Life does not always play to our happiness. In fact, in many instances, it does the opposite. It is here, in chapter seven that Solomon begins to answer the question at the end of chapter six: “For who knows what is good for a man in life, during the meaningless days he passes through like a shadow? Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone?” (Ecclesiastes 7:12)
Life is a mystery. Whatever happens can be beneficial or detrimental. It is how we face and handle each situation that comes about. King Hezekiah, in Isaiah 38:10, asks the question: “In the prime of my life must I go through the gates of death and be robbed of the rest of my years?” In verse 17, he answers his own question by declaring: “Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish. In your love you (God) kept me from the pit of destruction; you have put all my sins behind your back.” Hezekiah had an encounter with God (as did Job) and repented. Romans 8:28 echoes the same thought. God is good.
Proverbs 27:1 echoes the same idea when the author states: “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.” With that truth, Solomon begins chapter seven with some strange pronouncements and labels them “better than . . .” In these verses, It is God who ransoms us from a life of vanity, failure, meaninglessness and many other traps into which one may fall. That truth is reflected in Romans 8:28, often quoted by believers, “And we know that in (the midst) of all things God works for the good of those who love him.” All things are not good but a wise and merciful God has promised us peace in the midst of the storms of life.
Walter Kaiser, in his commentary on Ecclesiastes, states that “suffering and adversity are not necessarily signs of God’s disfavor. In fact, adversity often is a greater good than prosperity.” (Page 82) So what does Solomon mean (verse 1) by saying “A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth”? He begins to paint scenes of sadness and sorrow in a different way than what we may be accustomed to.
The Tanach equates the perfume with one’s reputation which lives beyond one’s death. There are people in history whose reputations far outlive their lives, whether good or evil. Abraham Lincoln is still esteemed; Hitler is disdained. The first six verses contain these enigmas. Verse 2: Mourning has an effect on the individual that softens and refines one’s character. In going to the house of mourning (if one is a thinking person) there must be some reflection on the ultimate end of life, which is death. In both cases, change of character in mourning and acknowledgement of our own demise, we can comprehend what Solomon is saying and begin to prepare our lives accordingly. Jesus said “blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” He is described as a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”
Contrary to these observations, going to a house of feasting often leads to immorality, gluttony and drunkenness such as in Judges 14:10 with Samson and I Sam 25:36,27 when Nabal, the fool, held feasts that culminated in wild celebrations. (Verse 7:4 here in Ecclesiastes) Fools now have become the focus of Solomon’s evaluation of what is “better”. Fools are often difficult to evade and are spoken of many times in the wisdom literature of the Bible, particularly the book of Proverbs.
Contrary to the first four verses is the chatter and laughter of fools in verses 4-6. Number one fool does not listen to wisdom and the second expresses his rejection of learning wisdom by the constant cackling and idle chatter learned in meaningless feasting and carousing. He may persist in his foolish life, but he, too, will end up in a house of mourning without any positive reputation to follow him. It seems that as we journey through our own individual lives, there are more of the latter than the former. At least the fool gets more press than the wise, as wisdom is most often shunned by reporters of news.
Much of the rest of the chapter appears to be a series of proverbs that, at times, do not seem to have much connection with each other. We struggle with Solomon’s meanings but it would appear that most of them could come under the heading of one’s “religion”. That designation is to have a positive meaning. It has to be extrapolated in positive and negative interpretations.
For instance, in verse seven, “extortion turns a wise man into a fool, and a bribe corrupts the heart.” In the Bible, the heart is the spiritual connection, or lack thereof, between the individual and God. Jeremiah points out that “the heart is deceitful above all things” (17:9). Jesus confirms the same truth when he spoke, saying: “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45) The inner self permeates the subject of these verses.
Verse 8 would tell us that one ought to be patient with life and its circumstances because God knows the outcome of one’s life and His timing is perfect. We are admonished in Scripture to be patient and wait on God. Worrying is like rocking in a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but doesn’t get you anywhere; so said my father years ago. Facing problems prematurely may get us out of spiritual synch if one is not careful or if prayer is neglected in attempting to find an answer.
We often speak of the “good old days” when things are not what we want them to be (today). Our memories fade quickly and we fail to recall the problems of yesteryear. Our imaginations, true or false, often are hazy as we compare then with now. Wisdom would encourage us to face today with patience, as we cannot go back to what we may perceive to have been better in days already spent.
Verses 11 and 12 tells us that when we apply wisdom to any situation (along with patience), it “is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun”. When one is not “under the sun”, the view brightens and the future is safer. Money and wisdom are a defense against many things but they cannot prolong it. When Solomon speaks of wisdom “preserving the life of its possessor”, he is undoubtedly speaking of life in the highest sense which is spiritual and eternal life. Mankind will always have reversals in life, and though he is buffered with money and wisdom, he will not lose the eternal values he possesses.
The next verses bring this truth home when he says “consider what God has done.” No one is totally insulated from troubles. “Who can straighten what he (God) has made crooked?” There will be good days, and bad. In the good times, be happy. However, always remember that God has made some days “good” and others “bad”. Remember Job? We do not know, nor can we predict, the future. Both are in the hands of God. “Yet when I hoped for good, evil came; when I looked for light, then came darkness.” (Job 30:26) Life and wisdom are the key words in these verses; eternal life and spiritual insight.
