Man’s Lack of Righteousness (Ecclesiastes 7:15-29)

There is a common misunderstanding that there is a one-to-one connection between blessing for good deeds done, but judgment for bad deeds. We even joke and tease about it. We might see someone very blessed in some specific way and say, “So what did you do to earn that?”  Or we might tease someone by saying, “You’re going to pay a terrible price someday for that deed!”

This common thought was also present in Jesus’ time. On the occasion of Christ and the disciples seeing a blind man, in John chapter 9 the disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  And Jesus answers that his blindness was not at all related to this sort of one-to-one retribution.

Solomon begins today by noting the apparent injustice that righteous people have very bad things happening in their lives in spite of their upright ways, whereas certain sinful people seem to never pay any price and instead have prosperity abounding. And we too have all seen similar upside-down illustrations of injustice where the wicked prosper.

This passage is filled with a number of verses that are not actually communicating what at first glance they appear to say, some of it rather outlandish even!

Solomon is not saying that the best way to live is to have equal doses of righteousness and wickedness, doing all things in moderation. He is saying that you cannot depend upon your righteousness as a guarantee of universal blessing, nor should you think that there is no judgment for anything and thereby live a licentious life.

In several other passages in Ecclesiastes, Solomon talks about how God will be the ultimate judge, saying that evil will be dealt with. But it is done in God’s timing, and that cannot be known. Until then, there will be occasions where the wicked appear to get away with wrongdoing, while the apparently righteous suffer beyond expectation.

Another problem with “righteous” people is that they really don’t exist, not fully. Solomon accurately writes that none are righteous and sinless – a theme that Paul will establish at the beginning of Romans.

However, wisdom really is a great value. Though it will not make one truly righteous (perfect), it will supply great strength in life in terms of choices for the good and direction for avoiding the pitfalls of evil. That is the best that man can do under the sun.

To explain the odd man/woman remarks at the end of the chapter would take more words than you want to read today!  Trust me, believe me!  It is not saying that on average there can be found one good man out of a thousand, but never a good woman. Interpreting this has to do with where the “ellipsis” begins, complicated by the fact that the word for man (as in mankind) is “adam,” though that word is also being used as the proper name for the first human – Adam.  And then there is a sort of cumulative literary devise being used …… see what I mean?  The weeds are deep.

The intent of this communication as the passage ends is to say that there are no men or women who can be found who are purely righteous. Though created that way by God at the beginning, the reality of sin has taken all mankind down many bad paths.

The fact is that we are a mess. There is no such thing as “I’m OK, you’re OK” … the title and big idea of the famous 1969 self-help book by Thomas Anthony Harris. The truth is rather, “I’m a mess, you’re a mess.”  We are all sinners in line for judgment. Our lives can be enhanced, even in a sinful world, by applying godly wisdom. And the rest of the story of Scripture teaches that there is a gracious provision for deliverance from the curse of sin, but it does not happen fully in this life under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 7:15 – In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: the righteous perishing in their righteousness, and the wicked living long in their wickedness.

16 Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise—why destroy yourself?

17 Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool—why die before your time?

18 It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.

19 Wisdom makes one wise person more powerful than ten rulers in a city.

20 Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.

21 Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you—22 for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others.

23 All this I tested by wisdom and I said, “I am determined to be wise”—but this was beyond me.

24 Whatever exists is far off and most profound—who can discover it?

25 So I turned my mind to understand, to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things and to understand the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly.

26 I find more bitter than death the woman who is a snare, whose heart is a trap and whose hands are chains. The man who pleases God will escape her, but the sinner she will ensnare.

27 “Look,” says the Teacher, “this is what I have discovered: “Adding one thing to another to discover the scheme of things—28 while I was still searching but not finding—I found one upright man among a thousand, but not one upright woman among them all.

29 This only have I found: God created mankind upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes.”

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About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed multiple hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and have been a sportswriter for various publications and online venues. My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with the Antietam Battlefield Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

One thought on “Man’s Lack of Righteousness (Ecclesiastes 7:15-29)

  1. Mistranslated is the following verse, I believe. “I found one upright man among a thousand, but not one upright woman among them all.”

