We’ve noticed in Ecclesiastes 7 that Solomon realizes that he needs to accept the sovereignty of God over all of life. He won’t always get answers and things won’t always turn out the way they should, but God is in control. Knowing that theologically, however, does not mean that it is easy to work that out in the inequities and confusions of everyday life.
This disquiet over the “unfairness of life” is expressed throughout the remainder of Ecclesiastes 7, starting in verse 15…
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.
Solomon begins with a summary statement: “In my vain life I have seen everything.” That’s almost like the exasperated, “Now I’ve seen it all.” In other words, as I’ve gone through this life, what I’ve experienced has been disappointing and confusing.
If there is a serious question in life that needs a mature, well-thought-out answer, it is the question, “Why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper?” Have you, or someone you know, ever asked that question? It is a common objection to Christianity from atheists. They argue that if God is good, then good people shouldn’t suffer.
But they do.
That is what Solomon starts with in verse 15:
“There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing” (Ecclesiastes 7:15).
This is the exact opposite of what most people would expect in a world that is governed by a good and righteous God. If life works out like it should in a moral universe, then righteous people should be rewarded with long life and prosperity, while the wicked should suffer adversity. But all too often we see it play out exactly like the Preacher says, the good die young and the ungodly keep on living and prospering.
The Jewish people, especially, believed as they were taught—that God rewards obedience and punishes disobedience. Didn’t God tell the people that the obedient would live long (Exodus 20:12; Deut. 4:40) and the disobedient would perish (? (Duet. 4:25-26; Psalm 55:23).
The book of Job deals with this question, as well as Asaph in Psalm 73.
The problem is, according to Cornelius Plantinga, that things are “not the way they are supposed to be” because of sin. Because of the curse and because of personal sin, life is often “unfair.”
Godly pastors are martyred for their faith, while their enemies live to terrorize the church another day. Innocent victims get cut down in the prime of life; their killers get convicted, but instead of dying, they get life in prison. It’s just not fair!
Why did Betsy Ten Boom die in a Nazi concentration camp? This holy heroine, who mentored her sister Corrie, died without a husband or children. If I were God, I would have saved that woman, given her a husband, and let her have fifteen kids all greater than she. Here was this ideal woman who died a horrible death in the most atrocious conditions. Why?
We have a hard time understanding this, especially when our perspective is “under the sun.” Asaph was only able to understand things when he took an eternal perspective, then he realized that he would experience glory with God while the wicked would be destroyed (Psalm 73:17-24). Paul reinforces this eternal perspective in Romans 8:18 and 28, as well as 2 Corinthians 4:16-18.
Now, verses 16-18 may at first seem to be saying, “Don’t overdo it. Play it safe.” It seems to be saying to live in moderation. Don’t be too righteous or too wise. This is what the ancient Greeks and Romans called the “golden mean.” The golden mean or golden middle way is the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. It appeared in Greek thought at least as early as the Delphic maxim “nothing in excess” and emphasized in later Aristotelian philosophy. For example, in the Aristotelian view, courage is a virtue, but if taken to excess would manifest as recklessness, and, in deficiency, cowardice.
Of course, in some ways this is the way people think today. I don’t know how many people I’ve talked to about salvation in Jesus Christ say to me, “I hope I’ve been good enough.” They seem to think that if they’ve done just a little more good than bad, that it is enough to impress God and find approval with Him.
Solomon is not championing mediocrity. If we follow Paul’s example, we know we should “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Solomon is not telling us to play the game right to so we can win it. Don’t be a calculator. Righteousness doesn’t always pay; sometimes wickedness does, therefore figure out how to play the game so that you can win, is the way these people think.
But in verse 16, as Warren Wiersbe points out, the verbs carry the idea of reflexive action. In other words, he was warning them against self-righteousness and the pride that comes when we think we have “arrived” and know it all. Solomon seems to be making in clear in v. 20 that there are no really righteous people “who does good and never sins.” So, he is telling people neither to pretend to be righteous nor to pretend to be wise. He doesn’t commend being so bent on being holy or informed that one forgets the grace of God.
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”? No, 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” (Exposition of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1952), p. 163).
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 for someone like us ever to have a crook in our lot. 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 not to 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.
This is not to say that we should be unrighteous, of course. The Preacher warns against this mistake in verse 17 when he tells us not to be too 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: “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” 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.”
So there are two dangers, two poles between which we live. One is the temptation of the religious person—self-righteous, like the elder brother in Luke 15. We believe because of our sacrifice and service to God that He owes us a good life.
Tim Keller reminds us: “The elder brother is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness, but because of it. It is not his sins that create the barrier between him and his father, it’s the pride he has in his moral record; it’s not his wrongdoing but his righteousness that is keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father.”
The other is more a temptation for the non-religious person, the younger prodigal, and that is unrighteousness, to live in self-indulgent sin.
But there is a way to avoid both of these dangers, and that is to live in the fear of God. Qoholeth says, “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” (Ecclesiastes 7:18).
