Missing the Forest for the Trees

15 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. 16 Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? 17 Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? 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.

19 Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city.

20 Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.

21 Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. 22 Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others.

23 All this I have tested by wisdom. I said, “I will be wise,” but it was far from me. 24 That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?

25 I turned my heart to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the scheme of things, and to know the wickedness of folly and the foolishness that is madness. 26 And I find something more bitter than death: the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and whose hands are fetters. He who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. 27 Behold, this is what I found, says the Preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things— 28 which my soul 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. 29 See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes. Ecclesiastes 7:15-29 ESV

Don’t be too righteous, but don’t be too wicked. Don’t be too wise, but don’t be too foolish. That sounds like strange advice, doesn’t it? It comes across like Solomon is recommending a life of mediocrity – a middle-of-the-road kind of mentality that avoids the ditches on either side. His assessment is that the righteous die in spite of their righteousness and the wicked succeed in spite of their wickedness. So, he recommends avoiding the extremes and fearing  God instead.

What Solomon seems to be saying is that a man will end up disappointed if he pursues righteousness and wisdom thinking they will provide him with a long and prosperous life, free from trouble and trials. A life of righteousness, marked by wisdom is no guarantee of immunity from difficulty. Good people still suffer and die. Wise people still make dumb decisions. But at the same time, Solomon warns that a life of wickedness may bring you a semblance of pleasure and happiness, but you’ll end up paying for it in the long run. This leads him to conclude: “Pay attention to these instructions, for anyone who fears God will avoid both extremes” (Ecclesiastes 7:18 NLT).

It’s important that we not misunderstand or misinterpret what Solomon is saying. He is not diminishing the importance of righteousness or wisdom. He knows that both are essential and, when pursued properly, honoring to God. He even acknowledges that “One wise person is stronger than ten leading citizens of a town!” (Ecclesiastes 7:19 NLT). A wise person possesses an inner strength that provides protection from the effects of adversity. It provides a form of self-reliance and security that is preferable to dependence upon outside sources.   

But wisdom has its limits. So does righteousness. There is no one who is all-wise. There is no one who is fully righteous.

Not a single person on earth is always good and never sins. – Ecclesiastes 7:20 NLT

That’s not exactly a revelation, but it’s so important that we recognize and come to grips with the truth it proclaims. In this lifetime, we will never experience unvarnished righteousness. We will never be completely holy and sinless. So, while righteousness is a worthy and worthwhile pursuit, we must remember that it will never keep us from suffering. Or to put it another way, no amount of righteousness in your life will protect you from pain and suffering. The righteous and wicked both experience difficulties in life. In fact, sometimes it appears as if the righteous suffer more than the wicked. The prophet Jeremiah took pains to share his frustration with this disturbing reality to God Himself.

Lord, you always give me justice
    when I bring a case before you.
So let me bring you this complaint:
Why are the wicked so prosperous?
    Why are evil people so happy?
You have planted them,
    and they have taken root and prospered.
Your name is on their lips,
    but you are far from their hearts. – Jeremiah 12:1-2 NLT

From our earth-bound perspective, it can sometimes appear as if the wicked are being blessed by God. They seem happy and content. Their lives appear to be relatively free from pain and marked by prosperity. But as the saying goes, “Looks can be deceiving.” Solomon had lived long enough to realize that the righteous and the wicked both experience their fair share of suffering. No amount of wisdom can guarantee a trouble-free life. This was a man who had pursued wisdom in a vain attempt to make sense of the incongruities and inequities of life.

And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. – Ecclesiastes 1:13-14 ESV

Solomon had been blessed by God with greater wisdom than any other living man. But he had not been satisfied. Instead, he spent years trying to acquire even more wisdom. It became an obsession. For Solomon, the accumulation of wisdom had become the end-game, rather than recognition and reverence for the One who made wisdom possible.

In his commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes, J. S. Wright describes wisdom as “not the knowledge of accumulated facts but the inner strength that comes from a God-instructed conscience” (J. S. Wright, Ecclesiastes). John Piper describes wisdom as “that practical knowledge of how to attain true and lasting happiness. It begins with the fear of the Lord and consists in humbly hearing and doing God’s will perceived both in Scripture and in the unique circumstances of the moment” (John Piper, desiringgod.org, “Get Wisdom”).

