Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes 7:16-29

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Ecclesiastes 7:16-29

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True Righteousness and Wisdom Elusive Today

Under the current major section of explaining and applying the plan of God (Ecclesiastes 6:1–8:15), we find that seemingly unjust circumstances for people are just that—seemingly so. We’ve already seen in this section’s first subsection an evaluation of the circumstances themselves—that prosperity is not always best and adversity is not always worst (6:1–7:15). Now in Ecclesiastes 7:16-29 we see an evaluation of the people who are supposedly suffering unjustly under God’s overall sovereignty as He works out His plan here on earth. The fact of the matter, we must understand, is that they are not innocent but are all guilty of sin—every single person (verse 20). So those considered deserving of blessing and prosperity actually aren’t. Yet God is merciful and helps those who properly strive to serve Him. And those who say the wicked should receive the punishment they deserve need to realize that this would include every person—including those perceived as righteous.

It’s not entirely clear where the new subsection begins here. In verse 15 Solomon spoke of the righteous perishing and the wicked being prolonged. We read this with the previous subsection in following Dr. Walter Kaiser’s outline of the book, as the verse demonstrates that life choices bring unpredictable results today. As was noted, some believe this verse fits better with what follows, as the next few verses also discuss righteousness and wickedness. It could be that verses 15-18—with the latter’s conclusion about fearing God (in line with the book’s overall conclusion)—are all part of the previous subsection. Then again, verse 15 is distinct from what follows. It concerns an observation by Solomon that fits with what was previously discussed, while verses 16-18 give instruction from him on how to live. The latter verses concern not just righteousness and wickedness but also wisdom and foolishness, and this discussion continues through the remainder of chapter 7—though we did see a contrast between wisdom and foolishness in the previous subsection. It could be that verses 16-18 are transitional between the previous subsection’s focus on proper evaluation of circumstances and the current one’s focus on proper evaluation of the people in those circumstances.

The moral instruction Solomon gives in verses 16-18 has been the subject of debate. He starts out saying: “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?” Yet being righteous before God means being in line with His will—and all His commandments define righteousness (Deuteronomy 6:25; Psalm 119:172). Just what is Solomon talking about?

Some think he is advocating some kind of middle-of the-road approach to life wherein we should not try too much to obey God while at the same time making sure to avoid being too wicked—that is, it’s fine to be a little wicked. The Preaching the Word commentary points out regarding such a mind-set: “This kind of thinking would have been right at home with the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, who often advocated a life of moderation. Do not be too good or too evil, they said. Too much piety or too much iniquity will lead to an early grave. This also happens to be the way many people think today. They know better than to live a life of total wickedness because deep down they believe that God will judge people for their sins. Yet secretly they suspect that trying to be holy will take the fun out of life. Generally speaking, they try to be good, and they hope they are good enough to get by on the Day of Judgment. But their consciences are troubled too little by their sins. As long as they are not overly righteous or overly wicked, they are happy with the way they are” (Ryken, p. 166).

Yet is that what Solomon is calling for? Such thinking goes against a great deal of other biblical instruction—and to the conclusion of Solomon’s own treatise as well. He will end by telling us to “fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). The same commentary asks, “After all, if God’s standard is perfection—if we are called to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength—then how could anyone ever be ‘overly righteous’?” The fact is, one cannot be. Jesus Christ was perfectly righteous, and we are to strive to live as He did even though we stumble. So, again, what’s being said here?

It’s stated in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries that “the translation too or overmuch [or overly] goes somewhat beyond the Hebrew [rabah], which means ‘greatly’ and does not express the judgment implicit in ‘too great’ or ‘overmuch’” (Eaton, note on Ecclesiastes  7:16). It concludes that “‘Do not be greatly righteous’ must be taken ironically and must refer to the way a person thinks about himself and presents himself…. This view is confirmed in the next line where the Hebrew for Do not make yourself overwise (RSV) contains a Hebrew hithpael [or reflexive word form showing the subject acting on self] which may mean ‘to play the wise man’ (cf. Numbers 16:13 ‘play the part of a prince’; and 2 Samuel 13:5 ‘pretend to be ill’). Play-acting righteousness delights in the reputation of wisdom (cf. Matthew 23:7)” (same note).

It should be pointed out that the word “overly” in “overly wise” is not translated from rabah, meaning “greatly,” but from yother, with the sense of “redundant; hence over and above…better, more (- over), over, profit” (Strong’s with Tense, Voice and Mood, H3148, e-Sword software). One possible meaning of the phrase is that we not be “wise” beyond what is actually wise—in which case “greatly righteous,” though using a different word, might have the parallel sense of being supposedly “righteous” beyond what is actually righteous. The similar phrasing of verses 16 and 17 support this. (And these may be proverbs.)

