Ecclesiastes 7:1-29.
The One Source of Wisdom

American Journal of Biblical Theology, www.biblicaltheology.com
Copyright © 2013, John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV


In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon is presenting a detailed study of his observations concerning basic human nature, and its destructive influence in the culture around him.  The book starts with his firm declaration of the utter futility and powerlessness of godless living.  He then begins to draw examples from different and substantive areas of life.  As he looks across the classes in his society he observes how each is living a godless existence, searching in the wrong places to find purpose and peace, stating that a relationship with God that replaces the foolishness of that which is ungodly with the wisdom of the ages is the only thing that will fulfill those needs.  Solomon observes how many things in this world serve only to turn us away from knowing God, and in the previous chapter he referred specifically to the corrupting power that wealth and influence typically has on a person. 

Yet, as he describes each item that separates us from God as a curse, he also notes that those same items, when brought under the wisdom of God is a blessing.  For example, wealth becomes a devastating curse when it becomes more important to an individual than their relationship with God.  However, that same wealth becomes a tremendous blessing when it is managed by one who loves the LORD and submits it to His plan and purposes; administering it with the wisdom of God.  Solomon observes a stark contrast between the miserable and pointless existence of those who lack faith in God and those very few individuals who do have faith, describing the tremendous blessing of those latter individuals who receive the benefits of faith.  To Solomon, the most important benefit for him is the receipt of godly wisdom, a benefit that empowers every other area of his life.

Solomon understands that living under the wisdom of God is not submitting one’s self to a set of rules, but rather, is a journey: a walk with God wherein one continually learns and grows in Him.  As one journeys with God, one learns more and more of His purposes as one appropriates greater wisdom.  In this next passage, Solomon uses poetry to present more contrasts between wise living that saves, and foolish living that destroys.

THE WISDOM OF PRACTICAL LIVING

Ecclesiastes 7:1.  A good name is better than precious ointment;
     and the day of death than the day of one’s birth.

One of the characteristics of the maintenance of ungodly living in a community that speaks of God, is the presence of blatant hypocrisy.  Jesus exposed this form of hypocrisy in the character of the Jerusalem Jewish leadership.  Solomon notes this same hypocrisy a thousand years before, and we can still observe it two thousand years later.  The “good name” that Solomon refers to is one who has a reputation for uncompromised integrity.  This is contrasted with one who “wears cosmetics,” a mask that hides their true identity.  A person of integrity knows of their own demand for personal honesty and accountability.  A person who wears the mask is aware of this hypocrisy in their life and works to keep up the image.  The context of these passages together imply that Solomon is suggesting that we look deep into our lives, taking seriously our responsibility before the LORD.  One who truly does this will be able to observe their own hypocrisy and recognize the benefit of repentance.

Likewise, in this poetic duplet, Solomon contrasts the ultimate importance of birth, compared with death.  The fool celebrates birth with celebration and recognition, ignoring the grave importance of preparing for one’s death.  Celebrating one’s earthly life without consideration of one’s place in eternity is utter foolishness.  In a New Testament context we might say that being “born again” is a far more important than even being born, simply because facing death without being born again, results in a double death: separation from the world, and separation from God for eternity.

Ecclesiastes 7:2-4.  It is better to go to the house of mourning,
     than to go to the house of feasting:
    
for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart.
3
Sorrow is better than laughter:
     for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.
4The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning;
     but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

When Solomon observes the culture around him he finds its people immersed in the shallow rewards of hedonism.  It would seem that the priority of their people was to engage in anything that brought pleasure with no consideration of God’s purpose for them as individuals or His purpose for the nation of Israel.  The people were so caught up in themselves that there was little attention given to God.  If this book originated towards the end of Solomon’s reign, it could had been as much as thirty-five years since the nation witnessed the Shekinah Glory, the pillar of fire, move from the tabernacle to the new Temple, an event that inspired commitments to the LORD by the nation.  The core of society has long forgotten the significance of the Shekinah Glory, and long forgotten their commitments to the LORD as a nation, as a people, and certainly as individuals.  As the nation became more and more immersed in the pagan culture that surrounded them, they rarely, if ever, took time to consider what is really important in life, as they replaced the eternal promises of God with the temporal promises of the world.

