What Good are Wisdom and Righteousness? part 3 (Ecclesiastes 7:23-29

In the book of Ecclesiastes Solomon has been seeking meaning, purpose, fulfillment and satisfaction in this life.  He has tried wisdom and pleasure, but came up empty.  Maybe because of the gift God had given him of an understanding heart, he still hasn’t given up on wisdom.  But it is a frustrating pursuit.  Listen to what he says at the end of Ecclesiastes 7:

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.

Doesn’t that sound like exasperation?  Wisdom, wisdom that satisfies and makes life better, seems just out of reach.  The Preacher has touted wisdom’s strength and value in v. 19, but now tells us how hard wisdom is to find.

Solomon seems to have dedicated his life to this pursuit.  Notice the active verbs he uses to describe his quest.  “All this I have tested by wisdom,” he says (Ecclesiastes 7:23).  Or again, “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” (Ecclesiastes 7:25).

His words actually apply to everything that he has investigated since the beginning of Ecclesiastes, when he said, “I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 1:13).

Yet at the end of all his questing he had to admit — very reluctantly — that he had failed to find the wisdom he had been seeking all his life.  “It was far from me,” he lamented.  “That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?” (Ecclesiastes 7:23–24).  

At this point it almost seems as if the whole book of Ecclesiastes may end in dismal defeat.  Solomon is looking for wisdom that he cannot find.  His quest has failed.  He is unable to explain the purpose of life, or to explain why everything matters.

Derek Kidner describes these verses as “the epitaph of every philosopher” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 71).  Indeed, many philosophers have come to this point in their search for meaning and have struggled to go any farther.  According to Horace, “Life’s short span forbids us to enter on far reaching hopes” (Horace for English Readers: Being a Translation of the Poems of Quintus Horatius Flaccus into English Prose , trans. E. C. Wickham (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1903), p. 30).  Or consider the words of Pascal, from his famous Pensées :

When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity that lies before and after it, when I consider the little space I fill and I see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I rest frightened, and astonished, for there is no reason why I should be here rather than there. Who put me here? Why now rather than then? (Thoughts, The Harvard Classics, Vol. 48, trans. W. F. Trotter (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1910), p. 78)

Sooner or later we all come to this point.  Unanswered questions and lingering doubts.

Why am I here?  What is my purpose in life?  Is there anything left after death?

Some give up at this point.  But the better course is to proceed with a newfound humility, with the disposition of realizing just how unfathomable God is, yet He has called us into a relationship and wants to be known.

As Tommy Nelson reminds us, “You don’t abandon your faith because you can’t figure it out.  You don’t punt because God didn’t behave.  You trust in what you know, not in how you feel” (Tommy Nelson, A Life well Lived, 126)

Knowing the limits of wisdom is part of wisdom.  The more we know, the more we should realize how little we know, and that whatever wisdom we gain comes as a gift from God.  As
Derek Kidner says…

“The honest admission of failure to find wisdom – of watching it in fact recede with every step one takes, discovering that none of our soundings ever gets to the bottom of things – this is, if not the beginning of wisdom, a good path to that beginning.”

The heart of the problem, of course, is sin.  Solomon has made several references to human sinfulness in 3:16-17; 4:1; 5:8; 7:7, 20.  Here in this section he provides insight into how this sorry condition came about.  He says in verse 29, “God made man upright, but they have sought our many schemes.”  It resonates with that passage which expresses total depravity in Genesis 6:5, “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.”

This theological assessment of human evil underscores the spread of sin in at least three ways.

First, it describes sin’s distributive spread among humans.  Just as people began to “multiply” on the face of the land (6:1a), so sin proportionately multiplied until it was “great.”

Second, the verse highlights the inward spread of sin.  Not merely the actions of humans but their mental conceptions and volitional affections are tainted and inclined towards evil.

Moreover, this inward character of sin is pervasive and prevailing in the words “every” and “only.”  Thus Moses affirms the doctrine of total depravity.

