One day, I was eating lunch with Phil Higley at Kidd Valley and the topic of our current sermon series at Seed Church was brought up. Phil had read that Ecclesiastes was my favorite book on Facebook when I linked to one of Brent’s sermons. He asked if I would like to preach out of this book. I said that I would love too and that I had never really spoken out of the genre of Biblical wisdom before but was willing to give it a try. I was sent a link with passages and dates and I skimmed one of them and wrote back that Ecclesiastes 7:13-22 looks good. What have I gotten myself into? We’ll see how this goes today.
People have said that the Bible is an honest book. The collection of 66 books is the very inspired Word of God. More than that, the narratives and accounts contain all sorts of human folly, sinfulness, and evil as God reveals over the course of history His plan for redemption through Jesus Christ. To me, Ecclesiastes is an incredibly honest book. There is a raw existential description in these pages of wisdom that strike at the heart of what we really value in life. When I have heard these sermons in this series and done my own study, a question keeps echoing back to me. What do I really, really value? Not just surface level or what I might say to spiritually impress somebody but what drives me at the foundational core of my being?
Maybe the things that I pursue, the stuff that I spend so much time and energy chasing after are completely meaningless endeavors. Maybe the thoughts that largely bounce around in my brain are utter vanity. Pointless. Here, Ecclesiastes can be haunting. A lot of these things that we may pursue in life, may not be bad things at all. Qoheleth is often not voicing commandments to us but he is giving us a perspective on life. The point of view of somebody who had endless money, lots of sex and total power. This men or women had experienced the heights of human pleasure and the unbridled privilege of power and influence. They came away from these things declaring them meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hope that myself and all of us can gain a wise perspective of our life from these wise words of Scripture.
Brent Rood started, two weeks ago, talking in Ecclesiastes 7 which has general wisdom sayings. This was the famous pronouncement that it may be better to go to a funeral than a party. Seth Macgillivray preached last week on the folly of remembering the good old days. Verses 11-12 immediately proceeding our passage today talks about the value of wisdom. That wisdom is good with an inheritance and that the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money. We should cherish and value and store wisdom up.
Let’s go through the passage together.
Ecclesiastes 7:13- ‘Consider the work of God: who can make straight what He has made crooked?’ (ESV) A very interesting verse as we are normally accustomed to hearing about how God wants to make our paths straight. Qoheleth is asking us to be attentive to God’s work in the world. We are to observe the work or consider it deeply. The teacher seems to be strongly implying the sovereignty of God. God Himself makes straight paths and crooked paths and if He has people going down a particular path according to His Will, there isn’t much we can do about the journey. This is the teacher’s rhetorical question: who can make straight what God has intended to be crooked?
Ecclesiastes 7:14- ‘In the day of prosperity be joyful and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.’ (ESV) The beginning of this verse has similarities to other passages in Ecclesiastes including chapter 3 which Phil taught on awhile back. ‘A time to be born, a time to die…a time to weep and a time to laugh. A time to mourn and a time to dance.’ There is a similar theme that runs through Ecclesiastes about sometimes we will have good days, joyous days and sometimes we have really bad days. More aptly put, there are good seasons of life and very difficult seasons of life. God has made both of those seasons for us. The teacher is telling us to accept life as it comes.
The passage continues with the teacher telling us that man may not find anything that will be after him. There is some debate among scholars on this particular verse regarding whether this means future earthly life or the afterlife. Since there is hardly any mention or description of the afterlife in Ecclesiastes, I have to go with the conclusion that the author is referencing future earthly life. No reason to go to fortune tellers or psychics or Palm readers or self-described futurist prophets. No one knows what is coming in the future except for God and we do not know whether the days coming in the future will be filled with good or bad seasons.
Ecclesiastes 7:15- ‘In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perished in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in evildoing.’ If we have been around this world long enough, we are very familiar with what this verse is alluding too. There are people who consciously try to do the right thing, and I imagine a lot of you are like this. You try to live your life as Christ would want, you study the Bible and have an active prayer life. You give generously and help those in need. A lot of the time, in this fallen world, someone can be doing all these things, and fall upon a difficult season or unrelenting pain and suffering. Meanwhile, there are a lot of people who do evil things and they seemingly live long, secure and prosperous lives.