When considering the really important and eternal things of life, it is best to avoid the influences of food, drink and levity that serve only to distract and mislead.  The fool says, “Stop being so serious, and be happy.  Celebrate!  Eat and drink with us!”  The wise man is not distracted by such foolishness and continually considers the deep, grave, and important issues of life.  The “house of feasting” is all that the fool seeks.  It is his end.  It is his demise.  Whereas, the house of mourning draws one to consider one’s own mortality and helps one to seek answers to the important questions of life.

The same argument holds for the deep benefits of sorrow over the shallow and vain benefits of mirth (or laughter).  The sensations from mirth only last as long as the joke appears to be funny, and lead one nowhere.  The enjoyment that is found in mirth only lasts for a few moments.  However, sorrow can better lead one to consider the source of that sorrow, the nature of the loss, and a path to restoration.  Sorrow can expose and illuminate the shallow depths of those who are laughing.  Sorrow inspires one to ask questions, whereas mirth is not interested in investigating anything other than that which continues the party. 

Ecclesiastes 7:5-6.  It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise,
     than for a man to hear the song of fools.
6For as the crackling of thorns under a pot,
     so is the laughter of the fool: this also is vanity.

Few people enjoy rebuke, yet words of rebuke from one who is wise can serve to guide one to a far better situation in life, perhaps helping one to overcome obstacles and repent from ungodly or foolish behavior.  Responding positively to such rebuke has the power to lead one to greater goodness and godliness.  To listen to the advice of fools leads one only to more powerless foolishness and destructive behavior. 

A fine example of this proverb is played out in the life of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam.  After Solomon’s death, his son became the king.  When considering the nature of his reign the elders advised him to be like the reign of his father’s earlier years as king, leading with patience and wisdom.  However, Rehoboam chose to listen to the “young men,” friends of his, “yes” men who foolishly led him to demonstrate his “strength and power” by insisting upon placing his nation into greater bondage under his authority.  It was this act that led to the division of the nation when, under the leadership of Jeroboam II, the other ten tribes seceded and formed the northern nation of Israel, leaving Rehoboam reigning only over the southern nation of Judah.  The two nations existed as separate rivals until their destruction by Assyria and Babylon.  By rejecting the rebuke of the wise and embracing that of his foolish peers, Rehoboam split the nation and led his nation away from God.

Solomon describes the advice of fools as “crackling thorns under a pot.”  The metaphor deserves some attention.  If one wishes to heat a pot, he puts it on a fire of sufficient burning coals and hardwood to heat the pot and keep it heated throughout the cooking process.  If one were to build the fire from a pile of dry thorns, the fire would flash up quite quickly, and would be quite hot.  However, because of the low mass of the thorns, they would be quickly consumed by the fire and would produce heat for only a very short time, insufficient to heat the pot.  This metaphor demonstrates the vanity of the advice of fools.  Their words may sound eloquent and relevant when first stated, but they lack the foundation to make any real difference. 

Another example from modern culture can be drawn from the plethora of television “comedies” that utilize laugh tracks to make their gags seem funny, when any introspection into what is being stated reveals the dialogue to be little more than vulgar chatter that produces nothing of lasting value.  Time spent listening to the continuing stream of vulgarity and examples of godless behavior that is presented by this medium is time lost; given over to the vanity of this world.  Sixty seconds of wise advice that is taken to heart is of more value than sixty hours spent staring at baseless and vain “entertainment.”

Ecclesiastes 7:7.  Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad;
     and a gift destroyeth the heart.

The reference to “wise man” in this verse refers to one who is considered wise by the world, one who demonstrates worldly wisdom rather than godly wisdom.  It is natural for society to identify those who demonstrate this form of wisdom and give them great respect and power.  It is these people who tend to dominate governments and secular organizations.  It is these people who drive the big corporations and civic organizations.  It is these who are given leadership in secular and non-Christian groups. 

