Admonitions in Light of Human Wickedness (7:15-8:15)

Through a series of proverbs, Qoheleth has just expressed the value of the fear of God and of wisdom in light of the uncertainties of life. Proverbial wisdom teaches that in the long run, if not also in the short term, those who fear God, that is, the righteous, will usually prosper and the wicked will usually suffer. So by using the genre of proverbs to teach the reward of righteousness, he has actually qualified himself implicitly that there can be exceptions. He now begins to address this problem.

Fear God and Be Moderate (7:15-29)

7:15 In my fleeting lifetime I have seen it all: there is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his wickedness. 7:16 Do not become overly righteous, and do not make yourself excessively wise. Why should you ruin yourself? 7:17 Do not become overly wicked, neither become a fool. Why should you die before your time? 7:18 It is good that you grasp the one, and also not let go of the other; for he who fears God shall come forth with both of them. 7:19 Wisdom strengthens a wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city. 7:20 Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who (continually) does good and never sins. 7:21 Do not then take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. 7:22 For you know too in your heart that many times you yourself have likewise cursed others.

He begins by affirming that the righteous do suffer and the wicked do prosper. And since the righteous do die (young) in their righteousness, they do not seem to prosper even in the long run. While this observation does not contradict what he has just expressed through proverbial wisdom, he still needs to address this most enigmatic reality.

His advice is not to “become overly righteous.” As reflected in our translation (“become ... righteous” rather than the usual “be ... righteous”), Qoheleth is referring to righteous action and not disposition. He is saying that since there is no guarantee righteousness will be rewarded (with temporal blessings), do not become righteous in order to attain prosperity and avoid adversity. This will only drive one to become more (and so, overly) righteous in action than he is in disposition. One is tempted to do this because on the whole the righteous do prosper and the wicked do suffer. When one is thus driven he will strive to become perfectly righteous and wear himself out (“ruin yourself”). For there is no way one can be sinless: “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who (continually) does good and never sins” (verse 20). Qoheleth’s comments about not taking seriously what we hear (verses 21-22) illustrates this truth in a way that no one can deny. And since righteousness is an expression of wisdom, the advice carries over to avoiding making oneself “excessively wise.”

Qoheleth’s advice on not becoming “overly wicked” is not implying that it is alright to become a little wicked. For since no one can avoid sinning altogether, we are already being a little wicked even when we seek to live conscientiously. The advice then is: do not “become a fool” by allowing our wickedness to go unchecked and thus “become overly wicked.” This advice is needed. For if even the righteous may suffer and the wicked may still prosper, one may conclude that there is no point in living righteously. Qoheleth's warning about dying before one’s time if one does not heed this advice is a reaffirmation of sound proverbial wisdom: wisdom and righteousness do, on the whole, protect us from harm and even untimely death (7:11-12).

How then shall we live? Qoheleth admonishes that if we fear God, we will be moderate and “come forth with both of them,” that is, on the one hand grasping the advice not to become overly righteous and excessively wise, and on the other hand not letting go of the other advice not to become foolish and overly wicked. So there is practical value in fearing God in light of this most enigmatic experience in life. He goes so far to say that wisdom, which is founded on the fear of God, is even stronger than the political strength of ten rulers put together.

It is obvious that fearing God helps us to keep our wickedness in check and so avoid becoming “overly wicked.” But how does fearing God help us avoid becoming “overly righteous”? Qoheleth is in effect saying that we should not seek to fear God and become righteous in order to receive (temporal) blessings from Him. For this amounts to covetousness, from which the genuinely God-fearing would repent. To fear God is then to fear Him for who He is and not for what we can get out of Him. This is also taught in the book of Job, where we read about God allowing the righteous Job to be tested to prove Satan wrong, that Job did fear God “for nothing,” that is, not because of temporal blessings from God (Job 1:9). Hence if we truly fear God we will not become “overly righteous.”

Qoheleth has in fact implicitly explained the enigma of righteous suffering. When he admonishes us to fear God in order to avoid becoming either overly righteous or overly wicked, both of which have painful consequences, he is actually applying what he said before: “God so works [in this case, allows the righteous to suffer] that men should fear Him” (3:14b). For we just saw that, in light of the baffling observation that the righteous do suffer, fearing God and so avoiding both these extremes is the most sensible way to live. What is further clarified here is that to fear God is to fear Him for nothing. That means, God so works that we should fear Him for nothing. And because human beings “have sought out many schemes” (7:29), God could not promise that the righteous will never suffer. For if He did, there will be few, if any, who would fear Him (for nothing). Because God is righteous He could not have created a world in which, on the whole, the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. This should give us incentive to live righteously but it should not tempt us to “fear Him” for something. Hence Qoheleth is teaching us how to live in such a world.