Solomon knew and understood the importance of wisdom, so he went out of his way to get his hands on it. But it seems as if he treated it as just another commodity, like gold, silver, horses, houses, chariots, and servants. As John Piper stated, the fear of the Lord is central to getting the full advantage of wisdom. And, of all people, Solomon should have understood that truth. After all, it was he who included the following proverb in his well-known collection:

Fear of the LORD is the foundation of wisdom. Knowledge of the Holy One results in good judgment. – Proverbs 9:10 NLT

But despite his awareness of this truth, Solomon’s self-obsessed accumulation of wisdom left him less than satisfied.

I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. – Ecclesiastes 1:16-17 ESV

Solomon had lived a long life. He had accomplished much and enjoyed all the perks that came with his achievements. And while he could put abundant wisdom at the top of his long list of assets, he still found himself operating in the red.

I have always tried my best to let wisdom guide my thoughts and actions. I said to myself, “I am determined to be wise.” But it didn’t work. Wisdom is always distant and difficult to find. I searched everywhere, determined to find wisdom and to understand the reason for things. I was determined to prove to myself that wickedness is stupid and that foolishness is madness. – Ecclesiastes 7:23-25 NLT

Despite his superior intelligence, the only conclusion Solomon could reach was that wisdom was an antidote to foolishness. It was like a vaccine that protected one against infection from folly.

I searched everywhere, determined to find wisdom and to understand the reason for things. I was determined to prove to myself that wickedness is stupid and that foolishness is madness. – Ecclesiastes 7:25 NLT

To Solomon, wisdom was nothing more than a panacea against a life of foolishness. He even characterizes folly as a seductive woman.

I discovered that a seductive woman is a trap more bitter than death. Her passion is a snare, and her soft hands are chains. Those who are pleasing to God will escape her, but sinners will be caught in her snare. – Ecclesiastes 7:26 NLT

And Solomon was somewhat of an expert when it came to seductive women. He was addicted to them. You don’t amass 700 wives and 300 concubines without some kind of a physical and psychological obsession with the opposite sex. And so, when Solomon attempted to describe the attractive nature of folly and the life of foolishness, he tended to use the familiar allure of a promiscuous woman.

For the lips of an immoral woman are as sweet as honey,
    and her mouth is smoother than oil.
But in the end she is as bitter as poison,
    as dangerous as a double-edged sword.
Her feet go down to death;
    her steps lead straight to the grave.
For she cares nothing about the path to life.
    She staggers down a crooked trail and doesn’t realize it. – Proverbs 5:3-6 NLT

Solomon knew that a life of foolishness could be highly appealing, but also extremely deadly. It was an equal-opportunity trap that ensnared both men and women. In fact, when he makes the statement, “Only one out of a thousand men is virtuous”, he uses the Hebrew word adam, which can be translated as “man” but is actually a generic term referring to both sexes. Foolishness is not a male-dominated trait. Every human being, regardless of gender, class, educational status, or social standing, is susceptible to the allure of foolishness.

Yet, in verse 28, Solomon seems to be saying that only men can be virtuous.

I have not found what I was looking for. Only one out of a thousand men is virtuous, but not one woman! – Ecclesiastes 7:28 NLT

It would seem that his use of the term “woman” in the second half of this verse is a direct reference to the seductive woman in verse 26. He is stating that folly is never virtuous. The individual who pursues a life of foolishness will never discover virtue or righteousness. Wisdom can prevent us from succumbing to folly’s temptation, but folly will never produce wisdom or result in a life of righteousness. This is why Solomon closes out this chapter by saying, “God created people to be virtuous, but they have each turned to follow their own downward path” (Ecclesiastes 7:29 NLT). God created men and women to live righteously. But ever since the fall, humanity has made a habit of following a divergent path, pursuing darkness rather than light.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning or foundation of wisdom. But pursuing wisdom without a healthy reverence for God simply turns it into a commodity to be coveted and acquired. It becomes the objective rather than a relationship with God. Instead of viewing wisdom as a gift from God, designed to help us live in obedience to Him, we make it our end goal. Wisdom becomes nothing more than a tool to make us smarter, wealthier, healthier, and happier.