Ecclesiastes 7:16-17- ‘Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time?’ Here are the gnarly verses of the passage. Qoheleth is instructing us to not be overly righteous and not be overly wicked. He seems to be arguing for a sort of moderation between righteousness and wickedness. More on these verses in a second. I promise. We will spend some time here this morning.
Ecclesiastes 7:18- ‘It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them.’ Qoheleth is asking for moderation between the extremes of verses 16 and 17. More controversially, he is saying that the person who fears God will come out from both of them and be neither. To fear God is to have a deep reverence of Him. Of course this includes not being overly wicked but it also includes, according to Qoheleth, not being overly righteous.
Ecclesiastes 7:19- ‘Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in the city.’ Qoheleth is back to talking about the value of wisdom. Wisdom cannot give ultimate meaning, eliminate bad seasons of life or destroy death but it obviously still has an immense value in navigating this world. It is not clear if these rulers of the city are governmental or socioeconomic. This verse doesn’t seem to connect with preceding verse or with verse after it. This may be Qoheleth’s sort of free association writing. As he is thinking of wise ideas (also being inspired by God to write His word), he/she records them.
Ecclesiates 7:20- ‘Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.’ A very straightforward verse by the Teacher. This will remind someone of the Apostle Paul’s writing in Romans 3:23, ‘For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.’ Qoheleth is stating that even someone that we would generally declare to be a righteous person is still a sinner. They have still violated the law or God’s commandments in some way.
Ecclesiastes 7:21-22- 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.’ Here is an example of how people may sin. Hypocrisy or cursing somebody else. Notice that the Teacher’s audience in context is an upper class person. The assumption that someone has servants means that they are a master. He or she warns against hypocrisy. If we are to get bent out of shape about someone cursing us that we happen to overhear, maybe we should first consider the people that we have cursed.
Qoheleth has a lot to instruct us on in this passage regarding wisdom (remember this is not just knowledge but the skilled application of knowledge to the end result of better living or a better way to gain a perspective on our lives and the world) but specifically a moderation between being overly righteousness and overly wicked.
The author than says that wisdom can preserve life in verse 12 but look at how he/she changes course in verse 13: ‘consider the work of God Who can make straight what He has made crooked?’ God is beyond us and reaches beyond our ability to control and manipulate for our own purposes. This goes beyond a mere debate about predestination or free will to the point that there are so many elements of our life that we have no say in. We have no say of the parents we are born too. We have no say regarding the socioeconomic conditions we are born into. We cannot control what are genetics or DNA is. So much of life is decided for us including whether we walk on a straight or crooked path according to God’s will.
The paths that we are led or that we are led down in life will contain good days and bad days or I think a better way to consider this would be seasons of joy and seasons of overwhelming sorrow and grief and all seasons in between.
Qoheleth then makes a declaration that is at odds with our ideas of fairness in life. He declares that sometimes a righteous person will perish before their time and wicked people will prosper. In this, there is no discrimination regarding who will experience a general sense of happiness in life or a crushing sense of trial and tribulation, difficult times.
Of course, in our American churchianity, we have teachers out there who, I promise, have never seemingly read the book of Ecclesiates. Awhile ago, I was walking through Walmart. I don’t know why because I hardly ever go there but at any rate, I was near the book section and there was a book that caught my eye. It was called ‘Every Day a Friday: how to be Happier 7 days a Week’ by Joel Osteen. Do you know that feeing you get when someone cuts you off in traffic? Road rage. Well, I think I had book rage. Here is my confession though: I was totally judging a book by it’s cover. I have not read the book at all. I was simply reacting to the cover. Maybe some of you have read the book and there are some good points here and there. I can’t say and rarely is anything ever completely bad or good. However, I thought that this title was, to be frank, complete crap.
My first question is: how can we know what a Friday feels like if we don’t what a Monday feels like? Or for that matter a Tuesday or Wednesday or whenever. Of course, this assumes the usual things that most people work Monday through Friday.
Since ‘Every Day a Friday’ was advertised as wanting people to achieve the exhilaration throughout the week that they feel at 5pm when they presumably get off of work, what would Osteen do with this verse in Ecclesiastes when Qoheleth wants us to think about how God has made the joyful day as well as the day of adversity? God makes the one as well as the other. There is no question that Qoheleth is advancing the sovereignty of God and even the mysteriousness of God in this passage. God’s ways are above our ways.
Qoheleth instructs his/her audience out of this to ‘be not overly righteous and make yourself too wise and be not overly wicked, neither be a fool.’ Time to dive into what this could mean.
