What Good are Righteousness and Wisdom? part 2 (Ecclesiastes 7:19-22)

We noticed last week that Solomon, in dealing with the inequities of life, wondered what value wisdom and righteousness have.  If the wise and righteous die early and have troubles, what use are they?  Solomon continues that theme in v. 19…

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.

You can see that Solomon is still on his quest to make life meaningful.  Even when he did not have all the answers, he still wanted to know the right way to live.  Wisdom does benefit us.

Elsewhere the Bible says that wisdom is pricier than pearls (Job 28:18) and “better than jewels” (Proverbs 8:11).  “How much better to get wisdom than gold!”  King Solomon said in one of his wise proverbs (Proverbs 16:16).  “The fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook” (Proverbs 18:4).  Earlier in this very chapter the Preacher told us that wisdom can be a life-saver (see Ecclesiastes 7:12).

Here he says that it will make us strong: “Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city” (Ecclesiastes 7:19).

Righteousness may not always protect us from adversity (vv. 15-16), but wisdom will help guard us against it (v. 19).

In this example Solomon invites us to imagine a city with ten rulers.  There is always strength in numbers, so this city is well off.  However, they would be even better aided even by one man with wisdom.

Wisdom governs thought; so the wise person knows how to think about things in a God-centered way.  Wisdom governs the will; so the wise person knows what choices to make in life.  Wisdom governs speech; so the wise person knows what to say and what not to say.  Wisdom governs action; so the wise person knows what to do in any and every situation.  Take hold of wisdom, and it will make you strong.

Wisdom is necessary because being right does not protect completely (v. 20).  

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

Solomon had expressed something similar in Proverbs 20:9, with the question: “Who can say, “I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin”?  The expected answer, of course, is “No one can say I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin.  No one!”

It also surfaces in Solomon’s prayer for the inauguration of the temple in 1 Kings 8:46-51.  Notice in the very first verse…

46 “If they sin against you–for there is no one who does not sin–and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near, 47 yet if they turn their heart in the land to which they have been carried captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captors, saying, ‘We have sinned and have acted perversely and wickedly,’ 48 if they repent with all their mind and with all their heart in the land of their enemies, who carried them captive, and pray to you toward their land, which you gave to their fathers, the city that you have chosen, and the house that I have built for your name, 49 then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause 50 and forgive your people who have sinned against you, and all their transgressions that they have committed against you, and grant them compassion in the sight of those who carried them captive, that they may have compassion on them 51 (for they are your people, and your heritage, which you brought out of Egypt, from the midst of the iron furnace).

We are all sinners.  We will sin, and our only recourse is to confess our sins to God and receive His forgiveness.

This verse, along with verse 29, show that Solomon recognizes that depravity affects everyone and everything they do.  A wise man will recognize this sinfulness in others and in himself.  I am a sinner; you are a sinner.  We all are sinners.  “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

And Isaiah says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned–every one–to his own way…” (Isaiah 53:6a)

In 1908, The Times newspaper asked a few authors to contribute on the topic “What’s wrong with the world?”  G. K. Chesterton submitted the briefest response.  He wrote: “Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G. K. Chesterton.”

What is wrong in my life?  I am.  What is wrong in my marriage?  I am.  What is wrong in my work?  I am.

We all are sinners.  Everything is broken.  We need to remember that.

The quest for perfection is futile in a fallen world, and even the most energetic and valiant efforts to achieve righteousness will be mixed with evil.  This is what theologians call total depravity.  We have all joined our first parent in his rebellion, and thus we have all experienced brokenness!

This verse describes the plight of man from the beginning.  It recalls God’s judgment of humanity before the worldwide flood.  In Genesis 6:5 God declares very plainly:

5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 

In the words of the General Confession, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.”  Thus, there are sins of omission and commission.

Paul, quoting from Psalm 14, says…

10 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”  (Romans 3:10-12)

Sin is depicted in many ways throughout the Scripture.

“Sin can be seen as transgression, which presupposes laws that are being transgressed.  Sometimes sin is portrayed as a power that overcomes us.  Frequently sin is tied ineluctably to idolatry.  Sin can be envisaged as dirt, as missing the target, as folly, as tied to the ‘flesh’ (a notoriously difficult concept to capture in one English word), as unbelief, as slavery, as spiritual adultery, as disobedience” (Fallen, ed by Christopher Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, p. 27)

So, it is wise to understand both that we are sinners, and that we are married to sinners, and work with sinners, and play with sinners, and live in a world of sinners.

If a ruler has too high a view of human nature, he will make one of two mistakes.  He will be overly strict and unwilling to overlook common human frailties.  Or he will be too lenient and let the people run rampant on the assumption that they will naturally do what is right.

Don’t look for perfection in yourself or in others.  There is no-one who ever gets it right all the time, says Koheleth: everyone makes mistakes. 

Solomon illustrated the fact—in verses 21 and 22—that no one is perfectly righteous.  If you think you are perfect, just ask those closest to you if you are (v. 21).  If people are honest with themselves, they will admit that they are not perfect (v. 22).

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.

No one is free from sin, and this should have an effect on the way one responds to reports. There is much more than a mere prohibition against eavesdropping in v. 21.  If one hears rumors and discovers a curse that has been uttered, one should not respond foolishly; rather, one should look at one’s own failings.  Like Tommy Nelson says, “Don’t be surprised that some people don’t like you.  And don’t be surprised that, because of your sin, some of them have a good reason to dislike you!” (The Problem of Life with God, p. 117)

Few of us are immune to other’s opinions about us.  How we hang on every word of praise and defend ourselves against every criticism.

