Ecclesiastesby Philip E. Satterthwaite
Someone once said: ″Nostalgia ain't what it used to be!″ The Teacher might have agreed.
″Don't get mad, get even!″ Well, at least the first half is good advice.
In today's passage the Teacher continues to expound his distinctive brand of wisdom: we should avoid unthinking bursts of anger (Ecclesiastes 7:9); it is pointless to long for the past (v. 10). Such realistic, practical wisdom can be ″as good as money in the bank″-or rather, even better (vv. 11-12)!
So wisdom has its advantages, but it also has its limits, which the Teacher now explores, as part of his realistic approach (see also 2:12-17). He turns to consider that most puzzling of topics: God's actions in the world, specifically, God's dealings with humanity. He makes his point in three statements of increasing clarity and forcefulness: God has made some things in this world ″crooked″ (7:13; see also 1:15); God makes ″bad times″ as well as ″good times″, so that we cannot know what the future holds (7:14); most baffling of all, the righteous and the wicked sometimes experience the opposite of what they seem to deserve (v. 15). Even the wise find it hard to make sense of these things. The Teacher will develop these ideas in chapters 8 and 9, but here his main aim is to establish that wisdom has its limits. Neither wisdom nor righteousness have guaranteed outcomes in this life. It is God who is sovereign over all that happens, whether good or bad, not us. This is a hard lesson, but a worthwhile lesson for us to learn.
Further, even the quest for righteousness and wisdom may lead us astray (v. 16): ″Do not be over-righteous, neither be overwise.″ At first sight this seems an astonishing thing to say: can we be too righteous or wise? But on reflection, perhaps yes, if our motives are wrong. Some, for example, seek wisdom and righteousness in order to boast about their achievement, or in order to gain power over others. It is not unknown for non-believers to set themselves high moral standards precisely in order to support a claim that ″You don't need to believe in God in order to live a morally good life.″
So, we must not seek wisdom and righteousness with the wrong motive (v. 16). Nor (obviously) should we go in the opposite direction and indulge in wicked and foolish behaviour (v. 17): that is to invite God's judgment. We should avoid both these wrong paths and live our lives in the fear of God (v. 18): reverently, acknowledging how limited we are in power, knowledge, and goodness compared to our Creator (see also 5:7). For the Teacher this is the crucial issue: do we fear God (12:13)? If God ceases to be our reference point, then even our attempts to live wisely and righteously may destroy us.
Read Romans 10:2-4, where Paul explores the pitfall of attempting to establish one's own righteousness before God, and 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, where Paul contrasts the ″foolishness″ of the gospel with the ″wisdom of the world″. How do these texts help you understand the Teacher's warnings about being ″over-righteous″ and ″overwise″?
What does it mean for you to ″fear God″ (Ecclesiastes 7:18)? How do you aim to cultivate this attitude in yourself?
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