Wisdom won't solve all of our problems, but it is better than foolishness.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Ecclesiastes 7:11-22
Solomon sees wisdom as the best way to cope with the ups and downs of a broken world. In Jesus, Christians can take that attitude to a far better end: wisdom would have us take an eternal perspective of our circumstances, and wisdom would have us trust God's grace more than our righteousness (or anyone else's righteousness!).
Don’t pay attention to everything people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you. (7:21)
Getting Started: Things to Think About
I will not claim to be an adrenaline junkie, but I do love a good rollercoaster. (Did, at least -- it's been a while since I've ridden one.) How about you? Do you like to ride a rollercoaster?
In case you didn't know, you can find just about anything on YouTube. If you remember a rollercoaster you enjoyed, you can probably find a video of it. Just search for "[Rollercoaster name] POV". Here's one of my family's favorites (Expedition Everest):
What is it about rollercoasters that you like or don't like? I love the ups and downs -- the feeling of my stomach dropping into my shoes and then rising into my throat.
But I don't like that feeling in normal life.
How about you? You know what I'm talking about -- those days or weeks when you're on what people call an "emotional rollercoaster", those wild swings between excitement and disappointment. I don't like those. I very much prefer to be a little more stoic ("even-keeled"). Some of my friends seem to thrive under those conditions, but I think the majority of us don't really enjoy those days. They drain us. They distract us. And there are SO MANY websites out there to help you Find Your Emotional Balance. How many? Wow many.
Because I'm a glutton for punishment, I poked around a few of those sites, and I basically found what I expected to find. Here are some common pieces of advice from the myriad "emotional balance" help sites:
Get comfortable and focus on your breathing.
Be aware of tension in your head or neck.
Take time to unwind.
Name the negative emotion and observe it like an outsider.
Be mindful of your mind.
A lot about yoga.
Some sites sell foods and supplements.
Some sites advertise certain massages and hot rocks.
How about you? Think about all of the advice you've been given over your life about managing an emotional rollercoaster. What the best piece of advice you've been given? What's the silliest advice you've been given?
(By the way -- if you have people in your group who don't think that emotions are that big a deal, it would be really easy to prove otherwise. Just bring up a topic that makes them angry. Or do something really annoying. That'll fix that! The problem is that you will probably ruin the rest of your group time, so it's not worth it! Just move on. Proving a point at the expense of the rest of your discussion is never the "wise" idea.)
In our passage in Ecclesiastes this week, we are told that living at the extremes is unsustainable and unwise. But the advice Solomon gives us in dealing with it is a little different that the advice we read on the internet.
Brains or Brawn?
If you don't like that rollercoaster/emotional balance topic, here's another idea to get your brain acclimated to this week's passage.
My group of friends in high school enjoyed, among other bands, the Pet Shop Boys. One of their songs includes the catchy lyric,
You've got the brawns, I've got the brains, Let's make lots of money.
I always found it incredibly insulting to the "brawns" guy, but I think that was the point.
You've heard the phrase "the pen is mightier than the sword". (You've also heard "never bring a pen to a sword-fight", or something like that).
So, what do you think? Is it better to be strong or to be smart? To be powerful or to be wise? (Yes, I know that you can be both, but for the sake of discussion, treat this as an either/or.)
Think about examples of this from today's world. Let's start with the undeniable power of words. For example, Elon Musk can change economies with a single tweet.
But let's not get carried away. If China doesn't like your words, China will just arrest you.
How about in your experience? Perhaps in the local community. What's a time when it was better to be "smart" and a time it was better to be "strong"?
Obviously, Solomon is going to tell us in our passage is that wisdom is the best trait. But you might be surprised at how Solomon encourages us how to apply that wisdom...