Some believe Solomon’s warning here is to avoid legalism, such as that of the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Jesus pointed out that they were very meticulous about lesser aspects of God’s law while ignoring the weightier matters of the law (Matthew 23:23). Worse still, they promoted commandments of men whereby they made the commandments of God of no effect (Matthew 15:1-9). While this gained them a great deal of self-importance and awe of their supposed holiness from others, Jesus said that such righteousness was not enough for the Kingdom of God (Matthew 5:20). Thus, this focus on a great pretense of righteousness at the expense of true righteousness would lead to such destruction as Solomon mentions. But how does this fit in the context of Ecclesiastes 7? It could conceivably be a response to the righteous people perishing in verse 14—to say that they were not really righteous. However, Solomon seems to be referring to people truly reckoned as righteous perishing in that verse.

Another possibility along similar lines that would fit more with the overall message of Ecclesiastes is that “greatly righteous” denotes an attempted maintenance of a state of so-called holiness and higher thinking beyond what God requires—and thus is actually against what God desires for us, in contradiction to the message of the book. Solomon repeatedly commends enjoying the physical blessings God gives, but that is rejected by those who consider such indulgence to be wrong. The German theologian and antiNazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer called such people “the moralists,” stating: “They assume that a man must continually be doing something decisive, fulfilling some higher purpose and discharging some ultimate duty. This represents a failure to understand that in historical human existence everything has its time (Eccl. 3), eating, drinking and sleeping as well as deliberate resolve and action, rest as well as work, purposelessness as well as the fulfillment of purpose, inclination as well as duty, play as well as earnest endeavour, joy as well as renunciation. Their presumptuous misjudgment of this creaturely existence leads either to the most mendacious hypocrisy or else to madness. It turns the moralist into a dangerous tormentor, tyrant and clown, a figure of tragi-comedy” (quoted by James Limburg, Encountering Ecclesiastes, pp. 49-50).

Bonhoeffer further wrote: “I believe that we ought to love and trust God in our lives, and in all the good things that he sends us, that when the time comes (but not before!) we may go to him with love, trust, and joy. But, to put it plainly, for a man in his wife’s arms to be hankering after the other world is, in mild terms, a piece of bad taste, and not God’s will. We ought to find and love God in what he actually gives us; if it pleases him to allow us to enjoy some overwhelming earthly happiness, we must not try to be more pious than God himself and allow our happiness to be corrupted by presumption and arrogance, and by unbridled religious fantasy which is never satisfied with what God gives…. Everything has its time…. It’s presumptuous to want to have everything at once—matrimonial bliss, the cross, and the heavenly Jerusalem, where they neither marry nor are given in marriage. ‘For everything there is a season’” (quoted by Limburg, pp. 50-51).

With no relief through earthly joys, such unbalanced people would surely exhaust themselves in this vain pursuit of piety and also meet with destruction. Still, this too is likely not what Solomon is talking about in Ecclesiastes 7:16. Nonetheless, it is certainly important and worth thinking about in regard to the overall message of the book.

So, we again ask, what did Solomon probably mean here? Considering what we already saw about the translation of the second part of verse 16, perhaps it should be understood to say, “Don’t set yourself as wiser”—either wiser than you are or, looking back to verse 14, wiser than God who has set things up the way they are. In fact, the latter aspect here seems the best way to understand the verse in the immediate context of chapter 7—likewise the idea of being “greatly righteous” in the bad sense of setting oneself up in judgment of God, the worst manifestation of self-righteousness. Recall that the inquiry of verse 10 about why things must be different from the way they were implied an accusation against God’s sovereignty and plan. And in verse 15 it was just mentioned that righteous people perish while the wicked prosper. The immediate reaction of many is to call God unfair. It appears that Solomon, therefore, issues a warning in verse 16 to not set ourselves up in our own eyes as being so righteous and wise (compare Proverbs 3:7)—effectively more righteous and wiser than God, where we think we know better than Him how things ought to be handled.

The Preaching the Word commentary states: “Our real problem is thinking that we are more righteous than we really are. Somehow there never seems to be any shortage of people who think they are good enough for God. This leads H.C. Leupold to suspect that a ‘peculiar type of righteousness was beginning to manifest itself in Israel, an overstrained righteousness which lost sight of the ever-present sinful imperfections of men and felt strongly inclined to argue with God and to find fault with Him because He was apparently not rewarding those righteous men as they deemed they deserved to be rewarded.’ In response, the Preacher warns us not to be self-righteous. We should not think that trying to be more righteous will save us on the Day of Judgment. Nor should we think that we are so righteous that we do not deserve to suffer any adversity, that it is unfair…. When we think too highly of ourselves, resting on our own righteousness, then it is easy for us to say, ‘I don’t deserve to be treated like this. Doesn’t God know who I am?’ It is also a very short step from there to saying, ‘Who does God think he is?’ So the Preacher cautions us to not be, as it were, ‘too righteous.’ In saying this, he is warning against a conceited righteousness that ‘stands ready to challenge God for His failure to reward’ us as much as we think we deserve” (pp. 166-167).