Walter C Kaiser Jr. puts it succinctly when he summarizes these verses: “Look with wonder, admire, and silently wait for the result of God’s work! The contrasts of life are deliberately allowed by God so that men should ultimately develop a simple trust and dependence in God. For prosperity and the goods from God’s hand, be thankful and rejoice. But in adversity and the crookedness of life, think. Reflect on the goodness of God and the comprehensiveness of His plan for men.” (Pages 84-85) All of the life of a believer is a trust in which the Lord puts His confidence.
Verses 15 to 29 present difficulties but they appear to expand the thoughts in the first half of chapter seven. There is a contrast between the righteous and the wicked. It is a reflection of the 73rd Psalm of Asaph in which he compares his experience as a righteous man to the wicked in their prosperity. It is a beautiful Psalm and will enrich your life as you read it and see his meditation on his circumstances.
In his days of vanity, Solomon records that he has seen both the righteous and the wicked and how they responded to the good days and the bad. Understand that he is reflecting on these times while he is still trying to unravel the enigmas of life. How does one evaluate all the puzzles of existence “under the sun?” It is as much of an evaluation of God as it is the circumstances we find ourselves in. Can we come to the truth simply by an appraisal of externals?
The apparent unequal allotment to the righteous and the wicked, at first glance, seems to be out of character for the God above the sun. Verse 16 speaks of the internal (spiritual) person and warns of being “over-righteous” and of being “over-wise” before the world. After consulting several translations and authors, it seems best to translate these verses (16 & 17) as ‘reflexive’ verbs, and look at them as the evaluation of oneself in Proverbs 3:7 which reads: “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil.” Psalm 14:1 also illustrates the reflexive sense: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’ (for me)”
It involves a certain spiritual pride in one’s righteousness and wisdom and then condemns excesses in wickedness, which is not compatible with true righteousness and wisdom. Neither does it commend itself to God and long life. That thought is to be carried over to verse 18 where Solomon concludes that a false display of genuine religion is not acceptable (Pharisaism and hypocrisy) and was soundly condemned by Christ when he confronted the Pharisees.
The conclusion of this short section is that “the man who fears God will avoid all extremes.”(verse 18) Wisdom is not to be a self-evaluation of what we have done with our righteousness, but we are to wait for the ultimate evaluation which is to come from God. That judgment is stated in chapter 12:13-14 at the conclusion of Solomon’s dissertations. Chapter 11:9 expresses the same idea. (We shall deal with those passages in their order)
The following verses (19-22) appear to be a mix of proverbial statements and a follow-up of the prior thoughts. Legitimate wisdom is a better guard for life than the apparent wisdom of “ten rulers in a city.” Solomon, throughout the book, evaluates many things in life, but here he is admonishing us to use caution in our evaluation of men (mankind). Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” He then goes on to note that the Lord searches the heart and mind. Many men in Scripture are illustrations of true wisdom—Daniel, Moses, Elijah, Job and many others.
Following this, the author acknowledges that we ought to be careful of listening to other people. What they say may offend us, but on the other hand, we must admit that we fall into the same types of sins that are common to all. Who is there who is above sinning with the tongue? No one is without fault in word or deed. Depravity is at the heart of all of mankind, and sometimes it takes a great deal of self-control to not be offended by what others say.
In verse 23, the writer seems to again refer back to 6:12: “Who knows what is good…” and “Who can tell him…” How does one cope with life? “All this I tested by wisdom and I said, ‘I am determined to be wise’ –but it was beyond me.” It almost appears that at this point in his life, he has forgotten his own admoni- tion in Proverbs that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” the ‘chief part’ of spiritual discernment. His quest for wisdom reflects Job’s conclusion in Job 42:1-2 when Job replied to the Lord: “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted.” Job then “repented in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6)
Looking forward to his conclusions in chapter 12, it appears that he has come to some determination concerning the mind of God in all of life’s mysteries when he writes in verse 25 of Job 6: “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.” He is tying wisdom, understanding, the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly all together. Part of wisdom is to recognize the difference between godliness and wickedness and to pursue the one and reject the other—not an easy task with the ownership of an old sin nature.
He now gives some illustrations of the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly in the remaining verses. Wickedness has to do with desire, lust—or inward wickedness. His affections were corrupted with the many wives he married along with many other improper decisions during his forty years of reigning in Jerusalem. Folly is not only moral weakness, but a sign of one who is not prudent in his decisions, one without good counsel and whose mind is uncertain. Solomon even describes such a person in Proverbs 1 and many other places in the book he authored.
Madness has to do with “making oneself shine”, hence to boast of oneself, to be puffed up and proud, to have foolish conceit. Solomon displays that in his relationships with women. He violated his own admonition of Proverbs 6:32 where he taught that “a man who commits adultery lacks judgment (is stupid); whoever does so destroys himself.” All of the above prohibitions are to be found in such acts—inner lust, outer imprudence and pride in believing that one is above God’s forbiddance. He destroyed his capacity to love God, love the opposite sex in an appropriate way, and he destroyed his reputation.
In addition, he destroyed his friendships with many men. He had “added one thing to another to discover the scheme of things—“ (verse 27b). What he found was that “God made mankind upright, but men have gone in search of many schemes.” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). Such then, are the conclusions of the wisest of men in the ancient world. With the inward war between good and evil, righteousness and wickedness, one must be continually sifting through the options one faces and clinging only to those which honor and magnify the God Who is above the sun but has made His presence known to His creation. Would that we might all attend more mindfully to the admonition to “remember now thy Creator”. The conscience must be educated, but after it has been taught the things of God, it must not be violated. The hardness of heart that results is not easily turned back to a life of holiness.