Thirdly, Genesis 6:5 underscores the durative spread of sin.  That is, as God surveys the human landscape, he does not only see intermittent discreet acts of sin but a perpetual habit (“continually”) toward sinful behavior.  Humankind is thoroughly given over to the sway of evil.

And as we notice in the next verse, it breaks God’s heart.

You might notice the play on words.  Solomon has been searching to find out “the scheme of things” (vv. 25, 27), while as a sinner we seek out “many schemes” of sin.

The reality is, as Solomon had painfully learned, that the connections between wisdom and righteousness, on the one hand, and folly and wickedness on the other, are especially close in this paragraph.  As in Proverbs 9, the dames wisdom and folly both call out.  Wisdom helps us escape the folly of sin.

In one way or another, the troubles of life always come back to the existence of sin in our lives.  And that sin affects our relationships as well.

By way of example, Qoheleth describes one kind of woman that it would be wise to avoid: “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” (Ecclesiastes 7:26).

Is Solomon referring to a literal woman, a seductress like Delilah?  Or is he referring metaphorically to the woman of folly in Proverbs 9?  Some believe that the Preacher was referring specifically to pagan philosophy.

I think he is speaking of a literal woman.  As Philip Ryken says…

Somewhere along the way he met a woman who tried to destroy him (cf. Proverbs 2:18–19; 5:4–5).  He is not saying that all women are like this, but some of them are, and a wise person will heed his warning to flee from their temptations.

We see this happening in Solomon’s life in 1 Kings 11:

1 Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, 2 from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. 3 He had 700 wives, princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. 4 For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father. 5 For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. 6 So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and did not wholly follow the LORD, as David his father had done. 

Throughout Proverbs 5-7 Solomon had warned about the seductive adulteress.  He acknowledges there and here in Ecclesiastes 7 that there is great danger, more bitter than death.  She will lead you into soul-destroying sin, your capacity for true intimacy will be destroyed, and your fellowship with God will be broken.

This verse, as well as Proverbs 5-7, tells us that there is a way of escape.  “He who pleases God escapes her.”  Like Joseph, he flees the grasp of the adulteress.  But the “sinner is taken by her.”  One who gives in to his sexual desires will be trapped.

When we are in the midst of temptation, we tend to stop thinking rationally.  We forget God’s promises and we ignore the consequences of sin.  This is why, to enable us to say “no” to temptation, we need to strengthen our inner resolve and our conscience through regular interaction with God’s Word in a way that we keep ourselves in the love of God.  The greater we realize that He loves us, the more we will love Him and be able to say no to lesser joys.  We sin because we don’t maintain our joy in Jesus.  We think we will find greater joy in our sin.  But there is no greater joy than Jesus Christ.

By telling us that there is a way of escape (see 1 Corinthians 10:13), the Preacher made it clear that he believed in the possibility of holiness.

But he was still disappointed by all the ungodliness around him. If he had met one sinful woman, he had met a thousand.  Listen to the futility of his quest to find someone living a wise and righteous life: “Behold, this is what I found, says the Preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things — 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” (Ecclesiastes 7:27–28).

Jamieson sees in this allusion to “a thousand” a reference to Solomon’s three hundred wives and seven hundred concubines.  Obviously this was not a happy situation, even though we can be sure that he added more and more wives thinking that it would make him more happy.

Again, Solomon is looking diligently for wisdom, seeking it “repeatedly, but I have not found.”

He looked for it in his relationships and found it to be sorely lacking.  One man in a thousand had wisdom, but not a single woman.  His point is the absolute rarity of wisdom and righteousness.

This speaks more about Solomon’s choice of female companionship than it does about the relative wisdom of men and women.

