Ecclesiastesby Philip E. Satterthwaite
What does it mean for the one who ″fears God″ to ″avoid all extremes″ (Ecclesiastes 7:18)? Today's passage begins by addressing this point. Wisdom confers more real strength than political power (v. 19). The strength of wisdom lies in how it helps us to face facts. Ecclesiastes 7:20-22 give some examples.
″There is no one on earth . . . who does what is right and never sins″ (v. 20): a simple statement of an obvious point. But if we grasp this point, it can transform our behaviour (vv. 21-22): we become more understanding of the faults of others; we don't demand satisfaction for wrongs done to us, because we know that we are guilty of the same wrongs. Wisdom is very helpful indeed when it encourages us to be humble and realistic about ourselves. Such wisdom could be extremely powerful, if more people displayed it. What if this attitude were common in world politics, with nations regularly acknowledging their own failings rather than demonising the failings of other nations, and not always demanding satisfaction for their grievances? Might not the world be a rather better place?
In 7:23-29 the Teacher once more balances this point by reminding us of the limits of wisdom (see also vv. 13-15). He openly states that he does not understand why things are the way they are (v. 24): ″Whatever exists is far off and most profound-who can discover it?″ The only points the Teacher can affirm are more limited and somewhat obvious: that men and women are hard to understand (v. 28); that humans have ″gone in search of many schemes″ (v. 29) and thus made the world a more complicated place. (So maybe humans are to blame for much that is ″crooked″ in the world, not God; see v. 13.)
In 7:28 the NIV speaks of finding ″one upright man″ and not finding ″one upright woman″. But ″upright″ is not in the Hebrew text. The Teacher's point is simpler: men are very hard to understand (″find″ in the sense of ″find what makes them tick″)-but not as hard to understand as women!
While this sounds misogynistic, the Teacher's main point isn't really about gender. Similarly, when the Teacher refers to a woman who is ″more bitter than death″ and ″a snare″ (v. 26), this is not primarily an attack on ″loose women″, but an exhortation to avoid folly. The Teacher is using the word the same way as found in Proverbs 9.
In Proverbs 9, we hear the voices of two women: ″Lady Wisdom″, who appeals to the ″simple″ to ″come to my house″ and ″walk in the way of insight″ (Proverbs 9:4-6); and ″Lady Folly″, who tempts people into her house with promises of secret delights, but in reality lures them into a path which leads to death (vv. 16-18). Better to listen to Lady Wisdom, the Teacher implies: she cannot answer all your questions, but she is a more reliable guide than Lady Folly.
Can you think of an incident in your own life where you experienced a situation like that described in Ecclesiastes 7:20-22? What can you learn from that incident?
Think of the men and women you know best; if you like, think of children known to you. Do you agree, along the lines of Ecclesiastes 7:28, that it can be very hard to understand your fellow human beings?