Where We Are in Ecclesiastes
Now that we've gotten a few weeks into the book, I think I can flesh out my outline:
Everything seems to be futile (1:1-11)
Wisdom is futile if you don't heed it (1:12-18)
Pleasures are futile if you're looking for meaning in them (2:1-11)
Folly is futile because ignorance is not bliss (2:12-16)
Toil is futile if you think your accomplishments will last (2:17-26)
Time is futile (fighting against time is futile) (3:1-22)
Relationships are futile if you think they will solve your problems (4:1-12)
Advancement is futile if you forget where you came from (4:13-16)
Vows are futile is you don't plan to keep them (5:1-7)
Riches are futile if you think money equals happiness (5:8-6:12)
Wisdom is our defense (7:1-8:1)
Government and religion is futile (8:2-17)
Everyone will die/life is short (9:1-12)
Wisdom is our defense (9:13-10:20)
Diligence is our defense (11:1-6)
Enjoy life while you can (11:7-12:8)
Listen to the teacher! (12:9-14)
We skipped over the section about money. Solomon had a lot of it. And he made these tremendous observations:
Don't be proud of your wealth because there's always someone wealthier.
You can't eat money.
Mo' money, mo' problems. (seriously - read v. 12)
You can't take it with you.
Whoever inherits your money will probably lose it all.
If you have everything, you'll still want more.
Aren't those amazing?
He ends that section with this question (v. 12): "For who knows what is good for a person in life?" And he attempts to answer it for himself. Of course, as we have discussed a bunch, Solomon always finds his own answers to be meaningless.
Remember the three kinds of wisdom:
The "what" -- how to use a skill.
The "how" -- how best to live.
The "why" -- life's biggest questions.
Much of chapter 7 reads like "the how", just like we read in Proverbs, and the advice Solomon gives us in our passage this week is very wise. The problem is that Solomon wanted to find meaning in wisdom. He spent his life accumulating wisdom, and he wanted it to count for something. Unfortunately, all of the wisdom in the world could not answer the one truly important question (the end of v. 12): "Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone?"
And that left Solomon in a very sickening place: he knew that wisdom was important, but he had trouble convincing himself why.
Anyway, before we get into this week's passage, I encourage you to read the four verses that precede:
7 Surely, the practice of extortion turns a wise person into a fool, and a bribe corrupts the mind. 8 The end of a matter is better than its beginning; a patient spirit is better than a proud spirit. 9 Don’t let your spirit rush to be angry, for anger abides in the heart of fools. 10 Don’t say, “Why were the former days better than these?” since it is not wise of you to ask this.
These are great proverbs of wisdom.
Corruption will ruin whatever you're building with your life.
Patience will bring about a better end than rashness.
Anger is foolish.
Don't get hung up on the past -- you can't change it.
Would you not agree that those are great words to live by? Would you not also agree that those words don't give meaning to life?
Part 1: Accept It (Ecclesiastes 7:11-14)
11 Wisdom is as good as an inheritance and an advantage to those who see the sun, 12 because wisdom is protection as silver is protection; but the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of its owner. 13 Consider the work of God, for who can straighten out what he has made crooked?
14 In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity, consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that no one can discover anything that will come after him.
Using those previous verses as his proof-of-concept, Solomon proclaims that wisdom is the most important thing you can strive for.
He makes an interesting argument for it: "Wisdom can offer you protection just like money can offer you protection -- but the difference is that wisdom can help you even when money can't." What do you think? Is that true?
We can certainly paint the opposite picture of this. I can think of stories from COVID that would seem to prove Solomon wrong. For example,
If you do your own research into these topics, you'll find a very heavy emphasis on the racial/ethnic component. I don't want to downplay that -- I just want to focus on the economic component: wealthier people have had more ways to deal with the COVID crisis than poorer people. In Europe, wealthy people could flee the densely populated cities for vacation homes, leaving the poorer citizens to deal with the worst of the pandemic.
In America, we all understand that the wealthier you are, the better access you have to certain kinds of health care, healthier foods, and healthier lifestyles. That's a necessary consequence of privatized health care and supply-and-demand economics (and I don't begrudge anyone using their wealth to take care of themselves and their families).
What other examples can you think of in which money might seem to "solve someone's problems"?
But then let's spin this around. Is there a point at which money can no longer help you?
The answer is, of course, yes, but I'll leave it to you to describe those scenarios. And that's Solomon's point. Eventually, you're going to be in a situation where your wealth can't help you -- when you're in that situation, you're going to wish/hope that you're wise/clever. (But to be honest, my wife and I have agreed that if we're ever stranded on a deserted island, forget it. We're not eating rats and spiders.)
