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Let us stipulate, as lawyers say, that the message of Ecclesiastes 7:15–29 is an unexpectedly weird one to find in the Bible, at first glance anyway. It seems alternately despairing (verse 15), cynical (verses 16–17), common sensical (verse 18–22), keenly aware of man’s intellectual limitations (verses 23–24), misogynist (verses 25–28), and acutely cognizant of the origins of man’s problems (verse 29). We expect common sense, keen awareness, and acute cognizance in God’s Word, but despair, cynicism and misogyny? Not so much.
So what should we do with the Preacher’s words, which we also confess to be the Word of God? We read them a second time, being discontent to let our first impressions be our final ones. What do find at second glance?
Realism. Verse 15 simply notes the unhappy truth that in this present life, the righteous perish and the wicked prosper. We might despair over such a situation, but not the Preacher. Rather than whining that the world is not the way it’s supposed to be, the Preacher determines to live in the world as it is. We should do the same.
Humility. Verses 16–17 seem cynical, as if to say that moderate goodness is desirable or moderate wickedness excusable. “Be not overly righteous” and “be not overly wicked” might be the slogans of our morally confused age, which hates actual saints as powerfully as obvious sinners, but they are not the slogans of the Preacher. As Michael A. Eaton points out, “what is discouraged is not excessive righteousness but self-righteousness,” on the one hand, and “capitulation to evil” on the other. The Preacher knows that even a very good person cannot claim to be wholly without fault (verse 20), especially in matters of speech (verse 22). What such a person needs is humility, the ability to see himself, under God, as a sinner who nevertheless has control of his own actions. This is the fear of God.
Wisdom. Verse 19 articulates the Preacher’s consistent theme throughout Ecclesiastes. The good life is the wise life, and wisdom blesses those who possess it. Wisdom and humility go hand in hand, for wisdom shows us the limitations of our knowledge and so produces humility (verses 23–24).
Sexual propriety. A common theme of the Bible’s wisdom literature (best articulated in Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Job) is the goodness of a wife and the badness of a mistress (verses 25–29). Ecclesiastes 9:9 states the desirability of marriage: “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.” By contrast, the mistress—or prostitute—is a woman to assiduously avoid. This is hardly misogynistic. Indeed, we could reverse the Preacher’s image, and it would be just as true: A husband is good; an adulterous lover is bad.
Moral responsibility. Finally, the Preacher identifies the real source of the world’s problems. Hint: It is not God. Sure, God allows bad things to happen to us, but even the worst things can be worked out for the good of the godly (Romans 8:28). God did not introduce trouble to the world. We did. “God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.” What is wrong with the world (verse 15) is us. If the world is to be made right again, we must be changed. We cannot change ourselves, however.
By showing us our limitations, Ecclesiastes shows us the unexpected wonder of grace: We need a Savior.