Solomon had spent decades in search of the meaning of life. And, in his relentless quest, he had tried wisdom and wickedness, viewing both as potential doorways to his desired destination. But God and a healthy reverence for Him were, and still are, the only ways for a man or woman to discover their true purpose in life and enjoy their days “under the sun.”

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Father Knows Best

1 A good name is better than precious ointment,
    and the day of death than the day of birth.
It is better to go to the house of mourning
    than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
    and the living will lay it to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
    for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
    but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise
    than to hear the song of fools.
For as the crackling of thorns under a pot,
    so is the laughter of the fools;
    this also is vanity.
Surely oppression drives the wise into madness,
    and a bribe corrupts the heart.
Better is the end of a thing than its beginning,
    and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.
Be not quick in your spirit to become angry,
    for anger lodges in the heart of fools.
10 Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
    For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
11 Wisdom is good with an inheritance,
    an advantage to those who see the sun.
12 For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money,
    and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it.
13 Consider the work of God:
    who can make straight what he has made crooked?

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. Ecclesiastes 7:1-14 ESV

Once again, using a steady, staccato stream of parables as his tool, Solomon provides us with yet more proof of the futility of a life lived under the sun. Still maintaining his somewhat pessimistic outlook, he utilizes a series of stark contrasts in order to support his central theme that all is vanity.

He juxtaposes birth and death, sorrow and laughter, wisdom and foolishness, the beginning and the end, and the patient and the proud. In each case, Solomon draws a conclusion, deeming one better than the other, and what he decides is meant to shock and surprise us. He starts out comparing birth with death, and while we might logically conclude that the beginning of life is preferable to its end, Solomon would disagree. And he uses a somewhat odd comparison to make his point. In verse one, Solomon utilizes a wordplay, using two similar sounding Hebrew words: shem and shemen, to make his point. Shem means “name” and refers to someone’s reputation. Shemen is the Hebrew word for “oil” and it typically refers to highly fragrant anointing oil.

Solomon states that a good name or reputation is better than precious ointment. To put it another way, he seems to be saying that being good is better than smelling good. A man who hasn’t bathed can douse himself with cologne, but he will only cover up the fact that he stinks. He isn’t fixing his problem; he’s simply masking it. His life is a sham and marked by hypocrisy.

Solomon uses shem and shemen to make a point about birth and death. While the beginning of life is associated with feasting and celebration, it masks the reality that much hurt and heartache lie ahead. A baby is born without a reputation. It has had no time to establish a name for itself. And no one knows the ultimate outcome of that child’s life. Yet, we celebrate and rejoice on the day of his birth. Solomon is not suggesting we cease celebrating a new birth, but that we recognize the end of one’s life is what truly matters. Why? Because we all face the same fate. Death is inevitable and inescapable. And when it comes time to mourn the life of someone we knew and loved, those who have managed to achieve and maintain a good reputation will be missed most. When it comes time to mourn the loss of someone of good character, sorrow will prove better than laughter, because the reflections on that individual’s life will bring sweet and lasting memories. It will remind the living of what is truly important, and the wise will glean invaluable lessons from a life lived well.

When a child is born, words of encouragement may be spoken, but they’re all hypothetical in nature. No one knows the future, so no one can presume to know how that child’s life will turn out. We can and should be hopeful, but we can’t be certain that our expectations will come to fruition. Yet, at the time of death, there will be irrefutable evidence that proves the true nature of a person’s life. A life lived well will be well documented and greatly celebrated. Even in the sorrow of the moment, there will be joy. Solomon puts it this way: “by sadness of face the heart is made glad” (Ecclesiastes 7:3 ESV). The memories of the one we have lost bring joy to our hearts and put a smile on our faces, and we experience the seeming dichotomy of sadness and gladness.

Solomon’s use of shem and shemen has ongoing application. He seems to be advocating a life that is lived beneath the surface – well beyond the shallow and pretentious trappings of materialism and hedonism. He refers to “the house of mirth,” the place where fools tend to gather. It is a place of joy and gladness, rejoicing and pleasure. The fool makes it his primary destination, believing that it is only there that his heart will find satisfaction and fulfillment.

