December 17, 2017 Series: Ecclesiastes
Topic: Expository Passage: Ecclesiastes 7:13-25
Good morning! Please turn in your Bibles to Ecclesiastes 7. My goal last week was to get through v. 14 so that we could finish up chapter 7 this morning. But we only got through v. 12 last week, so we’ll stop at v. 25 today. The last half of Ecclesiastes 7 includes two pretty controversial passages. There’s the one that says, “Don’t be too righteous and don’t be too wicked,” and then there’s the one that says, “I find more bitter than death the woman,” and, “One man among a thousand I have found, but a woman among all these I have not found.” I figured it wouldn’t be wise to try to tackle both of those passages this morning. So the bitter woman will have to wait until January. J
Hopefully you remember from last week that chapter 7 begins a new section in the book of Ecclesiastes, and that the topic of this new section is wisdom. Many verses in Ecclesiastes 7-10 sound like they could have been taken straight from Proverbs. Last week, my main point was, “Be wise.” This week, I’d like to zero in a little bit more on what it means to be wise. My proposition this morning is that fearing God involves humility and discipline. Let’s begin by reading this passage together (Eccl 7:13-25).
TRANSITION: Fearing God involves humility and discipline. Point #1: humility accepts God’s plan; discipline stops to consider it (vv. 13-14).
Point #1: humility accepts God’s plan; discipline stops to consider it.
Humility accepts God’s plan. In v. 13, Solomon tells his readers to consider something. What are we supposed to consider? (“the work of God”) So here again is the theme of God’s providence. Whatever happens, happens (ultimately) because God wanted it to happen! He is in control over what we would refer to as “good” events, and He is in control over what we would refer to as “bad” events. But even when “bad” events take place, we can rest in the assurance that He is wise and good and that He makes everything beautiful in His time. That’s the theology; now how should we respond to it?
If we’re humble, we’ll accept God’s plan. You know the saying, “Take what you get and don’t throw a fit”? That’s essentially what Solomon is saying here. If God gives you prosperity, enjoy it! But if He gives you adversity, you need to accept that, too. I think of what Job said to his wife when she told him to curse God and die. He said, “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?” He said, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; Blessed be the name of the LORD.” Is that your attitude when things go wrong? What a challenging statement!
I want you to notice two things about God’s plan. First, you can’t change it (v. 13b). This verse picks up a proverb from chapter 1 (1:15). When we discussed this passage, we said that there are problems in this world that we will never fix. That’s one of the reasons that work cannot satisfy. But when we come to chapter 7, who does Solomon understand to be responsible for these problems, at least in the ultimate sense? (God!) Now that’s not to say that Solomon blames God for sin. He says in v. 29 that “God made man upright, But they have sought out many schemes.” Our sin is not God’s fault; it’s our fault. And yet God is in control of everything that happens, and that includes sin and misfortune! All that to say that what God has “made crooked,” no man can straighten. You can’t change God’s plan.
However, you can trust His reasoning. Why did God appoint adversity as well as prosperity, according to v. 14? (“So that man can find out nothing that will come after him”) Back in chapter 3, we learned that one of reasons God allows injustice is so that mankind will come to grips with their own mortality. In other words, the pain is meant to humble us, so that we will discover true joy. The same concept is in play here. If life were mechanically predictable, then we would become cocky and forget God. So it’s actually a mercy that I don’t know what’s going to happen to me next year. For some of us, 2018 will be a year of prosperity. For others, it will be a year of adversity. The fact that we don’t know what’s coming makes us all the more dependent on Him.
Humility accepts God’s plan, but discipline stops to consider it. The command to consider shows up twice in vv. 13-14. We are to think about God’s plan as it unfolds. Why? First, because in doing so, we learn important lessons about God Himself. That’s why the focus in v. 13 is on the work of God. But we also learn important lessons about how we are supposed to live. It’s instructive that Solomon repeats the command to consider when talking about adversity. Some of the most important lessons you will ever learn you will learn during times of adversity. How many of you have found that to be true? One of the hymns we learned recently refers to “treasures of the darkness.” Do you have some of those treasures in your chest? Aren’t some of those treasures more valuable than anything we could obtain during times of prosperity? Then why would we resist adversity? But of course, if we want to obtain those treasures, we must stop to consider what God may be teaching us, and that takes discipline. Humility accepts God’s plan; discipline stops to consider it.