The teacher communicates something that seems self-defeating. Here is a quote from ‘The Book of Ecclesiastes’ commentary by Tremper Longman III, ‘In this regard, there are two main options: 1) Qohelet warns against seeking righteousness and wisdom with too much fervor, or 2) he guards against false pretense in righteousness and wisdom.’ In other words, ‘overly righteous’ refers to a pious, phony person. Someone who, publicly and like the Pharisees, wants to declare how righteous they are to everyone. Commentator Edward M. Curtis gives further illumination, ‘In this context, Qoheleth may have in mind the attempt to gain a secure future by careful religious observance…He has in mind specifically the notion that it is possible for one to be so righteous that one could always avert destruction and extend life. Wisdom and righteousness do not guarantee protection from difficult and tragic experiences.’
The verse continues ‘why should you destroy yourself?’ The word destroy can also be translated as ‘ruin’ or ‘frustrate’ which may work better for this context. Believing one could be super righteous and incredibly wise and striving hard after these qualities with the purpose of extending life or make life easier are going to end up in frustration or ruin. Perhaps destruction.
The wording here may mean a psychological disturbance or physical injury or even death. Some people break their backs striving toward a superior righteousness, and here is the key part, in order to avoid pain, suffering and death. To Qoheleth, this is foolishness. For us to be righteous does not guarantee that we will avoid these things. The guarantee goes the opposite direction.
The Teacher than asks us to not be overly wicked, neither be a fool and rhetorically asks, ‘why should you die before your time?’ When I first read this, I was imagining a parent dropping their child off at school. Some of you are parents. When you dropped your child off at school, would you tell them, ‘Today, please don’t be overly wicked. Just be kind of wicked. Instead of 100% wickedness, please just go for about 25%.’ Are you going to announce a moderation of wickedness expectation to your child?
What does this phrase mean? First off, Qoheleth again seems to be slightly going back on himself. He says in verse 15 that people who do evil sometimes end up extending their lives. In verse 17, he seems to be moving into the terrain that for overt wickedness, there is a retributive justice. An example may be a capital offense. If someone kills a bunch of people in pre-meditation, this is a wicked act, obviously, and they may be sentenced to the death penalty and in other words, die before their time. If one is Osama Bin Laden, Seal Team Six may show up at your front door one day and one’s life is cut short as a result of the wickedness.
So, wait a minute here, what is Qoheleth saying? Is he asking us to be moderate in our pursuit of righteousness? Shouldn’t this be something that we have a zeal for? Even more potentially disturbing, is he asking us to be moderate in our wickedness?
Well, to the point of being overly righteous, we already handled a little of that in our analysis of that verse. Contextually, Qoheleth is letting people know that if the goal of their righteousness is avoiding good days and bad days (or good/ bad seasons) that it is foolish to be righteous for this goal. Furthermore, he may also be criticizing Pharisaical type characters who are self-righteous and telling them not to ruin themselves with their legalism.
The charge to be moderate in correlation with not being overly wicked is more problematic. What could the teacher mean here? Qoheleth operates on the basis of there being wickedness in everybody. You. Myself. All of us. Qoheleth is coming to that observation in a moment. Everyone has wickedness so to simply say ‘don’t be evil’ would be somewhat of an understatement. What I believe Qoheleth is asking of his listeners here is to not grow in a tolerance for sin and evil. ‘Overly evil’ can mean having a hard heart, a seared conscious and having no conviction for evil/ wickedness in our lives when we commit these bad actions.
Therefore, his instruction is to fear God and the term ‘fear God’ in other places in Scripture has another phrase attached to it: ‘keep His commandments.’ (Ecclesiastes 12:13) Fearing God means having a healthy reverence which directly implies having a concern for what He asks us to do.
We should have an awareness of human nature that recognizes that all are imperfect including ourselves. Qoheleth may be talking to an upper class audience in this section since he uses the example of a servant insulting his master. As one can imagine, this may have resulted in harm via punishment coming to the servant but the Teacher warns about hypocrisy. Is the upper class master really going to punish the servant when the master realizes he does the exact same thing? We actually can move more toward empathy, forgiveness and compassion by realizing our faults and if we are about to lay the hammer down on somebody else’s sin we had better search our hearts to make sure we are not struggling with the same thing.
To be continued…