7:23 All this I have tested with wisdom. I said, "I want to become wise," but it was far from me. 7:24 That which comes to be is far off, and is very deep; who can discover it? 7:25 I turned my heart to know, to explore, and to seek wisdom and the sum (of things), and to know the evil of folly and the foolishness of madness. 7:26 And I discover more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are fetters. He who is good in God’s sight will escape from her, but the sinner is captured by her. 7:27 Look! this is what I have discovered, says Qoheleth, (adding) one thing to another to find the sum--7:28 that which I have sought continually but have (still) not ascertained (is this): one man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. 7:29 Look! only this I have ascertained, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.

In light of what follows, the “all this” in verse 23 refers to the two observations made above concerning righteous suffering and inevitable wickedness. Qoheleth makes a quick comment on how he “tested with wisdom” the first and then turns his attention to do the same with the second.

He said he had tried “to become wise,” that is, attain to the level of wisdom that would enable him to solve a certain problem, but failed (“it was far from me”). And the specific problem he sought to solve concerns “that which comes to be,” which refers to whatever we observe or experience (1:9; 3:15; 6:12), including the observation that the righteous may suffer and the wicked may prosper. He is reaffirming the sub-theme that the uncertain future, whether it concerns the righteous or the wicked, cannot be known ahead of time, as “that which comes to be is far off and very deep; who can discover it?" (cf. 8:17-9:1). Since Qoheleth has just admonished his audience to live in accordance with sound proverbial wisdom in the face of an uncertain and unknowable future (7:1-14), what he says here has the effect of urging them to heed his admonition to fear God, which includes being moderate.

Qoheleth then turned his heart to investigate the observation concerning sin or wickedness. After recognizing that he could not be wise enough to discover the future, he began investigation to seek the wisdom that would enable him to see how things related to wickedness (“the evil of folly and the foolishness of madness”) add up (“the sum of things”). In part he was trying to “discover why, if God ‘made everything fitting in its time’ (3:11), human folly and wickedness should exist” (Whybray 1989: 126).

He made two discoveries. The first supports the conventional wisdom concerning “the immoral woman against whose temptations men are constantly warned in the ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature and specifically, in the Old Testament, in Prov. 2:16-19; 5:3-6; 6:24-26; 7:5-27” (Whybray 1989: 125). Like the book of Proverbs, the implied audience of Ecclesiastes is male. It is an admonition to them to fear God and thus be “good in God’s sight” so that, unlike the sinner, they will escape from the snares, nets and fetters of such a woman. Like the other teachings and admonitions in Ecclesiastes, this one can also be applied to a female audience. For a God-fearing woman would also escape from the seductions of an immoral man.

So this focus on the immoral woman is not to be understood as anti-women. In fact, the second discovery, as reflected in our translation of verses 27-28, can be interpreted as a defense of, rather than an unfair attack on, women. Though this interpretation is grammatically plausible, it is accepted by relatively few interpreters. This is probably because most interpreters see an unorthodox and inconsistent Qoheleth. But by interpreting Ecclesiastes as a persuasive speech and giving Qoheleth the benefit of the doubt whenever there is no valid reason not to, we have so far found him to be consistently orthodox. If this is the perception one has of him, this interpretation can readily be accepted. For even Murphy, who does not share this perception, defends it (1992: 74-78).

According to this interpretation, Qoheleth is not the one making the claim, “one man among a thousand I found (righteous), but a woman among all these I have not found.” Rather, he discovered that though he has sought continually, he still could not ascertain the validity of this claim made by others. “Only this I have ascertained,” he clarifies emphatically, “that God made man upright but they have sought out many schemes.” Men and women are equally guilty. This discovery confirms the observation above that there is no one so righteous that he will never sin.

Undoubtedly Qoheleth is echoing the teaching of the book of Genesis on the origin of humanity and its wicked bent. He affirms that though wickedness characterizes humanity, humanity was originally created “upright.” It was humanity that chose to become wicked, explicitly affirming the freedom of choice in human behavior. The Hebrew word translated “schemes” here shares the same root with that translated “thoughts” in: “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). The phrase “every inclination of the thoughts of the heart” can be more idiomatically translated as “every plan devised by the mind [or heart]” (The Jewish Publication Society 1985: 10). The “schemes” are thus contrivances of the covetous heart bent on breaking God’s commandments. Only those who fear God has the inner strength to overcome this bent, and even then not perfectly.


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