A person who is wise -- and by this I refer to the person who has developed skills and knows how to use them -- has a chance to "survive" in situations where money can't help them.
Now, verse 13 is odd. Remember that we read an identical verse in 1:15 a few weeks ago. We could read it in two ways, with "crooked" being "bad" or "crooked" being descriptive. I.e., God is responsible for making the world crooked, so it is futile to fight it; or, God has made the world, and it is futile for us to try to change it.
I think it's a little bit of both, as the next verse clarifies: God has not made life "straight" (i.e. "predictable") - it has ups and downs and unexpected twists and turns, and we need to accept the bad with the good.
That's exactly what verse 14 says, and it's such an important lesson for us to remember. We will have good days and bad days. It's a fact of life. When we have good days, we need to make sure that we enjoy them.
This is similar to something we learned in Job 2:
9 His wife said to him, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!”
10 “You speak as a foolish woman speaks,” he told her. “Should we accept only good from God and not adversity?” Throughout all this Job did not sin in what he said.
I hope we all learned that lesson then. Yes, God allows bad things to happen in our world, but He also brings us great blessings. We should accept both without losing our faith.
But read the end of that verse carefully to see that what Solomon learned from this truth is very different from what we learn from it as Christians! As Christians, we can wholeheartedly use the cute saying, "I don't know what tomorrow holds, but I know who holds tomorrow," and thus we can face today and tomorrow with faith and trust and hope.
Solomon, on the other hand, was looking at this from a human perspective: "I know who holds tomorrow, but I still want to know what tomorrow holds." See the difference? Solomon was more interested in knowing what tomorrow holds than Who holds tomorrow. And that's why he believed his wisdom, though valuable, was futile. His conclusion was the equivalent of the not-entirely-helpful "just grin and bear it" (i.e. accept a difficult situation because there's nothing you can do about it). While Christians can certainly look like we're "grinning and bearing it" when we endure tough times, it's not because we've given up hope but rather it's because we have hope in God.
Find Balance (Ecclesiastes 7:15-18)
15 In my futile life I have seen everything: someone righteous perishes in spite of his righteousness, and someone wicked lives long in spite of his evil. 16 Don’t be excessively righteous, and don’t be overly wise. Why should you destroy yourself? 17 Don’t be excessively wicked, and don’t be foolish. Why should you die before your time? 18 It is good that you grasp the one and do not let the other slip from your hand. For the one who fears God will end up with both of them.
Don't miss the subtle dig at himself in verse 15 -- Solomon has accepted that his life in futile. Wow! And it's entirely based on that observation that sometimes righteous people die unfairly, and sometimes wicked people die old and rich.
We've talked about that a bunch. Can you articulate how you cope with it?
Solomon couldn't cope with it, and his solution was to conclude that life itself was futile. There's a real "air of resignation" in these words.
But I'm fascinated by his conclusion: don't be overly righteous, and don't be overly wicked. Those verses have caused all kinds of problems for Jewish and Christian Bible scholars. Reading the words on their face, you can understand why!
The Lifeway resources come to this conclusion: Solomon is warning people not to make themselves right with God through personal righteousness, which is impossible (and thus futile). That's the easy way out of explaining a difficult verse. I don't think that's what Solomon meant.
Verses 16 and 17 are clearly to be understood in parallel:
v. 16: over-righteous + overwise = destruction
v. 17: over-wicked + foolish = death
On its face, it looks like Solomon is encouraging us to moderation in both righteousness and wickedness. That's a strange recommendation from a Bible hero! If that is indeed what he's saying, I could certainly understand it. As a non-Christian in college, I both indulged and encouraged others to indulge in immoral behavior in moderation. I used a gross misinterpretation of what Paul said to single people: "it is better for you to get married than to burn with passion". My logic was, "You might as well try it rather than just imagining what you think it would be like." So, if we want to equate Solomon with a rebellious, self-centered teenager, then by all means conclude that Solomon is encouraging us to sin in moderation.
Thank goodness that's not the only way to read this verse.