Verse 17 then answers another reaction some would have to the quandary of the righteous perishing and the wicked prospering. They might be tempted to decide there’s no point in being good and give themselves over to unrighteous living—libertinism or outright lawlessness. In telling us not to be “overly”—again “greatly”—wicked, “his point is not that it is okay for us to be a little bit wicked, as if there were some acceptable level of iniquity. When it comes to sin, even a little is too much. His point rather is that there is great danger in giving ourselves over to evil. It is one thing to sin from time to time, as everyone does. The Preacher will say as much in verse 20…. But there is a world of difference between committing the occasional sin and making a deliberate decision to pursue a lifestyle of theft, deception, lust, and greed. ‘Don’t be a fool,’ the Preacher is saying. ‘If you live in sin, you will perish’” (p. 167). Paul reminds us: “You cannot fool God, so don’t make a fool of yourself! You will harvest what you plant. If you follow your selfish desires, you will harvest destruction, but if you follow the Spirit, you will harvest eternal life” (Galatians 6:7-8, CEV).

The next verse, Ecclesiastes 7:18, then says that in the face of the apparent inequities of the unfolding of God’s plan, we need to keep hold of both cautions of verses 16-17 (possibly two proverbs Solomon has paired) to avoid destruction—not becoming self-righteous against God and not giving up doing right as not worth it and turning to evil. Notice especially the last part of verse 18: “For he who fears God will escape them all”—again previewing the conclusion of the entire book. It is the proper fear of God that will keep us from self-righteousness and from turning to evil, in both cases preserving us from destruction. Solomon gave the same prescription in Proverbs 3:7: “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and depart from evil.”

Looking to this counsel is to exercise true wisdom. And the next verse, another proverb, shows its value: “Wisdom strengthens the wise more than ten rulers of the city” (Ecclesiastes 7:19). The word for “rulers” here, rendered “mighty men” in the King James Version, is the Hebrew shallitim, a rare term. The singular form had been used for the patriarch Joseph as governor in Egypt (Genesis 42:6), and Solomon uses the word for a ruler in Ecclesiastes 10:5, as even the KJV renders it. So, many see a governing council here in Ecclesiastes 7:19. Yet the word, as denoting mastery, could just refer to a powerful person— thus the KJV translation in this case. Recall that David had “mighty men” who fought for him—though the word there is the more common word gibborim, denoting strong or powerful ones, meaning warriors or leaders. Some take the term in Ecclesiastes 7:19 to likewise refer to great warriors or, more specifically, military commanders. In any case, it’s clear that the referenced men are involved in military defense. As a group of powerful men serve to defend a city, so does a wise person’s use of his wisdom strengthen him in vital ways. This recalls the mention of wisdom as a defense in verse 12—one that gives life. And Solomon will later note that wisdom is better than strength and weapons of war after giving an example of a poor wise man delivering a city by his wisdom (Ecclesiastes 9:13-18).

Indeed, true wisdom—not propping oneself up as wise—is crucial to governing self and to navigating interaction with others. For no one is perfect. We must understand this. Everyone sins, as Solomon states in Ecclesiastes 7:20, repeating what he said in 1 Kings 8:46 in his dedicatory prayer at the temple (in which he also stated the need for repentance and supplication). As pointed out earlier, none of us are entitled to a blissful, problem-free life. What we actually deserve is the penalty for sin—misery and death—because we all sin. Whatever life and blessing we have is through God’s grace and mercy.

Proof? Solomon gives a simple common example, likely proverbial, of not getting too bent out of shape when others, even those you trust, badmouth you behind your back—as you know you’ve done the same thing (Ecclesiastes 7:21-22). We all have. We should also note the value of wisdom here in not taking everything too grievously as a way to weather the common difficulties of this life. “Sooner or later we are bound to overhear somebody saying something about us that may be unkind or untrue. Usually our first reaction is to get angry. What we ought to do instead is to let it go, realizing that it was never intended for us to hear anyway and may well have been spoken in a moment of weakness or misjudgment. It is foolish for us to eavesdrop. ‘If all men knew what each said of the other,’ [17th-century philosopher Blaise] Pascal darkly observed, ‘there would not be four friends in the world’” (PTW, pp. 172-173).