Humility avoids legalism; discipline avoids license (vv. 15-18).
Verse 15 starts out with the phrase, “I have seen everything in my days of vanity.” Solomon says, “I’ve seen it all! In fact, I’ve even seen a righteous man die in his righteousness and a wicked man prolong his life in wickedness!” Why was that a big deal? (Because God had promised long life to those who kept His law) Where do we find that in the Bible? How about Exodus 20:12: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving to you”? Or Proverbs 3:1-2: “My son, do not forget my law, But let your heart keep my commandments; For length of days and long life And peace they will add to you.” Or how about Psalm 1? The righteous will be “like a tree Planted by the rivers of water, That brings forth its fruit in its season, Whose leaf also shall not wither; And whatever he does shall prosper. The ungodly are not so, But are like the chaff which the wind drives away.” What do verses like these mean? According to Ecclesiastes 7:15, they cannot mean that the righteous always live to be old and the wicked always die young. God’s economy is not that mechanically formulaic.
That brings us to v. 16. Of course, when reading v. 16, what jumps out at you? (the phrase “do not be overly righteous, Nor be overly wise” because that seems to imply that it’s possible to take righteousness or wisdom too far) But equally troubling is the phrase, “do not be overly wicked”! What does that phrase seem to imply? (that it’s okay to be a little bit wicked!) So some commentators think that Solomon is saying, “Listen, don’t be a zealot about righteousness and wisdom, because those things don’t always pan out.” Do you have a problem with that interpretation, theologically? You should! We should always interpret Scripture with Scripture. So can you think of any passages that contradict the idea that it’s possible to take righteousness too far and that a little wickedness is okay? God says, “Be ye holy, for I am holy”; if that’s the standard we’re aiming for, we can never try too hard! Also, God says that we are to seek Him with our whole hearts. That implies 100% effort! And we could go on and on.
So obviously we have theological reasons to doubt that interpretation, but do we also have exegetical reasons to doubt it? Yes, we do. Look at v. 18, and notice especially the last phrase (v. 18). The book of Proverbs says that the fear of the LORD is what? (“the beginning of wisdom”) So whenever we see “the fear of the LORD,” we ought to equate that with biblical wisdom. Now let’s think real hard about this. Solomon says that the one who fears the LORD (in other words, the one with biblical wisdom) will escape what? (the fate of being “too wise”!) Do you think there’s more going on here than originally meets the eye!? I would say so.
Now, three other pieces of information that you need to assimilate. First, the word “overly” is a bit of a stretch. A more literal translation of that word would be “greatly.” Second, the middle line in v. 15 contains a type of verb that is used elsewhere to talk about the way a person views or presents himself. We could translate it, “Nor make yourself overly wise,” as in pretending to be wise. Third, the Hebrew word translated, “destroy yourself” at the end of v. 16 means “be astounded” in every other place it occurs in the Old Testament. So with those things in mind, here’s my translation of v. 16: “Do not be greatly righteous nor make yourself greatly wise; why should you be astounded?”
You say, “Pastor Kris, what does that mean?” Here’s what I think it means (and this is a quote from a commentary). When Solomon says, “Don’t be greatly righteous,” he is talking about legalism and retribution theology. Perhaps the best way to break this down is to ask, “What’s wrong with the righteousness/wisdom in v. 16?” (and notice, righteousness and wisdom are parallel in that verse) Here’s what I would say.
#1, it’s legalistic in the sense that it employs retribution theology. Do you know what retribution theology is? Retribution theology turns God’s principles and promises into mechanical formulas for achieving blessing in this life. In other words, “God says that the one who honors his parents will have a long life. I’ve honored my parents, so God better give me a long life!” “God says, ‘You reap what you sow.’ I’ve given God a lot of money, so He better make me rich!” Do you see any problems with this line of thinking? One of the biggest problems with retribution theology is that it leaves no place for trials. If righteousness always leads to prosperity and sin always leads to adversity, then what do you do with Job? You grill him till he admits his secret sin! Right? That’s what Job’s friends did! Because based on their retribution theology, they had no category for a righteous person who is suffering.