    The word “upright” is NOT in this sentence in the original Hebrew. Many translations leave that word out. What is being referred to is in question. Because of the uncertainty about that verse some scholars look to the next verse which does refer to upright and they hence believe that must be what the author is discussing. This argument though would require that a complicated point is being made … since in verse 20 (a paragraph or two earlier) it specifically states that there is no one that always does right and never sins.

    If the NIV is right, then this is a saying in Ecclesiastes that I’m not very impressed with. How many men are more upright than women? … the whole idea is weak to me.

    However a little bit above the author (Solomon or someone writing from his standpoint) says that he finds a certain type of woman to be more bitter than death. What is being discussed there? From the standpoint of Solomon he would have been targeted by some women that are sometimes critically referred to as “Gold-diggers” or something like that. These woman may have a particular goal of becoming significant in Solomon’s life in order to gain high status, wealth, prestige, power, or high visibility. Some of these women are very gifted in seeing all his tendencies, quirks, his entire emotional makeup and crafting themselves to be physically, emotionally or mentally desirable to him. In short he found himself unable to resist the total crafted package that some woman can become to get into his life. He refers to this all as feeling like being caught by a “snare” a “trap” or a “chain”. Perhaps this is a particular skill set that some very few woman have.

    How to escape this? The scripture adds “He who pleases God will escape her.” Why this is so is because someone intent on pleasing God will for one thing have redirected his mind and trained it to pursue the things of God rather than merely be self-centered and caught by flattery and other carnal emotions.

    Secondarily someone focused on pleasing God will have a better analysis of other people. Jesus saw people for what they were when they wanted to make him King. He got away from them.

    Now, I don’t know much about Hebrew grammar … and one Hebrew scholar remarked that Hebrew is “all thumbs” when it comes to things like subjunctive clauses. (Subjunctive or subjective … my memory is failing me.)

    I postulate that what is being referred to is not righteousness … but the trait itself of deeply pondering things that is being discussed. He talks about “adding one thing to another to discover the meaning of things.” I believe what he is referring to is that there exists one man out of a thousand that can deeply focus on some very obscure subject and then gain remarkable insights from it. For example Albert Einstein using mind experiments of elevators free falling to come to deep understanding of the nature of gravity etc. His insights continue to amaze people. It was once said by a really great scientist (if I remember it correctly) that only three people in the world really understood one of Einstein’s theories … and if I remember correctly he said he was not one of them.

    You are not going to see why the translation that I’m hypothesizing might be correct by just reading the NIV. The NIV is finally crafted to give the meaning that the translators think the phrase should have. However if you’ve got a computer program that allows you to see many Bible Translations of that verse at once and even the surrounding verses … you can see how I came up with that idea.

    Consider this. If the verse is not talking about the trait of deep intelligence (adding one thing to another to discover the meaning) then it requires that he had to do immense research to come to a particular conclusion … a conclusion that appears to us, the readers, to be rather dumb.

    I’m inclined to believe he is rather saying that “when it comes to adding one thing to another to discover the meaning and to figuring out complex things that are yet to be understood, I’ve found one man among a thousand who is grappling with and figuring out these deep issues.”

    This fits with typical stereotypes of men and women. Men (maybe one among a thousand) are going to go off on deep geeky tangents and mentally wrestle by themselves for extended periods of time on abstract subjects. Isaac Newton for example needing to explain the motion of the planets invents calculus to further his studies.

    Normally these occasional geeky breakthroughs are done by men. That is where I think the writer is going here.

    As I said before I’m in no position to argue the technical aspects of the Hebrew translation. Most likely anyone involved in translation would have a tendency to support the traditional viewpoint … for no other reason perhaps than that it is the traditional viewpoint. It was said that Hebrew is “all thumbs” in certain things … and I’ve also seem widely divergent views on many translations of many verses in the Book Of Proverbs. In some verses context doesn’t help much … And here in Ecclesiastes 7:28 the translators are inserting words … because they are grasping for context … and the context they came up with makes no sense. Those who believe the traditional translation is correct then argue that the Solomonesque author is steeped in the prejudice of his time to make what seems to us to be this error of logic.

    Can I know for sure that I’m right? No. However if I choose to have a high view of the Bible, I’m going with the translation that I propose because it makes a deep and still valid viewpoint about occasional amazing brilliant discoveries that some few men are capable of.

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