Solomon describes these individuals as highly susceptible to corruption from two sources:  extortion and bribery.  As Solomon observes the dynamics of the leadership of the Jewish courts and the Temple, he notes a pattern of extortion and bribery that is so much a continual part of that culture.  Also, when we consider our own modern governments we are aware of the constant practices of extortion and bribery that are used to manipulate those who hold on to power by those who want something from them.  When practiced in hiding, the one who responds to extortion or takes bribes finds it necessary to put up a wall of secretive protection to keep their reputation from being destroyed.  Such an individual lives a life of hypocrisy, a life that is in continual fear of exposure.  Solomon describes the result of such a life as one that drives one into making irrational decisions (mad), resulting in deep depression and desperation (destroying the heart).

This is simply an extension of the previous verses that describe the folly of listening and responding to foolish advice.  Just as the fool is led by his foolishness to squander his wealth, discussed in the previous chapter, the fool is led to squander a position of responsibility that requires true wisdom to administer.  We often observe men and women who are raised to positions of power only to find themselves destroyed by the dynamics that surround the position as their reputations are compromised by their behavior.

Ecclesiastes 7:8-9.  Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof:
     and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.
9Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry:
     for anger resteth in the bosom of fools.

In a similar way it is common for one who lacks wisdom to initiate a venture without the plan, resources, resolution, or patience to complete it.  Such ventures might be started as a result of foolish decisions and/or foolish advice.  They might be started as a result of prideful expression.  When engaged in such endeavors, those who are empowered only by their pride will continue until an obstacle is reached.  One who is wise and patient will work through those obstacles, where one who is only driven by pride will typically lash out in anger, placing blame, and making excuses for their incompetence.  Solomon describes the expression of anger in this type of situation as a response of fools.

 Ecclesiastes 7:10.  Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these?
 
    for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.

“Oh, the good ol’ days!”  How often do we hear the brazen criticism of current events framed by a comparison with the way it “used to be”?  People will often refuse to take part in current activities or any dialogue concerning current events because they are perceived as different than what they remember from many years before.  We might refer to this behavior as “living in the past.”  Solomon states that such behavior does not “inquire wisely” concerning those past events.  We have convenient memories, drawing what we want to apply from the past in order to rationalize our, sometimes foolish, opinions.  We forget that those “good ol’ days” were not really that good.  We are simply using the argument as verbal excuse to refuse to take part in change. 

Life is dynamic:  it is always changing.  Our circumstances change, the relationships around us change, the needs of those closest to us change, literally everything in our lives is in a state of flux all the time.  Remembering and appreciating our past can be a very useful and healthy thing when we allow it to inform our present state when wisely applied.  We can draw from our past experiences in order to better understand our new ones.  We can minister to others who are experiencing some of the same stressors that we have known.  However, like all good things, our recall of the past can be destructive when foolishly applied.  “We’ve never done it that way before” is often the expression of one who refuses to be involved in something new.  There are some who have referred to this statement as the “seven last words of a dying church.”[1]  A similar seven-word phrase is, “We always did it this way before.”  Living in the past is a vain and foolish form of behavior when it stands in the way of wise decisions and meaningful ministry. 

Ecclesiastes 7:11-12.  Wisdom is good with an inheritance:
     and by it there is profit to them that see the sun.
12For wisdom is a defence, and money is a defence:
     but the excellency of knowledge is,
     that wisdom giveth life to them that have it.