The second problem with the righteousness/wisdom in v. 16 is that it’s conceited and inaccurate, since no one is completely righteous. The central theological theme that runs throughout the second half of Ecclesiastes 7 is the depravity of man (vv. 20, 29). A person makes himself out to be greatly righteous or wise has missed the fact that he is fundamentally a sinner! He views himself in the wrong light.
What are the results of pursuing this overstated, legalistic, arrogant form of righteousness/wisdom? If my translation of v. 16 is correct, the result is that you will be “appalled” If you really think that your righteousness is going to guarantee you prosperity in this life, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Humility avoids legalism.
But also, discipline avoids license. Not only are we not to be greatly righteous or wise, but we’re also not to be greatly wicked or foolish! Why does Solomon say, “Don’t be greatly wicked” instead of just, “Don’t be wicked”? In order to answer that question, we’ve got to recognize a couple of things. First, Solomon is giving two extremes—legalism and license. Someone might respond to vv. 15-16 by saying, “If righteousness doesn’t guarantee long life, I might as well just live it up!” So Solomon says, “No, don’t do that! Living it up is not the solution! Don’t be greatly wicked or foolish!” Second, we’ve got to recognize that Solomon’s focus in this section is the depravity of man. If everyone is a sinner, as v. 20 says, then I can’t possibly be perfect. However, I shouldn’t be greatly In other words, I should try to avoid wickedness as much as possible. Finally, we should recognize that Solomon doesn’t qualify the word “foolish.” We aren’t to be greatly wicked, but we aren’t to be foolish at all. So Solomon is not saying that a little bit of sin is okay.
What are the results of being greatly wicked or foolish? You may very well die before your time (v. 17). This is a fascinating statement, because it proves that the principle Solomon contradicted in v. 15 does often still hold true! So it’s not that God’s principles and promises mean nothing! It’s just that they cannot be interpreted in a mechanical, legalistic way. So don’t give yourself to licentious living, because there are serious consequences that go along with that. Discipline avoids license.
Before we move on, it’s worth noting that one of the major challenges in the Christian life is avoiding both of these extremes. It is really difficult to be disciplined and serious about holiness, but also humble and gracious. In my own life, I deal with this all the time. Sometimes I realize that I’ve become spiritually lazy. Maybe I’ve gotten into the habit of staying up too late, so my devotions have suffered. So I determine to discipline myself and do better. But a couple days later, I’ve developed a critical spirt because my discipline has turned into legalism. Do any of you struggle with this sort of thing? I think the key to balance is maintaining both discipline and humility.
Discipline pursues growth; humility confesses failures and limitations.
Verse 17 is a proverb. Can anyone summarize it for me? (the wise man is stronger than 10 city rulers put together) In other words, one man with biblical wisdom is more powerful than 10 shrewd politicians. Solomon expounds on this proverb more in chapter 9 (9:13-18). Wisdom is powerful, even if wise men are sometimes ignored or forgotten. So how are we supposed to apply this proverb? (pursue wisdom!) If wisdom is so powerful, then by all means, I ought to seek to be more and wiser! And that doesn’t just happen by accident! It takes effort! Just like it takes discipline to consider the work of God and to avoid licentious living, it takes discipline to pursue wisdom. But wisdom is worth the effort, so we ought to pursue growth in this area. Are you wiser today than you were on January 1, 2017? Have you grown in biblical wisdom this year? I hope that none of us have gone backwards, but maybe that’s the case! Part of pursuing holiness is pursuing wisdom.
But like I said earlier, it’s easy while pursuing wisdom to get a little smug and to look down on others. That’s where v. 20 comes in (v. 20). Discipline pursues growth, but humility confesses failure. How many just men are on the earth? (none!) But wait a second, doesn’t that contradict what Solomon said in v. 15? In v. 15, Solomon talks about the just man as if those kinds of people actually exist! So how can he say now that no one is just? There are people who are declared righteous by God on the basis of faith and are more righteous than unbelievers in a comparative sense, but no one is perfectly righteous.
