Monday, October 1, 2012



TEXT:       Ecclesiastes  7: 15-18
THEME:   Living between Wisdom and Foolishness #1
DATE:       30/09/2012

As we live  our lives under the sun  we need to  be frequently reminded that our greatest obstacle and frustration   in living  this  life is our inherited human sinfulness. All of us live  between wisdom and foolishness. Although  God had made man originally perfect, wise  and upright, Solomon says  that “we have  sought out many schemes  (7:29).That’s who we are : schemers, people  wise in their own eyes, and always in search of a plan apart from God!   The image of God in man  remains despite our fallen natures  and our hearts remain restless until they are found in God[1]. The image of God  in us  is tarnished  and  polluted, and we waver between wisdom and foolishness at the best of times , and the further  we  choose to move from God,  the more foolish we become.

So, one of the frustrations of living in this world is  that  we often struggle to  make sense of life as it happens, particularly with regards to death and sickness  and fairness in life. We have a sense of immortality in us  ( therefore  death and sickness don’t make sense) ; we also  have a sense  of fairness  in us. Some things are not  supposed to happen !  In v. 15  Solomon   lays his finger on one of  those frustrations when he   says : “In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing.
Do you see the problem?  How can a righteousness  man  die  an early death, while  another wicked man  enjoys a  long life? According to our  sense  of fairness,  a righteous man  is not supposed to  perish in his righteousness, and yet  some  righteous people  do die  early in life. And a  wicked man is not supposed  to live long, and yet some wicked men  do  live  to a ripe old age.
And Solomon  says: “In my vain life  I have seen everything. I have seen it all ! And  that’s a fact!  You older people  probably can say that too!
Trying  to  make  sense out of  this life can be often oppressive, particularly for a thinking person,   as it was undoubtedly for Solomon  who in this 7th chapter has struggled with  the nature of wisdom and foolishness,  and with  the  nature  of righteousness and wickedness in   this  fallen world.
This is true  of life  in this world , and argue as you will: The length of a person’s life does not depend upon his/her   spirituality.

So then, it is against  the  greater background  of this chapter  ( on wisdom and foolishness)  and  in particular against  the background in this statement  in v.15  that  Solomon now  makes a very provocative  observation: “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? 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.”  (vv  16-18)

What does Solomon  mean by being ‘overly righteous ‘ and ‘ too wise’  and  by ‘not being overly wicked’ ?
There’s a real danger  of misinterpreting these verses,  and Walter C. Kaiser, a respected OT  theologian confirms this  by  warning us   that,  "few verses in Ecclesiastes are more susceptible to incorrect interpretations than 7:16-18."[2]  So what is the danger of misinterpreting  this text ?
I think it is this :

If you  are tempted to think that   Solomon is urging  you to be “moderate"  in  your religious  zeal ; if you think that  he is discouraging  you  from  being   too  holy or too  righteous on   the one hand , or on the other  hand, not to be too  wicked  , but strive for  balance  or the “golden mean” ;  if  you think that he encourages you  to  sin in a moderate degree;” …   then  you have  another  massive   theological problem.
Do you really believe that a holy God will  leave an open door  for you to indulge  in  a   respectful immorality’ (don’t  be overly wicked!)  , or  a ‘lukewarm morality’ (don’t be overly righteous)?   Do you really  believe  that  the key to happiness is living a moderate  Christianity,  as if there were a  ‘safe middle ground’  between an extreme righteousness and  an extreme wickedness ?
And if that is  so  can you determine where  the boundaries are   that  would define  for  you   what is ‘not overly wicked’ ? If  the morality of our lives now becomes  subject  to  such scrutiny , will we not  be  in danger once again  of  writing another book of law, stipulating and   delineating  what is ( according to our own sense of  flawed righteousness)   acceptable  and what is not acceptable?  And will not every fallen human culture under the sun have a  different interpretation  of what is  ‘overly wicked’ and what is  ‘ overly  righteous?’
Exactly ! 

So what  Solomon  is dealing with here  is not  a sense of  the biblical, spiritual  righteousness, which comes to us  only through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to sinners. For, according  to  the full revelation of the Bible (i.e. with the hindsight of the NT), to   be right with God  and to  have peace with God, and  true forgiveness of sin(s)  from God  and  a hope  of  eternal life  in  heaven,  we  cannot  simply balance our lives between  the categories ‘overly righteous’  and ‘overly wicked‘.  The truth is that no one achieves that perfect balance!  Here the NT  confirms  the OT : “ None  is righteous, no , not one… no one is good not even one” (Ps 14:1-3 à Rom  3:10-12).

For salvation  we  do not need balance between  excessive righteousness and excessive wickedness.  No one  will get to heaven  by saying to God : “ Well I wasn’t perfect , but then again … I wasn’t terribly sinful!”. No one  goes  to heaven  because  they weren’t a bad sinner , which is  of course  a very common  and  self -righteous  assumption  by many !!! The theological truth is that  God is so holy that all sin (even the tiniest)  is reprehensible and damnable to Him. For that you deserve  eternal hell. His perfect holiness means  His perfect hatred of sin, and according to that scale of perfect justice , none of us  are sinless.   

So then , the Scriptures  teach us that for  salvation  we need  a Saviour- a Redeemer   who  will  do two things for you  : He must atone ( take away) your sin  , and  He  must  take away God’s righteous anger  towards  sinners [3] . You need a Saviour – an Advocate  who will justify  you, so that you may appear faultless in the presence of God. Only Jesus can do that ! ( Jude24,25)

So this righteousness, and this wickedness  which Solomon refers to here is not a question of salvation. This  is  a matter of what happens within  our  life of faith . It is  a  question  of our attitude  within our  life of faith in God .

