Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
John 4:27-42; 1 Peter 1:1-9; Ecclesiastes 7:15-29; Jeremiah 23-24
Some of the most negative and controversial statements in Ecclesiastes occur in our passage today. Commentators note that the author often develops issues raised in Genesis 1-11, and this helps explain some of his statements. For example, the last verse of the chapter recalls that God created humans in a state of moral goodness, but we quickly went our own way. That may be the reason why the previous verse is more negative on women than men (and it must be seen as a poetic generalisation).
In general, human fallenness underlies much of the negativity in Ecclesiastes. This is not unique, as many passages declare that no one is good or always does what is right (Psalm 14:3; Mark 10:18; Romans 3:10-12). In Jeremiah we read that some prophets spoke their own minds, rather than the words of the Lord. Failing to recall Genesis, they tried to hide like Adam and Eve, forgetting that God created everything and sees everything (Jeremiah 23:24). Little wonder then that the author of Ecclesiastes questions the wisdom human produce.
The first part of Ecclesiastes 7 affirms God’s control over life. Some searching after wisdom is an attempt to control God, or at least to be confident that certain actions will always bring God’s blessings. The author recalls that this is not what he has seen. In spite of the proverbs and wisdom we have been given, some good people die young and some bad people live long and prosper (v. 15). Whatever wisdom we acquire will not guarantee good results. How are we to respond to this? Part of the answer is to recall that none of us truly is good. We might view ourselves as generally good people, but compared to God, none of us is good – and we all know this in our hearts (v. 22).
The other response has to do with moderation (vv. 16-17). However, this passage is used to question the authenticity of the whole book. The idea of moderation, in terms of not being too righteous, too wise, or too evil, seems to suggest that Ecclesiastes teaches that a little sin is okay. Since good people suffer in spite of their goodness, don’t get overly focused on trying to be good. Instead, pursue the Golden Mean.
The context of this passage is the author’s observation that good people suffer and bad people prosper (v. 15). People can have different responses to this observation, and Ecclesiastes addresses some of these responses. Some may think that if they make themselves better or wiser, all their problems will go away. The author has seen that this excessive striving after perfection or wisdom does not work, and instead can destroy the person. In addition, none of us are very good anyway (v. 20).
On the other hand, some who see that the good suffer and the bad prosper may decide that God is unfair or doesn’t exist. They may then give up pursuing wisdom and do whatever they feel is right, leading to a life of immorality or foolishness. Ecclesiastes does not advocate a little sinfulness, but recognises that human frailty and fallenness mean we cannot avoid sinning. Nevertheless, we should not pursue wickedness and foolishness as they ultimately lead to disaster.
The author concludes that the best way forward is to fear God and avoid extremes (v. 18). The word ‘extremes’ is not in the Hebrew, making this phrase difficult to translate. It expresses how we should respond to the realisation that we do not fully understand or control life. Ecclesiastes rejects both excessive striving after perfection or wisdom, and licentious living. People pursue their own various schemes (v. 29), thinking they can earn God’s blessing, or presuming they can guarantee their futures. Instead, Ecclesiastes calls on people to pursue righteousness and wisdom that begins with the fear of the Lord. As taught throughout Proverbs, trust in and obedience to God is the only way to true righteousness and wisdom. This leads to a satisfying life in spite of not being able to understand or control much of life.