“His fruitless search for a woman he could trust may tell us as much about him and his approach, as about any of his acquaintances.” (Derek Kidner)

“Such as he knew her to be in Oriental courts and homes, denied her proper position, degraded, uneducated, all natural affections crushed or underdeveloped, the plaything of her lord, to be flung aside at any moment.  It is not surprising that Koheleth’s impression of the female sex should be unfavorable.” (Deane)

“He found that a harem did not provide the appropriate companion for man.  How much better he would have been with one good wife, such as he speaks of in Ecclesiastes 9:9 and Proverbs 31!” (Wright)

Now, before we think that Solomon is being sexist, realize that if we take the whole of Scripture (and I think even what Solomon is saying in context) is that both men and women are foolish sinners.

Lest we think that the Preacher viewed men any more positively than women, we need to remember what he said in verse 20: “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.”  Even the one good man that he found in a thousand was still a sinner.

Solomon in vv. 27-28 is not universalizing this situation, but speaking of his own situation.  In fact, his foreign wives, according to 1 Kings 11, had led him into sin.  Their hearts were a bitter trap that led to his downfall.  Apparently he had not experienced a Proverbs 31 woman among his own wives.

Verses 20 and 29 do universalize the reality that every person has sinned.  Again, verse 20, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.”  Every person is a sinner.  And verse 29, “God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.”

Here we have a broad indictment against humanity — what Charles Bridges called a “humbling testimony to the universal and total corruption of the whole race of man” (A Commentary on Ecclesiastes , p. 168).

In this verse Solomon is clearly not saying that men are proportionately more righteous than women.  Every person—male or female—is a sinner.

As to the original creation, Adam and Eve were created innocent.  They were not originally sinners.  “He was created neither sinful, nor neutral, but upright, a word used of the state of the heart which is disposed to faithfulness or obedience.” (Eaton)

But sin entered into the world through Eve and Adam.  Even though Eve ate first, God held Adam primarily responsible because he was the head of the household.  According to Paul, he sinned willingly.

By “his own free will,” wrote Charles Bridges, Adam “became the author of his own ruin” (Ibid. p. 179).

Not just his own ruin: Adam’s sin is the ruin of us all.  John Calvin thus compared Adam to a root that goes rotten and then ruins a whole tree.

God made us upright, thus able to make wise and righteous choices and please God.  Who is responsible for the universal failure to please God?  Not God.  We are.

To come from “the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,” said C. S. Lewis, “is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on the earth” (Prince Caspian (New York: HarperCollins, 1979), p. 233).

Depravity is the one doctrine of the Christian faith that can be proven empirically.  Mark Twain may not have been much of a theologian, but as an astute observer of human nature he made this wry remark about the effect of Adam’s sin: “Whoever has lived long enough to find out what life is, knows how deep a debt of gratitude we owe to Adam, the first great benefactor of our race. He brought death into the world” (The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson and the Comedy of the Extraordinary Twins (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1922), p. 18). 

The Apostle Paul would agree: “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).

That is as far as Ecclesiastes will take us, but thank God the rest of the Bible tells us the remedy for our sin.

The first Adam is not the only Adam.  There is the last Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45), Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is the only man who ever remained totally upright and never fell into sin.  By virtue of his perfect life and atoning death, he offers to forgive us for all our wicked schemes. 

J. Gresham Machen, a stalwart defender of the faith against the onslaught of liberalism in the early 20th century, traveled to North Dakota to fulfill a number of speaking engagements.  Already exhausted, the bitterly cold weather caused him to develop pneumonia.

On January 1, 1937, Machen, near death, dictated his final words in a telegram to colleague John Murray at Westminster: “I’m so thankful for [the] active obedience of Christ.  No hope without it.”

What did he mean?  The “active obedience” of Christ was the fact that He lived His life without sin.  His “passive obedience” was His submission to death on the cross.

Although it is true that “many died through one man’s trespass,” it is also true that those who “receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness” will live “through the one man Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:15, 17). 

Even if we do not have the wisdom to solve all the deep mysteries of life or to figure out everything there is to know about our place in the universe, we should at least be wise enough to see the deadly sin in our own hearts and to ask Jesus to be our Savior.  (Philip Graham Ryken, Preaching the Word: Ecclesiastes, 179)

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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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