It is an axiom of man that each has, at some time in their lives, dreamed of receiving a large amount of money, an amount sufficient to never have to consider working again.  With the advent of lottery-based gambling that is available to many people, and the announcements prizes of many millions of dollars, the dream is alive and well.  Lottery amounts swell to huge amounts simply because a great population of people are putting money into it with a hope of winning.  The foolishness that leads people to invest in a lottery that has astronomical chances against winning is a good predictor of the lack of wisdom that could inevitably accompany a winning ticket.  Several research projects have been conducted on those who win lotteries with consistent results:  winners tend to squander their winnings quickly, resulting in a greater debt load than prior to the prize.[2] 

Solomon has had the opportunity to observe the behavior of those who have come into sudden wealth via the receipt of an inheritance.  He states that the application of godly wisdom is like breathing life into an inheritance that otherwise serves only to oppress the recipient.  The fool thinks that the inheritance will guarantee him a good life:  Solomon asserts that it is godly wisdom that truly provides that guarantee.

Ecclesiastes 7:13-14.  Consider the work of God:
     for who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked?

14
In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider:
     God also hath set the one over against the other,
     to the end that man should find nothing after him.
 

We might be reminded of Solomon’s poem in Chapter 3, Verse 1:  There is a time for every purpose under heaven.  God does have a purpose for mankind, that through the experiences of this life we would recognize Him, and develop faith in Him, and by so doing seek obedience to Him that opens us up to receive the blessings He intends.  Though we might prefer the straight and easy path to the goals of life, God intends that we grow and mature from the variety of experiences that we encounter.  If it is God’s intention that we would pass through the fire of difficult experience, no person has the ability or the authority to change it without negative consequences.  James states that tribulation should perform its “perfect work,” that through the experience the work of God would be completed.  It is often our desire to jump out of the difficulty when it is the LORD’s purpose that we depend upon Him to carry us through so that we can gain what God has ordained through the experience. 

Solomon reminds us to be joyful in the days of prosperity, not dour, and not complaining about wanting more.  If we count the blessings of every day, we will find we have every reason to be joyful, and it is only an evil that would distract us and rob us of that joy.  Then, when we enter times of adversity we can recognize that life is not a straight path, but one that has been set crooked by God, and He has a purpose for us when adversity strikes.  It is God who has ordained the point-counterpoint of prosperity and adversity in our lives.  When we recognize that God is working with us, and is preparing us for the coming day when we leave this life and enter eternity, we can recognize that prosperity in and of itself is a blessing, but it is not the end.  We take none of that prosperity with us when we enter eternity, but we do carry the deep and meaningful blessings of the LORD from one life to the other.

THE WISDOM OF MODERATE LIVING

Ecclesiastes 7:15.  All things have I seen in the days of my vanity:
     there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness,

     and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness.
 

Quite contrary to ancient near-eastern beliefs, there is no guaranteed correlation between the length of one’s life in years and the true godly righteousness that characterizes one’s life.  The world systems of belief often hold to “performance-based acceptance,” the idea that we are rewarded for good behavior and punished for bad behavior.  Often people devise mythical gods that mete out this form of justice.  Certainly there are many negative consequences that can be part of a sinful life that are not as likely for one who strives to be obedient to the LORD because of their choice to abstain from behaviors that are likely to increase danger and risk.  For example, it is unlikely that one who never uses drugs would die from a cocaine overdose. 

The LORD does provide His hand of provision and protection to those who have placed their faith in Him, but God does not always intervene in every expression of sin.  Many faithful people died in the murderous attacks on 9/11/2001.  Their lives were ended by the brutal expression of a group of people who are consumed by their hatred, and particularly for their hatred of Christians and Jews.  Some ask the question, “why do good people suffer?” and there are at least two biblical responses to the question:  first, nobody is good for all have sinned and come short of God’s glory;[3] second, God uses adversity in our lives to bless us with patience, strength, experience, and faith.[4]  There are many examples in scripture of wicked men who lived long and prosperous lives.  Jesus stated, “They have received their reward.”[5]  The prosperity and long life that is realized by the wicked is the only reward they receive for their labors “under the sun.”  One who understands the wisdom of the LORD recognizes that this is no reward at all, and these are actually receiving the just recompense for their wickedness, one that will be realized when they pass into eternal separation from the providence and love of God that even they have experienced in this life.

Ecclesiastes 7:16.  Be not righteous over much;
     neither make thyself over wise:

     why shouldest thou destroy thyself?