Solomon is using a Hebrew verb tense (hitpael/hithpael) which is reflexive, meaning that the action is focused on the subject. In other words, we would read these lines like
"Don't make yourself out to be overly righteous or overly wise"
"Don't make yourself out to be overly wicked or overly foolish"
That pairs much more clearly with the rest of the phrases:
"Why should you destroy yourself?" is better understood as "Why should you be appalled at yourself?" or "be dumbfounded at yourself?"
"Why should you die before your time?" is the best way to word this.
With that, I think this is how we might read the verses:
Verse 16: If the emphasis is on self-righteousness, it would be, "Don't make too much of your righteousness and wisdom, because you will be appalled when you see what's really in your heart." -or-
If the emphasis is on the value of righteousness in general, it would be, "Don't make too much of your righteousness and wisdom, because you will be crushed when you observe that righteous people still perish needlessly."
Verse 17: If the emphasis is on one's perceived immorality, it would be, "Don't dwell to much on your wickedness and foolishness, because you may convince yourself that you are beyond God's mercy and throw your life away." -or-
If the emphasis is on wickedness-is-bad, then Solomon is just stating a truism in parallel with verse 16: "Don't indulge your own wickedness and foolishness because it will kill you sooner rather than later."
Both of those options make complete biblical sense (it's amazing how a tiny shift in perspective can change the way we want to word a passage). We've long-since exceeded my understanding of Hebrew, so here's my gut-sense of the passage -- it's based on verse 18:
Verse 18: what are we "grasping" and "not letting go"? Certainly not righteousness and wickedness! We cannot balance righteousness and wickedness and still fear God. The Lifeway material concludes that "both" refers to righteousness and wisdom, but that doesn't seem right. Rather, we are grasping onto both warnings Solomon has just given.
"Whoever fears God will end up with both of them" means "will follow both warnings" about self-perception.
That said, I lean toward the first option I presented.
Verse 16: "Don't make too much of your righteousness and wisdom because you will be appalled at what you find in your heart" meaning either "you will destroy yourself in your futile effort to make yourself right before God" or "you will destroy yourself by making yourself out to be something you're not" or both.
Verse 17: "Don't make too much of your wickedness and foolishness because you will convince yourself that you might at well indulge in your sin and thus needlessly bring about your destruction."
I believe that Solomon is acknowledging that there is the presence of righteousness and wickedness in every person (he will make this more clear in verse 20) -- anyone who dwells too much on one or the other will lose perspective on himself. There is no one who is righteous. But neither is there anyone who is hopelessly wicked.
There's a great illustration of sin as the paint in a used paint roller. No matter how long you wash it, there always seems to be more paint. (So true, right?) Using the verses above, we might say that an "over-righteous" person would ruin themselves trying to get all of the paint out of their roller, and the "over-wicked" person would just throw their paint roller away. Both responses show a lack of perspective.
Now, I don't believe that Solomon had a New Testament perspective on wickedness and salvation, as in no one is beyond the grace of God and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The rest of Ecclesiastes makes that clear. Rather, I believe this is how this very wise man tried to cope with the fact that he saw wickedness and foolishness in himself, and it terrified him. His father David had such a relationship with God that he could write Psalm 139 ("You have searched me and known me, O God"); Solomon did not.
If you are a Christian, you don't have to have that fear. Rather, we come into this knowing that God knows exactly who we are and loves us anyway.
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8
But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ. Ephesians 2:4-5
We cannot hide ourselves from God, and we don't need to.
Part 3: Acknowledge Sin (Ecclesiastes 7:19-22)
19 Wisdom makes the wise person stronger than ten rulers of a city. 20 There is certainly no one righteous on the earth who does good and never sins.
21 Don’t pay attention to everything people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you, 22 for in your heart you know that many times you yourself have cursed others.
Make sure to save plenty of time for these verses. I think they're very helpful to the world we live in.
Verse 19 goes back to the brains over brawn topic I suggested at the beginning. Depending on what you said then, you may need to set up and illustrate the idea that "brains" can be more important than "brawn". Do you believe that to be true? Why or why not?
If you're like me, you don't see how verses 19 and 20 fit together. This is made even stranger by the fact that the word translated "certainly" is actually an introductory particle that acts more like "for".