In verses 23-25, Solomon writes that he proved—or tested, others translate—all of this by wisdom. In the face of life’s difficulties, he determined to be wise and get to the bottom of it, but found the answers to be far out of reach—coming to see that there is no way to figure it all out. In verse 25, he mentions his seeking “to know the wickedness of folly, even of foolishness and madness,” and we saw some of his pursuit in this regard presented in the first two chapters of the book.

Verse 26 shows where his course took him: “And I find more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are fetters. He who pleases God shall escape from her, but the sinner shall be trapped by her.” What is he talking about here? There are a few possibilities. Considering that he just mentioned coming to know “the wickedness of folly,” the woman described in verse 26 could be a personification of that. Earlier in the prologue of the book of Proverbs (chapters 1–9), Solomon presented just such a personification—contrasting folly and wisdom as two women. It is not unreasonable that he would return to that imagery in a discussion of these two ways of thinking and acting. However, there is nothing in Ecclesiastes itself so far that makes that clear. So it may be that Solomon is here speaking of an actual woman—or of a plurality of particular women in his experience. This makes perfect sense when we think about what happened in Solomon’s life. His many wives led him away from God—even to the point of building pagan shrines for them and participating in idolatrous worship (1 Kings 11). It is hoped that Solomon at last came to his senses, with Ecclesiastes being a repudiation of his former apostasy. Another possibility regarding Ecclesiastes 7:26 is that Solomon is speaking generally of the danger of being destroyed through enticement to sexual immorality or to simply being pulled into a toxic pairing, as he also would have seen in observing others, not just his own case. Or furthermore, he could be speaking of all of the above.

In verses 27-28, Solomon makes a disturbing statement regarding his search for wisdom and understanding: “One man among a thousand I have found, but a woman among all these I have not found.” It seems he was looking for a wise or righteous person who did not disappoint him. We should not take this as some kind of measure of the spiritual caliber of men versus women in an overall sense. This was Solomon’s personal experience. The general takeaway from the statement is that such was rare among either gender. “One man among a thousand” could refer to a single man among those Solomon knew well. Or it could refer to a handful of men among the nation. Consider that Solomon knew a few godly men, such as his father David, the prophet Nathan and Asaph the Seer. Of course, none of these were perfect. Solomon finding no women would mean that of his harem of a thousand—700 wives and 300 concubines—none were godly. The Bible presents a number of righteous women. But “apparently the Preacher-King who wrote Ecclesiastes did not know any women like that, which is what a man gets for trying to love a thousand godless women!” (PTW, pp. 177-178). We will see that he does mention living joyfully with one’s wife positively in Ecclesiastes 9:9. And recall that he ended the book of Proverbs with the description of the virtuous wife (Proverbs 31:10-31). But sadly he did not experience this with his vast harem.

Solomon then declares in the next verse, Ecclesiastes 7:29, regarding both men and women, “Truly, this only I have found: That God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes”—the last word here, also rendered “devices,” referring to invented ways to do wrong. The word for “man” here, as at the end of chapter 6, is adam, or actually ha-adam, “the man”—a word used in a plural sense in Ecclesiastes 7:2, so that the reference here goes back to man’s original creation in the Garden of Eden and probably means not just Adam himself but the whole human race beginning with him. Made in the image of God with no sin, the first man was initially upright—morally innocent and doing as God said. While he had not developed righteous character, as there was as yet no testing of resolve, the scripture here shows that he was not neutral in terms of morality, as God had made him to do right and reinforced that by instruction. Adam naturally obeyed at first—as did Eve. But when a test of that morality came, with stark temptation to disobey God, they sinned. Man’s nature became corrupted under the influence of Satan—and all mankind since has gone astray, with people devising ever more ways to do evil. Solomon will even note in Ecclesiastes 9:3 that human hearts are “full of evil.” Thankfully, God is in the process of recreating the human race through “the last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45)—Jesus Christ. Through Him we can become and remain upright.

Recall the context here of some thinking God unjust in not bringing swift punishment on evildoers and instant relief and reward to themselves along with other “good people.” Again, those of this mind are not considering the punishment that they themselves deserve every day—for we all commit some sin, at least in thought if not in word and deed. All of us have contributed to the world’s problems. As the Holman Old Testament Commentary states: “We ought to be more humble (and therefore accurate) in our self-assessment. [Early-20th-century Christian writer and philosopher] G.K. Chesterton was a good example of this. In answer to the question, ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ Chesterton said, ‘I am’” (Moore, note on Ecclesiastes 7:15-22). Thankfully, we are able to receive forgiveness from God and be reckoned as righteous before Him—but, as stated, this is by His mercy, through His plan of salvation. And those of us who’ve been forgiven should also be thankful that God did not destroy us while we were reckoned as sinners but instead led us to repentance—and continues to do so when we fall short—as He will yet do for others. To God be the glory.