In chapter seven of Ecclesiastes, Solomon takes a good long look at human nature. What he finds matches what we read elsewhere in the Bible: humanity was created sinless and flawless, but we are not there anymore. Instead, we each manifest imperfection and depravity. Yet, instead of owning up to that reality, we seem to spend most of our lives running away from it. This attempt at escaping from who we are serves as a thematic glue holding together Solomon’s various reflections in this chapter.
1 Having a good name is more significant than owning valuable ointment, and the day you die is more significant than the day you are born. 2 It is more significant to go to the house where people are mourning than to go to the house where people are feasting, because this is the end of all humanity, so the living should bear this in mind. 3 Sorrow is more significant than laughter, because sadness of face shows something significant in the heart. 4 The heart of the wise looks for the house where people are mourning, but the heart of fools looks for the house where people are partying.
Solomon looked for wisdom wherever he could find it. He found it more often at a funeral home than at a frat house. He discovered that laughter tended to be an escape from reality, but mourning brought people back to the essentials. After discerning that life is temporary, he found that those suffering the loss of a loved one are the most in touch with the way things really are.
5 It is better for someone to hear the criticism of a wise person than to hear the party song of stupid people. 6 Because like the crackling of thorns burning under a pot, that is the laughter of the stupid people; this also shows how impermanent life is. 7 Because corruption can drive the wise mad, and a bribe can destroy his heart. 8 The end of a thing is more significant than its beginning, and to be patient in spirit is more helpful than to be proud in spirit.
Patience is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, and patience in spirit is a discipline of maturity and wisdom. It is the ability to do what is right, not just what feels right at the moment. The party crowd is one of the ways we have found of temporarily escaping our own sinful nature. A person with patience in spirit will not allow herself to be lured in by the party crowd. She would rather hear the criticism of a more mature person, because she can grow from that. She is humble enough to see beyond the temporary fame and pleasure and view the end of the road that starts with corruption and bribery.
9 Do not allow yourself to be angered quickly, because anger stays in the lap of stupid people. 10 Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these days?” because it is not wise to ask that. 11 Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing; it benefits those who recognize the light of day. 12 Because wisdom can provide protection, just as money can provide protection. But the advantage of knowledge is this: Wisdom preserves the life of the person who possesses it.
Wisdom – particularly the kind of wisdom that avoids the angry grudge – is described as a life preserver. But those who spout out angry criticisms when something happens they don’t like – they are described as carrying the anger with them on their lap. In modern parlance, they have a chip on their shoulder. It does not change their situation, but it surely changes them, making them hard to live with, and inclining others to avoid them. This tendency to bear an angry grudge is simply another attempt at escaping the reality of who we all are.
13 Watch what God is doing, because who can make straight what he has bent? 14 In those times when you are flourishing — be joyful, but in those times when you face misfortune think about this: God has made one as well as the other, with the result that no one can know for sure what the future holds. 15 During the days of my impermanent life I have seen both of these things: Sometimes a virtuous man dies prematurely in spite of his virtue, and sometimes an evil man lives long in spite of the evil things he does.
Sometimes when you read the wisdom literature – particularly Proverbs – you get the idea that karma is happening, because there are so many admonitions to do the right thing, with assurances that God will bless you for the choice. But the older Solomon and Job tell the other side of the story. Karma does not always work. Sometimes God sends you a curve ball, and you get what someone else deserves. Living right does not come with guarantees. The LORD wants children who obey him because they respect and love him, not for the rewards they can get in this life for doing so.
16 Do not be obsessed with proving yourself more virtuous than anyone else, and do not strive to prove yourself wiser than everyone else. Why should you destroy yourself like that? 17 Do not be obsessed with becoming excessively wicked, and do not be stupid. Why should you die before your time? 18 It is better that you should take hold of the first warning, and not ignore the second, because the one who fears God will benefit from following both of them.
Solomon’s life was a case study in the ills of obsession, so this serves as his confession and warning for us not to follow in his footsteps. He tried to be the best at everything, and have the best of everything. Other leaders have tried to be the most malicious, and to destroy the most. Solomon lashes out against both forms of obsession. He is not arguing against purity and sanctification. He is arguing against being driven to prove yourself greater than others. That drive to prove oneself is actually another escape mechanism. True wisdom causes us to find our value in our relationship with God, not in comparison with our neighbour.
19 Wisdom makes the wise man more effective than ten rulers who are in a city. 20 Because there is not a righteous man in the land who does good and never sins. 21 Do not take to heart all the things that people say, otherwise you might overhear your servant cursing you. 22 Because your heart remembers that many times you have yourself cursed others.
Solomon reveals one of the keys to healthy and productive relationships here. It fits both the work environment and marriage and the family as well. Sometimes people say the wrong thing, and reveal the wrong attitude. You have a choice of dwelling on what they say, or mentally stepping back and trying to get a handle on why they really said it. The more you live in the anger and injustice of what they said, the more destructive it will be for the relationship.
Solomon’s advice is very hard to follow – especially when you feel abused and harmed by someone’s words or attitude. But the wise person chooses not to take those harmful words to heart. Forgive, because we all do stupid things. Remember the last time you said or did something stupid? Forgiveness of others releases you from the angry grudge, which protects you from escaping into that fantasy world. It is a fantasy because it focuses only on harm done to you, and not on harm done by you. That is why the angry grudge can do more harm to you than the original offence that caused it.
23 All this I have tested by wisdom. I said, “I will act wisely,” but it was far from me. 24 That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can discover it? 25 I turned my heart to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the scheme of things, and to know the wickedness of folly and the foolishness that is madness. 26 And I discover something more unbearable than death: the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and whose hands are traps. He who wants to please God will escape her, but the sinner gets trapped by her.
Solomon had followed the ancient near east practice of marrying foreign wives for the purpose of solidifying alliances with other nations. These hundreds of marriages proved to be a trap for Solomon, because they “turned his heart away from the LORD.”1 This choice was a direct disobedience to the Law.2 He confesses the sin of apostasy here.
His words are also a general warning for all men to proceed with caution when considering a relationship. He had warned his sons in his Proverbs of the adulteress, whose lips drip honey and whose speech is smoother than oil, but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, and following her leads to death.3 He was speaking from experience.
Young person, you will be enticed by images and words and people who invite you to throw off all constraint and indulge in improper conduct. It is a trap! That is not the way to life. It is another human attempt to escape reality, but it is really not an escape at all. In fact, it is a trap that you need to escape from. Escape pornography and the “party life” before it destroys you.
27 Take notice, this is what I found, says the Collector, while adding one thing to another to find how things work- 28 something my soul has searched for consistently, but I have not found. One man among a thousand I figured out, but not a woman among all these have I figured out. 29 Watch, this alone I did figure out, that God made Adam straight, but they have sought out many ways to deviate from the original design.
The collector has discovered that all of the species homo sapiens has a flaw, but it cannot be traced back to the original design. Adam was made straight, but there has been a consistent deviation in us since the fall in Eden. We do not all deviate in the same way, but we all deviate.
Most English translations make it seem that Solomon is saying that he found one man honourable out of a thousand, but no women. No, as my translation shows, Solomon’s point was that he could figure out some men, but no women. His point about depravity has no exceptions. He never met Jesus.
He did meet and interview thousands of people. He found them all examples of attempted escape from reality – the reality of their own depravity. God created Adam straight, and ever since the fall, he and each one of his descendants has found ways to deviate from that original design.
That is human nature.
- 1 Kings 11:1-3.
- Deuteronomy 17:17.
- Proverbs 5:2-5.