This verse is somewhat difficult to understand, but when the Preacher tells us to “take hold of this” and not to withhold our hand “from that,” he is looking back to the advice that he gave in verses 16–17. He is saying something like, “The right life walks the path between two extremes, shunning self-righteousness, but not allowing one’s native wickedness to run its own course.”
We are to grab hold of that righteous but not self-righteous path with all our might. It is hard to stay balanced. We naturally swing the pendulum from one side to the other. But we need to maintain a humble commitment to righteousness. When we do this, we will avoid the death and destruction that will surely befall us if we live sinfully and self-righteously.
To say it more simply, the right way for us to live is in the fear of God. Notice in verse 18 that the person who “fears God” will escape the dangers of death and destruction. The fear of God is one of the great themes of the second half of Ecclesiastes, as the book moves from the vanity of life to the fear of its Creator. When we get to the very end of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher will tell us to “fear God and keep his commandments” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). Here he tells us to fear God and escape the coming judgment.
To fear God is to revere God. It is to acknowledge that God exists, that He has the authority to direct our lives, and that He is always watching us and will hold us accountable.
You know how much better you act or work when someone is watching you. Realize that God is always watching you, and He even knows what you are thinking and feeling. Fearing God means we take all that seriously.
Fearing God means that we acknowledge His authority over our lives—that He is God and we are not. It means holding Him in awe for His majestic power, having respect for His holiness.
The fear of God will also keep us from living a wicked life, because when we understand his holiness, the last thing we will want to do is fall under his judgment.
Jesus Christ came to give us His wisdom and righteousness, holiness and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30). Outside of God’s grace, you and I don’t have the righteousness or wisdom that we need to help ourselves.
John Newton, the former slave trader and author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” once said: “When I get to heaven, I will be amazed at three things. I will be amazed at those I though would be there who are not there, those I did not think would be there who are there, and the fact that I am there at all.”
Early in his ministry the apostle Paul called himself “the least of the apostles.” Later on he said that he was the least of all Christians. Then later in life he said that he was “the chief of sinners.” The older he got the more he abhorred his own sinfulness and stood in awe of the grace of Jesus Christ through the cross.
The image above is a diagram created by Paul Miller called “the Cross Chart,” and it is one helpful way of understanding growth in the Christian life. As you grow, your estimation of God’s holiness increases, your estimation of yourself decreases, and your appreciation for the Gospel of grace expands to fill the gap. These three things are not objectively changing, but your awareness of them is. (If you leave off or distort one of those three elements of the chart, you’re in trouble.)
It can be extremely discouraging to fixate on that bottom line, the decreasing estimation of oneself. Over time, God works against our self-deception, lifts our self-imposed blindness to what’s inside of us. Bit by bit, he allows us to see ourselves as we truly are. If he did this all at once, we’d probably go insane with depression. But, in his grace, he takes time to show us how bad things really are in our hearts, in our flesh (and he offsets that painful discovery by granting us deeper trust in his gracious love). We’re not actually getting worse, but we’re seeing our sin more clearly, so it might feel that way. In actuality, we are likely growing in holiness.
There’s another way to understand this dynamic of feeling worse about ourselves as we grow in Christ. The Christian life is a battle of spirit versus flesh. I’m not sure how to explain this on a metaphysical level, but we’re somehow torn between warring factions in our persons. There’s the self-in-itself, “the old man,” the dead and dying flesh indwelt by sin… and there’s the self-in-Christ, “the new man,” the reborn and living spirit indwelt by God’s Spirit. These two are locked in mortal combat. (The good news is, because of Jesus, there’s already a clear winner.)
As we grow in Christ, the battle becomes sharper, more defined, more intense. We learn no longer to “fight” the sinful flesh by means of sinful flesh. For example, we no longer suppress our sinful anger by means of our sinful pride. (That’s the only way to “fight” available before becoming a Christian—but it’s not really a fight, is it?) As Christians, we know the only way to kill our sin is by the Spirit, by growth in grace, by Gospel-changed motives. Our spirits grow stronger as we fix our eyes on Christ, but when we “let our guard drop,” our sinful flesh flails about unchecked, like a desperate, wild animal that sees an opening and goes for it. It is now less restrained by other sinful motives, so it lashes out more visibly and aggressively when not restrained by the power of the Spirit. So, in a sense, displays of the flesh may indeed grow worse; your angry outbursts might be louder or more heated. But, ultimately, your faith is on a general trajectory of growth, and those displays will probably be fewer and farther between as the fruit of the Spirit grow in you.
The key to encouragement through this war is fixing your eyes on the Gospel. Like the cross chart above, you need to have a greater vision of God’s grace to you in Jesus Christ, to keep you from despairing as your estimation of yourself tanks. “Look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). He has already gained the victory over all your sin, and he shares his righteousness with you freely as a gift of his grace.
When John Newton was about to pass away, a young pastor by the name of William Jay came to ask him for some pearls of pastoral wisdom. Here is what Newton said:
“Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”
John Newton was preaching the gospel to himself, something we need to do every day.