So  then , with this  cardinal thought in mind , let us revise  what we have  considered here so far:  Generally speaking we may say  that righteous living, obedience to the Word of God, prolongs a person’s life, while the  opposite, namely  disobedience and wicked living shorten an individual’s life. However , this  does not mean that the righteous will  always live longer than the average person’s lifespan, or that the wicked will live a shorter time than the average.  This  is what v. 15  teaches us  .   Ultimately ,only God knows what the lifespan is for each individual (Job 14:5; Eccl 3:1–2).

With that in mind, the way is clear to explore a very common  problem  in  the life of  a believer:  that of  a self- righteous and presumptuous  in the life of a  believer !  ( Note :   Solomon  addresses  not   unbelievers, but believers!) .  Unfortunately  there is  a tendency among believers  to become  overly righteous  and “overly wise” , while on the other hand we also find some believers who  will  always  seek to  live  on the borders  of  “wickedness”  and  “foolishness”.  They  like to  live in the shadows . One is never  quite sure where they stand , and to such  Solomon  has a word  of good advice :

(i)                 the “overly righteous”  need to learn  to think of themselves with sober judgement ; not  “as more highly than they ought “ ( Rom  12:3). Overly righteous believers  generally   lack spiritual humility.  They  may be  tempted  to think  of themselves as   God’s  appointed spokesmen  and custodians of His  truth  on earth ( think of Job’s comforters!). They think  that they have to defend God and His Word. ( Spurgeon says that you don’t need to defend a lion!)  Peter  thought that he needed to defend Jesus  in His hour of arrest , by   drawing his sword  and chopping the  ear  of the  servant of the high priest  off (Matt 26:51).  Jesus rebukes him for this. Peter  is (frequently) overzealous and overbearing. He is not a careful listener and interpreter of   Christ’s words. He  hasn’t  understood  that this  is the plan of God being executed. And so,   the ‘overly righteous’  try to tackle every social and moral and political issue, and  have a nearly infallible  opinion for everything.  They are like the sons of Thunder[4] (James and John);  they want to call down fire from heaven to destroy God’s enemies (Lk. 9:54). It is significant that Jesus also rebukes them for this!  Some  overly  righteous Christians   try  to answer  every  enemy of the gospel. They want to die on every hill, and  some zealous Christians do  die, burnt out  or killed   before they reach their  allotted  life span of  70 or 80.

(ii)               The “overly wicked” and “foolish”   Christian by contrast  tries to live  close  to the  world  the flesh and the devil,   and so easily comes to grief. They do not flee temptation (like Joseph did when tempted by Potiphar’s wife (Gen 39:12) ; They are not vigilant in temptation  (1 Tim 6:11).  And so, an unguarded  David  looks  from the  balcony of his apartment  at a careless naked woman  bathing  on the top of her roof ;  he has not made  a covenant with his eyes (Job 31:1) , and before long  this believer  has committed adultery with her. His  family history is a tragedy of  young  deaths !  Noah  is tempted when  he begins to love alcohol too much, and in the state of drunkenness (a sin)  curses one of his sons (Gen  9:21). Another believer  called Lot  (who had lived in  the wicked cities  of Sodom and Gomorrah prior to God’s judgement) also became drunk, and  in this state conceived  illegitimate  children  by his daughters, thus  producing the  nations  of the Moabites and the Ammonites  (Gen 19:37,38) who would   later become   bitter enemies  of  Israel, and in their wars  leaving in its wake many deaths. 

Verse 18 balances the warning: In humility we should take hold of  the true righteousness  that is ours  in Christ, and humbly  learn  from Him.  We must remember  that  the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10). Jesus Christ is to the believer “ our wisdom and righteousness” (1 Cor. 1:30). We need to learn to lean hard on Him. Solomon  warns  us against  self-righteousness and the pride that comes  with that when we think we have arrivedand know it all.  Solomon makes  this  also  clear in v. 20 : “Surely there is not a righteous man  on earth  who does  good and who never sins.”

In Eccl. 7:15-18, Solomon  discusses the value  and balance of righteousness and wisdom. He has concluded that
·         human wisdom cannot really explain all of life nor the future (6:10-7:14)
·         the principle that righteousness brings prosperity is subject to exceptions. Thus, he notes in 7:15 that some righteous people die in spite of their righteousness, and some wicked people live long lives in spite of their wickedness.
·         In the light of that Solomon offers some helpful counsel. Don’t think that  you know everything!  Therefore do  not strive for exaggerated righteousness or try to make yourself the wisest person on earth, for these are not really worthwhile goals; and in the end, such secondary ambitions  will ruin your life. Likewise, do not become immoral ; don’t flirt with sin and  do not  be foolish  as  a Christian,  and think that you will get away  that!  God holds you accountable  for your sin , and you may  put yourself in danger of  dying prematurely.
·         What then of righteousness and wisdom?  Solomon  answers that they are both of great benefit. Grasp them both. If you learn to fear God (which is the important thing to seek after ), you will come out right in both areas.

[1] Attributed to Augustine
[2] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Ecclesiastes: Total Life (Chicago, 1979), p. 85.

[3] The twofold  work of Christ on the cross : expiation  ( takes away our sin)  and propitiation  ( deals with the just wrath of God)
[4] Mk 3:17 – Jesus gave  them this name

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