For me, the problem is that I'm comparing the "wise person" with the "ten rulers of a city", as in that because of the wise man's wisdom, he is stronger than those rulers. But really, we want to compare "wisdom" with the "ten rulers", as in the person could get more strength from wisdom than even from ten rulers.
Why? Verse 20 -- because righteousness cannot protect you from calamity, and you are not righteous anyway (or, perhaps, those ten rulers are not righteous).
Does that make sense? Wisdom and righteousness are in parallel here, just as they have been throughout this passage. Here's how the verse might be more easily translated:
"Wisdom is a better defense than rulers, and indeed righteousness will not help you because no one is truly righteous."
To set up the parallel between wisdom and righteousness, you might even say this:
"Your righteousness could not protect you any more than ten kings could, and you are not as righteous as you think you are, so you had better strive to gain wisdom."
So here's your question -- is that true? And if so, how is it true?
For me, a trip through history works. I can actually just focus on the nation of Judah. Think about all of the towns that were destroyed in war. All of the people killed or carted into exile. Were all of them wicked? Of course not. Even at its worst, God always preserves a remnant -- people who are "relatively righteous", whatever you think that means. But did their righteousness preserve them in those wars? No more than the rulers of their cities did. So from Solomon's perspective, if those people were wise (we might even say savvy or cunning), they might have stood a better chance. (I'm not so sure, but I get what he's thinking.)
And then verse 21 kinda comes out as an aside, a "by the way". "You know, having mentioned that people aren't righteous, you'd better be careful little ears what you hear."
Frankly, verses 21 and 22 are priceless. They have saved me a world of heartache. Indeed, they're why I've been able to stay in ministry. Because all of you think so fondly of me, you might be shocked, appalled even, to know that some have said disparaging things about me over the years -- and if not about me personally, then about a decision I've made. No really! Can you believe it?
I daresay people have said something disparaging about you or a choice you've made.
How do you handle that? Some of you by your own admission don't handle it very well. You stew on it, you take it to heart, you let it kill your self-image, or worse.
What some people say is to have "thick skin" about it or to "let it roll off your back (like water off a duck)" or to "just ignore it". I've given advice just like that to some of you when you've overheard a discouragin' word.
But reading this verse, I think that Solomon's advice is better.
What does he say? "Don't pay attention." What do you think that means? Well, it means don't go listening for it. If you eavesdrop on people long enough, you'll hear your servant say something mean about you. It also means don't take it to heart. If I think too hard about things said about my decisions, I'll have no choice but to conclude that said person thinks I'm incompetent. So, I don't think about it too hard. People say things. Most of the time, those things don't really matter. And finally -- and this is the most important thing to me -- don't let it stonewall your relationship with that person. That's the hardest one to explain and live out. After all, we're supposed to be shrewd and realistic, right? Yes, but we're also supposed to recognize that every human being is an unrighteous sinner. How does James say that we usually realize that? Through a person's words. Even in the New Testament this was a problem!
James 3:9 With the tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in God’s likeness. 10 Blessing and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, these things should not be this way.
Here's how I handle when someone has said something about me:
I categorize it such that it won't affect my view of that person. How? By remembering things I've said about others.
I immediately take stock of my relationship with that person -- have I wronged them or done something to offend them?
I listen for truth. In humility, I search for the kernel of truth in what they said, wondering if there is something I can (and should) learn from.
I confess my own sin to God and thank God for the incredible amount of mercy He's had on me and the patience and opportunity He always affords me.
Finally, I put it out of my mind. I'm more interested in my relationship with God and my integrity before God than anything else.
That works for me. Remembering that I'm not righteous and yet God loves me anyway really helps me deal with the things people say. And it inspires me to be better.
For all of Solomon's faults and pessimism, I find his wisdom to be very useful.
So, what do you think of what Solomon taught us this week? How would you summarize it?
Closing Thoughts: Brains before Brawn: Archimedes' Defense of Syracuse
The line "better than ten rulers of a city" immediately made me think of Archimedes and the Roman siege of Syracuse. What, not you too? I'm out of space, but if you want an incredible illustration of what "brains" can accomplish, read a story or two about how Archimedes almost single-handedly held off the Roman army for two years through his cunning war machines and strategies.