We call this the doctrine of total depravity, and it revolutionizes the way that we view the world.
For instance, look at vv. 21-22 (vv. 21-22). What’s the command in v. 21? (Don’t pay attention to everything people say.) Why? (because you might overhear your servant cursing you!) And how would that make you feel? (maybe discouraged; maybe mad) Like, “Hey! I never mistreated that guy! How dare he curse me?” Solomon says, “You’ve got to learn how to ignore some of the things people say.” Why? (“Because you know you’ve cursed others.”) We can have selective memories, can’t we? We get all bent out of shape when someone says something mean about us, but we forget that we’ve also said mean things about other people!
I think this verse applies especially to leadership. Notice that it’s the man’s servant who is apparently cursing him behind his back. I don’t know if you’ve figured this out yet, but leaders can be very sensitive to criticism. (I know because I tend to be that way.) But even though it’s not right to criticize your leaders (and it’s not), we all know that we’ve done it before! So it shouldn’t surprise us as leaders when people criticize us. Those of you who are leaders, if you try to respond to every criticism that is leveled against you, you will actually undermine your own authority. So be humble, recognize that you’ve done it too, and learn to ignore unhelpful criticism.
But not only does humility confess failures, it also confesses limitations (vv. 23-25). These verses remind us how determined Solomon was to be wise. He says in v. 23, “I will be wise!” And He’s determined to accomplish this. And then he says in v. 25 that he set his heart to know, to search, and to seek out wisdom. Is seeking wisdom a good thing or a bad thing? It’s a good thing! We just talked about that.
And yet there are limits to how much I can understand, and humility accepts those limitations. Apparently, the type of wisdom that Solomon was seeking had to do with divine mysteries. He refers to these things in v. 24 as that which is “far off and exceedingly deep.” Solomon had incredible intellectual abilities that were bestowed on him by God. He had also gained a ton of knowledge. And he had lived a prudent life from a worldly perspective and amassed great wealth. Of course, he had failed to apply true, biblical wisdom when he strayed from God. But now that he had repented and was writing this book, he could honestly say that he was wise in the biblical sense. And yet something alluded him. 8:17 says, “then I saw all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. For though a man labors to discover it, yet he will not find it; moreover, though a wise man attempts to know it, he will not be able to find it.” There are mysteries about the person and work of God that we will never completely unravel. And it’s actually important for us as people who are interested in theology to recognize this. Because what can happen if we’re not careful is that we can be so intent upon understanding God that we put Him into this neat and tidy box of systematic theology, and then explain away important passages that challenge our system. So it’s important that we approach theology with the presupposition that we as finite human beings can never fully comprehend and infinite God. Will I ever fully understand the trinity? No. Will I ever fully understand how God can stand behind both good and evil and still be perfectly holy? No. Will I ever understand how God can desire all men to be saved and yet only elect some? No. And yet I would say that these are all truths the Bible teaches, and I’m okay with accepting them by faith. I don’t want a god I can fully understand. Because if I could fully understand Him, then I’d be god, not him. And I would make a terrible God. So I seek wisdom with all of my heart, and I accept the fact that I will never totally understand God.
In a lesson that touches so closely on human depravity, I would be negligent not to speak of the gospel. The Apostle Paul picks up on what Solomon and other Old Testament writers had to say about the depravity of man, and presses the logic to its ultimate conclusion: given our sinful condition, we cannot possibly be justified by the deeds of the law. We are guilty, and there is nothing we can do about it. You say, “Pastor Kris, that’s not very good news.” That’s because I haven’t gotten to the good news, yet. J The good news is that the righteousness of God apart from the law has been revealed. Jesus came to earth as a baby, lived a perfect life, and died for your sins on the cross. That means that if you put your faith in Christ alone to save you, God will credit Christ’s righteousness to your account so that despite your sinful condition, you can be justified and have fellowship with God. That’s the gospel.