TEXT: Ecclesiastes 7: 15-18
THEME: Living between Wisdom and Foolishness #1
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. 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." 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?’
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  . 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 (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 “arrived” and 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.