Since pride is such a powerful weapon of the prince of darkness, even the faithful are subject to its devastating influence.  The self-righteousness of the Jerusalem Jews during the first century was famously exposed by Jesus and encountered by the Apostle Paul.  Even today one of the most significant stressors in churches is found when its members are driven by self-righteous and prideful leadership. 

Solomon states, that as you consider yourself, be careful not to think of yourself as too righteous.  Any righteousness that is found in the life of a believer is empowered by the Holy Spirit, not the believer.  Left without the Holy Spirit, the individual would fall back into a sinful lifestyle, and even with the power of the Spirit in the life of the believer, the power of sin is never totally defeated.  All people sin, both those with faith and those without, so no person should consider himself/herself to be overly righteous.

The same argument holds for the gift of wisdom.  A faith relationship with the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,[6] not its end. A person of faith can grow in wisdom and knowledge of the LORD, but the moment that one thinks of himself as “wise” he is already demonstrating a lack of wisdom.  Man’s wisdom and understanding of God will never compare with His wisdom that has the power to create (or destroy) the universe. 

Solomon speaks to the destructive power of prideful self-righteousness.  One who behaves in self-righteousness will alienate himself from everyone who observes it as he builds a wall of sin between himself and others as well as between himself and the LORD.  Like the Jerusalem Jews, those who base their righteousness on their own works can be blinded to the truth of the gospel.  Those who take their own systems of self-righteousness to the grave find themselves separated from God for eternity.  This is the destruction that Solomon speaks of.     

Ecclesiastes 7:17.  Be not over much wicked,
     neither be thou foolish:

     why shouldest thou die before thy time?

18
It is good that thou shouldest take hold of this;
     yea, also from this withdraw not thine hand:
     for he that feareth God shall come forth of them all.

Man also has a propensity to mimic others, particularly if one believes that doing so will gain something for them that they see in someone else.  Perhaps the best way to understand this passage is to read verse 18 first.  If we take verse 17 out of context we might come up with an argument that allows for a certain amount of wickedness and foolishness in the life of a person of faith.  The entire context of the gospel decries the application of wickedness in a faithful person, so an alternate idea is certainly necessary, and found when the verses are taken together. 

There are many models to follow in this world, and we might even consider the use of “role models” in the same thought.  Most of us can probably look back at our earlier years and identify those who we respected, those who served as our role models, and those we hoped to be like.  This passage warns one to be careful about mimicking or following the behavior of others in our search for meaning, but instead, to put one’s faith and trust in God.  Choosing ungodly (wicked) role models leads us away from God, and living apart from Him can be a dangerous place.  To “die before your time” simply means that, by chasing ungodly role models, we can place ourselves in situations that can compromise our health and safety.  Following fools can lead us to take part in foolish ventures.  Following those who are bent on violence can lead to actions that result in injury or death.  Following those who rely on intoxicants, whether alcohol or drugs, bring obvious consequences.

Basically, following a lengthy discussion of life’s choices, Solomon says, “Grab firmly onto this; do not let go of this idea: you will find what you are searching for when you place your trust in God, not in the ideas of this world.    

Ecclesiastes 7:19-20.  Wisdom strengtheneth the wise more than ten mighty men which are in the city.
20
For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.

Following the wisdom of the world is a foolish and vain endeavor.  When one has the opportunity to find the wisdom of God, why would they search for man’s wisdom?  When we consider those people who we consider great and wise, they may be considered the “ten mighty men” of this verse.  However, we cannot follow any man without following one who is stained by the curse of sin, except for one: Jesus Christ.  If we were to appropriate for ourselves the wisdom of the ten wisest men in our society, we would not have anything close to the wisdom that God gives to those who trust in Him.  