Chuck Swindoll says this about both the flattery of praise and the sting of criticism:

When we receive lavish praise, we should not let it inflate our egos nor ascribe to it undue importance.  Wisdom equips us to keep our feet anchored in reality while others are trying to lift us into an undiscerning dreamworld.  (Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge, 72)

Sometimes we receive unjustified and untimely criticism from others–even from those individuals who are closest to us.  If we put stock in all the “bad press” we receive, we will end up with a distorted view of ourselves that could cause us to become intimidated, defeated, and guilt-ridden.  Wisdom can help us separate valid and valuable criticism from that which is inaccurate and destructive.  Solomon also reminds us in these verses that we are sometimes guilty of judging others falsely.  Acknowledging this fact can prod us to abstain from giving false criticism as well as help us handle unjust remarks when we receive them.  (Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge, 72)

First, in integrity we should close our “heart” if not our ears to what other people are saying about us.  To take seriously the words of others by mulling them over is to put ourselves at risk of being hurt or of judging others harshly.  The picture of the “servant cursing” (or perhaps “demeaning” or “disparaging”) the owner makes the situation both realistic and graphic. 

Second, in integrity we should face our own propensity to sin by remembering the times, whether in words or by thoughts (“heart”), we have spoken badly of others and heaped harsh wishes on their heads.  “Judge not, that you be not judged” was Jesus’ way of putting this matter (Mt 7:1).  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 171-72)

This is one of the ways we know that we are all sinners—not only have others said hurtful things about us, but we have said hurtful things about others.

Because we are sinners we all need grace, and we need to extend grace to others.

What Solomon says here is excellent advice, says Derek Kidner, “since to take too seriously what people say of us is asking to get hurt, and in any case we have all said some wounding things in our time.”

Even if we do not have servants to curse us, 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 and feel wounded.  What we ought to do instead is 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,” Pascal darkly observed, “there would not be four friends in the world” (Blaise Pascal, Thoughts, The Harvard Classics, Vol. 48, trans. W. F. Trotter (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1910), p. 45). 

If we are wise, we will be careful not to take too much interest in what other people say about us: “Listeners, standing upon the tip-toe of suspicion, seldom hear good of themselves.”

This is a lesson that Lucy learned when she looked inside the magician’s book, a story told in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis.  As she was leafing through a book of magical incantations, Lucy saw a spell that would enable her to hear what her friends were saying about her.  Her curiosity got the best of her, and foolishly she cast the spell.  Soon she could overhear Marjorie Preston telling Anne Featherstone that although Lucy was “not a bad little kid in her way,” she “was getting pretty tired of her before the end of term” (C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1952), p. 143).  It would have been wiser for Lucy to leave well enough alone rather than to ruin a reasonably good friendship.

Both critical remarks and flattering words can be our ruin.  It is best not to listen in.

Qoheleth reminds us that at times we have not been careful about our own speech.

“Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others” (Ecclesiastes 7:22)

Think about it.  This is reality.  We have all said things behind someone’s back that we wouldn’t dream of saying to their face.  Sometimes we have spoken out of frustration, or out of a desire to make ourselves look better.  Sometimes we have misspoken because we haven’t bothered to get all the facts.  Other times, our criticisms were really more about what is wrong with us than what is wrong with someone else.

“The fact that we often speak ill of others should make us less open to take offence at what is said of ourselves, and prepared to expect unfavorable comments” from others.

Whatever the reasons, there are times when we ourselves are guilty of unkind speech.  We are living proof that we are sinners (v. 20, 22).  Since we fail to live up to God’s standards, we should be slow to judge other people and slow to take to heart any negative things others say about us.

If we are wise, we will remember that we (and others) are both finite and fallen.  We will make allowances for one another.

In his book Lectures to My Students, Charles Spurgeon gave a chapter to this verse, which he titled “The Blind Eye and the Deaf Ear.”  In that chapter he gave wise advice to pastors and Christian workers that they should sometimes (if not often) simply overlook unkind and thoughtless things others say and do.  We would not want to be judged by our worst moments; and thus we should not judge others by their faults and failures.  He went on to say, “You cannot stop people’s tongues and therefore the best thing to do is to stop your own ears and never mind what is spoken.  There is a world of idle chitchat abroad, and he who takes note of it will have enough to do.”

Only because of God’s grace can we be free of sin.  As believers in Jesus Christ, we are no longer slaves to sin.  We are no longer under the dominion of sin.  However, we still battle, like Paul did in Romans 7, doing what we don’t want to do.

We are, in the words of Martin Luther, simul Justus et Peccator, simultaneously justified and sinners.  We are declared righteous positionally while we still struggle with sins due to still being in these mortal bodies.

But because we have been forgiven, we can forgive others.  It is the only way relationships can work well, if they are greased by grace, if we recognize that we are all sinners in need of and having received grace.

Since we are all justified sinners (those who are believers in Jesus Christ) we don’t expect perfection from others.  We are not surprised when others let us down.  We give grace because we have been given grace.

As justified sinners, we need more than anything to guard our tongues.  Why?  Because as Solomon says, and James agrees, out of the same mouth can come “blessing and cursing” (James 3:10).  Apparently, this wild thing we call the tongue cannot be tamed.  But since the mouth speaks out of the overflow of the heart, we can guard our tongues by guarding our hearts.  We guard our hearts by being wary about what we focus upon, that we allow our hearts to be attracted to through the eye gate and the ear gate.

We can guard our hearts by doing what Paul recommends in Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

If we focus on these things, then our mouths will speak these things.  We will then, through our words “give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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