to Christ. One of his hymns is his own testimony: In evil long I took delight, unawed by shame or fear, Until a new object met my sight, and stopped my wild career. I saw One hanging on a tree in agony and blood, Who fixed His languid eyes on me as near His cross I stood. Sure, never till my latest breath shall I forget that look. It seemed to charge me with His death, though not a word He spoke, A second look lie gave, which said, “I freely all forgive; My blood was for thy ransom paid, I died that thou mayest live.”
And live he did! He became one of the great Christians of England, the author of many hymns in which he sought to set forth the joy, the radiance, the gladness of his life as he found it in Jesus Christ.
This passage of Ecclesiastes should help us understand afresh that what we often regard as the restrictions and limitations of life which God sets before us are not designed to keep us from joy. Joy is God’s purpose for us. These apparent restrictions are designed to guard it so that we find it in the right way and at the right time. Then life will start to unfold in fullness and gladness before us.
Here the Searcher has clearly declared what he emphasizes throughout the whole book of Ecclesiastes: That it is the man or woman who finds the living God who discovers the answer to the riddles of life.
Click Here for 7. Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life