Ecclesiastes 7:21-22.  Also take no heed unto all words that are spoken;
     lest thou hear thy servant curse thee:

22
For oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth
     that thou thyself likewise hast cursed others.

Likewise, just as we have a tendency to trust in the “ten greatest men in the city,” we have a tendency to place a lot of authority on what we read, or in what we hear people say.  The news media knows the tremendous power they have to shape public opinion simply by the way they select and present news stories that can be shaped to their agenda.  “Take no heed” can be stated, “Give no authority to.”  We are to temper our response to what we read and hear by a good dose of the wisdom of God.  When we do so we will not overreact, nor will we respond shallowly.  Solomon gives one example when he describes one who hears (and responds) to the curse of a servant without remembering one’s own curses towards others.

Loosely phrased in a broader sense, we might hear the advice from Solomon, “Take no heed concerning everything you hear (or read), lest you respond foolishly.”  In today’s social media culture, we are bombarded with an endless litany of baseless messages, most of which are entirely fabricated by those who are intending upon creating an impact upon others.  People do not check facts before they quickly retransmit a falsehood to others.  This is an important point that should not be taken lightly:  people of faith should always stand for truth and never repeat anything that is not clearly known as fact.  I am daily disappointed by the bombardment of inaccurate and misleading messages that I receive via social media from people who consider themselves to be obedient people of faith.  Some believe that much of what they read is true, and are so impacted by it they want to share it with others, and by so doing are participating in the dissemination of lies.   This is not an arena where people of faith need to be participating.  Godly wisdom, common sense, or a little research should be used before one presses the “forward,” “send,” or “share” button.

WISDOM REJECTED BY ALL

Ecclesiastes 7:23-28.  All this have I proved by wisdom:
     I said, I will be wise; but it was far from me.

24
That which is far off, and exceeding deep,
     who can find it out?

25
I applied mine heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom,
     and the reason of things, and to know the wickedness of folly,
     even of foolishness and madness:

26
And I find more bitter than death the woman,
     whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands:
     whoso pleaseth God shall escape from her;
     but the sinner shall be taken by her.

27
Behold, this have I found, saith the preacher,
     counting one by one, to find out the account:

28
Which yet my soul seeketh, but I find not:
     one man among a thousand have I found;
     but a woman among all those have I not found.

29
Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright;
     but they have sought out many inventions.

When Solomon observes the society that surrounds him, he comes away from his study with some disappointing conclusions that have led him to express the imperatives of this chapter.  As he looks around, all he encounters is wickedness, foolishness, and madness.  He has proven the world’s views to be foolishness by testing them against the wisdom of God, and his methodology for comparison was not trivial:  he dedicated himself to this study as he “applied” his heart.  In earlier chapters Solomon revealed how he even delved into worldly behavior in order to prove first-hand its folly and vanity. 

Perhaps the most disappointing result of his study is his assessment that he was unable to find a single man (or woman) among a thousand who is righteous and wise.  This has convinced Solomon of a simple truth: that true wisdom comes only from God, and that the search for godly wisdom is wholly rejected by the people of this world.  Instead, the people of the world are searching for truth in other places, and finding nothing of true and lasting value. 

God has placed into the heart of every individual a hunger that leads one to seek answers to life’s most significant ideas.  The world provides a myriad of answers to every question, leading people into an unlimited number of directions, all of which lead to error.  Solomon, considered one of the wisest men who ever lived, was able to observe the godless culture that surrounded him, and recognized that the only wisdom that will satiate man’s need is the wisdom that comes from the LORD.  Man will never fulfill his search until he finds the one truth, the one source of true wisdom through a personal relationship with God that comes from placing one’s faith and trust in Him. 

Solomon intended this message to be shared with those who are immersed in the fruitless frenzy of worldly living.  It is a message that should be embraced by the church, and shared with this lost world.


[1] There are so many occasions of this phrase being used in the literature that its etymology is uncertain.

[2] Mark Hoekstra, Paige Marta Sciba. (2009).  The Ticket to Easy Street: The Financial Consequences of Winning the Lottery.  Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University.

[3] Mark 10:18; Romans 3:23

[4] James, Chapter 1.

[5] Matthew 6:2.

[6] Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7, 9:10; et. al.