But Solomon recommends the house of mourning, where sadness and sorrow are found. Again, it is at the end of one’s life that their true character will be revealed in detail. The tears of sorrow may be for one who lived his life well and whose departure will leave a hole in the lives of those left behind. But, in far too many cases, the tears flow out of sadness over a life that was little more than a facade. All was not as it appeared to be. The sweet-smelling oil of success and outer happiness merely masked the reality that there was nothing of value on the inside. The “perfumes” of life are the things we acquire and accumulate, none of which we can take with us. They represent the oil of achievement and visible success. Our homes, cars, clothes, portfolios, resumes, and 401ks may leave the impression that we had it all but, at death, they will prove of little value or significance. As Job so aptly put it, “I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be naked when I leave” (Job 1:21 NLT).

Solomon has learned that life should be accompanied by thoughtfulness and soberness. It requires serious reflection and careful examination to discover all that life has to offer. But we are prone to live life with our hearts and eyes set on those things that bring us the greatest amount of pleasure and satisfaction, temporary though they may be. We prefer the sweet-smelling, short-lived perfume of a self-indulgent lifestyle. We want it all now. We prefer joy to sorrow, pleasure over pain, happiness rather than heartache, and a good time instead a good name.

But Solomon knew from experience that living in the house of mirth never brings true happiness. He had learned the hard way that a life lived with pleasure as its primary focus rarely results in lasting satisfaction or true joy. Like perfume, its aroma faded with time. This is why Solomon always reverted to wisdom.

Wisdom is even better when you have money.
    Both are a benefit as you go through life.
Wisdom and money can get you almost anything,
    but only wisdom can save your life. – Ecclesiastes 7:11-12 NLT

Money might improve your life over the short term, but only wisdom can protect and prolong your life. And wisdom can’t be bought or acquired. It comes through observation and the application of life lessons, and that requires a willingness to look beneath the surface, beyond the pleasant-sounding lies of the enemy. The apostle John gives us some sober-sounding, wisdom-producing words to consider.

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT

And Solomon reminds us to look at life more soberly and seriously, judging it not from our limited human vantage point, but through the eyes of God.

Accept the way God does things, for who can straighten what he has made crooked? – Ecclesiastes 7:13 NLT

We see death as negative, the end of life. But God sees things differently. We view pleasure as preferable to pain, but God works in ways we can’t comprehend, using the seeming incongruities of life to teach us the most valuable lessons. And as before, Solomon boils his thoughts down to one simple suggestion:

Enjoy prosperity while you can, but when hard times strike, realize that both come from God. – Ecclesiastes 7:14 NLT

There is nothing wrong with enjoying the pleasures of life and the blessings that God bestows on us in this life. But we must recognize that God is found in the extremes of life. He is sovereign over all that we experience; the good, the bad, the pleasant, the painful, death and life, wealth and poverty, joy and sorrow. A wise man will look for God in everything and find Him. The fool will set his sights on experiencing joy, pleasure, satisfaction, significance, and pleasure, but miss God in the process.

For those who believe in God, the future is always bright because they know that He has a plan for them. They refuse to live in the past and they refrain from allowing the present to dominate their lives. Instead, they consider the words that God spoke to the people of Israel when they were living as exiles in the land of Babylon.

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. – Jeremiah 29:11 ESV

The wise realize that God is always at work. He never sleeps. He never stops implementing His sovereign plan for those He loves. And while life may sometimes take a turn for the worse, a believer understands that God is far from done. That’s why Solomon warns that living in the past is a waste of time. When things don’t turn out quite the way we expected, it doesn’t pay to reminisce and wax nostalgic.

Don’t long for “the good old days.”
    This is not wise. – Ecclesiastes 7:10 NLT

Keep trusting God. Focus your eyes on the future and trust that His sovereign plan will bring about the best outcome. He will not disappoint. Rather than judging God’s faithfulness by the quality of the circumstances surrounding your life, try resting in the fact that He knows what is best and has a purpose for everything that happens in life.

Accept the way God does things,
    for who can straighten what he has made crooked?
Enjoy prosperity while you can,
    but when hard times strike, realize that both come from God. – Ecclesiastes 7:13-14 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.